Heritage Debate 2020: Young People and Heritage

  • 09 Dec 2020
  • Article

The annual Heritage Debate, hosted by the Heritage Alliance, is a valuable opportunity for the sector to come together to explore topical issues that impact heritage sites and organisations. With previous years focusing on net zero, diversity, and health and wellbeing, the debate this year turned to the role of young people in heritage. Attendees from across the sector heard from a panel of education and engagement experts who shared the challenges and opportunities involved in engaging younger audiences, and a series of vlogs by young people in the sector provided an insight into the perspectives of a new generation. The event was co-chaired by Daniella Briscoe-Peaple, who began her career in the heritage sector as part of our team here at Historic Houses, alongside Alice Purkiss from the University of Oxford.

At a time when 16-24 year-olds are the least likely age group to visit a heritage venue, it is important to reflect on how these places can engage young people as audiences and collaborators. In hearing from young people who are active within the heritage sector, we learnt that barriers to engagement most often come in the form of lack of time and money, but also from negative perceptions of heritage sites. Unfortunately, history and heritage is often misunderstood as dry, academic and detached from the modern world, and this ‘boring’ label is the main reason that 48% of young people say they ‘never’ visit stately homes.

These harmful preconceptions, whilst disheartening to hear, pose the challenge of finding new and dynamic ways to bring history to life. Thinking outside the box, heritage sites can integrate new fields of interest – for example, a medieval castle could offer the perfect setting for a historically themed engineering course, or the wider estate could provide a treasure trove of activities for young environmentalists. Other suggestions included capitalising on themed festivals and events, especially ones which involve food, culture, art and music to widen people’s understanding of what heritage is. History is still a highly engaging topic for many young people, particularly with current discussions around contentious histories and national identity fuelling youth engagement like never before. These new stories and ‘hidden histories’ resonate strongly with a new generation who recognise the importance of engaging with their past, and having a voice in how it is remembered. As our understanding of the past evolves, uncovering untold stories will become instrumental in involving new and younger audiences.

Digital technology and social media also have enormous potential to boost youth engagement, as being able to share content and experiences digitally is paramount for younger audiences. This can involve high-tech activities such as VR exhibits, but also any hands-on activity or photo opportunity which lends itself to being shared digitally. Using social media channels has brought great success for the likes of the Royal Academy of Arts, who use Instagram to feature works, tell stories and share craft tutorials to great success. Meanwhile, the Black Country Living Museum and the Uffizi Gallery have gone a step further, garnering millions of views on TikTok by partaking in the latest trends and challenges. At the Uffizi gallery, this has resulted in boosting their visits from young people by 30 percent.

The challenge that remains is how to involve this diverse new audience whilst still meeting the wider needs of other visitors. Done right, these engagement strategies will improve the visitor experience for all ages, and offer new ways of enjoying the stately home experience rather than reinventing the wheel. At the end of the session, we were reminded to take a longer view, and to recognise that engaging young people in the present also has the effect of engaging the adults and young families of the future.

We are always interested to hear what member houses are doing to involve young people, and if you would like to share your youth engagement projects please do not hesitate to get in touch with the policy team. If you are interested in doing more in this area, the Heritage Lottery Fund has published a practical guide on involving young people in heritage projects, which you can read here. You can also email us to get in touch with our learning advisory panel, who can offer bespoke advice and educational resources free of charge to member houses.

If you would like to watch the full debate, you can view a recording on the Heritage Alliance’s YouTube channel here.

Lydia Gibson, Policy Officer at Historic Houses (and young person!)


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