Approaching Interpretive Planning Agonistically

At work, we are getting ready for a major redevelopment of our local history museum. It is a good opportunity to think more about what an agonistic approach to interpretive planning might entail. Most of it is not revolutionary; in one way or another much of this has been or is being discussed if not in textbooks, then at least at current conferences. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to collate some important points, and highlight a few challenges along the way.

 

Check Your Ego At the Door

Local history museums often rank low in the museum hierarchy. I think there may be a trace of professional snobbism in this: anything that is local is considered small and less important; local collections are thought mostly repetitive and undistinguished; people are believed to be just so precious about their own little corner of the world… I think this (unconscious) ranking should make us cautious, and maybe even wary of our own attitudes. In fact, in agonistic interpretive planning, I believe it is vital to constantly – and critically – check our attitudes to the heritage and people in question. These attitudes will colour what we notice as potential content in the interpretive planning process, what we ultimately choose to represent, and how we will do so. In other words, our attitudes are a major factor in the interpretive planning process, and we need to be aware of them in order to work with them responsibly. I am not suggesting that we can shed them altogether, nor do I think that necessary. However, I do believe that we must check them as carefully as we would any source of information. We will have to decide on a case by case basis  what role they play; different scenarios are possible. We just can’t allow them to play that role in hiding, in an approximation of a natural law, and in exclusion of other views.

 

Capturing a Sense of Place

Local history museums are nothing if not about the local sense of place. But herein lies the first trap: is there really only one sense of place? Doing interpretive planning agonistically around sense of place would start with the premise that while there may indeed be a dominant sense of place, upheld by a dominant group of people, there are other versions too. These are equally important and relevant. As agonistic interpretive planners it is our task to uncover all these ‘senses’ of place and create an environment where people feel that their sense of place is valued and appreciated. Of course this must be followed up by representing these different ‘senses’ of place in the museum, and that may be the toughest task yet. It is far easier to present a closed narrative of what makes a place special – in the case of our city, we might think of the architecture, or a certain lifestyle shaped by its (former) majority population of civil servants. These two narratives are actually two sides of the same coin, but things will likely look very different once we start talking to the refugees that have come to town, or the students, or anyone else that doesn’t care about architecture or an upper middle class lifestyle. To bring these senses of place together under one roof, while still making them understandable for visitors – that’s the agonistic challenge of the task.

 

Brace for Impact

A hegemony of view is a hegemony for a reason. The majority of people support it, and therefore, insisting that other perspectives are represented in (agonistic) interpretation means to potentially swim against the tide. This is an obvious point, but it has further consequences that are less often considered than perhaps they should be. It is here that I suggest agonistic interpretation must leave the well-trodden path of community-majority democracy, and insist on representation for all. This also means that agonistic interpreters drop all pretense of neutrality. They decidedly fight a corner – inclusive representation – and they do so on the grounds of a very clear ethical-moral value – to give everyone a voice. In this standpoint is also encapsulated a whole series of beliefs about what a museum is, and what role it plays in society. Again, agonistic interpretation is far removed here from the serene image of the knowledge-expert, hovering in objective distance above the mess society makes. Agonistic interpretation is clear that it takes part, that it promotes inclusivity even where this is not universally welcomed. This can be messy: I am sure in our city, too, there will be some stories and perspectives that many, if not a majority would rather leave untold. Still, if museums are to be more than frozen temples to a hegemonic view, then we must enter the fray.

 

Honour the Heritage Story

As agonistic interpretive planners search out different perspectives, it is important to still keep in mind one important aspect: heritage is heritage because (some) people make it so. A fine line is drawn through this statement, and another difficult task hides behind it. We must recognise what is a relevant heritage perspective, and what is a mere historical fact [1]. I am always reminded here of the lesson I learnt as a frontline interpreter at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland: yes, historically speaking, the Jacobite defeat at Culloden began a still unbroken period of (Royal) stability for the United Kingdom. However, if supporters of the union and what is now the House of Windsor came to Culloden at all, they certainly never identified themselves as such to me. This suggests that any Unionist/Royalist attitude wasn’t a motivating factor in visiting Culloden, and that the site held no or little place in the respective heritage. I did meet many that came because they simply were battle enthusiasts. And I met many more who came to Culloden on a pilgrimage, because the battle to them marked the beginning of a personal story of Diaspora and cultural loss. This means that planning agonistically does not mean to gather and represent every utterance about a site. It means weighing up what is heritage, and what is history.

 

 

Notes

[1] As a reminder: heritage need not necessarily be built on historical accuracy. A historical fact therefore cannot be automatically equated with heritage.

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