Dissemination, advertising and marketing of historic sites

Dissemination, advertising and marketing of historic sites

Manel Miró
Seminar at Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya
Barcelona, July 2002.

First of all I would like to thank the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia for inviting me to speak today. My talk will not be a theoretical one; I will try to discuss a number of points based on my own professional experience. I work for a company called STOA, and we carry out projects for promoting heritage. We are involved both in the planning of cultural tourism products and in the adaptation of heritage areas for cultural uses, such as museums and archaeological sites.

The first thing I should say is that my talk will be a little different from the ones we heard yesterday. Yesterday the tone was perhaps what we might call politically correct, a politically correct view of the relation between heritage and tourism, and in my opinion the situation in the Mediterranean is not quite as rosy as was perhaps suggested yesterday. In the area of the Mediterranean that I know – that is, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece – many ideas have been presented and debated, and this seminar is an illustration of this fact. But we are still a long way from achieving an ideal relationship between heritage and cultural tourism in the Mediterranean. I would say that we are at a prehistoric stage, but also that the future is extremely hopeful. The raw materials we have at our disposal are extraordinary.

Heritage sites and the provision of services

I will start with what is for me a rather symbolic example which will give a graphic description of the situation of heritage sites and heritage from the perspective of marketing and services, from the point of view of the promotion of heritage as a product. On this slide you can see the Acropolis in Athens, the greatest symbol of Mediterranean heritage, one of the world’s great monuments, the centre of pilgrimage for many thousands of tourists, and a place that one might expect to be a model for heritage management, where everything possible is done to cater for the needs of the public. But the reality is very different. First, when you arrive at the Acropolis (these slides are from 1999: I don’t think a great deal has changed since then) the first sensation you have is not that you are paying for a service but paying a kind of toll, like on a motorway. You pay at a rather dark booth; you are given no information, but you begin to feel a certain distance being created between you and the monument. But you buy your ticket.

You go in, expecting the experience of your life; there you see a series of banks and you think “I’ll be able to buy a lot of interesting things”. Unfortunately, the shop inside is more like a bunker than anything else. If you know nothing of the history of the Acropolis, and would like to know why it was built, it is extremely difficult to buy a guide or anything to help you understand your visit. You really have to try hard to buy your guidebook. Then, if you go on a day in May for example you’ll find thousands of people, and no attempts to control the flow of people coming in, as if you were walking down the Ramblas in Barcelona; as you get nearer the Acropolis the more crowded it becomes. But you don’t really mind, because you’re on a pilgrimage to one of the great sanctuaries of heritage: so you put up with it. Inside the Acropolis, you’ll find a series of services that you might have expected to be able to arrange beforehand. Both at the Acropolis and many cultural centres in Italy you often find people at the entrance offering their services as guides. You wonder: why doesn’t the institution offer a guide service? Finding people who are peddling their services outside these places doesn’t give the client the idea of a product, and you aren’t sure whether the person is actually able to provide a reasonable service.

Finally you go in, and in spite of all the crowds you see that the heritage is being protected and conserved: indeed, the conservation work is intense. But the visitors aren’t so well treated: for example, try to find a shady place to sit down on a sunny day. As for the cleaning, you see that it leaves a certain amount to be desired. But none of this matters because you are in one of the world’s greatest heritage sites. The experience of being there is more than compensation for the other parts that you don’t like. Finally you go into the museum to see the exhibits. After seeing the degree of conservation in the monument itself, you think that here in the museum something is wrong: the people are far too close to the sculpture and other pieces: you see people touching these unique works of art. So you have the impression that the management of the monument is aimed solely at conservation; after visiting the Acropolis you feel that you have been in one of the great sites of world heritage, but that while a great deal of attention is paid to the monument itself, very little is paid to the people visiting it in such vast numbers.

