Meta-theming: A Tool for Heritage Site Management

Meta-theming: A Tool for Heritage Site Management

Meta-theming could prove to be an effective tool for the conceptualization and management of heritage sites and religious sites. Choosing a meta-theme that extends the original themes of the sites could create a sense of belonging and engagement for new audiences. At the same time, the site will retain its appeal to traditional visitors, as meta-theming expands the idea of the site, preserving – and not obliterating –  its original ones.


Thousands of religious and heritage sites have been required to cope with a constant decline in the number of visitors. In Europe, popular sites such as Notre Dame in Paris or Westminster Abbey in London still draw considerable crowds, but many other sites of historical, religious or social importance have fewer visitors, one result being that there is no income to cover maintenance costs.

Consequently, some abandoned churches in Europe had be repurposed, and have been converted to launderettes, post offices, and even spas. While for the Protestant sites repurposing is relatively simple, this is not the case for the Roman Catholic Church sites that must first be desanctified.

In a conference held in Paris in October 2018, The Future of Religious Heritage, I presented a strategic marketing concept that is likely to be relevant to some of these heritage and religious places. Two key concepts are relevant to understanding the following conceptualization:  One is PSOH and the other – Engagement.

PSOH – Perception of Self-Own Heritage

PSOHPerception of self-own heritage refers to the degree to which the heritage presented in a site is perceived by the visitor as part of his/her own heritage. This measure was examined in a series of studies that revealed positive correlations between the visitor’s PSOH and the various aspects of the visitor’s experience. Specifically, visitors who view the heritage as their own, give the visit more positive evaluations, among them , satisfaction, willingness to pay or donate money, intention to re-visit, or intention to recommend the visit to others.

With PSOH as a tool, religious and heritage sites that have lost their attraction to potential visitors can pursue a broader perspective. This new, extensive perspective will be perceived as relevant to visitors even if the original (usually religious) point of departure is no longer relevant to them.


Borrowed from the world of interpersonal relationships, akin to relationships between spouses, Engagement expresses an involvement and commitment between the consumer and the marketing object.

Research shows that consumers, who experience engagement with a brand, buy more of its products. In the case of tourist destinations and site, engagement is manifested in satisfaction, on-site purchases, and a recommendation to visit the site.

The idea of engagement is also related to the concept of relationship marketing, whereby the digital revolution and the extensive availability of information generate an opportunity (and need) to create relationships between consumers and the marketing object whether it is commercial brands or, as in this context, heritage and religious sites. In order to employ public engagement, we will have to create relationships that are based on relevant themes that will have the power to create an on-going active public involvement.

Meta-theming – A tool for creating community engagement in religious sites

Meta-theming  allows heritage and religious sites to expand their original realm and search for larger and broader ideas related to their core idea of the place, recapturing it from a wider angle. Expanding the perspective allows wider audiences to feel a sense of belonging and hence engagement with the site.

Masada is a historic site on the edge of the Judean Desert in southern Israel. The site was chosen by King Herod to serve as a retreat and a royal fortress. After the days of Herod, during the period of the Great Revolt (66-74 CE), a group of Jewish rebels, Sicarii, barricaded themselves at the top of Mount Masada, using it as a base for raids on settlements in the area of the Dead Sea. In 73 CE the fortress of Masada was surrounded by the Roman Tenth Legion and after fierce battles the rebels despaired of lifting the siege and chose suicide over captivity and enslavement.

Dramatic as the story may be, can it draw local tourists for repeated visits? To do so, we must focus on the meta-theme, in this case the dilemma facing the Sicarii Jews barricaded on the mountain – slavery under the Roman fist or death by their own hands. Fortunately, suicide dilemmas are not common in everyday life, but other dilemmas are. Educational activities and executive workshops use the site for discussion and learning about human and managerial dilemmas. Using dilemma as a meta-theme makes the site relevant to anyone dealing with dilemmas, namely everyone of any age from any background or class. The conceptualization of the site makes it relevant to far broader audiences beyond the preservation of the site in its historical dimension only. The historical story becomes a private case of a much broader story, in this case coping with dilemmas.

As part of the FRH conference, I came across topics such as churches related to Saint Barbara. Elaborating on her life and legend can lead to examining issues such as “life choices” and career orientation. Such issues could be of much interest to communal institutions. Another category of endangered churches is those built by prisoners of war returning from the front. While the identity of the builders may not be relevant to most visitors, the theme reflected might be that of people who have emerged from a crisis and restored themselves to life. Getting over life crises and “bringing yourself back to life” could be a concept that is relevant for many people in coping with life’s challenges

 Clearly, at the heart of every heritage site there is a broad humane principle. Extracting this broad principle and showing its relevance to life in the twenty-first century can serve as a marketing tool to increase the interest and involvement of people in places that may have lost their traditional role. Conceptualization of places based on the expansion of the principle underlying them will not only bring in new audiences, but will also be an important reminder to the original human principle that initially brought them to life.


Gila Oren, PhD, is Head of the Marketing and Strategic Management Department at the School of Business Administration, The college of Management Academic Studies. She is an expert and researcher in the field of marketing heritage and memorial sites.

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