The Road to Hell

Ferguson [1] has reminded me of a saying I learnt in the US: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. I think this applies to interpretation, and heritage management more generally, also. Our literature and our conferences are full of suggestions of interpreters’ inherent good will, and the positive outcome this is supposed to almost automatically engender [2]. We freely explore our sense of a mission, and it seems that with all this good, inspirational energy we surely can do no wrong [3].

I want to offer a challenge to this notion. I think what we as interpreters need is to recognize and acknowledge that we are firmly rooted in our own cultural and experiential horizons, and that they may directly contribute to perpetuating exclusion, especially because of the public-facing roles we occupy. This is not about structural exclusion within our institutions [4]. This is about looking at ourselves as individuals.

Which brings me to a German saying: ‘To grab one’s own nose’ [5], to start looking at one’s self before asking others to do the same. So this post is about me grabbing my own nose. I’d like to share a few personal experiences, and how what they show me about myself also show my limitations as an interpreter/heritage professional. I hope they’ll encourage you to do the same. They are limitations only while they go unexamined.

I am a part of this whether I want to or not

In the early 1990s, I went on my first ever trip to the US with a male, white friend. We were both students from a German liberal tradition. I arrived in the US effectively thinking that I would single-handedly change race discrimination. I was not going to be part of it. Then we came to St Louis, Missouri. At a bus stop, a young black man told my friend that he was a ‘f*ng white man’. I can’t remember the rest. I remember the man’s anger (although he was not overtly aggressive), I remember my friend’s set jaw (he said nothing), and I remember standing aside from them both, mortified. I also remember feeling an incredible sense of relief when we arrived downtown, where everything was back to how I expected it: white people, black people, and no one challenged our assumptions and intentions. The truth? I did not know how to respond to the man. This was so much bigger than I. I was shocked to be classed as ‘white’, when I had arrived determined not to use any such categories. I did not know why that had happened, or how to handle it. I did not understand what ‘white’ meant, just like I did not understand what ‘black’ meant in that man’s life experience. 20 years later, and Ferguson has given me a glimpse of what his life might have been like. And you know what? I’m still not sure how to respond. I am really uneasy about this whole terrible mess and injustice, it challenges everything about me and what I believe and where I fit in. The best I can hope for is to be an ally, and I need to be guided by others in that [6].

I only notice what is in my lifeworld

A couple of years ago, a colleague and I were driving along the road, when I noticed someone throw rubbish out of their car. I am from a country where you do not throw rubbish anywhere. Germans recycle religiously. I’m an environmentalist. I commented, outraged, how much I detested people throwing rubbish around like that. Says my colleague, quietly, “I think they threw it at the girl.” Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a black girl walking along whom I hadn’t even noticed. I felt awful. Why did my colleague notice what might actually have been going on, while I was completely and utterly on the wrong track? Who cares about the environmental issues with throwing rubbish around when in reality this might have been an act of racism? I felt that by not even noticing, I was somehow complicit. What is worse is that Ferguson has made me wonder whether I too am ‘colourblind’ [7], and whether this incident was the lamentable result of that attitude. This example is specific to someone’s colour of skin, but I do wonder what other aspects of people’s lives I don’t notice just because they are not part of how I normally perceive the world based on my own experience, and what I therefore pay attention to.

I have judgments coming out of my ears

A few months ago, I was zapping through the channels when I stumbled upon the World Music Awards. This guy had just come on, and I continued watching because I thought, how dare he? Arrive at a clearly high profile show like this and he’s drunk! People need to show more respect, and besides, getting drunk and then in public, that’s just disgusting. Drunkenness is one of the things that for personal reasons I have a really strong, emotional reaction to – except, I never realized just how much this reaction was also a condemnation of the other person who is completely unknown to me. I only continued watching the show because the man actually had a really great voice and I thought, wow, how does he manage that when he’s this drunk? Then I started listening to the lyrics and it dawned on me that probably, he wasn’t drunk at all. It was Stromae with ‘Formidable’, and when I investigated I found out that in a master stroke he’d filmed the video for the song equally pretending to stumble drunkenly through a city, releasing clips before the video officially came out [8]. And I felt so ashamed, not because I would have cared a dot about whether or not some famous person is drunk in public, but because watching the video, I couldn’t help but wonder what disgusted looks I give people, all the while feeling completely justified by the very real experiences of my own life. [9]

