British heritage and stereotypes

The Heritage Lottery fund has just published some research showing that the heritage component of Britain’s tourism economy is much larger than expected, worth about £12.4 billion a year, and that it’s stable (maybe even experiencing an upturn) during an economic downturn.

But is this news truly surprising?  We instinctively know what tourists value about Britain: history, tradition, pageantry and culture.  American banks try to look like English tudor houses.  The Japanese have recreated an English village called Shakespeare Country Park in Chiba prefecture.  

England in Japan

Whether we like it or not, foreign tourists are here primarily for the Queen and her palaces, for the Beefeaters and bearskin-hatted Royal Guards.  And everyone knows and loves the iconic double-decker red buses, the phone boxes, the village green, the bowler hat.  Tourism is in many cases about reducing complexities into stereotypes:  is that necessarily a bad thing?

I try to think back on my first visit to Britain as a child and my understanding of it then.  I was not much of a Royalist child (except when it came to Cavaliers versus Roundheads in our history lessons), but I did love English culture, particularly literature.  So what was most memorable about our visit was Shakespeare’s birthplace, the statue of Peter Pan, the bookshops in Oxford, Blenheim Palace and a rehearsal for a choral concert we overheard by accident in St. Paul’s.

Stereotypes may be what brings you to a country, but, once you are there, allow yourself to be captivated by complexity.  If you only look for what you expect to find…. you will only reinforce what you already thought you knew at home. 

What I think is dangerous is if those living in Britain start to believe the cliches of the good old days of cream teas and cricket being played on the village green.  Yes, there are some places where this may still be the case.  But in how many places was this in fact the norm in the ‘old days’ and what are we choosing to ignore because it spoils the picture?

Heritage is lovely and it helps pay the bills.   But heritage is also about rich, multi-layered complexity in history, about subcultures within the same national culture.  And if we live here, we should not be content with or crave the reductionist picture most tourists get to see.

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