Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I am currently coordinating two working groups, one on authenticity and one on inclusivity, for ICOMOS ICIP [1] and Interpret Europe [2]. To be truthful, I thought I would most enjoy the discussion on inclusivity. As it turns out, it is the conversations that we are having around the concept of authenticity that I personally find most stimulating.

 

It is not that we are discussing anything dramatically revoluntionary. The Nara Document on Authenticity of 1994 already acknowledged that authenticity is more than a material attribute to be determined by the relevant science. It highlighted that what matters are the ‘values attributed to the heritage’ (paragraph 9) and that this naturally leads to ‘judgments about values’ (paragraph 11). And while the text is still heavy on traditional terms such as ‘conservation’ and ‘protection’ – a red flag to all weary of the Authorized Heritage Discourse [3] – it does also make clear that the ‘judgments about values’ cannot be based on ‘fixed criteria’ but ‘must be considered and judged within the cultural contexts to which they belong’ (paragraph 11). This is really quite progressive, even if, let’s be honest, this is not how authenticity is generally treated and managed in everyday professional heritage practice [4].

 

What excites me about the conversation in the working group is that we are approaching authenticity from quite different perspectives, yet they coalesce around similar ideas. We have historians in the group, archaeologists, a philologist, people from heritage studies, and interpreters, but most discuss authenticity in terms of different aspects, or layers, or perceptions of authenticity. Thinking of authenticity as a multitude of possible components to me radically makes clear what was rather more moderately suggested in the Nara Document: that authenticity is not invested per se in the material, or fixed on any other level of traditional science. The working group also quickly agreed that authenticity is socially constructed, and as such has a strong experiential element which transcends the material, or, if you will, combines the tangible with the intangible into a new whole (the ‘authentic’?).  I find it fascinating that a conversation about authenticity led me to deconstruct experiences in a different way.

 

The parallels to contemporary thinking about what (who) makes heritage and about the need for interpretation to make visible more than just one perspective or theme are also really intriguing to me. In some ways this makes perfect sense of course, and almost seems self-evident now that I write this down. But I don’t think it is self-evident, at least I’m not conscious of having read anything that really mashes up the discourses of heritage and authenticity in this way. However, authenticity as it emerges in the conversations within the working group, is really a great indicator for heritage. It captures that essence of an experience of what we may call ‘truth’, albeit in an understanding of truth that is constructed, socially within a group, but also in an ‘experiential’ (see above) exchange with the tangible. The group also floated the notion of ‘authentic’ as meaning ‘trusted’, which opens up further dimensions beyond ‘truth’. Because it is constructed and experiential, however, this trust is not about age, purity or continuity as assessed by science; it is inherently social, with all its cultural and political complexities.

 

At the beginning of this process, I was fully prepared to challenge a material framing of authenticity, and I probably expected the discussion to centre on this. Now I feel truly inspired to explore authenticity far more widely and creatively in the context of heritage and heritage making, as well as interpretation. The group is still in full swing and I am personally at the very beginning of this journey into the exciting universe of authenticity. But this is something I’m really looking forward to now: it promises to fundamentally influence my thinking about interpretation, and I’m sure my own practice can only benefit [5].

 

 

Notes

[1] ICIP is short for the ‘International Scientific Committee for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites’. Sadly, the committee does not receive any financial support, which means the current website is hopelessly outdated and unhelpful. I therefore won’t even link you to it.

[2] I do so in my capacity as ICIP’s Vice President for Policy and following a survey about the ICOMOS Charter on Interpretation, which identified that authenticity and inclusivity were two concepts in need of furter explanation and guidance. The working groups are working on producing policy statements and guidance notes.

[3] Smith, L., 2006. The Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

[4] This may be so because people don’t know how to practically approach authenticity other than in a material way. That is a central aspect of what the working group is trying to establish and outline in the guidance notes.

[5] In closing, thanks are due to the members of the working group. I’m looking forward to our final document.

It is great to see American museums, national heritage organisations and professional organisations  mount a resistance against the divisive and dangerous policies of the new Trump Administration. And it is great that museums and heritage professionals as well as institutions elsewhere discuss these same issues and show solidarity.

