What are the top tourist attractions in London? Easy. The great museums. They are leading the number of visitors forever. If you check the latest statistics from the Association of Leading Visitor Attraction (ALVA), you see that the Natural History Museum leads the pack with 4,654,000 visitors in 2022, followed by the British Museum, Tate Modern and the Gallery National. These big cultural influencers battle it out at the top of the table year after year.
But there is a mischievous challenge before the traditional hegemony. Although it is not a member of the ALVA, the crown could be seized by an upstart called the Outernet, claiming an annual visitor count of more than six million.
Never heard of it? I am not surprised. Although you may have visited without even realizing what it was. The Outernet, which opened just over a year ago, occupies an arcade at the base of the new Now building on the corner of Tottenham Court and Charing Cross roads. It’s open to the street, directly opposite an exit to the tube station, and is covered in large LED screens displaying what he calls “cultural immersion and programming”.
When I visited there was 3D trompe-l’oeil video, “The Butterfly Trail”, which showed “magical” butterflies fluttering around a huge Victorian greenhouse. And around the corner in another walking arcade leading to Denmark Street, was a more abstract psychedelic display called “Tessellations” which aims to help you “overcome the chaos of the everyday and discover the beauty of today “. (It gave me a headache.)
Do these installations count as an attraction comparable to our biggest museums and galleries? Not in my book. How many of those six million actually looked up the scene and planned a visit? And how many have just soaked in a few minutes while leaving the tube station or exploring Oxford Street? Outernet doesn’t tell me the average “dwell time” of its visitors, but from what I’ve seen, it can’t be terribly long. And they probably don’t want it to be. The floor space is quite limited and the numbers, not the duration of the visit, are most valuable here.
Outernet, in their own words, wants to use “state-of-the-art technology to deliver audience engagement and demographic data, ensuring unmatched performance metrics for brands and advertisers”. In other words, it creates an audience for your ads by drawing the attention of passing crowds.
There is no harm in that. And maybe, as Outernet claims, there are some interesting things among the ever-changing installations. Sadiq Khan is clearly a fan, using the screens to deliver campaign messages. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done with Outernet, showing Londoners and visitors innovative content on world-class screens,” he said.
But for me, Outernet is a sideshow – a clever way for the owners of the site, which also includes a hotel and concert venue, to attract attention.
However, that is not to deny the surge of interest in immersive art. It is becoming a serious thing, which is attracting the attention of major artists. Last year was a great success for David Hockney – who will always embrace technological change Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away), which was predicted in Lightroom in King’s Cross. Tom Hanks is the current show in the four-story space The Moons.
Not all endured. The London version BBC World Experienceoperated at Earls Court under license from BBC Studios, closed on 1 February. Said by David Attenborough, he dramatized “an unforgettable journey through the natural world”.
But Chris Michaels, former director of digital communications at the National Gallery in London, believes it’s only a matter of time before the big museums buy into the possibilities and appeal of immersive experiences and technologies.
In a recent article for The Art Newspaper celebrated some of the high-profile installations and immersive experiences that are attracting visitors around the world, from the 365-foot-tall Sphere in Las Vegas to the Atelier des Lumières in Paris. And he mentions new spaces to be opened this year in Abu Dhabi, Hamburg and Shanghai.
Even the most refined and recherché centers of cultural excellence are buying into the possibilities. Trinity College, Dublin has just opened Kells Book Experience, a new exhibition that transforms the famous ninth-century illuminated manuscript and the university’s magnificent Old Library into an immersive 360-degree tour. Bright, shiny images meant to bring a story to life? Those ninth-century artist monks would certainly have approved.