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Some years ago I read the US American National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended 2000). In it, it states that ‘the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people’ (my emphasis).

Since my return to Germany, I have often thought of this idea, that heritage can and should provide people with orientation. It is a much simpler concept than those that have been adopted in most European and international policies: cultural understanding, identity, social cohesion, personal development, sense of place or sense of belonging. All of these concepts are valid, and yet in my experience of arrival in Germany, ‘orientation’ was my most immediate need, and how I began to refer to it.

This is a personal first, however. Despite having been a new arrival in several different countries and regions before, in these circumstances to date, heritage first and foremost has always been a source of information for me. I went to heritage sites and museums to learn more about this new society I was now a part of.

Heritage is often theorized in this way in the context of migration. A recent paper by Laia Colomer [1] suggests that global nomads use local or national heritage as part of a cultural first-aid kit (my words) to support their integration. They assemble these heritages into cultural capital that helps them transition between cultures. These heritages also collectively form the backdrop against which global nomads experience and define their global identity.

One might argue that orientation does play a role here, though. What I like about ‘orientation’ as a concept is this sense of mapping the world around you in relation to your own position within it. It suggests place and an awareness of this place and others in it. It implies making connections, between your existing knowledge and what is new, between yourself, others and place. It is a term of arrival and need, a process that may be activated when necessary.

There is an emotional dimension to orientation too, at the contact points to belonging, identity and cohesion. Orientation is about touching the soul of a place and a people. It is a process of empathy, of entering into the mind of the other. It is about finding that which is universally human and thus shared between this new place, its people, and us as individuals. Orientation is fundamentally about story: that which captures our imagination, which we can connect to, make our own, reuse or reinvent to fit around who we are.

To think of ‘orientation’ in heritage management and also interpretation may give us a different perspective. When understood as a dynamic physical and emotional process, as I’ve described above, it can help us provide (negotiation) space, especially for new arrivals like refugees and migrants, but also the native population. Orientation is a transitory phase, which in itself implies change: change that also needs to be allowed for in management and interpretation. Orientation also acknowledges a deeply felt need we all have at certain points in our lives. This can be a rather existential crisis, and ‘orientation’ as our guiding term recognises the meaning and use heritage has in people’s lives. In some ways, ‘orientation’ thus brings us full circle: it is a classic concept, a traditional concept, yet with a newly added layer of change in a globalised world [2].

 

Notes

[1] Colomer, L. 2017. ‘Heritage on the move. Cross-cultural heritage as a response to globalisation, mobilities and multiple migrations’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 23 (10), pp. 913 – 927

[2] There are very many pitfalls and issues here too, that I want to concede and briefly touch on. Orientation, if understood as a one-way lesson on ‘what things are like here’ cannot work. Thus my emphasis on the dynamic interplay between the person and place/others. I also wrote of the emotional element of orientation. The challenge is the sometimes very real danger that such emotion will be misappropriated and misused, particularly in a nationalistic way. This would be something to explore further, for based on my own experience with sites of very high nationalistic potential, I think it is not at all an automatic outcome of making visible and accessible an emotion – but it is a danger, and an unease that many of us feel

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At work, we are getting ready for a major redevelopment of our local history museum. It is a good opportunity to think more about what an agonistic approach to interpretive planning might entail. Most of it is not revolutionary; in one way or another much of this has been or is being discussed if not in textbooks, then at least at current conferences. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to collate some important points, and highlight a few challenges along the way.

 

Check Your Ego At the Door

Local history museums often rank low in the museum hierarchy. I think there may be a trace of professional snobbism in this: anything that is local is considered small and less important; local collections are thought mostly repetitive and undistinguished; people are believed to be just so precious about their own little corner of the world… I think this (unconscious) ranking should make us cautious, and maybe even wary of our own attitudes. In fact, in agonistic interpretive planning, I believe it is vital to constantly – and critically – check our attitudes to the heritage and people in question. These attitudes will colour what we notice as potential content in the interpretive planning process, what we ultimately choose to represent, and how we will do so. In other words, our attitudes are a major factor in the interpretive planning process, and we need to be aware of them in order to work with them responsibly. I am not suggesting that we can shed them altogether, nor do I think that necessary. However, I do believe that we must check them as carefully as we would any source of information. We will have to decide on a case by case basis  what role they play; different scenarios are possible. We just can’t allow them to play that role in hiding, in an approximation of a natural law, and in exclusion of other views.

