Interpreting a Sense of Place

About a year ago, I blogged about the sense of place I experienced when visiting a May festival in Germany.  At the time, I identified two ingredients to ‘a sense of place’: a ‘symbol’ and the ‘activity’ around it.  A few months later, I highlighted that in my opinion, an inclusive significance assessment will uncover the core of what makes a place distinctive, in other words, it will reveal the ‘sense of place’ we need to communicate.

I still uphold all of the above.  And yet as I am working to communicate my own (Welsh) site’s ‘sense of place’, I’ve thought some more about what makes ‘a sense of place’, and what this means for interpretation.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

– the place [1]

I know this sounds obvious, but hear me out.  With regard to nature interpretation (which is not my main focus) it has been noted that ‘less is more’.  If you’ve been reading this blog you will know that in my opinion, interpretation isn’t just about media, it is also about visitor management.  Where a site has a strong sense of place, the best interpretation guides visitors naturally to the best places, without disrupting their experience with media.  Interpretation here may be best compared to landscape architecture.

For me, the Highlands of Scotland are a great example of a place with natural ‘sense of place’.  When I visited there for the first time and without any prior knowledge, it was the (uninterpreted) wildness of the landscape, its unforgiving harshness and soul-aching beauty that struck me with its ‘sense of place’.  Through a flute-playing tour guide traditional Scottish music became a part of that sense of place, and it is interesting that Visit Scotland nowadays use these very same incredients in their adverts.

 

– the place [2]

It’s easy to see how a place of natural beauty can have a strong ‘sense of place’ but the same is actually true for buildings and built environments.  I’m not just talking about historic town centres such as that of Stein am Rhein.  I’m also talking about places like the Open Air Museum at Detmold in Northern Germany.  At least for someone from the South like me, the sense of place was created by the spaces in these relocated houses and villages.  This was enhanced by recognising similar architectural styles in the surrounding areas of today.  However, unlike with the natural places of strong sense of place, I think the man-made spaces want a little support from interpretation to highlight the human stories hidden underneath the architectural spaces.  At Detmold, for example, interpretation is practically non-existent, and people are conspicuously absent.  So while the fabric of the site has considerable sense of place, the fact that its raison d’etre – people and their lives – is not visible leaves the sense of place somewhat hollow.

 

– an emotion

Remember what I wrote about significance assessments helping you to reveal the core of a site?  Sometimes that core is encapsulated in an emotion, and the entire ‘sense of place’ flows from that emotion or human experience.  It’s similar to a novel: the novels we tend to remember the most are those with universal human emotions.  The example of a heritage site that derives its sense of place from such an emotion is Montgomery Place along the Hudson River in New York State.  I worked there as a tour guide, and on the proch of the house, facing the river Hudson, we told visitors of Janet Montgomery who fainted on that spot when after decades the body of her husband, General Richard Montgomery, was brought down the river from Canada to be reburied in New York.  Richard was the first general that fell during the American Revolution, and Janet, dedicated to his memory, had never remarried.  That human experience, told at the very spot where it happened, expressed everything the site was about: sacrifice, and commitment, and one woman’s strength.  Many times over it is what visitors commented on after the tour.  All we did in the interpretation was tell the story in three sentences – the rest was left to visitors’ imagination, and their experience of the ‘authentic’ site which otherwise would have been merely a pretty viewpoint.

 

– a story

We’ve now properly entered the human realm of ‘sense of place’, widening it out from an isolated emotion.  Here, sense of place comes entirely from a story.  A good example is the story of the Gainsboro sit-ins, the start of the sit-ins during the American Civil Rights Movement, where students demanded service for non-whites by sitting at lunch counters.  A section of the Gainsboro counter is now at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History, and regular participatory performances allow visitors to hear the story of the sit-ins and share in some of the experiences that the students at the time had.  For me, the ‘sense of place’ doesn’t come from the counter – it’s authenticity is a nice addition, but the real ‘sense of what this is about’ lies in the story of courageous young people who had a vision.  The performance does a great job at conveying that ‘sense of place’.

So in summary, as we move further away from the fabric of a place, interpretation becomes more important.  It may also be helpful to remind ourselves that the ‘place’ in ‘sense of place’ is literally about a distinctive experience whereever you happen to be and of whatever it is you’re interpreting.  Sometimes the location is pre-determined – as with the Highlands of Scotland – sometimes it isn’t – as with the museum.  Sometimes no interpretation is required, sometimes you do need interpretation to convey the ‘sense of place’.  At the end of the day, however, what it all comes down to is having a good understanding of why a place or topic you wish to interpret is significant.

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