For me, the Acropolis is a paradigm of the current situation of heritage sites in the Mediterranean. With a few notable exceptions my experience in the world of museums, in many different areas in Spain, Portugal and Italy, suggests that this is the reality in most places. Yesterday one of you asked a question about the relations between the promoters of in culture and the promoters of tourism. The head of tourism in Catalonia said that the relations were good; he said that a number of joint projects were being planned, and mentioned the Route of the Iberians as an example. But if we look at the relation between tourism and culture in greater depth, what we find is a marriage of convenience. The distance between the world of tourism and the world of culture in the Mediterranean is enormous; the two worlds meet today in the area of cultural tourism, but both come from very different traditions. Tour operators in Mediterranean have built their business on a product based on the coastal resorts, the sun and the sea. Cultural agencies come from a tradition in which the approach to heritage management is far more administrative than creative: the focus is on the management of collections, the conservation of heritage, and the legislative perspective; there is no real policy of intervention in heritage. Indeed, in the Mediterranean we believe that when a law is passed it will be automatically adhered to, and that if we have laws for the heritage conservation this is enough. The reality is very different. Legislation alone cannot help to create a context; for this everyday creative management is essential to ensure that these laws are effective.

The pressure on heritage

As I said, with a few exceptions (mainly museums), heritage centres and the public agencies for heritage management in Mediterranean Europe are not in general equipped to satisfy current demands. The pressure on heritage centres comes from three main areas:

i) first, from the public, which is both increasingly selective and increasingly numerous. As we said yesterday, the target audience for cultural tourism is growing. Visitors now want explanations of what they see; they want services.

ii) second, from tour operators, who today need heritage to generate new tourist products and above all to extend tourist activity outside the summer months, and to lessen its dependence on the sun and the warmth of the climate. I am from the Costa Brava, one of the major tourist areas in Catalonia, where the seasonal nature of tourism causes both economic and social problems, such as high levels of seasonal unemployment.

iii) finally, from governments, looking for returns on their investments in heritage and expecting heritage centres to generate services as well as preserve collections and monuments.

To face these new demands we need to implement a management model in heritage centres that strikes a balance between the five basic functions of heritage management: acquisition, documentation, research, conservation, and diffusion. Today, if we visit a series of heritage centres in Spain, for example, we will see that, with a few exceptions, the section for the dissemination of heritage is limited to the production of some teaching material for schools, and the organisation of exhibitions. We are unlikely to find that the dissemination of heritage is really a part of the planning of the centres. When planning decisions are taken, disseminating knowledge is assigned about the same priority as research, documentation.

Catering for the public

We are even less likely to find human resources teams trained in the areas of cultural and institutional marketing. This has a number of consequences. The first is a lack of a real interest in the public. A great deal has been said about the public, and it is generally believed that interest in heritage centres is increasing rapidly. However, when I ask heritage centres in Spain for statistics, they never provide information beyond the number of visitors admitted and the month of the year; the data are compiled merely for administrative purposes. There is no real interest in the composition of the visitors. An example to illustrate what I mean: in Asturias, northern Spain, there is a cave known as Tito Bustillo which has some magnificent prehistoric paintings. Of course, the number of visitors at any one time, or on a particular day, is limited, and the cave is only open for six months each year. When we went to the cave we saw a sign saying that children under the age of eleven were not allowed to enter. We asked why. The explanations we were given were hard to fathom: first we were told that an eleven-year-old child has plenty of time to visit the cave later in life, and as access is limited it is better to allow in adults who may not have another opportunity to see the paintings. Then we were told that children are afraid of the dark. A series of explanations that showed that no one had thought of how to make the visit to the cave an experience that a child might enjoy. In addition, the cave was open mainly during the summer. In the summer months, tour operators have a ready-made product to offer their customers, the beach; they asked why the cave could not be opened in the winter, when they would have been able to attract a different type of visitor and extend the tourist season outside the summer months. No convincing answer was forthcoming.