 

Capturing a Sense of Place

Local history museums are nothing if not about the local sense of place. But herein lies the first trap: is there really only one sense of place? Doing interpretive planning agonistically around sense of place would start with the premise that while there may indeed be a dominant sense of place, upheld by a dominant group of people, there are other versions too. These are equally important and relevant. As agonistic interpretive planners it is our task to uncover all these ‘senses’ of place and create an environment where people feel that their sense of place is valued and appreciated. Of course this must be followed up by representing these different ‘senses’ of place in the museum, and that may be the toughest task yet. It is far easier to present a closed narrative of what makes a place special – in the case of our city, we might think of the architecture, or a certain lifestyle shaped by its (former) majority population of civil servants. These two narratives are actually two sides of the same coin, but things will likely look very different once we start talking to the refugees that have come to town, or the students, or anyone else that doesn’t care about architecture or an upper middle class lifestyle. To bring these senses of place together under one roof, while still making them understandable for visitors – that’s the agonistic challenge of the task.

 

Brace for Impact

A hegemony of view is a hegemony for a reason. The majority of people support it, and therefore, insisting that other perspectives are represented in (agonistic) interpretation means to potentially swim against the tide. This is an obvious point, but it has further consequences that are less often considered than perhaps they should be. It is here that I suggest agonistic interpretation must leave the well-trodden path of community-majority democracy, and insist on representation for all. This also means that agonistic interpreters drop all pretense of neutrality. They decidedly fight a corner – inclusive representation – and they do so on the grounds of a very clear ethical-moral value – to give everyone a voice. In this standpoint is also encapsulated a whole series of beliefs about what a museum is, and what role it plays in society. Again, agonistic interpretation is far removed here from the serene image of the knowledge-expert, hovering in objective distance above the mess society makes. Agonistic interpretation is clear that it takes part, that it promotes inclusivity even where this is not universally welcomed. This can be messy: I am sure in our city, too, there will be some stories and perspectives that many, if not a majority would rather leave untold. Still, if museums are to be more than frozen temples to a hegemonic view, then we must enter the fray.

 

Honour the Heritage Story

As agonistic interpretive planners search out different perspectives, it is important to still keep in mind one important aspect: heritage is heritage because (some) people make it so. A fine line is drawn through this statement, and another difficult task hides behind it. We must recognise what is a relevant heritage perspective, and what is a mere historical fact [1]. I am always reminded here of the lesson I learnt as a frontline interpreter at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland: yes, historically speaking, the Jacobite defeat at Culloden began a still unbroken period of (Royal) stability for the United Kingdom. However, if supporters of the union and what is now the House of Windsor came to Culloden at all, they certainly never identified themselves as such to me. This suggests that any Unionist/Royalist attitude wasn’t a motivating factor in visiting Culloden, and that the site held no or little place in the respective heritage. I did meet many that came because they simply were battle enthusiasts. And I met many more who came to Culloden on a pilgrimage, because the battle to them marked the beginning of a personal story of Diaspora and cultural loss. This means that planning agonistically does not mean to gather and represent every utterance about a site. It means weighing up what is heritage, and what is history.

 

 

Notes

[1] As a reminder: heritage need not necessarily be built on historical accuracy. A historical fact therefore cannot be automatically equated with heritage.

 

I have recently read Fatima El-Tayeb’s book Undeutsch (‘Un-German’) [1]. As the book’s subtitle explains, the book looks at the construction of the Other in a post-migrant society [2]. The society in question is Germany, so I was particularly interested in this perspective on the country I have recently returned to.

 

I was not surprised by El-Tayeb’s observation that in Germany, too, there are many processes by which people are turned into ‘the Other’ and thus excluded and marginalised. What I was surprised by, however, was that despite my determination to not be part of these processes, in many instances I had not even been aware of them. Some are so natural, well-meaning even, that upon first reading them described as having racist undertones in the book I rejected the notion. Take the term ‘Deutsch-Türken’ (‘German-Turks’). This is the term used to describe people of Turkish descent. What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s actually an improvement on the language used when I left Germany 20 years ago. Back then, ‘they’ were generally just called ‘Turks’. Great, I thought consequently: finally Germany and its language reflect a migrant reality. These folks are German, with Turkish roots. Splendid.

