TAITMAIL Prizes for the pride and the passion

By Patrick Kelly

It’s a guess, but the chances are that most readers of this column will not have heard of Emily Hope. Which is a shame, because Emily is a visitor team leader at the Beamish Museum in Durham. And she is in the running to become a Tourism Superstar.

Forget for a moment the slightly breathless tone of the competition title, it’s run by Visit England and its aim is to celebratethe dedication and passion of those working in the tourism industry. It is awarded to an individual who goes above and beyond the call of duty to ensure visitors have an unforgettable experience.It’s quite a do, with a glittering ceremony in London and full coverage in the Daily Mirror.

Emily’s been nominated because of her passion and commitment to the museum and the region. She dons herEdwardian costume and greets visitors with the warmest of welcomes. She has also trained more than 100 of the museum’s Dementia Friends and has been involved in recreating Suffragette marches, shovelling snow, organising rock and roll dancing and carving hundreds of Halloween pumpkins.

People like her are not just important but vital to places like Beamish. Small local and regional heritage institutions can’t rely on the footfall of passing tourists keen to take in a Picasso or an Elgin Marble as they pass through on a weekend city break. They have got to persuade visitors to come by making them feel special, by demonstrating a passion and commitment to a special place, by telling moving stories of local events and people. Museum employees and volunteers are the means by which they can perform this task successfully.

For the Beamishes of this world it’s not the rarity of the artefacts or the breadth of their collections that are the key to their futures, but the people who man the entrances, greet the visitors or explain the workings of, say, ancient water mill. And Beamish must be doing something right, because this small open air museum has had three employees nominated for the Tourism Superstar accolade in recent years.

Nor is this passion confined to traditional museum venues. Anyone who has ever been on a guided walk or tour of a city will have sensed that pride and emotional connection in the guides who lead you through the streets, pointing out the places of interest that they know intimately.  Whether your guide is a PhD in Renaissance architecture or a youth from Sunderland’s public housing estates, there’s nothing to beat the feeling of being welcomed to an unfamiliar area by someone who not only knows their place, but loves it, too. The heritage world is good at recognising these contributions and it’s right that they should be celebrated.

But what about the arts more generally? We regularly award prizes for excellence.  From the Booker to the Turner, the Artes Mundi and the poetry and theatre awards, there are annual competitions to recognise the best and the brightest in each field of artistic endeavour. There are  also bursaries and prizes for talented artists emerging into the professional world.

But the arts do not consist solely of practitioners – wonderful though they undoubtedly are. There are very many others who also make a contribution. Paintings and sculptures may make it into an art gallery but no-one would see them without the army of curators, gallery assistants, guides, lighting specialists and caretakers who make sure the public come through the doors. A play would remain unseen without ushers, technicians, box office staff and caterers; novels and short stories would be unread if there were no librarians, booksellers or printers; and what would happen to music and dance without sound technicians, venue managers or drivers ferrying their considerable kit from place to place? 

Anyone who frequents a local repertory theatre will know that these places simply could not function without a familiar and dedicated band of volunteers who ensure that the unsung, unheralded tasks that connect a theatre to its audience are carried out efficiently. Taking care of people’s coats, keeping them fed and watered, seeing audiences to their seats, ensuring that disabled customers are able to enjoy the show. 

All of these jobs need to be done if the audience member is to enjoy the experience of spending a night in the theatre. If they are done with charm, friendliness and efficiency, then regardless of the merits of the show, the customer will feel a little better at having spent their hard-earned cash on a live performance.

So it is time that the arts world recognised the contribution of these unsung heroes of the arts. It’s true that The Stage awards do include one Unsung Hero prize, in among the awards for theatres, touring companies etc, but we owe the thousands of people who make up the arts world a bit more than that. Never mind the Oscars, let’s have an awards night solely for the ground troops – it’s time to say thanks to the Arts Superstars.



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