This isolated example illustrates the lack of sensitivity to the desires of visitors and to those of tour operators. As I said before, the statistics on visitors to particular sites do not usually include information other than numbers and the months in which they come. These data are of interest for administrative purposes, but as information on which to base decisions on the management of a heritage site their usefulness is extremely limited. What do we need to know about the visitors? Two things: what kind of people come, and what are their needs? For example, what languages do they speak? What languages do we need to use in signs and in the museums? And what times should the museums be open? If we have visitors who are used to have lunch at twelve o’clock and are ready to visit a site at two o’clock, it does not make sense to close at midday.

So, if compiled thoughtfully, these date can help us to cater for the requirements of the visitors. They can also help to identify the market. They can tell us where we should intensify our marketing, what kinds of public come and what kinds of public don’t come (and could be encouraged to do so) and, very often, can help to guide commercialisation strategies for particular places. For a few years now we have been working with the Tourism Office in Reus, a city about 100 km to the south of Barcelona, very near the city of Tarragona, with a museum which used to receive an average of 3,000 visitors. This was an archaeology museum, housing the collection of Salvador Vilaseca. For a while we discussed what new cultural themes we could highlight. Studies and surveys were carried out in the area and a tour of the city’s modernista (art nouveau) buildings was designed. The archaeological museum had only 3,000 visitors, but the modernista route attracted 20,000. Furthermore, these visitors paid a fee. So if we do not ask the public what they might be interested in seeing we will not be able to take decisions regarding the themes that are worth promoting. Very often heritage managers ask us “how do you expect a small museum to carry out marketing studies, which are extremely expensive?” This is true, but it is not so expensive to set up an organisational system in which data are compiled regularly and systematically. The advantage of heritage is that the product is provided in a particular place; we can carry out surveys on site, and we do not have to go a long way to ask consumers for their opinions.

The second point I want to mention is that in general we see a confusion between heritage and a heritage product. The Acropolis is a case in point. Very often it is thought that what is being sold to the public is the heritage itself, not a series of services deriving from it. In fact, visitors are offered not heritage products, but access to heritage. For example, at the thermal baths of Caracalla in Rome, I remember that after paying the entrance fee we saw a panel showing the main areas, the caldarium, the gymnasium, the tepidarium, and so on. This was all the information that we were given, at the very start of the visit; so visitors had to have an incredibly good memory to remember where they were. What is more, if you did not know what “caldarium” means, no explanation was provided. So there is often a confusion between the heritage product and access to a heritage monument. Providing access is not the same as providing a service; as I said before, it is like a toll on the motorway, or a tax. Creating a heritage product involves more than merely employing someone to supervise the site and obliging people to buy a ticket, but this is the situation we encounter at most sites in the Mediterranean. Creating a heritage product is a much more complex operation. It is a long process and involves the participation of many people; its implementation is very slow. I would like now to describe the implementation of two heritage projects, which we have developed recently: one in Merida, and the other in Santander.

STOA’s involvement in heritage projects

First, the case of Merida. The Spanish ministry of tourism organises plans for excellence which provide funds for the creation of new tourism products, or the improvement of already existing tourist destinations. The plan for excellence in tourism in Merida received 2.5 million dollars for improving the tourism products on offer in the city. Incidentally, this raises an interesting point: today the main sources of investment in heritage are not the government offices in charge of culture, but those in charge of the management of tourism and public works; at European level the main source is the directorate general for territorial organisation. So the funds for improving heritage sites are not provided by bodies in charge of culture. This is positive in one way, because it shows that other government institutions are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of investing in heritage. As far as Spain is concerned, the main investments in improvement of heritage centres or the promotion of monuments, archaeological sites and so on come from the ministry of tourism and local and rural development programs. Returning to the case of Merida, last year the organisers of the plan for excellence in tourism asked us to development a strategic plan to allow the city to resolve a series of problems. The historic centre of Merida contains an extraordinary set of Roman ruins. Some tourist guides – not Spanish ones, incidentally – say that it is second only to Rome in terms of remains. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but this is what some French guidebooks say. What is indisputable is that the city possesses a heritage which attracts nearly 300,000 visitors a year, and causes a series of problems that we will discuss in some detail.

