Authentic Interpretation at the Big Pit, Wales

Authenticity is not usually a term we come across in interpretation literature with the exception of writings on costumed interpretation of various kinds [1].   Interpreters tend to treat authenticity as a given: we base our interpretation on sound research and so it must be authentic [2].   However, my recent visit to the Big Pit National Mining Museum in Blaenavon, Wales, suggests to me that there is interpretation, and then there is authentic interpretation [3].

Very little seems to have been changed about the physical environment of the Big Pit coal mine. Visitors enter the same hall as the miners did to go down the shaft. They are handed hard hats and helmet lights as well as a gas mask – again, much like the miners were.  Many of the original signs are still on the wall, and the notice for visitors to leave behind any battery-operated items and lighters etc. is merely a repeat of another sign that reminded miners of the safety precautions prescribed by law (and it is of the same home-made style too).

The underground tour of the mine was led by a gentleman who had actually worked in the mine up until the time it was closed in the 1980s.   The same appears to have been true for the other men we met along the way: about 20 ex-miners now serve as tour guides.  Our guide pointed out that the site is still very much run like the working mine was run: there are electricians, firemen checking the gas levels and men looking after the shaft.  The conditions in the mine tunnels we saw appeared to be essentially the same as they used to be also. Certainly there were no lights beyond our helmet lights to make the space more inviting, nor was the floor groomed to make walking as easy and as comfortable as possible. In fact, I experienced a continuous sensation of unease: I hated being in the dark, and the low ceilings and rusting steel frames had me in constant worry.

But in terms of authenticity, nothing I have seen beats this site.  Of course one might argue that much of that authenticity will disappear with the ex-miner tour guides as they go into retirement one by one (our guide is due to retire next year). And yet other areas of the museum showed that authenticity can be achieved even without a personal presence.

The bath house on site provided the space for the exhibition. Items that belonged to miners were placed in lockers alongside descriptions and sound bites of the lives and stories of their owners. There are also pictures of miners in this very space, and again it felt like visitors had stepped in right after the miners had left. Their voices rang in the space like they might have done when the mine was in use, and it took very little imagination to visualise the men scrubbing off the dust and dirt of the tunnels we’d just seen.

So what made this site feel more authentic than others? The ex-miner tour guides were hugely important, there is no doubt about that. However, what I think was even more crucial was that visitors were ‘kitted out’ much like the miners had been in a space that was largely unchanged. This allowed us to live the experience and engage directly with the environment of the mine. Above ground the experience continued as the interpretation supported rather than explained the site.

For authentic interpretation this suggests two things: first, interpretation should facilitate a site’s telling of its own story, rather than tell that story for the site. Second, as much as possible interpretation should allow visitors to participate in that story instead of banishing them to the passive role of spectator. The experience at the Big Pit showed that interpretation does not require obvious intervention but may instead consist of using a site’s existing resources and seamlessly managing and facilitating visitors’ engagement with these.


[1] See for example Magelssen, S (2004) ‘Performance Practices of [Living] Open-Air Museums (And a New look at ‘Skansen’ in American living Museum Discourse)’. Theatre History Studies (24), 125 – 149

[2] Elsewhere I have already pointed out that in fact interpretation necessarily requires a degree of selection. That selection in itself has an impact on authenticity. Add to that considerations of personal perception, the minefield of communication media and finally, the eye of the beholder, and authenticity quickly slips from our firm grasp like a wriggling fish. To complicate matters even further, a look at discussions of authenticity in tourism literature reveals that authenticity may never have been the clear-cut concept we thought it to be. Centred on cultural practices, opinions vary widely from the modernist point of view that says authenticity is objective and inherent to the activity, to the postmodernist view that dismisses authenticity as irrelevant: tourists don’t care (say the postmodernists; for an overview see Reisinger, Y., Steiner, C.J. (2006) ‘Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity.’ Annals of Tourism Research 33, (1) 65 – 86).

[3] To proclaim the existence of authentic interpretation in light of what I’ve just written under note No. 2 may seem contradictory. However, in my view, authenticity does exist at heritage sites, both on an object level and on an experience level, the latter being defined by the stakeholders, i.e. those whose heritage it is. Similar to significance, there may be various versions of authenticity, and the challenge for the interpreter is to find a way to do justice to all of them.

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