30 May 2013 // Thoughts

The Business of Culture Follow-Up: How Museums Saved a Scottish City

As reported in InPark Magazinetoday, last week the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) welcomed 5,000 attendees to its Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo. Throughout the course of the MuseumExpo, guests were treated to a variety of engaging educational sessions, ranging from career development to international collaboration to technology. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be covering the two we had the pleasure of attending and look forward to hearing what our readers have to say about their sessions.

Kicking things off on Tuesday was “Glasgow Museums: Building a Sense of Place That Reaps Huge Economic, Social and Cultural Benefits.” Given our recent blog series, we were interested to hear how museums had transformed this Scottish city from a post-industrial wasteland to the 1990 European Capital of Culture. Participating in AAM’s “Big Idea Session” of the day were Edward J. Friel, Professor at Niagara University, and Mark O’Neill, Director of Policy & Research at Glasgow Life, an organization who’s vision is “to inspire Glasgow’s citizens and visitors to lead richer and more active lives through culture, sport and learning.

O’Neill began by offering some of Glasgow’s history. In 1900, the city was Europe’s fourth largest, but its population has dropped by more than half since. When heavy industry collapsed in the 1970s, the government actually told companies not to invest in Glasgow because it had fallen so far from its former glory. Two hundred thousand Glaswegians were in poverty, including 70,000 children, and the country’s citizens suffered from low life expectancy and poor education.

Despite enduring this depressive time of economic contraction, Glasgow’s citizens still patronized its arts and cultural assets, and the city still invested in them. The local government spent roughly $30 US per person on museums, and 50% of Glaswegians visited museums every year. Visitation spiked in the 1980s, due to Glasgow investing even more heavily in cultural assets such as the Burrell Collection, which in its first year welcomed 100,000 visitors. Museums were part of a cultural civic story ingrained in Glasgow since the Victorian era, when parks, arts, and literature where seen as integral aspects of a civilized life. But Glasgow needed to reinterpret that relationship for the 21st century.

Glasgow Cathedral. Photo: Wikipedia

Those interested in building this 21st century cultural infrastructure asked Glasgow, “don’t you want a Guggenheim?” The response was a resounding “no”: the city wanted to concentrate on its existing arts assets. These assets included the Open Museum, an innovative, free service that takes museum objects – not replicas – on the road for the community to see and touch. In addition to emphasizing hands-on interactions with museum materials, Glasgow invested in “sites of meaning making” and adaptive re-uses of existing buildings. Its historic Glasgow Cathedral (also called St. Mungo’s) now welcomes 200,000 visitors per year. The Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) is housed in a re-purposed city commerce building and aims to recruit traditional art goers to contemporary art. Its permanent galleries feature themes that resonate with global and Glaswegian artists alike, and its changing exhibits are inspired by what the city owns. GOMA is now the most visited modern art gallery in Scotland.

Kelvingrove Museum.  Photo: Wikipedia

Kelvingrove Museum is one of Scotland’s most popular free attractions, with 22 galleries and over 8,000 objects. When the museum was refurbished between 2003 and 2006, O’Neill’s goal was to “modernize it without improving it worse.” His team wanted to emphasize Kelvingrove’s commitment to education and give the Glaswegians a sense of ownership over it. Foregoing a geographical or historical approach for an “object-story” approach, objects were organized by theme (e.g., “Souvenirs of War”, “Glasgow and the World”) and were put into context by “intro galleries” to make the art more approachable. The museum even applied this guest-centric approach to its archives, offering behind-the-scenes tours, the philosophy being that the objects are those of the people, and therefore, the people should have access to them. As a result of these transformations, Kelvingrove has attracted 3 million visitors per year since its re-opening in 2006. “The museum is deeply rooted in its own history,” said O’Neill, “but now that history can be shared with the world. Together we can create stories that make our lives more meaningful.”

So, we’ve heard about the before and the after, but how did Glasgow’s cultural journey evolve? It evolved by examining what culture meant to the city and how it could be better harnessed and promoted. “Places market their culture,” said Edward J. Friel, “but different types of social scientists define culture differently.” He defined it as a fundamental need for belonging – when we don’t have that sense of place, we are dispossessed. More and more, he continued, people are finding their place in cities, sparking the need to create sustainable communities. The key to creating such communities, he said, was to identify the nature of problems, finding solutions for those problems and then brokering support for the solutions. Cities need to own their difficulties, which Friel says is exactly what Glasgow did: “people lost their civic pride when industry collapsed.”

In his work helping to re-gain that Glaswegian civic pride, Friel and his colleagues needed to identify Glasgow’s “assets of place” and identify the city’s tourism product supply chain. In 1983, tourists traveled to Edinburgh and then turned north. As Friel put it, “the only people who came to Glasgow were those who were lost.” To combat this perception, Friel’s team assembled seven different public/private organizations, each with their own civic regeneration mandate, including the Creative Glasgow Tourist Board (publicity/promotion), Glasgow Action (economic development), and other organizations tasked with making the city clean, green, safe and welcoming for tourists. These organizations devised an event-led strategy, which, combined with the investments in arts infrastructure, led to the city being named the European Capital of Culture in 1990. A £1.5 million advertising campaign, featuring glossy pics of five different everyday Glaswegians, were emblazoned with sassy taglines such as “Glasgow: Scotland with Style” and “Glasgow: The New Black.”

While the tourist market laughed at these ads at first, it was Glasgow that was left smiling in the end. Between 1983 and 2003, hotel bookings exploded from 1,100 rooms to 17,500. Tourism employment also skyrocketed from 1,500 to 68,000. And convention income went from zero (yes zero) to $50 million. The momentum hasn’t stopped in the last decade. Glasgow welcomes 3.57 million tourists per year, and its Riverside Museum, Scotland’s museum of transport and travel, was recently named the 2013 European Museum of the Year. The success of all seven organizations working together was spurred by an overwhelming goal. “We needed to be service leaders, to serve the community we lived in,” said Friel. “We were winning for Glasgow.”

Riverside Museum

Next week, we shift from economic development to technology, as we explore how three museums are incorporating gaming into their exhibits.