 

Except, El-Tayeb argues that this linguistic construct (German-Turks) places the emphasis on the second part: they are and always will be Turks before they are German. While in the American construct (‘German-American’), the ‘German’ is merely a distinguishing adjective to a shared identity (‘American’), in the German construct the adjective is what binds us. If it is taken away, what is left is ‘the Other’. And the exclusion does not end there: this linguistic device also subtly constructs the ‘real’ German, for lack of a better word, one who doesn’t need the adjective to be German, but one who simply is German.

 

It is easy to dismiss the above as innocent language development, and El-Tayeb’s analysis as hypersensitive. It’s certainly easier than acknowledging that there may be truth in it, and that in using this language, possibly thinking we were recognising and honouring diversity, we may actually have perpetuated a subtle form of Othering. However, our good intentions do not absolve us of their negative outcomes. We don’t have to be abuse-shouting racists for our actions to have racist undertones.

 

Take another of El-Tayeb’s examples: She writes of receiving an invitation to a conference on the impact of contemporary racism in Germany. She declined to speak when she realised that all other speakers were white men. To her objection the conference organisers responded that the conference was not about the political, but the scientific engagement with racism. In other words: those affected by racism were treated as if they could speak only from the perspective of personal emotion. Others had to contribute the scientific analysis that they were thought incapable of.

 

El-Tayeb does not offer further insights into why the conference organisers responded in this way. However, we see such marginalisation a lot when the experiences of minorities challenge our self-image as open-minded, forward-thinking actors in society. While understanding and compassion for the ‘personal grief’ is readily offered, it is just as readily rationalised away. El-Tayeb points to one such mechanism when she writes about ‘Majority-German’ perpetrators of terror being dismissed as a mere ‘minority’, as not being representative of the country at all – as being ‘Undeutsch’. A ‘silent’ majority that abhors such actions is evoked to prove that despite minority experiences to the contrary, the country and its people at large are ‘good’. The underlying message is clear: we are not the right addressee for your grievance.

 

But we are. I am. El-Tayeb’s book makes it clear that we are looking at a problem of structural racism that doesn’t stop with a linguistic construct like ‘Deutsch-Türken’. The concepts reach deep into our heads and it is there that we need to start tackling these issues. We all have biases, even if rationally we don’t want to have them. And we all have a natural and understandable instinct to want to see ourselves as ‘good’. Yet we must resist the urge to become defensive as soon as someone criticises something about us or about our country. This still happens a lot in our profession – maybe especially in our profession, where the very root of the philosophy we have been raised on is a near-metaphysical good that is hardly ever questioned: protection, understanding, appreciation. If we serve this good, how could we possibly partake in racist structures? It seems near inconceivable, and yet the reality is that we do. What is more, in our profession the impact of our beliefs and actions carry far beyond our own personal sphere. For this reason, we have a particular responsibility. Maybe it is time we spent less effort on fixing ‘others’ through what we offer them, and more effort on ‘fixing’ our biases.

 

Notes

[1] El Tayeb, F., 2016. Undeutsch. Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der Postmigrantischen Gesellschaft. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag

[2] The German Federal Centre for Political Education defines a post-migrant society as one in which:

‘(a) Social change towards a heterogeneous underlying structure has been acknowledged (“Germany is a country of immigration”) regardless of whether this transformation is seen as positive or negative, (b) Immigration and emigration are recognized as phenomena that have a tremendous impact on the country, which can be discussed, regulated and negotiated but not reversed,

(c) Structures, institutions and political cultures are adapted ex post to the identified migration reality (i.e., post-migration), resulting in, on the one hand, greater permeability and upward mobility but, on the other hand, also in defensive reactions and distributional conflicts.’ (source: http://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/migration/kurzdossiers/205295/post-migrant-society. Accessed: 19.11.2017)

I would normally consider it my duty and responsibility to attend the Interpret Europe (IE) conference in Scotland taking place from 3 to 6 October [1].  Since I will not be there, I want to explain my decision in this post [2].

 

I disagree with the decision to hold IE’s first annual conference after the  vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom. It is true that Interpret Europe does not define what constitutes ‘Europe’ for its purposes. However, much of IE’s work is focused on the frameworks of the EU and much has been made of recent successes in working with EU institutions and representatives – and rightly so [3].

 

I do not believe in an abstract sense of ‘Europe’. The only European nation there is is the European Union. The only European citizenship there is is citizenship of the EU. And so I support Pulse of Europe in defining ‘Europe’ exclusively as the ‘EU’. I support their fight, which is a fight for the EU, and not any other construct of ‘Europe’. It is now more than ever that we must stand up for this project that is the European Union [4].

