Llancaiach Fawr: The pitfalls of first person interpretation

After a few weeks off for illness, today I took the opportunity and left the house for a visit to Llancaiach Fawr, a historic mansion in South Wales.  I’d heard much about the place: at a conference a few months ago it was hailed as a site exemplary of visitor-focused interpretation, and a colleague’s enthusiastic report about ‘the servants you will meet there’ also made me curious.

Now if you’ve been following my blog, you will know that I am not a supporter of first person interpretation.  Nevertheless, I believe in testing one’s opinions every now and again, and so I went to the place in cheerful expectation.

And I must say, it went off to an amusing start.  Upon arrival, my friend and I were issued with a letter of introduction to the owner of Llancaiach Fawr, Colonel Prichard.  The reason being, the reception lady explained, that ‘you will step back in time to 1645’, and the letter would make sure that the servants in the house would grant us entry.  This was certainly one of the more interesting admission tickets I’ve ever received.

Next we went into an exhibition that took us from modern times back to 1645.  I struggled with this concept, for my mind naturally wants to start at the chronological beginning and work my way back to my own present.  In fact, it sadly took my friend’s explanation that the reason for this layout was the premise of us ‘stepping back in time’ – evidence of a genuinely confusing set-up or merely an embarrassing slowness on my part to keep up?

Once I got the concept, I quite enjoyed the exhibition.  There are loads of opportunities to touch, explore and interact (without a computer in sight!), mixed in with more traditional panels and contemporary testimonials.  The latter are used sparingly but smartly, to enhance a point made in the panels in just the right mix of historical encounter and explanation.

The exhibition centres on the Civil War, and Charles I’s visit to Llancaiach Fawr during that time.  It does a good job in highlighting the differences in opinion between the Royalists supporting the King, and the Parliamentarians that opposed him.  Many little facts make the story tangibly human, such as the origin of the term ‘cavalier’ for a Royalist, and the lack of obvious distinction between the two camps.  A nice touch is the opportunity to proceed either through a door marked as ‘Royalist’ or one marked ‘Parliamentarian’.  As soon as you step through, you are immediately confronted with facts that link either camp to the other – thus showing that this, in the words of one contemporary, was truly ‘a war without enemy’.

After this section of the exhibition the tour of the house began, and with it my qualms about the interpretation.  Firstly, I go with other critics that are weary of interpretation and presentation that freezes a building at a particular point in time.  By focusing entirely on King Charles’ visit to Llancaiach Fawr and the year 1645, nothing else about the house’s history remains visible. The impression that I have after my visit is that the house ceased to be important after this date, and that it has no connection whatsoever to its modern social environment.  Maybe because all the sites I’ve worked at had a clear heritage value in the present, I find this difficult to believe.  At my current site, for example, one group of stakeholders recently expressed the worry that we would focus too much on the site’s distant past, thereby erasing the intervening years and the current importance of the site in its community connections.

The interpreters in the house did not help.  They truly did play-act as servants, and as such they were unavailable to answer questions about anything other than the year 1645 and before.  Not only that, but they also used a mock-old English language that I found difficult to understand.  Although English is not my first language, I think I have a fairly good grasp of it.  If I struggle to make sense of what the interpreters were telling me, I can only imagine the difficulty that non-English speakers will face!  This is creating an unnecessary barrier.

In fact, I have to say that all my reservations about first person interpretation were confirmed.  I felt utterly unable to ask any questions beyond the predetermined scope of the interpretation.  The interpreters set the parameters of what I was allowed to explore, and it felt rude to try to force them outside of the roles they so enthusiastically portrayed.  My own many questions remained unanswered because the interpreters did not enable me to even pose them.  That, in my mind, is quite an outrage – I’m afraid I cannot put it any more mildly.

To make matters worse, the interpreters in their role-playing quite rightly assumed that we as ‘contemporary’ visitors had the same historical knowledge as they (which in reality of course we didn’t have).  This meant that any questions we did dare ask, for example about the uses or decorations of rooms, were answered with mild condescension.  In their effort to maintain small talk, the interpreters also made reference to other things that happened at the time (1645), and they seemed to expect a response. At one point, to lighten the increasingly uncomfortable questioning from the interpreter, I said to my friend that next he’ll be called stupid – because that’s how I started to feel!  My friend himself reported a sense of anxiety about what the interpreter would say next.  Surely that is no way to increase anyone’s understanding of or connection to a site.

Don’t get me wrong – like other visitors we laughed heartily about the amusing experience of seeing someone pretend so decidedly that they are a person from 1645.  And yet, I wonder how many other visitors felt like we did, and how many of their questions remained unanswered.

What I think happens too often when site managers and interpreters decide to implement first person interpretation is that they believe this is the only way to interest visitors and ‘entertain’ them.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Good third person interpretation – costumed or not – will achieve far more: it will be interesting, entertaining, and most importantly, it will respond to visitors’ needs.  As seen above, first person interpretation by its very nature limits what visitors will be able to explore.  In contrast, third person interpretation enables interpreters to communicate an experience from a certain time period while still being flexible to connect to visitors’ current interests and horizons.  In fact, I often wonder how so many supporters of first person interpretation can, with conviction, cite Freeman Tilden’s principle of relating interpretation to visitors’ own lives, and then proceed to completely exclude visitors’ personal experiences from the interpretation they offer.

At Culloden Battlefield, I only ever wrote third person interpretation, and with regard to enjoyment these presentations and tours always achieved 95% or more ‘highly enjoyable’ scores from visitors.  They also managed to touch visitors emotionally and connect them to the experiences of the people at the time – I always cite the short guided tours of the battlefields that we did, not even wearing costumes.  And yet, visitors would visibly imagine the horrors of the battle, and their questions made it clear that they had connected to the suffering and the social changes that took place in the battle’s aftermath.

So overall, I really enjoyed the initial introduction to Llancaiach Fawr via the introduction letter, and I thought the exhibition was brilliant.  The experience of the house itself, however, was sadly disappointing – and this was entirely due to the limitations imposed by the first person interpretation.

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