Diverse Heritage Values – Feedback from Interpret Europe’s First International Conference

Today I guided a workshop at the first international conference of Interpret Europe in Freiburg, Germany.  I built on a paper I presented last November at NAI’s National Workshop in Las Vegas.  I was really keen to explore further with other professionals what to do about diverse, and particularly conflicting heritage values. The conversation we had during the workshop emphasized and crystallized a few things for me, which I’d like to share here:


1) There are many different values (and they aren’t all about heritage)

Legislation has identified many different values for which sites are protected and managed.  These include archaeological, architectural and historical value, and more recently social or communal value have been added.  English Heritage summarize these under the heading, ‘heritage values’, but this is a terminology that I take exception to.  I think ‘heritage value’ should represent its own category, which focuses on the claim that the ‘heritage community’ in question makes on a site.  To date, and especially in recent years, the literature on heritage has more or less established a view of heritage as a process of identity and memory-making, and it is here that I would situate ‘heritage value’.


2) You can still be historically accurate while interpreting a heritage belief

A heritage belief is what I call a strong conviction in a heritage community that may not be wholly historically accurate.  Nevertheless, the belief forms a core part of the community’s identity or memory.

One participant in my workshop today raised the suggestion (as happened before) that to interpret the heritage belief means to base interpretation on misleading or inaccurate fact.  The first thing to realize about this is that any heritage belief is usually based on a historical fact.  The issue lies with the subsequent interpretation or weighting of that fact by the community in question.  It is that experience of the historical fact that is important.  If I take the example from my research at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, one important heritage belief is that Culloden marks the beginning of the Scottish diaspora.  This belief can be explained through the historical fact of the forced changes to the clan system, which arguably paved the way for the subsequent Highland Clearances.  In other words, in interpreting the heritage belief we can highlight the historical fact that consequently became an experience for the heritage community.  It is also worth remembering that history is not an objective science, nor will a seemingly unemotional recital of various historical facts capture people’s experience of these events.  Something becomes heritage because it acquired meaning in people’s experience of identity and in their memory.


3) You’ll know a heritage site when you see one

Academics and heritage professionals still argue passionately about what ‘heritage’ is.  Heritage communities themselves are much less self-conscious about the concept.  I’ve shared before my favourite anecdote from a public consultation, where a gentleman questioned whether the story to be told would be that of his history or his heritage.  Today I’ve heard a report of a visitor comment in Malta, where a woman stated, ‘The site tells the story of the past, but it doesn’t communicate Maltese identity.’  This is not to suggest that we should stop examining ‘heritage’ critically as a concept; rather, I would caution against professional stage fright.  It may be difficult to define heritage neatly, but we should not therefore pretend that ‘anything’ can be heritage, or that ‘anything’ can be turned into heritage. It will also not do to dismiss heritage, as has happened especially in the 1990s, as ‘nostalgia’ or ‘manipulation’, simply because it does not have a scientific evidence base.


4) There is such a thing as an interpreter’s professional ethics

I’ve argued before that I strongly believe stakeholders’ values should form the basis of all interpretation.  A delegate from Asia argued, however, that an interpreter did not have the right nor the freedom to question an organisation’s objective for a piece of interpretation.  In other words, the delegate felt it was the (client) organisation that predetermined what would be interpreted.

Two things are true about this assertion: Organisations do have a framework within which they act, and this will set some parameters for interpretation.  It is also true that sites and history can be manipulated in an attempt to turn them into heritage (whether this is authentic or sustainable is a different question).  However, as a true interpreter, I absolutely see it as our professional duty to point out to organisations that what they are asking us to do is not, in fact, interpretation, and certainly not good practice interpretation.  We may be able to use interpretive methods to achieve organisational goals, but in terms of true interpretation that aspires to a professional standard, stakeholders must be at the core of thematic planning.


5) Showing the darker side is a chance to facilitate understanding and reconciliation

After my workshop I spoke to an English colleague who has been working on a potato famine site in Ireland. They reported about the site manager’s qualms about interpreting the actions of the English at the time, which contributed to the disaster.  In the manager’s opinion, leaving this aspect of history out enabled English visitors to come to the site and have a positive experience.  However, in conversation it became apparent that English visitors did not actually walk away from the site with any understanding of what had happened.  It was also apparent that they did not have a prior connection with the site, good or bad.  We can take this to mean that they perceived the site as history, but not as a part of their heritage.  They were perfectly capable of confronting their nation’s historic behaviour because they did not personally identify with this.  Rather than offend them, such interpretation may in fact have the power to help people empathize and understand the source of contemporary feelings.

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