 

Going to the UK now sends the wrong signal, as far as I’m concerned. It suggests that when all is said and done, ceasing to be a member of the EU will change nothing – you will still be part of ‘Europe’, which is why Interpret Europe will come to you for a European Conference on Heritage Interpretation.

 

I know that some in IE see going to the UK at this point in time as a symbol of defiance, a gesture of resistance by the cultural sector. It is meant to say, You will not divide what belongs together. But there is a deep irony in this. The cultural sector in Britain was woefully complacent during the EU referendum. To anyone paying attention, it had been clear for months, if not years, that the political climate in the country had changed, and Brexit was a real possibility. From UKIP to the Immigration Act, things had been happening in the UK that went against everything the cultural sector claimed to stand for: promoting understanding, providing inclusion, supporting equality. And yet there was utter silence from all quarters, publicly and privately.

 

When the Brexit vote happened, a shockwave went through the cultural sector. Suddenly, people everywhere were saying that they wanted to stay in the EU and that the whole campaign had been reprehensible. I understand the sentiment – trust me, I do. But at the same time I do lack sympathy. The sector not only had its chance, it had a duty. And it did not come up to scratch. So while I feel for British colleagues who now face losing their European citizenship and all the rights that come with it, my concern is for the EU. I want to do everything in my power to protect and nurture the EU. And I am prepared to put everything else secondary, including reassuring British colleagues that they will not be excluded and to that end taking the Interpret Europe conference to their country despite the decision for Brexit.

 

The matter would be entirely different if the theme of the conference were the social and political responsibility of interpretation in the context of the Brexit vote [5]. We need this kind of critical and uncompromisingly honest self-assessment, because if anything, the Brexit referendum revealed considerable gaps between our ideals of interpretation and our practice. Let’s talk about that. Let’s grapple with what happened, why the cultural sector remained silent, why only a few months before the Brexit vote, British colleagues seemed surprised to hear of my fear and devastation in the face of the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric. Taking a stand is difficult, I know. But there is something seriously and deeply amiss when our vision papers say one thing, and our actions (or lack thereof) something else entirely. For me, the question that will move us forward now is not, ‘How can we stay together?’ It is, ‘How the heck could we let this happen in the first place?’ Because the answers will be important to interpreters everywhere, including in Germany right now.

 

However, I am not sure I would have returned to Scotland for this conference whatever the theme. The reason is that I cannot bear to go back to the place that was my chosen home, and from which I was expelled by a hostile environment. There are real victims to this failure of our sector to respond to the challenge it faced. I don’t know if it could have prevented the vote for Brexit, and thus my leaving. But it sure would have made a difference to me personally.

 

Interpret Europe taking its first conference since the vote for Brexit to the very place that rejected Europe and vilified European citizens, without addressing what happened, feels like a personal and professional betrayal all over.

 

Notes

[1] The reason is that I am IE’s Research Co-Ordinator. Technically, the conference is a joint conference with the British Association of Heritage Interpretation, or AHI. However, it is the only “conference” that IE (co-)hosts this year, and IE’s General Assembly will take place there. The conference’s URL is also the usual http://www.interpreteuropeconference.net/. In other words, it is also IE’s annual conference – there is no other.

[2] I did briefly mention my concern about taking this conference to Inverness in an email to IE in September 2016. However, I was not involved in previous discussions about the conference, which apparently began in November 2015. The final agreement with AHI wasn’t signed until October 2016 – plenty of time, therefore, to take Brexit into account.

[3] The notion of “European values” has also been an important aspect of IE’s recent work, and IE point out that these are shared by the Council of Europe also. The Council of Europe is of course larger than the EU.

[4] I feel so strongly about this that I feel the need to reiterate this point once again: The UK may consider itself to still be a part of Europe after Brexit. That, however, is no Europe that holds any meaning for me. I want the European Union. Not the Council of Europe. The European Union. I want a future for the EU as even closer together, stronger. Not giving up our national identities, but more integrated, a federal union.

[5] The topic of the conference is ‘Making Connections: Re-imagining Landscapes’. There is no reference to Brexit on the conference website. This, to me, is utterly unacceptable. There has also been the suggestion that a prime motivation for holding this conference in Scotland now was to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of AHI’s The Vital Spark conference. If that is indeed the case, then I am, simply put, speechless. To completely ignore one of the most seismic events since the Second World War in Europe for an anniversary just flies in the face of all our profession supposedly stands for.

