Interpretation is…inspiration

I vividly remember one incident while I worked at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland.  A visitor stopped me, his eyes glowing.  ‘Where,’ he asked, ‘did William Wallace fight in the battle?’  He went on to tell me that he had seen the film Braveheart and it had inspired him to visit Scotland, and Culloden.

Of course, William Wallace lived – and died – centuries before the Battle of Culloden even took place.  And my first reaction was to scornfully turn my nose up at the visitor’s ignorance and inform him that that film has nothing to do with history, thank you very much, and besides, it doesn’t even mention Culloden, so how did he come up with the connection at all?  Really!

But then something stopped me.  First of all, the visitor’s face was full of hope and eagerness and life.  What did it matter what brought him to Culloden?  I was going to do my best to keep those emotions alive in him, but tell him something about what really happened there (and during the Wars of Independence, little knowledge that I had of these).  Secondly, the visitor’s face was full of hope and eagerness and life.  He was inspired – inspired to come to Scotland, inspired to learn about and participate in the experience of whatever he’d found in the film, and inspired probably to be a better, a more courageous person.  And it was a film that had done that for him.

In 1935, the US American Historic Sites Act stipulated that one of the purposes for preserving heritage sites for public use was to inspire the American people.  A quick dictionary search defines ‘to inspire’ as ‘to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence’.

But when was the last time you walked away from a heritage site and felt inspired?  How often has interpretation filled you with an animating, quickening or exalting influence?  Compare that to the number of times a film has done that to you: I certainly felt inspired when Mel Gibson’s Wallace rode up and down the lines, crying ‘They may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!’

My point is that we need to rediscover the inspiration of heritage, and communicate it through interpretation.  Relevance may be a good rule when historical facts threaten to suffocate the last glimmer of meaning, but not even relevance can replace inspiration.  Let us have the courage to be emotional, and to look for the inspirational aspects of heritage.

This does not mean that we need to become historically inaccurate (and that’s where using Braveheart as the starting point for this article may not have been very helpful, what with it being probably one of the most historically inaccurate period films of all times).  But more often than not what is inspiring about a heritage story is quite obvious, and if not, then just ask the people whose heritage it is.  It is likely to be the very thing for which they cherish a site.  Inspiration also doesn’t necessarily come from a positive outcome – Culloden for example marked the end of the Gaelic way of life, but to many visitors of Scottish descent it is the site that symbolises that way of life and the site that provides a focal point for reaffirming that identity.  That is something I have always found inspiring.

In my opinion, we lose the inspiration of heritage when we become too obsessed with history.  As I have written elsewhere, history is not heritage.  There may be many historical facts about what is the heritage of some people, but are these really always relevant to why a site is considered heritage in the first place?  Culloden for example may well have marked the beginning of a period of British stability that allowed the country’s rise to world power, but does the site really hold heritage status in the hearts and minds of British people as a whole because of that?  I dare say no.  This doesn’t mean the National Trust for Scotland who is the guardian of Culloden Battlefield should not mention that fact.  But it does mean that they should have the courage to build on what is inspiring about the site.  I argue that that inspiration is why anyone cares about the site to begin with.  With the inspiration we eventually lose the heritage, I say.

Alas, I don’t know how successful I was in inspiring the visitor who had come to Culloden to stand where William Wallace had stood.  I do remember telling him that Culloden was the last time the clans fought as clans, and that it was the end of their culture – no matter what side they’d fought on.  I’d like to think that he found that as inspiring a story as that which Mel Gibson told, of a Wallace riding up and down the lines of men, ready to fight for Scotland’s freedom.

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