University of Bath

Producing and consuming Romantic Scotland: Exhibitions, heritage, nation and the Chinese market

This project supports knowledge exchange between academic and cultural institutions in Scotland and China. It aims to improve understanding of the audiences.

Eilean Donan Castle in Dornie, United Kingdom
Research shows that aspects of Scotland’s built heritage resonated strongly with the Chinese visitors as historic landmarks and buildings were identified as the most popular destinations to visit

In 2017, Nanjing Museum hosted Romantic Scotland: Castles, Land and Sea, an exhibition curated by Historic Environment Scotland, Nomad Exhibitions and the Scottish National Gallery. Using the exhibition as a basis for research, the Romantic Scotland project aims to support knowledge exchange between academic and cultural institutions in Scotland and China, with a target of increasing understanding of audiences and capacity for audience research in both countries.

The empirical data, knowledge and understanding from the research will be of significant importance for cultural, heritage and tourism organisations with respect to future initiatives, policy, and practice. In China, this project allowed Nanjing Museum to take the lead in expanding the standard practice in Chinese museums of simply gathering quantitative data, to a more sophisticated methodology, analysis, interpretation and presentation of qualitative audience research. In Scotland, it will help to enhance understanding of what motivates Chinese visitors to engage with western culture and heritage.

Funding

Romantic Scotland is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The project also helps to deliver on AHRC’s remit to ‘enhance its contribution in policy development and public engagement, making explicit the contribution of arts and humanities research to the understanding of national life in an international framework’ as well as to increase ‘openings for international research and co-development with agencies operating overseas’.

Project aims

  • To build the capacity of Chinese museums in gathering, analysing and interpreting audience research data
  • To capture the reactions of Chinese audiences to the Romantic Scotland exhibition and broaden understanding of Chinese perceptions of western cultural heritage
  • To discover how exhibitions, and those that construct them, influence the interpretation of key signifiers of Scottish cultural heritage
  • To provide feedback to inform engagement and management practices across differing cultural organisations, and promote cultural exchange and capacity building for all stakeholders involved

Research methods

A range of methods were used to capture and analyse the Chinese visitors’ experiences, attitudes and interpretations of Scotland’s cultural heritage.

Visitor observations were carried out through a mobile tracking software application developed by the research team which monitored visitor behaviour. More traditionally, a self-completion survey was conducted on-site at the exhibition to gather visitor opinions. The same visitors were then encouraged to provide written comments through graffiti wall post-it notes and postcard messages, with further reflections uploaded through video messages (‘video diaries’) captured at the exhibition site. The researchers also conducted focus group interviews with visitors and Nanjing Museum volunteer staff at the close of the exhibition.

In order to facilitate knowledge exchange, semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with UK stakeholders and Nanjing Museum staff, and an international workshop was organised by the Suzhou Municipal Administration of Tourism to share best practice on heritage conservation and the promotion of international tourism.

Project team

Key findings

Initial reflections on the data captured have shown:

  • the popularity of oil paintings amongst Chinese visitors, demonstrating their unique qualities to capture and communicate themes of romanticism, tradition, a sense of place and the human qualities connected to Scotland’s culture and communities
  • aspects of Scotland’s built heritage resonated strongly with Chinese visitors as historic landmarks and buildings were identified as the most popular destination to visit
  • items of tangible cultural heritage like historic relics were selected as objects that visitors would like to see more of in future exhibitions
  • evidence of a yearning to experience Scotland’s landscape and scenery, evoking a sense of connection between visitor emotions and the natural world as depicted through the exhibits on display
  • the exhibition inspired visitors to seek out, feel and experience authentic customs attached to Scottish culture, often incorporating a reference to the emotions and sensations associated with such desires
  • Chinese visitors clearly connected with the exhibits on display, highlighting an attraction towards experiential tourism, wherein individuals expressed a desire to experience aspects of Scottish culture that extended far beyond the conditions of their own cultural realm
  • Chinese visitors were keen to share their experiences as the data captured an overwhelming number of reflections on personal perceptions of the exhibition, exhibits on display and that of Scottish cultural heritage

Romantic Scotland: Castles, Land and Sea

Engagement

Having multiple international project partners in both the public and private sector facilitated strong collaborative links between the UK and international academic and non-academic stakeholders.

As part of a wider process to engage external bodies, the project was successfully presented to Jo Johnson and Professor Wan Gang (Chinese Minister of Science and Technology) at the UK-China Creative Economy Roundtable, Shanghai, in September 2016. It has also featured in the AHRC’s recent report A Decade of Success: Supporting Research in the UK’s Major Culture and Heritage Organisations, and was presented to the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, Martin McDermott (First Secretary of Scottish Affairs) and to Graham Kelly (Market Manager China and East Asia, VisitScotland) in June 2017.

More recently, the research was showcased at the UK-China High-Level People to People Dialogue where the project and aspects of the methodology were presented to the Chinese Vice Premier Madame Liu Yandong.

The research team also spoke at an international workshop on heritage conservation and inbound tourism, established and hosted by the Suzhou Municipal Administration of Tourism, and designed to facilitate knowledge exchange between UK organisations and Chinese municipal governors. The exchange continued with a professional development workshop in Scotland for Nanjing Museum, involving several of the national collections in Edinburgh.