Karl May and his creation, the fictional Apache chieftain Winnetou, make a great example of heritage that is built on appropriated selections of the past, not necessarily one’s own and not necessarily historically accurate either, for a purpose that is far removed from the original source. It is an example of heritage as emotional, social and as a process, and it is also an example of heritage as dissonant.

 

If you weren’t raised in the German-speaking world, you won’t know Karl May or Winnetou, and to you it will likely seem clear-cut once I explain: a 19th-century chap from Saxony who’d never set foot on American soil invents a Native American world. It is a world with flat, stereotypical characters that nearly two centuries later are still cherished by Germans, historical inaccuracies and cultural stereotypes be damned. Evidently, this is cultural appropriation of the worst kind, and an insufferable white European simplification of history that – typical! – refuses to engage with the shameful reality of colonisation of the American continent.

 

And you wouldn’t be wrong, either. In July, I took my mother to the Karl-May-Festspiele, where they put on an elaborate open-air theatre adaptation of one of May’s stories. There, you have everything that would make any Native American’s blood boil: non-Native actors wearing black long-haired wigs to impersonate Native characters, with dubious representations of Native American spiritual traditions. It was bad, and it made me squirm.

 

That is, until Winnetou rode onto the stage, accompanied by the opening theme of the famous 1960s movie adaptations, which have been part of most Germans’ upbringing in one way or the other, and I found myself wiping away tears. You see, that is the thing about Karl May and Winnetou: it is not about Native American reality, past or present. It is about a German cultural phenomenon, a series of stories and also a series of films that have accompanied most Germans through their childhood.

 

I would suggest it is these memories of childhood that still make Karl May and Winnetou such a strong component of German popular culture. The stories’ universal motifs of adventure and friendship also play a role, no doubt, as does the exotic escapism they provide. However, I think for many adults it is less about the actual content of the stories than it is about that which they remind them of. It’s about what the stories and the Festpiele allow us to do: like my mother and I, I saw lots of families with and without children around, and they laughed and spent time together. Winnetou was a conduit for something else; a gathering, a bonding, a memory and an identity shared and reaffirmed.

 

It is not about Native American reality. This also became clear around Christmas last year, when one of the broadcasters showed their new adaptation of the Winnetou trilogy. The first clue was in the trailer: referencing not only the books, but also the 1960s films along with the title theme, it announced that, ‘Every generation has its Winnetou’ [1].  But, as the director pointed out, this Winnetou is ‘not a real Indian’ [2]. He is a ‘totally romanticised idea of being an Indian’. And that’s why he didn’t cast an indigenous actor, the director said when pressed on the matter, because ‘this somewhat fairy-tale character’ of Winnetou couldn’t be captured by a Native American.

 

I actually think he’s right. An indigenous actor would have forced a different gaze onto this story. He would have brought with him the demand and the necessity to make it realistic, and making it realistic would have meant to make it different. And with that difference it would have ceased to be Winnetou and part of German heritage. For Winnetou to stay Winnetou it needed not only an Albanian actor, as was the case this time [3], but also a return to the Croatian landscape of the previous films, standing in for the American Southwest. Winnetou, you see, also has a European dimension. In a bizarre way, this fits right in with Germany’s post-WWII identity.

 

As I said, it’s a German story. Karl May’s legend, of him having been in jail, of not having been to the US before writing the books, and of having lived in a bit of a dreamworld of his own making, is as much part of it as are Winnetou and all the other characters in May’s stories. All these ingredients come together to form a unique little package of German culture.

 

But.

 

The story’s origins are still a romanticisation, and thus a misrepresentation of another culture. Such a misrepresentation is not a harmless thing; it suppresses, denies, and colonises. If tomorrow it weren’t hundreds of thousands of Syrians coming to live in Germany, but Native Americans, and if they felt insulted, because this part of the story for them outweighs the ingredient that is Karl May, then what? Would I let go of it, of the great opportunity it offers to connect with my mother and my childhood? I honestly don’t know.

 

Notes

[1] I wonder whether these films will become the new cultural reference for a new generation. They didn’t do it for my mother and I.

[2] I’m using this term here, ‘Indian’, because in German ‘Indianer’ is the term they use. It sounds a bit rude to my ears, though.

