The Heritage Sector and Minority Groups

If heritage is the physical embodiment of a nation’s story, then England can boast one of the richest narratives in the world. Our landscape, built environment and myriad public spaces tell a story that encompasses not only the history of those who populate our island, but of the many millions across the globe with whom we share a past.

On the face of it, our heritage industry should appeal to people of all backgrounds. After all, our great parks and palaces, for example, bear many of the symbols of our imperial past. Whilst not everyone will want to celebrate that past, most of us are curious about it. Critically, our shared heritage should be one of the pathways to greater ethnic and cultural integration.

However, the evidence tells us that this isn’t how it’s working out. Official statistics show that typically, people from visible minorities are about 50% less likely than white British to take opportunities to enjoy heritage experiences. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 75.4% of white British visited a heritage site in 2015, compared to just 57.3% of minorities. Both totals are rising year on year, but the ethnic gap remains pretty steady.

Some minority groups are on average less well off than the median. Others are better off. Overall, there’s no obvious economic driver for this difference.

Nor can the gap be put down to the experience of visiting heritage sites alienating people from visible minorities. Once people from minorities are persuaded to sample our heritage, they enjoy it just as much – over three quarters score their experience highly.

The heritage business isn’t alone in confronting this puzzle. Research undertaken by my company, Webber Phillips, studied the top 20 most watched TV programmes across the UK in 2015, and compared their appeal to white and non-white audiences.

Astonishingly, the two lists had only ten programmes in common; and amongst those missing from the non-white list were several 'heritage' staples: Downton Abbey, Call The Midwife, Doctor Foster and Poldark. Yet minority tastes are traditional enough to boost the ratings for the Queen’s Christmas Message, an event increasingly neglected by white households.

It is hard not to conclude that the reason for the difference is that our heritage is presented in a way that subtly excludes people of colour. A huge responsibility lies with those who curate, plan and market our visitor attractions.

Several arts organisations we have worked with, have tackled this problem by conducting proper audits of their audiences and their choices. We now know, for example, that some ethnocultural groups are more likely to book in groups for a music performance than others. Culturally, some regard a concert as an artistic experience, for others it’s more of a great night out with the family.

More importantly, we’ve calculated that one organisation which manages visitor attractions could boost its annual income by over 5% if it could appeal to people of colour; and that the increase would rise to over 20% of its income by 2050. The numbers add up to tens of millions each year. If for no other reason, economic survival should impart some urgency to the task of bringing the heritage industry into the 21st century.

Having a diverse workforce that reflects society gives a different perspective and includes people with knowledge and experience of being from a minority community. It’s one way of bridging the gap and thus increasing interaction and engagement with minority communities.

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The author

Trevor Phillips, Director, Webber Phillips