Heritage and Public Benefit: What visitors have told me so far.

I’m three-thirds through my interviews with visitors at Battle Abbey [1], and this seemed a good time to stop for a moment and reflect.


Firstly, and as always, it is just humbling to talk to visitors. Every time I have the luxury of actually spending time with them, I am reminded that in the field of heritage, no amount of specialist knowledge can ever surmount the importance of people’s own connections with heritage. And don’t they know it: where heritage professionals fail, visitors’ judgment is swift and crushing.  They make it quite plain that they don’t need us, at least not beyond making sure they can come to the place when they want.  Where the work is good, like it seems to be at Battle Abbey, visitors make use of it, but never without suspending that awareness and expectation.


Visitors are really smart.  I can count on one hand the number of people out of the 100+ that I’ve interviewed so far [2] who have given me simple answers.  Most people have challenged my assumptions, provided insights I’d never even dreamt of, and engaged me in conversations that have left me feeling inspired and invigorated.


The primary purpose of these interviews is to establish whether the benefits that visitors gain from heritage are the same as those proposed in legislation (and to some degree literature).  And some are.  Historic interest is something that visitors cite quite often as a reason for visiting.  Upon further enquiry, this generally seems to split into a thirst for acquiring historical knowledge for its own sake and a desire to imagine the past [3].  The latter is also a benefit cited on its own: to see what it was like to live in past times, sometimes simply in order to better understand and compare it to the present, and sometimes as a sort of mediated time travel to experience a life that is desirable, perhaps as an adventure, perhaps as a missed destiny [4].


Imagining the past is also connected to another benefit cited on its own, which is the need to locate oneself in a long chain of events in the history of mankind, both nationally and internationally – a benefit emphasised in legislation.  Many have described this as providing a sense of anchor, of understanding how humankind have arrived at this particular place in time, and to feel prepared for the future (although the latter was rarely expressed without further requests for clarification).  In legislation, this is often related to larger concepts such as ‘peace’ and ‘mutual understanding’, which interestingly is a point that only one couple have made, but not with regard to visiting sites in England, but rather in relation to visiting sites abroad.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, many visitors also cited having been taught about the Battle of Hastings in school as their motivation for visiting.  When I prompted them to explain why it was important to come on site, rather than watch a documentary about the battle, for example, two things emerged.  The first will make every heritage educator’s heart sing: heritage sites, visitors explained, provided different and more interesting opportunities to learn and engage than those offered in classrooms and through books.  Being in the place itself was the second point that many emphasised, and some even raised this as a point in its own right.   This also relates back to imagining the past – people spoke about standing on the battlefield, imagining the battle unfold, soldiers dying.  This experience of being in the place itself, more than any other, seemed to make the event real to them, and to allow them to connect with it.


I will confess that I expected visitors to connect with the site on an identity-level, and a few did as far as national identity goes.  However, the importance of the site, and the need to come, really related mostly to having learnt about it at school – an interesting point to ponder when it comes to national narratives, and the (manipulative?) impact of school curricula [5].  Nevertheless, visitors’ attachment was very strong – when suggesting (hypothetically) that the site might be redeveloped for something else, everyone without exception expressed the need for preserving it.  Place, the physical connection to an event, was of the utmost importance.


The above are just some reflections on what visitors have told me so far, not an actual analysis.  For that, I will have to wait until the end.  But I do feel reassured on one thing: almost nobody left it at saying, ‘It’s just a good day out’ (although it is that too).  Phew.




[1] This is part of my PhD research into the public benefits of heritage, and whether or not we are delivering these through interpretation.

[2] I’m doing group interviews, so these were 100+ people in 34 groups.

[3] The latter point – imagining the past – is not mentioned in legislation, and mostly frowned upon as a reason by academic writers.

[4] Destiny might be an unexpected term here, but I’m reluctant to dismiss it as nostalgia.  Most people that have cited this ‘benefit’ have been absolutely clear about their awareness of and even deep respect for the hardships that people experienced in the past.  Nevertheless, this was a life with particular values and a clarity of fate that they felt would have suited them better than their current lives.

[5] My initial reaction to this was to reconsider my rejection of public (or national) narratives arbitrarily determined by states, as clearly the selection of topics for the school curriculum has a big impact.  However, having worked in Scotland and Wales I am aware that official narratives are rejected, and popular ones, seemingly suppressed by the state, survive and prove to be powerful heritage motivators.  It would be interesting to look into this in particular – if you know of any studies, do let me know.

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