 

However, we must ensure that for those of us outside the United States this doesn’t become mere tokenism. Trump’s immigration ban mustn’t become another Lampedusa Cross. It is all too easy to make grand gestures across the ocean while ignoring what is happening in front of our own gates. And many museums are still ignoring what is happening in their own countries. The very public outcry against another country’s issues makes the silence against our own issues that much more damaging. We must take this opportunity not only to show solidarity, but to take a hard look at ourselves.

 

Take this example [1]: A briefing published after the EU referendum in June last year was the first time I am aware of that the British Museums Association (MA) even acknowledged the damaging tone of the debate. Their condemnation of it, if you can even call it that, was tame at best. They wrote, ‘we are concerned that the tone of the referendum debate has made many museum workers, volunteers and visitors from ethnic minorities and/or other European countries feel unwelcome in the UK. This is not the tone that we want to set for a diverse and vibrant culutral sector..’ (p.1). Then, on 1 February, a full seven months after the referendum, the MA’s website editor via Twitter invited EU nationals working in British museums and worried about Brexit to email him, giving the first official acknowledgement by the MA that Brexit concerns more than funding for museums [2].

 

Some of you may not be aware of the personal impact of the decision for Brexit on people in Britain who are from the EU. Have a read here and you will realise that it very much is similar to some of the stories that we have all heard about Trump’s immigration ban. And that is why in my view, the questions the MA should be asking are not,  ‘What can/should museums do re immigration ban? Time to take a stand?’ [the MA’s Director on Twitter, 29 January, see also note 3], but rather: Why hasn’t the MA issued a statement yet to condemn the British Government’s use of EU nationals as bargaining chips? Why did the MA not issue a statement during the divisive EU referendum debate to make clear it didn’t support its tone? Why was there no statement about the equally divisive policies in Britain that targeted Muslims and immigrants?

 

I am fully aware that ‘taking a stand’ isn’t as easy as it sounds for museums on their home turf. At the beginning of the year there was a brief moment when Germany seemed on the brink of making the utterly unacceptable term ‘Nafris’ commonplace, and a comment in our local newspaper was part of that. But I didn’t say a public word about it, and I didn’t insist that our museums communicate that labels of any kind had no place in our buildings and that we simply welcomed ‘people’ [4]. I was too worried, too insecure still in my role. But I am aware that in doing so, I failed. Simple as that.

 

My point is that we must keep looking critically at our actions at home. We cannot hide behind gestures that are aimed rather far away from our own spheres of influence. These actions do count, yes, for in a globalised and interconnected world what happens in one place has impact elsewhere, and what is seen elsewhere is seen in our neighbourhoods too. However, these actions become hypocrisy if they are not matched by our actions on our doorsteps.

 

I wonder what the MA will do with the feedback it now, finally, is soliciting from EU nationals in Britain. I live in anticipation of a strongly worded statement in their support. They deserve it.

 

Notes
[1] I don’t mean to keep targeting the UK Museums Association. It’s just that I’ve spent the better part of my professional career, and an important part of my personal life, in Britain. I’m beginning to slowly extract myself from there, but it’s a long process. And of course, I’m still affected by what happened in the lead up to and because of the referendum. If that hadn’t played out the way it was allowed to, I  may still be home in Britain. You have to forgive a woman for being bitter about that.

[2] In the December 2016 issue of the Museums Journal, an article on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland focuses yet again first on funding, and then cross-border tourism and collaboration with the Republic of Ireland. “Brexit could be a severe blow for arts in Northern Ireland.” P 12/13.

[3] It is possible that she aimed her question only at American museums. But I believe that what we ask of others, we must ask of ourselves as well.

[4] ‘Nafris’ was applied to young, aggressive men of North-African descent travelling in large groups. I do not question the necessity in situations like German New Years eve parties to use some kind of profiling based on empirical evidence – anything else would be stupid. And internally, when things must move quickly, label these groups by whatever name you think you must. But.do.not.use.it.in.public. Then it becomes a label and a stigma applied to all people who match one or more of those criteria: North-African, young, man. And that’s when it becomes inacceptable and divisive. I’m surprised we even had to have the discussion, brief as it may have been.

