Why York Minster remains such a big attraction

Jess Monaghan, the new visitors experience officer at York Minster.

York Minster.

Visitors at York Minster.

Visitors explore York Minster Revealed.

Visitors on a guided tour of York Minster.

A visitor explores the Orb in York Minster.

Updated in Features

Nowadays even a great church has to think of itself as a visitor attraction. Jess Monaghan has just taken over as director of visitor experience at  York Minster. Here she tells MATT CLARK what the job entails

HALF a million people visit York Minster every year and the numbers are growing. So why does the cathedral need someone called a director of visitor experience?

Jess Monaghan has just taken on this new role, having spent eight years at the National Trust, and says that despite the cathedral's air of tranquility, there is a flurry of activity going on behind the scenes.

"This is a place that requires lots of people and lots of different parts to make the visit experience feel effortless," says Jess. "Now we have new parts we didn't have before, such as the redeveloped Undercroft and The Orb, plus a really active programme of events.

"My role is to integrate all of that so it really does feel seamless."

Jess says that because everything is done so well, particularly around the programme of daily worship, it would be easy to forget just how busy and complex an operation this is.

"My priorities are to understand and support the team here. I also need to understand those who visit and why they visit. Listening to why the Minster is important to people has to be the staring point."

Another issue for Jess is balancing the Minster's role as a place of worship and as a tourist attraction.

"For me these two needs are inextricably linked. They could be polarised but I think the reason this place is so special and iconic is down to the history of spirituality and everything it has meant over the years."

A phrase Jess is particularly fond of is 'thin places'. Essentially this refers to where the distance between heaven and earth appears to collapse.

The Celts were no strangers to this concept and felt particularly close to divinity on places such as Iona. These days writers speak not so much of spiritual breakthroughs, but of disorientation. Thin places confuse us, we lose our bearings.

"For some it is deeply significant in religious terms," Jess says of the Minster. "But even if you don't connect, this place is so moving that you feel close to something."

Jess sees her challenge as finding out who visits the Minster and what they come for, by using exit surveys and social media. "We need to know what this place really means to people and how we can connect with that," says Jess.

Lonely Planet lists the Minster in its top ten sights to make you feel small. Yet while the Minster place may have transcend us all, it does so without intimidation. You feel small in scale, but not in stature.

As Jess says: to some the Minster is about deep faith, to others its a sense of specialness and welcome.

But for those who work here more mundane things occupy the mind, such as do visitors know where the loo is, do international tourists know what they should wear, with restrictions often being far less strict than in their own country, and do people know that their day ticket is valid for 12 months?

"This needs to be seen as somewhere worth coming back to, because there is so much to this place; a rhythm of change every time you come inside."

Therein lies Jess's biggest challenge: how to get that message out, particularly to York residents.

We may turn up in droves for the carol concerts, but not many of us go in during the rest of the year. Maybe a common misconception is partly to blame: the Minster is seen as an expensive day out, but entrance is free to anyone with a YorkCard.

"Perhaps because it's so familiar there is an element of 'we can always go tomorrow', I also think there is something about being somewhere so iconic that can be distancing. I need to know why someone came once and we haven't been able to get them to come back."

Matters are improving and the Minster isn't afraid to be radical. Take the Undercroft, with its 21st century technology, or the stainless steel Orb, as well as inviting graffiti artists during last year's Illuminating York.

The Minster isn't only for adults either. Younger visitors can collect a Little Explorer's Backpack filled with gadgets to help them explore the cathedral, including binoculars, a magnifying glass and torch.

A fun trail with Monty the resident monkey helps children hunt for dragons or spot wild animals in the masonry and windows. They can even dress up as a bishop in the Undercroft.

The Minster’s Learning Team has developed a year-round programme of activities including the family days out programme for the upcoming summer holidays.

In short this is a world-class attraction in a world-class city.

"We first drove up to York in a dreadful storm," says Jess. "After a white-knuckle ride we arrived in time for evensong, sat down and sighed. It was one of those still-point moments in a moving world."

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