The city had immense traffic problems. There were no organised routes, and tourist traffic had to use the same roads as the residents of the city going about their daily business. In addition, there was a problem of parking; as there was no access route for visitors, they used the same parking areas as the residents. The city is a provincial capital and receives many visitors who are not tourists. The signposting in the city centre followed a model that we find in many cities in the Mediterranean. All the monuments were signposted, so they can be reached by car, though there was no organised system for parking the car nearby. The urban landscape also presented problems. For example, many shop signs and advertising signs was totally out of keeping with what is generally expected from a heritage centre. Finally, there were very few rest areas and in general the city was not as clean as would have been desired. As regards the city’s tourist attractions, the main problems we detected were problems of access. Merida has a theatre and amphitheatre, and a temple, the remains of a forum, an alcazaba, a Visigothic necropolis, distributed all around the city. So it is difficult to place staff in each of these sites.

As far as the administration of the city’s heritage was concerned, three bodies were involved: the autonomous government, the Junta de Extremadura; the local municipal government of Merida; and the Spanish government, in the form of the ministry of tourism, which runs the National museum of archaeology. Each of these institutions had its own publicity logo for Merida, and they had designed a logo for a consortium of the three institutions. This highlights the fact that very often each institution wants to gain political capital from heritage; this is understandable, but a conception of heritage as an element of political prestige does not usually aid the creation of a powerful cultural tourism product. We felt that if there was just one advertising image of Merida instead of seven, the attempts to market the city would be much more effective. In Merida, we also noted a lack of complementary services. Often people think that having a heritage site is enough to attract visitors, but if there are no hotels, restaurants or places to go out at night, the tourism product is bound to suffer.

The last point to make about the need to improve the presentation of heritage is a phenomenon that is found throughout the Mediterranean: the divorce between culture and tourism. In Merida the agencies in charge of culture carry out their own management, aimed at research and salvage archaeology throughout the city, but as far as publicity is concerned the consortium did little more than produce a few leaflets. There had not been an intense effort to develop products linked to the heritage assets that the city possesses. The tour operators and public tourism offices merely produced leaflets with photos of the Roman theatre. Again, the relation between culture and tourism is very superficial: as I said before, it is a marriage of convenience. It appears that each partner would really prefer to go it alone.

In Merida our fieldwork and the meetings we held with the tourism and cultural and economic agents from private companies allowed us to agree on four basic objectives for the strategic plan for cultural tourism, and for the allocation of the 2.5 million dollars available. The aims were to improve the systems of access for visitors to the city, to build on and exploit its reputation as one of Spain’s great heritage cities (even though it had not developed a series of interesting services) and to make it one of the country’s main cultural tourism destinations, and to improve its competitiveness, linking this to an improvement in the quality of life of the residents, an aspect that is often overlooked. So the plan aimed to improve the condition of the heritage and the quality of the visit to the city as a way to resolve the problems caused by this great influx of visitors – traffic, parking, noise and so on – and to persuade visitors to stay longer, which would mean more income for the city. What was the basic strategy? Our proposal was to create a body of cultural tourism formed by all the agents – culture, tourism, trade, provincial government, autonomous government, and the ministry and able to manage a strong, competitive range of tourist services, for which we proposed the name “the Open Museum of Merida”. In the past, visitors arriving in Merida had the impression that there were thirty monuments scattered all around the city, widely dispersed, and with no link between them. Our mission was to provide them with an organisational structure that could facilitate access to the monuments. A substantial proportion of the money available was invested in a visitors’ reception area in the city, together with a car park, and an interpretation centre. This reception area was vital for solving the problems of traffic, and offers a great advantage for signposting as well. Visitors coming into the city by road will head for the reception centre if they are told that one exists. In this visitors’ centre, tourists are offered two possible ways of visiting the city: by a sightseeing coach, or by walkways. We understand the city as a large museum, and the monuments are the exhibition halls. All are linked to the main theme, the city of Merida: the development of the city since the Roman era, through the Visigothic period, the Middle Ages, down to the present day.