[3] In the 60s, it was a French actor who played Winnetou. Oh, and the German was played by an American. I love it.

Over recent months I’ve had numerous discussions about art and interpretation. Many people suggest that art doesn’t need interpretation. As someone who began her university career in the arts before entering the field of interpretation and heritage, I find this stance puzzling [1]. And the more I think about it, the more troubled I am by it, particularly in a museum context.

 

On the one hand, the issue certainly lies with people’s lack of knowledge of interpretation. Interpretation does not exist in Germany as the comprehensive discipline and practice it is in the English-speaking world [2]. And so when I talk about interpretation, the first thing people tend to respond to is the term itself. They think of interpretation in the classic sense, as a single viewpoint or understanding, or as a particular rendition of a creative work. This isn’t a new misunderstanding, of course. Even in English, the language of origin of the discipline of interpretation, the term has caused confusion and debate. Nevertheless, in English we’ve come to an agreement which, as the discipline gained traction, has widely become accepted by others also. The consensus is that interpretation in the museum and heritage contexts means ‘x’. Discussion over. Moving on.

 

I generally try to explain ‘x’ along the lines of ‘giving people a foundation to engage with an exhibition’. I explain that in interpretation, a basic principle is to carefully consider visitors and their needs, in other words, to have a visitor focus, or what in German is termed Besucherorientierung. And this is where people often start to argue.

 

Art, I am told, cannot be ‘about visitors’. To consider visitors within an exhibition, to provide an infrastructure that responds to their needs, is to stifle art. Interpretation, it has been suggested to me, would prevent exciting concepts, leading to art exhibitions that are commonplace and boring. And so interpretation is in fact an insult to visitors, for they do not need it and are visiting to appreciate art undisturbed by such banal intrusions.

 

Interpreters know of course that just the opposite is true. And the experiences with the success of interpretation by whatever term it goes in Germany, as well as the evidence of visitor books and visit numbers tell us another story also. This rejection of interpretation is therefore not based on the evidence. So the question begs what else might be going on here. We can’t know the underlying motivations without further research, so I’m focussing instead on the consequences of such attitudes and this desired act of not providing interpretation.

 

The first consequence is that we’re sending out a subtle message: if you don’t understand art without additional aids, then probably an art museum isn’t the right place for you. It also creates two groups: those who understand art (and therefore don’t need interpretation), and those who don’t. Considering that the claim is that interpretation somehow stifles and diminishes the quality of art, there is also a message of superiority here, of a higher level of understanding and sophistication.

 

Not providing interpretation, in other words, not making visible the underlying (intended) concepts of the artwork or its wider context also means that the breadth and depth of its critical examination is limited to a small number of people (supposedly) ‘in the know’. It’s the ‘Authorizing Discourse’ all over again, self-referential and self-affirming. Non-experts are unlikely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the art they see, either. If you don’t even know what an artwork is meant to address, you can neither form an opinion on the validity of the concept nor on the quality of the execution. Your views can be easily dismissed (because you clearly don’t understand) or they are castrated (because they remain superficial).

 

Superficiality of engagement is the real tragedy for me when it comes to the refusal of interpreting art. Art is not like heritage in that sense. Art can be so abstract, so conceptual that without further explanation people truly will not manage to fully engage and respond to art. To take their reactions of dispproval as real engagement is a betrayal of them. They haven’t engaged. They are frustrated. That is not the same.

 

The result of all of the above is ultimately exclusion. And in a museum context I cannot find any justification for this. No matter what contemporary definition of a museum you use, one of its core elements is always a variation on education and/or engagement. If museums do not make possible either, then they are not fulfilling one of their main purposes.

 

Professional interpretation doesn’t get in the way of art. It doesn’t force itself on visitors, nor does it provide a one-size-fits-all solution. What it does do is widen the reach of art. It provides an infrastructure that makes it possible for more people to engage – dare I say ‘meaningfully’ – with art. If that is not in the interest of art, then the problem in my view is not with interpretation.

 

 

Notes

[1] Here’s a not-so-well known fact about me: I studied Comparative Literature to BA-level (I switched after what was thens till the Intermediate Exam) before I completed a Masters of Art in Creative Arts, with a focus on Interdisciplinary Arts.

