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 . 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 .
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 . 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.