I visited my home village for 1 May. In Germany, and certainly in the South, the raising of the ‘Maibaum’ – the maypole – on the eve of 30 April is generally a village celebration, followed the next day by the ‘Maiwanderung’ – the hike on 1 May. The weather wouldn’t quite collaborate, but I still had an overwhelming sense of being here and not anywhere else. It was a very strong ‘sense of place’.
It made me wonder why some interpretation I’ve encountered hasn’t quite instilled me with a similar sensation, especially since communicating a ‘sense of place’ has often been stipulated as one of interpretation’s primary goals. In 1997 the Tourism and Environment Initiative in the Scottish Highlands even called its interpretation handbook ‘A Sense of Place‘.
However, much interpretation seems to rely on the uniqueness of its material to communicate a ‘sense of place’. Brochs, for example, are uniquely Scottish Iron Age dwellings, and this is pointed out on the (admittedly dated) text panels that interpret them. This form of interpretation, however, did not give brochs a sense of place – it merely factually declared them to be unique. It treated brochs in isolation as an archaeological phenomenon without evoking the people and the landscape they responded to by building brochs.
Other sites appear to understand ‘a sense of place’ primarily as the use of local materials or locally sourced food. Neither are likely to stand out to visitors, and even the infamous Scottish Haggis’ ability to communicate what is unique about Scotland is basic and limited.
Uniform design is also often considered a means of creating ‘a sense of place’. However, very often what is communicated is the image of the organisation caring for the site (or museum etc.) rather than the site’s sense of place itself.
So how could interpretation better communicate a ‘sense of place’? When I analysed my own experience of the May celebrations, I roughly identified two main ingredients: a strong symbol (the maypole) and the activity related to it (the practices surrounding the maypole). In other words, perhaps what we need to do is a) understand the essence (similar to the theme) of the place and identify the one aspect that symbolizes that essence, and b) reinforce this symbol through the stories of the human (or otherwise) activity that created or responded to the symbol.
For example, in Gloucester’s National Waterways Museum the exhibition is, naturally, about the waterways: the symbol (= the maypole). But rather than present the canals in isolation, the exhibition immediately pushes them to the background and instead tells the story of the people (and animals) who lived and worked on and around the canals: the activity (= the May celebrations). In the end, I experienced the canals indirectly as unique living environments: they had acquired a real ‘sense of place’ for me.
As I enjoyed sharing the May experience with the people around me, I thought again how that sense of place truly is the strongest bond to a place or topic. Perhaps as interpreters we need to take a step back and ask ourselves why so often, we still miss out on creating that bond.