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language) declared ‘post-factual’ as word of the year 2016. As we enter into 2017, the post-factual approach to reality and politics appears set to continue. So I want to consider what this might mean for heritage interpretation.

 

Accepted interpretive philosophy tells us that information is not interpretation [1]. Interpretation is more than a ‘statement of facts’ [2]: it is revelation [3]. These were corner stones of Tilden’s philosophy, and of course what he responded to in 1957 was a visitor environment dominated by subject specialists. So one can vividly imagine Tilden, the exasperated journalist, telling a detail-obsessed specialist that it isn’t enough to simply tell visitors facts. They need more.

 

However, I think interpretation has taken this principle, that information is not interpretation, and the associated denigration of a ‘statement of facts’ a step too far. In current interpretation philosophy, it is not information which is most important, but the purposeful selection of information to succesfully deliver a message. Information has been demoted to a mere ingredient in the realisation of interpretive aims.

 

Putting aside the fact that selection is also manipulation, and that evidence suggests that people do want more or less pure information, albeit skillfully delivered: the instrumentalisation and thus marginalisation of information in contemporary interpretive practice is particularly problematic when faced with the reality and threats of a post-factual world. While mis-information is blatantly used to make a point, the selection of information to make another point neither seems appropriate nor sufficient. We need more.

 

Of course, post-factual attitudes won’t be changed by simply giving more information. Post-factual doesn’t just mean ‘ignoring’ or ‘falsifying’ facts. It also means being motivated by feelings: feelings of helplessness, unrational fears, a hope that may have no other foundation than the sense that it simply can’t be worse than this. It is not enough to scorn people with post-factual tendencies. Like it or not, we need to take them seriously in order to have any hope of collectively working through these feelings and leaving them behind in favour of more factual and rational decision-making [4].

 

Many political commentators have observed how very close mainstream democratic parties have moved towards one another in their policies. But rather than enfold everyone in society, this has created a vacuum around its edges. People no longer feel that their views are represented, and they are turning to parties and organisations who do not share a commitment to pluralist, democratic debate. It’s not just that these ‘populists’ ignore or falsify facts. It’s that they encourage people to no longer engage with anything but their own (post-factual) views, a situation that endangers democracy at its very core. From populist echochambers all critical thinking is purged, and what you get is a post-factual world that takes over whole nations (like the UK, like the US).

 

So what should interpretation do?

 

With the framing of this post so far, I realise that I’m edging toward suggesting that interpretation become political. It’s not a term I’ve used before in relation to interpretation. And if I do use it now, it is in a complex, maybe even contradictory way. Because on one hand, when I say ‘political’ I mean it as a responsibility and response which we must openly acknowledge in light of the developments in the world around us. When I complained about the failure of British museums and the British Museums Association to respond to the vilification of (im)migrants especially during the Brexit campaign, I was really saying that they should make a political statement. To say that ‘this is not okay’ is a political statement. And if that statement comes from a museum, that still carries weight with a lot of people. It matters.

 

But on the other hand, when I say that interpretation should become political I mean it should play a role in our political systems of democracy. Democracy is characterised by a debate on views and opinions, with respect for others. If, in a post-factual world, people no longer engage with the views of others and/or attack them, then interpretation must step up. I come back to agonistic interpretation here: in a post-factual world we must do our best to make visible what people do not see: The differing views. Their validity. The humanity of the ‘other’. And I’m not just talking about making visible the ‘good’ views, the liberal, pluralist, democratic views. I mean a real engagement in all directions, taking seriously also those people that feel ‘the establishment’ has left them behind. Not to educate and change anyone. But to make the whole of this democratic world visible to each participant.

 

This is fundamentally about information. It is about actual facts, and information about how people feel. Not every place will be suited to this. But where we can, we must make a push for it. Because I don’t know about you, but from where I am standing this future looks really scary. We can’t rely on others to fix it while we gaze into the past. Right now is what counts.

