This year our Conference got off to a flying start with an incredible keynote speech from Ann Morrow Johnson, then Global Head of Creative Development and Blue Sky for Walt Disney Imagineering, now taking up a new role as Entertainment Practice Leader at Gensler.

Ann Morrow Johnson at the Conference

Ann Morrow blew us away with her take on the power of experiential storytelling and creating moments of wonder to connect with audiences. It was a truly special way to kick off a memorable Conference, but for Ann Morrow that was just the start. Once the Conference sessions and Awards Dinner glitz and glamour were over, she embarked on a tour of extraordinary visitor attractions in Wales and the South of England.

We asked Ann Morrow to reflect on her time in the UK, including her visits to St Fagan’s National Museum of History (Amgueddfa Cymru), Castell Coch (Cadw), Stonehenge (English Heritage), St Paul’s Cathedral, the Natural History Museum, V&A, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. 

Q: It was your first time at the Cultural Enterprises Conference. What were your standout moments?

“While all the talks were wonderful, my best moments were found in the in between. In between sessions or events, folks would gather. I overheard shared challenges in the current climate, shared observations of changing guest behaviour, shared knowing jokes. It was those moments of connection that I loved most. I was constantly surprised by just how many of the same issues, approaches, and potential solutions seemed to apply to the most intimate local museum and massive tourist attraction alike. Moreover, I was deeply impressed by both the candour and supportiveness of such a disparate group.

“That, the lovely insights into the re-opening of the National Portrait Gallery, recruiting for the Young V&A, and a quiet jog through the Welsh hills to process everything I was learning were all pretty fine.”

Q: You visited some incredible cultural and heritage sites during your time in the UK. What were your highlights?

“The unexpected delight of all of my visits was in the variety. From huts to castles, death masks to Degas, quiet to crowded, I saw and learned far more about the breadth of sites than I had any inkling was there. For me, though, the one thing that constantly impressed me was the depth of care from each of the stewards. In the rural Welsh hills, Castel Coch is selling custom goods designed by local artists who were, in turn, inspired by the castle’s decor. At St Paul’s Cathedral everything from the masonry to the embroidery is still done in house both to preserve the cathedral, but also the historic methods of the craft. English Heritage is taking on new endangered sites every few weeks! And at the Natural History Museum, which I had always ignorantly assumed was sort of basking in the glory of its collection and architecture, is working to build an entirely new facility dedicated purely to research. The stewards of these places clearly embody just that: stewardship.”

Awe inspiring architecture at Castell Coch
Photo by Ann Morrow Johnson
Mysteries of the Natural History Museum
Photo by Ann Morrow Johnson

Dinosaurs, soaring exhibition halls and unfathomable collections are just the tip of the iceberg at the Natural History Museum … I can’t wait to see what’s next for the stewards of over 80 million items!

Q: What similarities and differences did you notice between cultural attractions in the UK compared with the US?

“The UK has so much more historical material than the US (certainly per acre/capita!). When I think of cultural attractions in the US, yes there are unbelievable museums, and my mind also goes to the grand tradition of the national parks and its natural beauties on a sweeping scale. But travelling by train in Wales it seemed I passed by a ruin every 4-5 minutes, and I was practically tripping over museums on every street corner in London. This bounty of what has been kept and preserved allows for a curatorial and experiential specificity in the UK that is both overwhelming and delightful.

“On the operational side, it depends on the cultural attraction and its exact intent, but I continued to be surprised by the follow-on effects of the tradition of private charitable giving versus national subsidy. Both clearly have their challenges and opportunities (and in some ways the issues are looking more similar than ever), but as an American it was lovely to see the expectation that heritage is so ingrained in the fabric of places.”

Q: What learnings have you taken away from your experiences in the UK?

“There are amazing stories to be told everywhere at every scale. I was blown away by the tale of a small fish in a vial, a whole town comprised of salvaged Welsh buildings, the legalities of Chewbacca at the V&A, and too many more to count. And before this trip, not only was I unaware, I wouldn’t have known how to contemplate discovering them. It constantly makes me wonder how we can do more, better, to bring our stories and potential points of connections to visitors or interested parties in a myriad of new ways to light.”

Q: What do you think the future has in store for the cultural sector in the UK?

“I’m still scratching the surface of everything I’d like to learn and get involved in the UK cultural sector, but I hope we continue to see the resurgence of people wanting to connect and visit these tangible places and things. As we emerge into post-COVID habits and patterns, I hope the industry also takes the opportunity to try some new ways of engaging people, makes some new mistakes, and finds some new, unexpected opportunities for discovery and connection in the process. Given several years of limitations, there’s a unique opportunity right now to greet a whole new batch of potential audiences and stakeholders in new ways.”

Rooftop Reflections: A Jaw Dropping Experience at St Paul’s
Above & right: Behind the scenes at St Paul’s
Photos by Ann Morrow Johnson

“I’m still processing my visit to St Paul’s Cathedral! What began as an innocuous tour of the stairwells featured in movies rapidly spiralled into a glimpse inside the viral, ultra-exclusive Airbnb experience, a peek into the original Christopher Wren model, the embroidery room (!), and a collection of architectural bits salvaged from damage over the years. 

“Then things got nuts. Duncan Smith (unbelievable host and new-found-friend-for-life) opened a tiny hobbit door off the crawl space, ushered me through… and we emerged out on to the roof. Of the cathedral. In the middle of London, exposing the backside of gargoyles and faux light troughs that allow Wren’s building to glow. I stood in a gutter! And soaked in a perspective I couldn’t have imagined.

“It got me thinking about what makes something feel truly, deeply special. Exclusivity, that I was getting to do something privileged, was certainly part of it. But there was something about the intoxicating feeling I was being let in on secrets, on an adventure, and forging a bond with someone that blended into connecting with the moment more deeply, that transcended the pleasure burst of having a unique experience and felt somehow more… More.”

Ann Morrow Johnson, via LinkedIn

An experienced architect and designer, Ann Morrow Johnson leads the Immersive Experience and Entertainment Practice for Gensler, the largest and most impactful design firm in the world. Drawing on decades of industry experience across theatre, the cultural and institutional sectors, and most recently as Global Head of Creative Development and Blue Sky for Walt Disney Imagineering, she blends storytelling with design thinking to create emotionally resonant places and experiences. She leads teams to blend meaningful design, worldbuilding, and placemaking expertise with strategic and operational knowledge to create opportunities that matter. 

Joanne Whitworth
By Joanne Whitworth
Jo is Communications & Media Manager at the Association for Cultural Enterprises.
Write a response … Close responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Cookie

This website uses cookies to help improve your user experience.