Re-visiting Stonehenge, Or: Visitor Management Vs Experience

A few years ago, I visited Stonehenge for the first time. Like many others, I was shocked at the (then) lack of interpretation and facilities, and after circling the stones once (also an oddly disappointing experience), I set off with the dog to go on a hike through the landscape, totally unplanned, merely drifting along the paths that led, un-signposted, from the car park. I had just seen a documentary about Stonehenge in its wider setting, and remembering what I had heard, my walk became the experience. It was a physical encounter, and one slow enough to really get me thinking about the people that built Stonehenge, and why, and what this all meant to me. My fondest memory is following the avenue as it rises up from a dip, and seeing Stonehenge emerge in the distance. I loved it.

With this in mind, I was really curious to see how the new visitor centre improved matters when I visited there earlier this week. I didn’t want to go back to the stones [1], but I did want to see the new exhibition, and repeat my hike through the landscape. Unexpectedly, my visit made me think about visitor management, and the norms we’ve come to accept – possibly to the detriment of visitors’ own discovery of and encounter with a site.

The new development at Stonehenge is everything we have come to expect at a site of this status: there is the large car park, the landscaped walk to the centre, the centre itself with its large café, large shop, obvious toilets [2] and a proper exhibition (inside and outside). The architecture is modern, light, with lots of glass, wood and stone, but no other obvious reference to the site it serves, like many such centres are these days. Access to the stones is by timed ticket and a visitor shuttle bus that takes you there. If you wish, the signs explain, there is a mid-way drop off point so you can walk the rest of the way on your own [3].

If this had been my first visit, I probably would have thought it perfect. Since it wasn’t, I became aware of how externally structured the visit was: there were no options. If you wanted to see the stones, you had to go on the shuttle per your timed ticket, or (as it appeared) walk along the tarmacked road used by the shuttles (presumably to coincide with a timed arrival at the stones). There were no sign-posted paths from the car park into the landscape [4], and no other visit option was discussed [5]. I became so insecure about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do without following the prescribed visit, that in the end I didn’t even ask about walking the landscape.

Stonehenge is not the only site to have approached visitor management in this way. Brú na Bóinne in Ireland, for example, also works on timed tickets and a shuttle bus [6]. We can easily argue that conservation leaves no other choice, but I would challenge that in a context where the landscape is quite vast, and surely has a carrying capacity that is nowhere near being reached. If anything, I imagine it would ease pressure on the main monument itself, especially for repeat visits.

Such rigid visitor management also seems to go against every principle of self-selection that we’ve established in learning theory, psychology and interpretation. More philosophically, I think it raises questions also about controlling heritage, and the ways in which people are allowed to encounter it. I’m not suggesting that unlimited access to the inner circle of the stones should be granted [7]. However, as many ways of exploring and encountering Stonehenge as possible should be actively enabled and facilitated. Tickets for different types of visits, and way-marked paths into the landscape seem an easy and obvious solution. Just as in interpretation and exhibition design we (should) think about giving space to visitors’ own meanings and relationships to the heritage in question, and facilitate many different encounters, this should be a key consideration for wider site developments and visitor management – another argument why one should never be done in isolation from the other, and why different disciplines should work together for the benefit of sites and visitors.

In many ways the new visitor centre at Stonehenge is a marked improvement on what was there before [8], and I would not wish to detract from this. My observations seek to question some of the norms we’ve come to accept about managing visitors, and the ways in which we do this. Every choice is also an exclusion of something else, and we better make that exclusion for very good, thought-through reasons, and never lightly.

[1] Since my first visit, I’ve had the opportunity to go inside the circle of stones during an ICOMOS workshop as well – nothing can top that.

[2] My visit was just after Christmas and I still had to queue at the toilet, so I’m not sure how this was calculated to work during peak time.

[3] I did see people set off along the tarmacked road from the visitor centre, so I assume that’s the only suggested path. Certainly no others were signposted from the centre.

[4] This actually seems a really odd omission, because the exhibition itself makes much of the landscape and its importance.

[5] In fact, I had to ask the attendant in the exhibition if it was okay to visit the exhibition only, as all the signs merely talked about a timed visit to the stones.

[6] Of course, the timed ticket at Brú na Bóinne includes access to Newgrange’s chamber.

[7] English Heritage as managers of Stonehenge do make it possible to have that experience of the inner circle, and they are working with people to allow access during the solstices – this is all very good. Nevertheless, having been inside the circle, I do wonder whether anything else has any meaning at all. If this just absoluely isn’t possible (and we’ll have to believe the experts here) maybe a real alternative could be created. The 360 degree projections in the new exhibition are not it though.

[8] It’s easy to pick holes in any exhibition, so I’m not going to start this here. However, I was surprised to see two outdoor signs point away from the thing they were talking about – that’s such a basic mistake even in my eyes, and I do no longer subscribe to easy-to-follow guidelines (but this might be one that should be kept). And I would be really interested in hearing why someone felt the need to have a First World War exhibition at Stonehenge – it really added nothing to my understanding of the site. Incidentally, it also nonchalantly mentioned questions that would have been really interesting to explore: like how it could be that this monument was owned by a private landowner and then sold? To whom? What does this say about how the site was valued – or not – by the nation, given its contemproary ‘iconic’ status?

6 thoughts on “Re-visiting Stonehenge, Or: Visitor Management Vs Experience

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I visited Stonehenge once, circa 2006, so can use only that as my point of reference.