 

 

Notes
[1] This is of course first expressed in Tilden’s second principle of interpretation (Tilden, F., 1957(1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. 3rd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.

[2] Tilden, p. 8.

[3] This is also part of Tilden’s second principle.

[4] I write ‘factual’ and ‘rational’ with some misgivings, and only in contrast to ‘post-factual’. Although I do firmly believe in the importance of basing decisions on facts, I also know that half the time facts do not lead you to near self-evident decisions, as if the world were black and white. Mostly what is required is a judgment call, and that is based on a tangled mix of values, beliefs and yes, emotions.

Sometimes you read a book and think: this is so centrally relevant to what I have been thinking that I cannot believe I’ve missed this all this time. Chantal Mouffe’s book Agonistics. Thinking the World Politcally (London: Verso 2013) was such a book for me [1].

 

Antagonism

Mouffe in effect argues that negativity and opposing views ‘can never be overcome’ (p. 130). She asserts this in contrast to a liberal tradition, which believes in ‘universal consensus based on reason’ (p. 3). Rather than dismiss passion and conflict as ‘archaic’ (p. 4) and thus inferior, as liberalism does, Mouffe holds antagonism as ‘constitutive’ (p. 130) and central to democracy (e.g. p.7ff). Antagonism means, Mouffe writes, that there exist conflicts without rational solution and a pluralism in which not all views can finally be reconciled (p. 130).

 

Agonism

Enter ‘agonism’. This may be most simply understood as a healthy version of the potentially destructive antagonism. In agonism there are ‘adversaries’, not enemies as in antagonism. Adversaries share democratic principles but otherwise have conflicting views (p. 7). And that’s okay because everyone ultimately recognises the legitimacy of their opponent’s demands (p. 138) even if there can and will never be a full reconciliation. The point is, the concept of agonism embraces plurality. ‘Agonistic’ thus is the adjective that describes the confrontation between adversaries and their different views within a context of mutual respect and acceptance (p. 7).

 

Hegemony

Importantly (and now I’m beginning to inch my way towards interpretation), Mouffe argues that because the many differing views can never be reconciled, any order that emerges is always hegemonic: it is a matter of what has, for the time being, become the dominant view, and therefore any order is contestable, exclusive, and only one of many orders that are possible (p. 17).

 

The Hegemonic Struggle

Mouffe therefore talks about the ongoing hegemonic struggle (p. 14), which is the struggle to unsettle the existing hegemony and build another, and so forth. For this process to work peacefully it is important that structures and opportunities are created that allow the process to be ‘agonistic’, that is, opportunities that make sure that people see each other as adversaries, not enemies, and have a respectful debate about their differing views.

 

Agonistic public spaces

Mouffe contradicts the view that public spaces should be spaces where people arrive at a consensus (p. 92). Rather, Mouffe argues that public spaces should be agonistic: not only should they be spaces where conflicting views are voiced without seeking an (impossible) reconciliation (p. 92), but they should also make ‘visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate, in giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony’ (p. 93).

 

Agonistic Interpretation

And so I arrive at ‘agonistic interpretation’. I have for a while argued that interpretation is not about messages and objectives of whatever kind, which are achieved by, for example, persuasive communication. Rather, I have been suggesting that interpretation is about creating an infrastructure to allow people to continue to create heritage. And I have suggested that interpretation is fundamentally about representation. It should aim at making visible the wider representational dynamics in society and history [2]. I have often called this ‘telling all sides of a story’, which is why Mouffe’s description above about ‘agonistic public spaces’ just enthused me. Agonistic. A concept that recognises the hegemonic order of societies, the pluralism of reality, the impossibility of consensus, and the consequent suppressive nature of the liberal-rational claim [3]. Agonistic is the political, it is an action and a process that has real socio-political consequences. As Mouffe asserts, the disarticulation of a hegemony (read: make visible) is not the end goal, it must be followed by rearticulation (read: facilitate, enable creation): a new order (p. 74). And agonism is at the heart of making this possible.

