It’s just a good day out, or: What if interpretation doesn’t matter?

I have a confession to make: as I prepared for my first weekend of field research last week, I was suddenly overcome by a terrible fear.  What if it turns out that interpretation has no real importance to visitors?  What if they don’t come because it’s heritage?

Quite a few of the staff involved at the sites I study [1] told me that visitors ‘just come for a good day out’.  At Kalkriese, the museums manager is convinced that no one visits for ‘public benefit’ reasons – they’re just here for ‘something to do’.  I’ve not asked her or any of the other staff yet why they think visitors come to heritage sites for fun.  I wonder if their statements have something to do with experience seeking in Falk’s sense [2]: it’s a well-known site, so people come to tick it off their list.  In other words, the attraction is not the heritage, but the prominence of the site. People don’t care greatly about the story or how it is told, they really just care about the facilities that let them have a good time.  As one of the front-of-house staff told me yesterday at 1066 Battle of Hastings: They always ask about toilets and the café. They’re not that interested in the history.

And this is when I worry.  If my field research really finds the above to be the case, without any as yet unrecognised heritage motivation, then the question begs why anyone should invest in something as expensive as heritage.  Why not shed the conservation costs for Battle Abbey by flattening the site and building a miniature Saxon-Norman Amusement Park on top?  If people really just come for ‘fun’, would they care?

Of course, the real attraction could be a connection to ‘place’.  Kalkriese is a good example of how important ‘place’ seems to be to people: experts and local groups have argued for years over whether or not this is really the site where the battle took place [3]. But then, place can also be created: again taking Kalkriese as an example, the original Hermann Monument has lost none of its attraction power just because the site of the battle was determined to have been quite a distance away. In other words, our Saxon-Norman Amusement Park on the site of the battlefield might serve the same purpose. I dare say it would bring in more money.

I would have a major crisis as an interpreter if I really found the above to be the case at these sites. I fundamentally disagree with a view of interpretation as ‘doing’ something to visitors: in my book, interpretation is NOT about telling visitors about why a site needs to be protected, invested in, conserved. I do NOT want to spend my expertise as an interpreter on manufacturing something for visitors that they’re really not already interested in. I actually think public money can be better spent.

What comforts me at this stage is my own experience.  Working with people directly at various sites I’ve always found that while yes, they care about facilities, they still come for a (heritage) reason.  Yes, they want to have a good day out – but they’ve chosen this, a heritage site, over another leisure activity precisely of the site’s heritage value to them.  They may not be able to articulate it very well, and the level of heritage attachment to the site may be superficial, but I’ve always found it to be there.  Even at our Roman Museum, one of the sites I work with now and which is the furthest removed in historical terms of any site I’ve ever worked at, our visitor surveys suggest that visitors come for the history.  I’ve not taken this response apart; it could be anything from general learning interest to a feeling that this ‘history’ is part of their wider identity as British or European people.  But it does convince me that even where visitors tell us they’re here ‘to have fun’ the reason is linked to the sites’ outstanding characteristic: heritage.

[1] My study sites are 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey in England and Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany
[2] Falk, J.H., 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
[3] Incidentally, someone is bringing the same challenge to the site of the Battle of Hastings now.  See here.


3 thoughts on “It’s just a good day out, or: What if interpretation doesn’t matter?

  1. I’ve been gripped by the same fears with respect to my data collection – I think it must be part of the process 🙂

    I’m not sure if you’ve encountered it, but you might find this paper “Learning for fun” by my supervisor, Jan Packer, of interest It talks about a similar phenomenon, albeit in museums rather than heritage sites. But I think the same general idea holds – people may not explicitly mention learning motivations (or connection to heritage) when they are asked “Why did you come here?”, but closer scrutiny shows that this is indeed part of the reason.

    As you have noted, visitors often do not articulate motivations or experiences in ways that we “experts” do – I’ve noticed the same thing in the way visitors describe exhibition environments, as opposed to designers or other “insiders” to the process. For instance, you will see many mentions in the literature of “Immersive” exhibition environments. However, when I included a question in my pilot survey about how “Immersive” visitors thought a particular space was, sufficient numbers of people didn’t know what I was getting at – “Immersive” was not a word they used or understood particularly well. I ended up dropping it from my survey.

    1. Hi Regan,
      It’s definitely part of the process, and luckily I have two great supervisors who keep reassuring me!
      I know what you mean about visitors not using the same language as us ‘experts’. And asking the right questions is key here – making sure we don’t try to force visitors into our own concepts and ways of seeing and describing. It’s especially an issue with questionnaires based on our own language – ‘immersive’ being a great example. I will be using open interviews first to establish criteria that visitors themselves identify, and I hope that the conversation format will allow me to navigate around issues of expert language or leading questions.

  2. Hi Nicole,
    I too have worried about this and like you have recognised that visitors do come of their own free will. Or at least most people in each group do. They could have gone to the football, they could have gone for a walk, they could have gone bowling, shopping or to a spa but they didn’t. They came to our sites because they believed that would be rewarding. This suggests for the people who visit at least heritage matters.

    Yes they ask for toilets. Maslow (albeit out of fashion) and good ol’ common sense suggest that may be the first question. It doesn’t mean it is the motivation for visiting, or will be a major concern in ten minutes time.

    I think your key line is ‘they may not be able to articulate it well’. I think the language of heritage is difficult and appears to be full of pitfalls. I suspect there is a British unease with appearing ‘clever’ and a linked tension about talking about art / culture etc. I think visitors are very aware they want ‘a good day out’ and ‘fun’ and ‘a nice time together’ or ‘a bit of peace and quiet’ or whatever. They are comfortable talking to us about that. What is more tricky is coming to understand why they choose to frame that visit within the heritage context.

    My guess is that a lot of people will talk about ‘something for the kids’, ‘nice cup of tea’, ‘interesting shop’, ‘easy access’ , ‘indoors’ ‘convenient’ and the like. But actually they could find all those things elsewhere. I am sure there is something else behind all that and I look forward to the results of your researches which will I hope shed light on it.

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