    You say that if this has been your first visit, you would have found it perfect. And this is probably the situation for the vast majority of visitors I suspect – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most. (My stereotypical caricature of the “typical” Stonehenge visitor is an international tourist, on a day-trip bus tour out of London that will possibly also “do” the city of Bath before getting everyone back to their hotels in time to see a West End show in the evening.) OK that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I suspect the vast majority of visitors are “tick-box tourists” on a tight schedule.

    That being the case, putting an emphasis on visitor management rather than visitor experience is probably justifiable. It may well be the case that such an approach may be the only viable option for sites that are almost always going to be at full capacity, especially when most visitors are really only looking for a “been there, done that” experience and that’s all they have time for. Whether that’s the type of heritage experience we should be encouraging is another discussion entirely . . .

    1. Thanks for your comment. What I found troubling in my visit was the very personal realisation that had I not visited Stonehenge before and explored the (very important) landscape of which the monument is part I would not have known a) how (to call it by a strong word) manipulated my visit was and b) how much I actually missed out on. As a visitor, I’m worried how often this is the case, ultimately rendering my willingness and interest in truly engaging with a site meaningless. As a professional, this makes me question the rationales we apply for structuring visits – through visitor management, but also through interpretation (to name but two important areas of heritage management). The concept you evoke of the ‘Experience seeker’, to use Falk’s terminology, is one for which we will certainly find evidence, but I have come to question whether it is conclusive, and whether it *should* guide our work to the point of actively excluding or suppressing other options. That is not to suggest that these types of visitors do not exist, or that we shouldn’t provide the type of ‘put through, tick box’ experience they (possibly) want. However, I believe it’s about facilitating various ways of encountering heritage, rather than encouraging only one. In this particular case, I would also argue that not encouraging visitors to explore Stonehenge through a walk through the landscape runs counter to both the emphasis in the exhibition and the (currently endorsed) view of the monument. And who knows? Maybe seeing different options, even the tick box tourists might realise that there is a different way of ‘ticking the Stonehenge box’ – word might spread.

      1. I was involved in the planning of changes at Stonehenge from 2001 to about 2006 and what strikes me is that I know that there was a great drive to move away from the tick box experience – at times that drive may have been too strong (I remember a plan to drop everyone at King Barrow Ridge and make them follow the Avenue that took no account of either mobility issues or the schedules of people who had many desires and short time). But I feel like in the final iteration it swung too far back the other way, so that the exploration of the landscape has become only the same possibility it always was, and, as Nicole says, the ‘experience seeker’ is the core of the presentation. When I first heard plans for the new centre the ‘land train’ was presented as an option for people with mobility impairment, not the basic route for most tourists

  2. Thanks for your interesting blog. We visited the New Visitor centre for the first time yesterday with our 8yo and 2 of his friends. Like you I was struck by how difficult it was to walk in the landscape, as I know that the landscape was a major focus of all plans for a new visitor centre. We took the halfway drop off option to avoid the tarmac road – but this wasn’t flagged or offered, we asked because we really wanted the walk (3 boys, 1.5 hr car journey, a walk very much required) And the walk was very much the highpoint, we loved it for the archaeology (my husband hadn’t seen the cursus before) and the boys had a wonderful time rescuing hobbits from orcs. The houses were another favourite for us especially since the lovely Neil Burridge was doing Bronze Casting.

    I have to admit that I find the stones over-represented, there are many I prefer, even from inside. The experience of the Stones hasn’t changed much since the old presentation, still loads of people walking in a circle, listening more than looking or talking to each other. I don’t know why the old fence line is still in place. I really liked looking at the remains of the old visitor centre site, but that’s my kink, I was mostly struck by how effectively most visitors seemed to ignore that eyesore, which is an indication of how little they are engaging with the landscape beyond the stones. We had to argue with the boys to get them to stay at the stones long enough to see the heelstone.

    I often think Stonehenge is simply overdetermined. It will never do what we want it to because we want it to be magic, and we are not a magic culture. Everyone wants it to be the best of whatever we are most concerned with (archaeology, landscape, interpretation, visitor management, spirituality, tourist experience etc.). A bit like the Mona Lisa.

    I think EH have done a good job within the parameters, but changing the public perception from the stones to the landscape will take an active change to experience, not just a passive presentation of the information.

    1. Thank you for your very interesting thoughts. I think you are quite right that with some sites they have acquired such a standing in popular imagination and representations that the experience of the sites themselves can oddly fall short. I remember coming up to the Grand Canyon and being utterly underwhelmed! Whereas a far smaller canyon we stumbled upon somewhere in the middle of nowhere just off the highway left that magical impression on me that I had expected from visiting the Grand Canyon.

      I agree that it will take more than passive presentation of information to get people to shift their focus from the stones to the landscape. It is really that active encouragement to have a different experience that I missed. I think it could re-inject that ‘magic’ (or whatever it is we are looking for), just as that bit of walk seems to have done for your son and his friends (rescuing hobbits from orcs sounds great!). This could also provide the physical, intellectual and emotional space for each of us to make of the site what we are most concerned with, as you say – to find our own personal ‘magic’ in our interaction with this place (I like this idea, magic, although I’m perhaps using it differently than you were). This may also be a persuasive argument against the rigid view that interpretation (themed, focused) must be provided on site. Maybe it will never be able to truly accommodate all interests, and it will thus always remain structured, manipulated, prescribed. One to think about further.

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