Here is my point with all of the above: I am a good person. I have good intentions. I am as convinced of the right of my opinions and actions as the next person. But despite all of that, I get it wrong. And that’s not because I’m thoughtless, or because somehow I haven’t discovered ‘focus groups’ or working with ‘target audiences’ yet (trust me, I spend much of my professional life with those). It’s because I am as culturally and socially programmed as everyone else. And that’s okay. But because of the job I have, I, and everyone else in the field, need to be more aware of our positioning. We need to grab our own noses, ask uncomfortable questions, face unhappy truths, and stop talking as if our profession somehow made us and our work inherently ‘good’ or ‘right’. How to deal with these challenges of our own personal horizons needs to become part of interpretation literature and training. We cannot continue to skirt around these ethical questions of how, at the moment, our interpretive practices and philosophy favour certain views and experiences, which mostly fit our own.  That, to me, is our main responsibility.

Notes

[1] In a recent blog post, Gretchen Jennings wrote, ‘The word “Ferguson” has come to stand not so much for a place or incident as for a cluster of events and ideas.  The shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black men by white policemen, the regularity and impunity with which this happens, and the light this sheds on race relations more broadly in the US—Ferguson has come to mean all of this.’

[2] Tilden takes apart one interpreters’ presentation, only to absolve him in the end because the interpreter ‘loved passionately’ what he was talking about. Tilden, F., 1957 (1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 39.

[3] Emma Waterton’s book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain (2010, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan) makes for a really good read in this context, talking about the specific topic of ‘social inclusion’.

[4] Which abounds, as discussions such as #museumsrespondtoferguson are beginning to show. One is linked to the other, structures are linked to the individuals holding power within them. What I hope this post does is encourage those of us in power to start thinking critically about how we might be part of the problem, without wanting to be.

[5] sich an der eigenen Nase fassen.

[6] Just to make one thing very, very clear: from my hardly-ever-challenged life experience point of view it seems to me that the man could have found a better way of expressing his anger and frustration. But I get why he couldn’t. I’ve had one English person tell me to go back to my own country and I have had to watch how I think about English people ever since. Imagine me getting this Every.Single.Day.Of.My.Life. As long as I keep my mouth shut, no one will ever know I’m not British. Now imagine the colour of my skin were responsible for the racism. I’d be the first to get really angry.

[7] I say this deliberately. It’s a white notion not to see colour, and it’s thanks to many bloggers since Ferguson that I’ve become aware of that. I don’t see colour, that’s true (I think). But that’s just to say that I don’t want to, I want to believe the world doesn’t need to be aware of the colour of people’s skin, more than the colour of their eyes. For the time being, sadly, I need to start seeing colour though. Because it’s the colour of our skin that in some places determines our experience and place in this world. Which is just awful.

[8] I don’t know, but I’d like to imagine the whole world going into a frenzy over how he’s exposed himself thus – apparently the images ‘went viral‘.

[9] On a different note, I wonder what interpretation could learn from this approach? How awesome would it be to grab visitors with such a narrative device long before they enter a museum, and take them on a journey almost of deception that turns into self-discovery? I keep talking about museums needing to hold up a mirror to society – can you imagine a concept like the one behind this music clip applied to a museum initiative about the negative ways in which immigration has been portrayed? Exposing the hypocrisy that this blogger experienced (see the end of the post)? Now that would truly change lives. Much more so than another exhibition of ancient objects.

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