Interpretation: Technology of Power?

I get the impression that Bella Dicks wasn’t impressed by the work of the interpreters (and researchers) involved in the Rhondda Heritage Park.  In her book Heritage, Place and Community her criticism effectively boils down to one point: interpreters commodify local knowledge to present a novelty attraction to outside visitors while the needs of the stakeholder community are left unanswered.

Dicks introduces the term memorialism  to denote that local need for authentic details and the often contradictory expressions of a community’s social fabric.  Instead, locals said, what the interpretation at the Rhondda provides is an unnaturally clean version of what was a dirty mine that housed its workers in equally dirty dwellings [1].  To add insult to injury, so Dicks seems to feel, the park’s management and the consultants themselves behaved as if they alone, as professionals, were able to tell the story right.

Dicks presents two main issues when it comes to interpreters [2].  Firstly, in Dicks’ opinion they ‘create’ heritage as a specific way of presentation.  In other words, rather than respond to a sense of heritage held by stakeholders, interpreters take what they think will make a good story to ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’.  This leads into her second point: Dicks has found that interpreters treat stakeholders as a mere resource to be mined for suitable storylines.

If Dicks’ findings truly applied to all interpretive practice, this would be an alarming state indeed.  I don’t believe the situation is quite as dire though.  I have noticed, however, that very often interpretation literature and practitioners do seem to think of ‘visitors’ as ‘tourists’ only: people with little prior knowledge and certainly no ‘stake’ in what they see.  Such practice will run the danger of being at odds with the stakeholder community, perhaps so much so that they may even feel alienated and stop visiting altogether (or rather, stop using the site).

For me it comes down to the underlying concepts that we apply to our practice and which are reflected in the language that we use.  For example, a ‘visitor’, tourist or not, is arguably someone without a claim on the site.  They are invited and tolerated, and maybe even encouraged to interact, but at the end of their visit they are sent home, leaving managers and interpreters in sole charge.

A ‘stakeholder’, however, is someone who lays claim to a heritage value, be that spiritual, social, archaeological or any other value.  Their need for involvement may vary, but up to that point they feel they have as much right to ‘have their say’ as ‘the professionals’ [3]. Practically all the sites I’ve worked at as interpreter have had very passionate stakeholders, and since I was site-based, that meant that all my decisions as interpreter were confronted with immediate response from these same stakeholders.

Maybe that is why in my own practice I tend to think of everyone as a ‘stakeholder’.  After all, the traditional tourist also has a stake in the site, even if that stake is only to have a good time and to learn a little bit about local heritage while they’re at it.  It is a matter of establishing the views and needs of each stakeholder and making sure that these guide interpretation [4].  It is at this stage that I transition stakeholders into audiences in my mind which makes sure that I remember that stakeholders are not merely suppliers of content but also its users [5].

This is of course not what Bella Dicks’ found at Rhondda Heritage Park.  In fact, one criticism both from her and from locals was that the interpretive consultants came from the outside – and then left again, after having extracted local knowledge and white-washed it for easy consumption by other outsiders.

It is an irony, then, that Dicks found the site to have much weaker ‘tourist’ attraction power than originally hoped.  It seems that predominantly ‘visitors’ are from stakeholder communities, either locals or people who have associations with the mining industry.  Their responses to the site’s interpretation are conflicted.  They appreciate the fact that ‘at least’ the professional effort and marketing means the site is looked after and provides an opportunity to visit.  But the interpretation itself isn’t what influences the experience or the meaning they gain.  Rather, it appears, it is the ability to spin memories off the simplified representations of the industry and the miners’ experiences that is important to these stakeholder-visitors.

For Dicks this isn’t satisfying.  There is a strong criticism of interpretation throughout her book which ultimately leads her to speak of the ‘technology of power’ that is interpretation.  Interpretation in Dicks’ view distorts and mis-uses local memorialism to turn it into the commodity called a heritage attraction.  I don’t think that any interpreter sets out to do this, but if this is the result of some of our practice, then we really need to review our good intentions.

Notes

[1] The dust from the mines and steelworks in the south Wales Valleys apparently was everywhere, and there was little one could do to keep it at bay.

[2] Her case study is of Rhondda Heritage Park, but from it she makes quite sweeping generalisations.  Most of these are an echo of other literature that criticises ‘heritage’ as an ‘industry’ and a ‘product’, such as Robert Hewison’s 1987 book The Heritage Industry.  Britain in a climate of decline.  London: Methuen

[3] I’m not proposing that all sites should be volunteer run.  I’ve already pointed out the downfalls of such practice here.

[4] This is also about assessing significance and heritage value.  There will be a hierarchy.  For example, to the ‘public’ a site will be more important because of its social associations, even though architecturally, it is also a fine example of a rare Georgian building in an area.

[5] I can see that I will have to revisit this terminology debate at some point.  For the moment, however, I really am not comfortable with the concepts of either ‘recipient’ or ‘consumer’.  I prefer ‘user’ for the time being.

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