Churches go digital

14 May 2018

Learning is a core part of our work to engage with new and existing audiences. The Heritage Schools programme, in partnership with Historic England and funded by the Department for Education, has worked with over 10,000 children at our sites over the past five years. It has allowed us to develop partnerships with schools, increase visitor numbers and understand a great deal about how to work with children and young people, using these superb historic spaces to spark new interest in local history and heritage.  

New audiences for the future

In a highly competitive sector of quality visitor attractions, programmes to involve the next generation and to reach new audiences are pivotal to long-term sustainability and to ensuring people love and enjoy historic churches now and in the future. The children and young people we need to inspire today are the custodians, supporters and volunteers of tomorrow.

As we look towards our 50th anniversary in 2019, we find ourselves at an important juncture. Our churches are historic, tangible beacons of cultural heritage and the ‘Learning Outside the Classroom’ experiences we offer are something that digitally-oriented organisations cannot. Likewise, the success of our Champing™ initiative is testament to our ability to innovate and provide an immersive real-life experience.

Heritage and Digital

However, no sector is an island, and heritage is not immune from changes in how people – especially young people – participate in arts and culture. Nor should it try to be. Digital platforms are increasingly embedded into our everyday lives, and data collected by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport show that the number of adults engaging with heritage online increases year on year (26% of UK adults in 2016/17). Add to that our knowledge that more than 75% of five to 15-year-olds use tablet computers at home (Ofcom, 2016), and the direction of travel seems clear.

We must continue to develop our understanding of these changes and what they mean for our business: to neglect to do so would be detrimental in the long run. By staying nimble and pragmatic, we can make the best of these new opportunities as they continually emerge, and use them to complement and enhance our work on the ground throughout the country.

Digital tools, electronic and/or internet-based systems and processes present opportunities for new ways to connect with a wider range of people on an unseen scale. They multiply our ability to engage with audiences and allow us to offer new, quality experiences. However, to maximise this huge potential for growth, we need to think big and act with purpose. We have to ensure our digital content is engaging, welcoming and motivating and captures the very best of what our collection of historic churches has to offer. After all, the fascinating stories told by our heritage have the ability to provide both meaningful and surprising experiences; digital technologies can unlock this potential.

A new way to present historic churches online

This is why we have embarked on a programme of work to bring our digital learning into the present day and make it fit for the future. Our first phase has been to launch a cultural partnership with Google Cultural Institute. This is a platform which hosts digital content drawn from permanent collections from over 90 British cultural institutions including Tate and the National Gallery. We have provided access to hundreds of images from our collection and created street views which allow people across the globe to explore and move around our churches from the comfort of their own home. We’ve also curated a few virtual exhibitions on specific themes to begin to tell those captivating stories of our churches to new audiences.

In producing our own digital content to showcase our collection of buildings, along with their features and stories, we are empowering engagement with our collection like never before. For those who can’t visit our churches for geographical or physical reasons this free platform throws open the doors to experiences they might not otherwise have. This can only be a positive thing. It allows us to change minds and sets the wheels in motion to inspire more people to visit historic churches. We work on the basis that our churches are open to all, and now we’re truly able to reach those who cannot access, or would not have considered visiting, our churches. 

This is just the start, however. As we move forward, we will collaborate with voluntary groups to uncover more stories and open up more of our churches like never before. In doing so, we can connect with millions of new hearts and minds in an unprecedented way. We now have the ability to drive interest in our collection of historic churches and to work with you – our members and volunteers – to tell the stories that otherwise remain untold. So, which stories related to our churches do you think we should be exploring next?

We welcome your suggestions at [email protected].

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Pinnacle, The CCT's members' magazine. To join us as a member, click here.