In recent years Spain has seen a great surge in the creation of interpretation centres, just as a few years ago it was the fashion to set up ethnography museums as a way to promote cultural tourism. But these interpretation centres have been conceived solely as exhibitions; it has not generally been realised that these centres need an organisation behind them, and that they should be geared towards the sale of a product. In addition to providing information but should also provide services, such as shops and transport facilities.

Another tourist product that we have helped to create is the ecopark of Trasmiera. Trasmiera is an example of how one of the best ways of preserving heritage is not prohibiting access but to manage and regulate the use of a particular site. Trasmiera, in the north of Spain, in Cantabria, is a protected natural park in the locality of Arnuero, between two municipalities on the coast which have highly developed tourist facilities. The pressure on this natural park has been ferocious. The mayor contacted us for help in devising a plan for the use of the natural park; the residents were keen to capitalise on the land that they possessed, since their cousins in the neighbouring municipalities had gained a great deal of money by selling to the tourist companies, but were unable to do the same themselves because the natural park was protected land. Obviously, the mayor could not allow them to build on the land, but he was obliged to try to find ways of exploiting the area. Urban development, of course, is one of the greatest threats to the environment. The idea was to create a series of points of interest around the natural park, all centred on the general theme of “tides”.

One of the greatest problems facing the area was providing access to the beaches. In the summer the beaches are extremely crowded and the parking and traffic problems are intense. The residents felt that they suffered only the negative side of tourism, and received none of the benefits. Our approach was to set up one central area, housing all the services, parking places, and the reception area. We called the centre The House of the Tides. Around this protected natural area a series of attractions and displays were created, which could be considered as the exhibition halls of this ecopark. One of the displays focuses on stonecutting, one of the traditional occupations in the area. The star attraction, which we are still developing and should be finished in April, is a mill, a heritage site recovered and converted into a tourist attraction. This 3D figure shows the windmill before its reconstruction and after. Here you see the building in ruins, as the seawater comes in with the tide, filling the deposit behind the mill. The idea is to reconstruct the mill as it was at the end of the eighteenth century, and to distinguish between the old and the new parts of the building, making sure that the new parts do not clash with their surroundings. We are also reconstructing the millstones and the rest of the machinery so that visitors can see how the mill worked in the eighteenth century, as well as the deposit behind the mill to show people the milling process.

Apart from the ethnographic reconstruction of the mill, we plan to renovate a sixteenth century church which will be devoted to the world of the stonecutters, the master stonecutters of Trasmiera, who built the Escorial near Madrid and the monastery of the Jeronimos in Lisbon. And we are also working on the reception area, the gateway to the ecopark. These two images show the three-storey building, an old house in the salt marsh, which is being converted into an observatory, the House of the Tides. As the tide comes in, the seawater actually comes into the house, and our aim is to capitalise on this effect. Inside the building there is information on the services offered by the ecopark, with descriptions of the attractions, how to move around the park, and the interpretation centre itself, where visitors learn how the tides work, the effect of the Moon and the Earth, and the different types of tide. There will also be a set of aquariums inside the building to give an idea of the area’s ecosystem, and information on the bird life.

I have brought another example of a gateway to a heritage site, a centre we opened a few months ago in Perelada, and these CD-ROMs describe our project for the Peace Museum in Guernica.

To summarise, the main points I would like to stress are the following:

  1. The importance of catering for the needs of the public
  2. The need to avoid the confusion between heritage and heritage products
  3. The need to adapt heritage sites for visits
  4. The increasing need to approach heritage management including all the actors. A united position is vital; in Merida, for example, it is much more efficient to have all the management units promoting the city together
  5. The increasingly important role of new technologies in the diffusion of archaeological heritage. An example of these new technologies is a project that is being implemented in Olympia, the creation of individual virtual guides, with headsets with virtual viewfinders; at specific points in the site visitors can see the scene it was thousands of years ago, with depictions of festivals and other events. The future development of the virtual world has great potential for archaeology because it can reconstruct scenes from the past without raising any of the problems caused by reconstruction. The byword is virtual reconstruction, rather than physical reconstruction.

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