 

Mouffe’s ideas in this book mirror much of Laurajane Smith’s critique of the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) in Uses of Heritage (London and New York: Routledge 2006), only related to society and politics, not heritage. Smith’s book was another of those books that made me think I had been living in a dark cave for years. But what my engagement with Smith’s ideas hadn’t given me was a proper handle on what to call this interpretation that isn’t communication, education, or thematic, or persuasive. Earlier in the year, at the Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen, I presented my take on interpretation as ‘Critical Heritage Interpretation’, and discursively it undoubtedly is.

 

But agonistic! I think I may have just found the label for the kind of interpretation I think we all should be doing.

 

 

Notes

[1] I owe huge thanks to Lena Johansson at the Swedish National Heritage Board, who recommended this book to me after a presentation I gave at this year’s Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen.

[2] For example here and here.

[3] Which is of course also at the root of much of contemporary interpretation philosophy that aims at ‘educating’ people toward certain desired goals: the suggestion is that through rational through, aided by good interpretation, people will arrive at the ‘right’ understanding, and the ‘right’ appreciation. But to elaborate this here would go too far.

 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘culture’ on one hand, and ‘the cultural sector’ on the other. The two are not the same, although many in the cultural sector seem inclined to claim they are. I am going to call that hybris. And I wonder if such hybris will cause – and may already be causing – the cultural sector’s fall. I’m cynical about the cultural sector, yes, but I would nonetheless argue that such a fall would be detrimental to all of society. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

The cultural sector is not the whole of culture

In a rather scathing review [1] of the European Commission’s brainstorming session as part of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants Through Culture, this fellow participant wondered, “Why is it always culture that has to make excuses? Why, despite all examples of good practices, should culture still be substantiating to its funders its importance and its role in major issues, such as the issue of refugees and migrants?” To me, this is a prime example of ‘culture’ being conflated with ‘the cultural sector’. ‘Culture’ exists without funders. ‘Culture’ is you and I going about our business on a daily basis, relating to others, expressing ourselves, making sense of our world. ‘The cultural sector’, on the other hand, is primarily made up of professionals and their initiatives asking wider society for funding. It is structured and organised, and made up of institutions such as the museums the author of the review refers to.

 

Why the equation ‘cultural sector = culture’ is hybris

It seems obvious to me, but perhaps it needs stating that it is hybris for the cultural sector to claim sole ownership of ‘culture’. Not only that: it is also a questionable hegemonic attitude that dismisses the cultural practices of everyone else. We might want to explore whether this attitude isn’t also a reason for the diversity issues the sector continues to struggle with. And there is a democratic problem here too: noone has elected us ‘cultural professionals’ as the spokespeople or architects of culture. We may have been granted a greater voice and clout in the larger (social, political, economic) system we live in, but that is also the very reason for the following:

 

Yes, ‘the cultural sector’ is accountable to the rest of society

It is becoming tiresome to hear cultural professionals bemoan the fact that wider society is asking us to ‘prove’ our impact and worth [2]. After all, we’re taking their money, and in quite considerable sums, too. ‘All the examples of good practices’ that we heard at the brainstorming session had not in fact been evaluated, so we can hardly be surprised to be asked about the basis for the cultural sector’s claims, especially with such grave social challenges as those we currently face regards integration of large numbers of people. The fact that cultural impacts are hard to measure is not an excuse; it is a call to us ‘professionals’ to use our professional skills to assess what we are doing, and to do so critically. How else can we develop our practice? Furthermore, we claim not to act within the sanctuary of ivory towers, and yet this does make it seem a bit like we are. We’re basically asking funders – and society – to just accept that what we do is great and worthy of their money. However, not being untouchable and above everyone else also means answering to uncomfortable questions. That’s the reality of being on eye-level with others [3].

 

Or are we still living in ivory towers after all?

