According to my visitor interviews to date , the key benefits visitors get from visiting a heritage site are ‘being in the place where history happened’, ‘imagining what it was like’, and ‘[expressing] national or personal identity’.
This made me think of the title of David Lowenthal’s book: The Past is a Foreign Country . Ignoring Lowenthal’s own framing for the moment, I started to think about visitors’ visit as a journey to another place, not all that dissimilar to visiting another country. Then I began to wonder about how ‘foreign’ that place was, not the least because I recently re-read Interpretation for the 21st Century , in which the authors write that ‘interpretation is to give meaning to a “foreign” landscape or event from the past or present’ (p. 1).
How visitors described the benefits they get, and the way they ‘receive’ these, was very similar to what Paul Basu reports in Highland Homecomings . But while my interviewees are natives of the country in question, Basu’s ‘informants’ were ‘foreigners’, visiting Scotland on a pilgrimage to what they perceived to be their Scottish roots. On the face of it, to them Scotland was indeed a ‘foreign country’, in that most had never been before. And yet, they did not see themselves as ‘tourists’, the quintessential travellers to foreign places. No, they were on a deeply personal journey to a place that was a homeland, a spiritual and emotional marker of origin. They knew something about it already, and sometimes they knew a lot. They certainly had a deep connection with it before they ever set foot on Scottish soil.
In other words, Scotland wasn’t really a foreign country to them at all. And for the respondents in my study, the places they visit are of course not foreign either – they are located in the country they live in. But neither are the events that took place there foreign to them. They have an awareness of these events that is woven into the fabric of who they are. What they visit is somehow a part of themselves and thus, similarly to the roots ‘tourists’, a source of origin (which incidentally is exactly how one respondent described it to me). So when they say they want to imagine what it was like, it’s not that they don’t have an idea already: they do. It’s rather a case of being in the thrust of it, placing themselves at the heart of the goings-on and the physical space, in order to experience it and connect with it with all their senses, rather than just intellectually, and remotely-emotionally.
So what does that mean for interpretation? I’m not entirely sure yet. It certainly does suggest that heritage sites aren’t all that foreign to people. We may need to be careful about approaches that place too much emphasis on messages, organisational mission statements, or education. At the moment, I’m even wondering about approaches centred on meaning-making, collaboratively constructive or otherwise, and even more generally a view of interpretation as a communication process. I’m just not sure that either of these do justice to the strength of heritage connection that especially tourism studies show ‘visitors’ to have over and over again. In fact, in my interviews, visitors have made me think that interpretation is actually much more fundamentally about information than what we’ve allowed ourselves to acknowledge. At the same time, my professional practice has required of me much more community engagement and facilitation knowledge than knowledge of communication, as what was important wasn’t content but facilitation. So that’s the spot I find myself in at the moment: what does facilitiation around information mean in a context in which heritage is heritage because visitors have made it so?
 As part of my doctoral research in Germany and England.
 Swapped around a bit between Germany and England, but intriguingly, the top four benefits are the same in both countries.
 I think, but can’t remember, that Lowenthal got it from the first line of L.P.Hartley’s book The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’
 Beck, L. and Cable, T., 2002. Interpretation for the 21st Century. Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd edition. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing
 Basu, P., 2007. Highland Homecomings. Oxon: Routledge
4 thoughts on “Interpretation and Journeys Into the Past”
Might a better term be conversation? This values what the visitor brings and has to be open and dynamic to respond to it.
I agree, conversation reflects ‘interaction’, ‘give/take’, ‘responsive/open’ much better than communication does. And it might perfectly adequately capture the practical aspects of facilitation that I’m thinking about, especially in live interpretation. However, the reason I still prefer facilitation is because conversation suggests the interpreter has something to say – which I don’t, unless you consider providing information/orientation (in an entertaining etc.etc. way) as having ‘something to say’. My journey currently has me explore terms that make it very clear that the visitor’s heritage values come first. I’m not sure yet where this will lead me though.
I wonder if your key benefits hold true for heritage sites with working historic machinery – have you interviewed any visitors to such sites?
I haven’t, my study is at two battlefields. However, having worked in South Wales and dealt with industrial heritage there, anecdotally I would say that the emphasis is probably more on identity first. I imagine that ‘imagining what it is like’ is prominent at sites with working historic machinery as well.