Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Visitor engagement with English cathedrals

Image: © Bill Smith.

David Styles, Moonwalking priests: Will 2019 prove a landmark year for visitor engagement with cathedrals?, Museums + Heritage, 20 August 2019

What does a helter skelter in Norwich have in common with the moon’s surface in Lichfield and a crazy golf course in Rochester? The short answer: during this year’s school holidays they’ve made cathedrals cool.

Record numbers of people from broad-ranging places and backgrounds have visited English cathedrals this summer. We take a look at how several of these institutions have masterminded rises of between 70% and 100% in visitor numbers and, crucially, whether it can be sustained.

Cathedrals are peaceful, contemplative places where children will be bored and restless, aren’t they? A hardy band of English cathedrals have been working flat out to blow that theory completely out of the water, and they have undoubtedly succeeded.

Aside from a temporary leap in social media interest around clergymen when Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag injected some unexpected sex appeal into the church, England’s ecclesiastical institutions have often struggled to compete with the hype surrounding other, younger UK visitor attractions. The summer of 2019 has, however, been a cornerstone moment.

A campaign united by the hashtag #WishYouWereHere has seen the nation’s cathedrals draw in swathes of new audiences through welcoming bats, crazy golf, pottery exhibitions, a lunar landscape, Lego building, a helter skelter, and high-brow art installations inside their historic chambers. English cathedrals have emerged from the chrysalis of tradition to attract hordes of new visitors.

Seeing it differently

One of this group of forward-thinking religious sites is Norwich Cathedral, situated in the heart of Norfolk’s largest city.

“Fun and faith aren’t separate things,” Reverend Canon Andy Bryant told Advisor during an interview at Norwich Cathedral, which has attracted huge amounts of publicity since installing its now famous helter skelter. Japanese television news crews and Czech radio journalists are just some of the international media to have visited the site in recent weeks.

The Bishop of Lynn taking the closing service of Seeing it Differently at Norwich Cathedral. Photo: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

“It’s very much like the change in museums,” he explained. “People used to think museums were all about being quiet, with everything kept behind a glass case. Museums are increasingly doing more to interest and engage visitors; that’s what’s made museums and galleries come alive. We’re part of that movement.”

There is far more to the installation of a fairground ride than simply as a gimmick for the school holidays. “Often you do just need to help people over the threshold,” Bryant noted. He and his colleagues toyed with the ideas of a ferris wheel or ropewalk to help visitors better appreciate the cathedral’s unique roof bosses, but the necessity of either an articulated lorry entering the building or scaffolding and bracing wires put pay to those. The helter skelter won out in the end, and it has certainly won the cathedral a plethora of new admirers.

“It’s never been about visitor numbers,” the Canon insisted, despite the plainly evident jump in footfall. “It was always about engagement with visitors; an entirely different ballgame. It has been about helping visitors engage with the building differently, and particularly to engage with our medieval roof bosses. They’re one of the finest collections of roof bosses in Northern Europe.

“Obviously we are busier than normal. That said, our overall visitor number are steadily climbing and partly that’s because we have lots of interesting things on, such as family fun days and science events.”

While there has been huge excitement around the helter skelter, there has also been some consternation from members of the wider Christian community. As media interest exploded in the summer exploits of cathedrals, the BBC reported that Dr. Gavin Ashenden, Missionary Bishop for the Christian Episcopal Church, described the decision made by Norwich Cathedral as “unprofessional” and that its staff were “making a mistake about what a cathedral is good for”.

The public disagreed. Queues of visitors which stretched well beyond the cathedral’s front doors and out into the street were a mixture of people specifically there to see the much-discussed attraction and those who also took the opportunity to lie down and gaze up at the building’s unique medieval roof bosses. No matter what their motivation for joining the ever-growing line of people waiting to enter, their attendance in one way or another was supporting the cathedral.

For those who speak out against such attractions, 2019 may not simply prove a hiccup in the status quo, but rather the beginning of a new era. Bryant certainly doesn’t see this summer as a flash in the pan. The trajectory, he believes, is only heading one way. “English cathedrals are in very confident mode at the moment,” he confidently stated. “Membership numbers and visitor numbers are growing. Cathedrals have invested heavily in new facilities; book shops, cafes, visitor centres. It’s all bubbling away. They are being innovative, creative, imaginative in the things they’re doing.”

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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