At the actual dialogue meeting with representatives from the European Commission in mid-September, a British colleague whose work and intellect I highly value expressed what I’ve heard from other cultural sector people in the UK: how shocked he and colleagues were by the Brexit vote, and how all of them had supported staying in the EU. And I felt and still feel for them, but I also pointed out during the debate [4] that not even the UK’s professional representative body for museums was making a positive case for staying in the EU, nor managed to speak up against the rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric of the debate. I cannot quite arrive at an explanation as to why the cultural sector in the UK now should be so shocked – unless I resort to the image of that ivory tower from where the cultural sector simply did not see what was going on elsewhere. As if the sector believed that people would naturally share its (unspoken) belief in the EU and follow its (invisible) lead. As if the debate was just too nasty for something as civilised as ‘the cultural sector’ to get down and dirty.

 

This hybris is dangerous

I won’t claim that this is objectively what happened in the UK, I’m merely stating my personal observations and thoughts. To me, they are a call to action: not only is it dangerously arrogant for ‘cultural professionals’ to see ourselves as above the rest of culture. It also undermines even the potential for the very impact we claim to have. The UK has shown us what happens if a country’s cultural sector remains so painfully quiet, and we need not wonder when funders ask whether we are indeed equipped to make a difference in the key issues that face our societies today. Now that I live in Germany, my greatest fear is to find myself, as a ‘cultural professional’, in a context where the AfD dictates what culture we may have, and our own europhobes further undermine the EU until we lose it altogether. While thinking we’re too obviously important to be ignored, the cultural sector may well find itself sleepwalking into oblivion, abandoning society to its fate [5].

 

 

Notes

[1] This is not the place to respond in full to the review. However, true to my new determination to speak up politically, I feel obliged to point out that the European Commission, by its very constitutional nature, cannot but act as a facilitator making suggestions to EU member states. It cannot, on its own, act. To criticise the Commission for pointing this out in an introductory session simply emphasises the need for this very introduction in the first place. To criticise the Commission for the treaty that limits its powers is to undermine the European Union in the ways we have seen during the EU referendum debate in the UK. Here, half-truths and flat out lies supported so-called arguments. If we as EU citizens want a stroger European Commission that can act on such initiatives as the Voices of Culture dialogues – initiatives which I find laudable! – then we must argue for it within our national borders. If we don’t like how the European Union acts, we must first take our national governments to task, for they make the EU, even more so than the European Parliament.

[2] It should also be noted that the European Commission, in the Voices of Culture process, specifically invited representatives of organisations with large networks, in other words, people within the organised cultural sector who are part of the ‘official’ system within which the EC acts.

[3] I ought to make it clear that I do think the cultural sector plays an important role, precisely because it is part of that official system and machinery in ways that regular ‘culture’ often is not. But that also means it plays by different rules than ‘culture’, including the rule of being accountable for the money and position we are given. It’s not a benign distinction we earn by our very existence; we earn it by our contribution and service to society. Mind, ‘culture’ would not die out if ‘the cultural sector’ didn’t exist. But it may be less visible, play less of a role at a higher, ‘official’ level, at least in the systems we live in today.

[4] For new readers of my blog I should point out that I lived through the whole sad EU referendum debate in the UK, and what an unpleasant experience it’s been.

[5] Although of course in Germany  institutions have in the past taken a stand very publicly. My task will be to do likewise.

I have left Britain and relocated to my native Germany. Most Brits nodded knowingly when I told them I was going back to Germany, telling me that ‘Of course, you want to go home’. And in many ways I have indeed ‘gone home’. But in nearly as many other ways, I have also lost my home.

 

The idea that ‘home’ is (solely, exclusively, even at all) the place of origin seems unjustifiably simplistic. I have spent nearly half of my life outside of Germany. Why should Germany automatically be more ‘home’ to me than the places where I deliberately chose to live? And yet, this definition of ‘home’ as ‘country of origin’ and, to a lesser degree, as ‘citizenship’ is widespread, not only in politics but also in the cultural sector. It fails to appreciate the complexity of ‘home’, and how intrinsically it is linked to people’s identity, their well-being, and their very lives.

