Dirt and all? Or: That’s what good interpretation is for

As far as J. Geraint Jenkins is concerned, the Welsh efforts to present the nation’s industrial heritage (!) are mostly doomed.  The reason is that sites, and coalmines in particular, are just not grimy enough.  He also points out that much fabric has been lost, leaving the remaining structures without the all-important context.  In presenting these faint shadow images of what life in Wales was like is to fall prey to romanticism and nostalgia, two demons that Jenkins evokes continually in his book ‘Getting yesterday right.’

I cannot help but detect in his writing that on-going suggestion of ‘heritage’ as an institution and industry.  In between the lines images are conjured of thrifty economists concocting ‘the heritage product’ that they can ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’ desperate for the romance of the past.  I’m a heritage manager myself, and my day-to-day job could not be more different.

Certainly Jenkins is right that many a valley has tried and is still trying to create a tourism attraction with whatever industrial remains they have left (and who can blame them).  But the issue here does not lie with heritage value per se, but with the tourism industry that may too freely apply the term ‘heritage’ to anything that might prove a tourism asset.  Heritage isn’t a ‘product’, it is an act performed by people.  Tourism managers may call it heritage, but that doesn’t make it so.

The other criticism that Jenkins has is that any interest that is detached from the dirt and noise of the coalmines is romantic and nostalgic.  He doesn’t elaborate on where this view comes from.  However, it does seem to hark back to a historian’s disdain for heritage as something less than history.  Of course, as David Lowenthal has shown in his book ‘The Heritage Crusade’ history and heritage are actually two completely different things altogether.  Other writers have since established the view of heritage as a practice, and like Lowenthal they have highlighted that selection, reworking and reinvention of historical facts are all crucial and necessary aspects of this heritage practice.  And the practice itself is crucial for our identity and meaning-making.

In other words, where Jenkins would like to see a whole valley still stuffed with coalmine dust, and the terraced houses cowering underneath black slag heaps to present what life was really like, the people who once lived that life might actually be mightily glad to see it gone.  A pit wheel and the opportunity to go down Big Pit if they want to, without the dust and danger, may be all they need to remember the true heritage value of the industry: the sense of camaraderie and endurance.  That’s what the miner-guide at Big Pit talked about when I went there; he even explicitly said he would not want to go back to work in the mines except for the bond he had with his colleagues.  That is the heritage of the coalmining industry.  The rest is just historical fact.

But would Jenkins prefer that we tell people’s history and not their heritage?  It does seem so.  And he is absolutely right that in presenting a whole valley as it used to be visitors would get the whole picture as an immersive experience.  I only wonder how many of them would ever want to come back?  And what about the people who live here?  Are we going to force them to live amid the reminders of what was a very hard and difficult life?  Are we going to turn them into museum pieces as well?

In all fairness, Jenkins does acknowledge that this would not be feasible.  He suggests that probably a multi-media piece of interpretation would be better, and I agree.  Only to me, this solution isn’t a regrettable compromise.  It does what good interpretation and heritage management should always do: it enables people to act on and live their heritage values as symbolised in spaces, while it gives them room to build on it, and change it, and use the security of that heritage to move forward and better themselves.  The dust and the noise are not heritage, they are history.  And some history just doesn’t need to be preserved in every grimy detail.

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