[2] Interpretation as a comprehensive discipline doesn’t exist in Germany, but that doesn’t mean its basic principles and indeed its practices are entirely unknown. Thankfully, there is a lot of overlap, the difference being, however, that what is covered by Interpretation is split into multiple disciplines in Germany. Which also leads to what I find is a discursive jungle. It makes me appreciate the formation that’s been developed in Interpretation, even if I wish much of it were moving on more quickly than it is.

Recently, I strolled through my local woods and came across a carved Irminsul leaning against a tree some way back from the path. Intrigued, I made my way over, to find that the Irminsul had runes carved across the top. Now, my rune reading skills are a little rusty. But after a while I established that two people had been married here and this marker left as a witness.

 

I was absolutely thrilled at this point, and also a little disturbed. I was thrilled because this was such an unexpected display of heritage. It was the first of May, too, a day which in Germany is full of traditions, from Maypoles to dances. That had already made me think about intangible heritage, and what importance it has in creating not only a sense of identity but also a sense of place. Through the First of May events going on all around me, it really felt like being back in Germany proper. It was, and felt, entirely different from all the other places I had lived in.

 

The Irminsul of course has further interesting layers. I have come across this symbol before since returning to Germany. I found out at the time that it is meant to represent an actual column of sorts which in the 8th century AD stood in a town in North Rhine-Westphalia. What exactly it represented, or what purpose it served, cannot, as far as I understand, be established through any historical sources.

 

In other words, for the Irminsul to be used today means a reappropriation and reconstruction, and certainly to a degree a reinvention that fills in the blanks of a past symbol and associated meaning. And in this way, it illustrates a lot of what has been written about heritage as a selection and appropriation of the past for present-day needs. In the case of the Irminsul in the woods, for the couple that placed it there it clearly has a ritualistic meaning, perhaps a religious one, and perhaps one that connects them to the time and people of the historic column.

 

Here is where my discomfort had its root. For of course, we’re talking about a German context here. And the last time I came across this symbol was in a news item about an Irminsul that had been erected on top of a protected, natural stone formation called Externsteine on New Years Day this year. Unlike the Irminsul in the woods that I found, this one was painted in white, red and black, colours that were used by the German Reich (although in a different order). For this reason, but also because the symbol is used by a neo-nazi organisation in Germany, the Irminsul was seen as a right-wing symbol, and the Staatsschutz,  a special police force dealing with politically motivated crime, went to investigate.

 

On one hand, one might of course argue that any symbol can be misused by anone. After all, even the Arthurian legend, of generally harmless association in the UK, is shamelessly misused by clearly far-right groups, without the tale itself being tarnished. But the sensitivities and fears are strong in Germany when it comes to anything potentially far right. And so in the news article about the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine, management of the monument put right-wing, reactionary positions in one sentence with all and any interpretation of the site that is not fully scientifically proven, saying that they equally distanced themselves from both [1]. Thus the connection is made: the symbol is intrinsically suspicous, the right-wing interpretation the most likely.

 

The discursive process that begins its work, then, is a forced framing of a symbol that in itself really has no association whatsoever with right-wing views. Objectively speaking, one must acknowledge that with so little known about the historic Irminsul, one may disagree with the reappropriation, reproduction and reinvention of the symbol and its meanings by some folks, but one cannot reasonably assign to them a far-right attitude by default. And while the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine had other characteristics that do seem to make a far-right intention likely, never mind disrespecting a scheduled monument, the strength of this reframing applied to all uses of the symbol quickly becomes a form of censorship.

 

I was relieved when I realised the runes on the Irminsul I saw in the woods merely referred to a wedding celebration. I was relieved because actually, in the back of my mind I had applied that censure. And that makes me wonder about the impact of such ever-present pressure on this couple’s practice, assuming, as I have every reason to do, that they are not, in fact, right-wing radicals. It is an impact that also lacks objective justification in and of itself, just as the scientists accuse reconstructions and reappropriations of lacking a scientific basis. As I found out, it clearly puts groups in a position where they feel they must justify themselves (which is of course what many people constantly demand of Muslims today as well).

 

As a society, and definitely as heritage managers, we should be weary of allowing such processes to run their course without critical examination. A more distinguishing attitude is called for, and I cannot help but feel that this is a task for interpretation: to represent the diverse perspectives without pre-judgment, and to help people gain the skills to be critical for themselves, and to not jump to any conclusions.

 

 

Notes
[1] I could write here about the Authorized Heritage Discourse asserting itself in this attitude. But that’s not the point of this post.