 

That, to me, has been the true tragedy of the EU referendum debate in the UK. I didn’t leave Britain because of Brexit. Rather, I realised over a year ago that in the eyes of my chosen home, Britain wasn’t – and would never be – home to me at all. This clip, and the suppressed tears of the couple, should give everyone an insight into the impact of a country’s refusal to acknowledge that it is unqualifiedly ‘home’ to people that were not born there [1].

 

As I drove from Scotland back to Germany, I heard this poignant piece about ‘Heimat’, the German term that encompasses ‘home’. The professor [2] explored many different levels of ‘Heimat’ and how it is constituted; how it relates to where we are now, and how it can change and adapt. He suggested that ‘Heimat’ is ultimately about ‘feeling at home’, in his view mostly because of people, with place acting primarily as a symbol and anchor for that feeling, rather than constituting it per se. I would personally stress the role of place in certain instances a little bit more, based on my own experience, but nevertheless, as I was leaving one home further and further behind and approaching my old/new home, I thought that here was a way of thinking more dynamically about ‘home’ that was more appropriate and useful.

 

Germany has never ceased to be ‘home’ to me. But Scotland was also home. For many years, I knew more about Scottish and British history, politics and culture than I did German. I have adopted Scottish ways of thinking, I already miss tea and scones, and then there is that undefinable sense of connection to the Scottish landscape, the music, the dances and the stories, that perhaps more than anything else made Scotland home to me. However, I still scoffed at the suggestion that I should take British citizenship to secure my status in case of Brexit [3]. I am also German, in the stereotypical sense (inefficiency and being late drive me crazy) and in all the ways that Germany inspires me with its stories and landscapes and culture, and the fact that my own personal history started here. My point is that home wasn’t one or the other, it was both.

 

Policies and practices that stubbornly insist on a view of ‘home’ as rooted in ‘origin’ and ‘citizenship’ in the end will fail us. They divide people, and they reduce them to assumed traits that may or may not have any meaning in who they think they are and how they relate to where they live. We need something more complex. Today, we live in a world where people move around in varied circumstances, and we must acknowledge their right to ‘home’, and not simply their right to residence. If we fail to do this, there will be further repeats of what has happened in Britain to people like me [4].

 

 

Notes

[1] Please remember that these folks had come to Britain and still are in Britain perfectly legally. The fact that Britain to this day – more than two months after the referendum – still refuses to unambiguously grant their right to stay is frankly the starkest confirmation that the country still does not recognise their claim to Britain as ‘home’.

[2] At one of the universities in what will be my new home, no less!

[3] I never would give up my German citizenship, but as far as I’m aware I wouldn’t have had to. However, I resented that Britain asked such a huge step of me like becoming a citizen just to acknowledge my already evident commitment to it, and to give me security. It felt like being my German self who loves Scotland wasn’t good enough, and that a part of me was meant to be suppressed. I won’t have that.

[4] To push someone like me, who loved the place, spoke the language, earned her own money and was fully integrated, to the point where leaving seemed better than staying would be something I would really want to think about if Britain were my country. But then, that’s also very German of me.

I recently heard a short description about an interpretive encounter that made me think again about the construction of heritage, the use of interpretation to represent that particular view of heritage, and the social structures that are expressed and recreated in doing so.

 

The anecdote concerned a guided tour with a school group [1]. Before I recount it as I was told it, I want to make it clear that the teller did not intend to give an in-depth account of the interpretation, and therefore I do not know the precise context in which the original story was narrated, or indeed how. The facts, however, are as follows: the guide told the school children that in the past, there existed the practice of tossing a biracial boy (in the retelling the term ‘mulatto’ was used) to danger, to see who in the attending group (I have strong reason to believe they were white men) could rescue him first. There was a black boy amid the school group who, upon hearing this, burst into tears. He then was told that this was ‘a long time ago’ and ‘obviously’ this ‘would not happen today’ (I think were the words used in the retelling).

 

Now, for a start, I’m simply going to assume that no guide would actually use the term ‘mulatto’ in public, in front of a school group, and in front of a black boy.

