Interpreting for Peace: A few thoughts

What I love about conferences are the insights that grab you suddenly when you least expect it.  I had such a moment when I listened to Susan Cross’ report of working as an English consultant in Ireland, presented at the first international conference of Interpret Europe.  She spoke of working with a museum that dealt with the Irish potato famine.  Comments from Irish visitors had been that the museum ‘let the English off the hook’; many Irish, Sue told us, referred to the actions of the British Government at the time as ‘genocide’.

However, English tourists apparently make up 50% of all visitors to Ireland.  At first glance, it may therefore be understandable that the museum director said they didn’t want to make their English visitors feel ‘unwelcome’ by referring to the actions of the then-government, and the Irish perception of these.

But would they feel unwelcome? Or would they welcome the opportunity to hear how the Irish then and now perceive the actions of a British government of 100 years ago?

Susan asked the museum director, whose mentor she still is, whether their English visitors knew anything much about the Irish potato famine?  The answer was, no.  To me, this is a clear indication that contrary to the fears of the museum, English visitors have no prior connection to the famine, neither in terms of a history awareness or a sense of heritage.  In other words, theirs is a blank canvass.  They come to the site willing to engage with Irish history and heritage.  To my mind, not telling them about the Irish perception of the British government of the time is cheating them out of a crucial understanding of Irish history – and heritage.

It also means to withhold from them an understanding of what they, like Susan, may well experience during their visit.  Susan described several instances when her Irish colleagues would suddenly stop in mid-sentence and avoid her (English) eyes.  She would later learn that it was right at the point when the conversation normally would have turned to the actions of a British government at one point or another in Irish history.

On one hand, this reaction of the Irish – to resolutely avoid to say or bring up anything which in their estimation can only serve to make their English visitor feel uncomfortable – is what the Irish are all about: welcoming and hospitable to a fault.  However, I think in deciding not to interpret this aspect of their own heritage in order to supposedly spare their visitors’ feelings the museum is missing several points:

  1.  the English likely have never thought about their government’s involvement in the potato famine.  This is perhaps shocking, but it’s just not been part of the English curriculum.  So here is a chance to set the record straight.
  2.  The event is so far back in time that the English won’t feel offended, no matter what.
  3. Visitors are perfectly able to take a step back and listen with sympathy and a great willingness to understand.  It’s all a question of how you interpret what may be a difficult truth to hear.

The real crux of the matter for me is that this experience of the actions – or inactions – of the British government at the time of the potato famine – and during other events – are still part of the psyche of modern Ireland.  (English) visitors sense this.  They wonder what lies at the heart of Irish passion, and heritage.

And here is where a thought struck me: that in telling (English) visitors about those sore points where their own history touched Irish heritage, interpretation can actually support peace.  I used to think that this claim or demand placed on heritage by various international legislation – that heritage can and should support peace amongst peoples and mutual understanding – is lofty and utterly unachievable.  However, as I listened to Susan’s experiences in Ireland, and thought about them, I realised that here interpretation truly has the power to support visitors’ understanding of what is still the basis for the modern Irish experience.  In artificially taking this aspect of Irish heritage out of the museum, while visitors can still sense it around them elsewhere, interpretation misses an opportunity to create understanding.  Interpretation can be empathetic without being reproachful.  Where those concerned may find it difficult not to be overwhelmed by their own emotions, some of which may indeed be too powerful to stomach for those that may be considered ‘the perpetrators’, interpretation can well and truly give that space that is necessary to allow feelings to be expressed – and crucially, to be heard.

Imagine you visit Ireland as an English woman, and over and over you’re confronted with stalled conversations and awkward silences, and the occasional evidence of an underlying bitterness against your nationality.  I can imagine myself leaving the country in a huff, wondering what on earth is wrong with the Irish.  But that bit of interpretation at the end of the exhibition about the Irish potato famine could put it all in perspective.  I would understand.

2 thoughts on “Interpreting for Peace: A few thoughts

  1. Hi Nicole,
    You make some interesting and very valid points. I am with you about telling the full story as surely the point of remembering the past is to gain insight for the present and future. It’s not so much about the message as about the sensitivity with which it is told.

    However, I do wonder at your use of ‘English’ when I think you may mean ‘British’?

    1. Hi Morag

      I was wondering about that myself, but Susan kept saying ‘English’ which I understood to imply that the sentiment was directed at English, rather than generally British visitors. I’ve heard this before in relation to other Irish sites so it wouldn’t surprise me if this were the case. I shall investigate and report back.

      Thanks for the comment, and I hope all is well with you.


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