Friday, August 10, 2012

The Future of Rosslyn Chapel

Before “The Da Vinci Code” was written, I had written a book, largely a guidebook, to Rosslyn Chapel: The Stone Puzzle of Rosslyn Chapel. It means that I have seen this chapel through some of its latest transformations, from a relatively well-known attraction to a site that welcomes hundreds of visitors each day, as it featured in the movie as the place where the body of Mary Magdalene was allegedly hidden. Coping with a few hundred visitors each day wouldn’t be such a problem were it not for the fact that Rosslyn is a very small building. It means that the church is now almost always overcrowded.
Since 1997, two new visitor centers have been built, while the chapel also went through extensive restoration works, the last phase of which is still ongoing. For most of the last few years, the visitors were actually largely welcomed to a building site, various parts of the chapel off-limits or out of view for the visitor – something tourists were not always advised of.
Last weekend, I returned to Rosslyn Chapel after more than a year of absence. The new visitor center welcomed me; inside the chapel, were more than a hundred people, with an official guide trying to invite the tourists to listen to his uninspiring and error-ridden explanation of the chapel. It looked amateurish, because it was. Most of all, I felt sad that this chapel should be basking in this glory, but instead, the people running it, seem unable to cope, or don’t care.
Over the last few years, attempts have been made to upgrade the visitor experience, including the call for a new audio guide, which didn’t materialize. The new visitor center is supposed to be better than the old, but the cafe area remains cramped, the selection of books was less than before and was it truly better and bigger than the previous visitor center? Its internal layout is weird and almost designed by someone who didn’t visit similar attractions to get a flavor of what works and what doesn’t.
Small tourist sites have found it necessary to reduce visitor numbers to provide tourists with a good experience. Rosslyn Chapel doesn’t seem to consider or ponder this notion, or may not even see a need for it, but the need is there and certain decisions may have to be made. Right now, I am sad to say, the magic of Rosslyn Chapel is hard to feel and that isn’t the building’s site, nor even a side effect of the restoration work. Some weeks ago, a waiter told us that the best chef could make the best steak ever, but if the waiter’s attitude to putting that dish on your table came short, it would never taste like the best steak ever. And that is the same problem Rosslyn Chapel is facing.

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