 

However, I can well imagine that if the guide did use the term, it was in the context of ‘the past’. For in the past, that’s what they would have called the child. And I can – sadly – imagine that somehow, that seemed to make it okay to use the term today in the retelling of the practice. As if the passing of time had purged the term of the disdain and discrimination it expressed back then: ‘mulatto’ comes from Spanish ‘young mule’. And clearly the people of the past had little more respect for the boy than they did for a mule as they endangered his life for their own amusement and sport [2].

 

Of course, that may have been the whole point of telling the story: to show up the racism of the past and analyse it unflinchingly so that we may understand the racism that is still happening today and build a better future for tomorrow. However, the fact that the guide apparently told the boy who cried that this happened a long time ago and obviously wouldn’t happen today, just doesn’t make me believe that that’s actually how – and why – the story was related. First of all, such racism obviously does happen today, so that clearly wasn’t part of the conversation. And while I understand why the boy would have cried no matter how the story was told, the fact that the other children as far as I know weren’t affected tells me that he was the only one who understood what was truly going on in this little ‘story’.

 

And what is this story? If it wasn’t shared to examine the inherent racism of 19th century Britain (as I believe the period concerned was) then why share it at all? I wondered: in what other context would anyone think it appropriate to tell this story? Again, I do not know the precise context of this piece of interpretation and how it came about. However, the fact that it was told in the first place and then subsequently rationalised as ‘a long time ago’, ‘obviously’ and ‘would not happen today’ suggests a view of an ultimately benevolent society that created something good from which we still benefit today [3]. This is the quintessentially sanitised past turned heritage. Only by willfully ignoring the darker aspects of history are we able to represent it as heritage that is universally claim worthy. By declaring that racist actions of the past ‘of course’ would no longer happen today, we deny the pain and hurt of that boy who cried upon hearing the story. We refuse to acknowledge that those very same structures of discrimination and disregard that are evident in the story are being recreated quite literally as we speak: we’re expecting that boy to share in our sense of benign heritage, when quite obviously all he heard was a shocking and frightening action that may have more resemblance to his everyday experience than we may be prepared to face.

 

Like me, your first reaction upon reading this example of interpretation may have been to pronounce that, ‘This is why you should have professional interpreters.’ And maybe we’re right, maybe the guide wasn’t a professioal – I don’t know. And yet, I think there is every chance that a professional interpreter by our standards may simply have chosen not to tell this story at all. But is this truly better? Is simply leaving out the nasty bits any more responsible or professional? Especially since a ‘professional’ very likely would have understood and represented the heritage overall in the same way: that this site was created by kind people for the benefit of others, and now we are benefitting from it too. The message: the site is worthy of our protection and all of us can (and should) enjoy it. And meanwhile, on our 21st century streets, the racism continues and black people die.

 

I am a firm believer in people choosing and creating their heritage, and this, I am well aware, sanctions the choice to ignore the racism and establish a rosy view of times (and practices) gone by. But I also believe that heritage can be exclusive and dissonant, with inherent representations and views that shape and influence our present and future, and not always in a constructive manner for all. I also believe that heritage is fluid – as we contest and debate it, it changes. And that is truly where I feel professionalism enters the equation. In professional interpretation we must be aware of these representational dynamics and do all we can to make them visible. This isn’t about preaching to a heritage community to change their views. It’s about opening doors for all to enter into heritage making in our shared world. I honestly believe that the particular site in the example can become great heritage for the young boy who was reduced to tears – but not on the basis on which we’re currently trying to goad him into buying into our story of kindly benefactors. Acknowledging and sharing that the past was wrong means we can reclaim the site on a different basis that works for all of us, not just those with the power to tell the story. Heritage, after all, is not set in stone.

 

Notes
[1] I want to point out here that the incident was shared with the express recognition that something had gone wrong and that advice should be sought on how to do things differently in the future. So that’s an all-round good thing.

[2] Just for the record, I make no distinction between the worth of the life of a mule and that of a human being. But I daresay those chaps did.

[3] I know I’m being vague here, but unfortunately any more details may identify the site in question, and that’s not the point of this post. It’s not a critique of a specific site, but an underlying approach that applies to many other sites also.