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Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

Karl May and his creation, the fictional Apache chieftain Winnetou, make a great example of heritage that is built on appropriated selections of the past, not necessarily one’s own and not necessarily historically accurate either, for a purpose that is far removed from the original source. It is an example of heritage as emotional, social and as a process, and it is also an example of heritage as dissonant.

 

If you weren’t raised in the German-speaking world, you won’t know Karl May or Winnetou, and to you it will likely seem clear-cut once I explain: a 19th-century chap from Saxony who’d never set foot on American soil invents a Native American world. It is a world with flat, stereotypical characters that nearly two centuries later are still cherished by Germans, historical inaccuracies and cultural stereotypes be damned. Evidently, this is cultural appropriation of the worst kind, and an insufferable white European simplification of history that – typical! – refuses to engage with the shameful reality of colonisation of the American continent.

 

And you wouldn’t be wrong, either. In July, I took my mother to the Karl-May-Festspiele, where they put on an elaborate open-air theatre adaptation of one of May’s stories. There, you have everything that would make any Native American’s blood boil: non-Native actors wearing black long-haired wigs to impersonate Native characters, with dubious representations of Native American spiritual traditions. It was bad, and it made me squirm.

 

That is, until Winnetou rode onto the stage, accompanied by the opening theme of the famous 1960s movie adaptations, which have been part of most Germans’ upbringing in one way or the other, and I found myself wiping away tears. You see, that is the thing about Karl May and Winnetou: it is not about Native American reality, past or present. It is about a German cultural phenomenon, a series of stories and also a series of films that have accompanied most Germans through their childhood.

 

I would suggest it is these memories of childhood that still make Karl May and Winnetou such a strong component of German popular culture. The stories’ universal motifs of adventure and friendship also play a role, no doubt, as does the exotic escapism they provide. However, I think for many adults it is less about the actual content of the stories than it is about that which they remind them of. It’s about what the stories and the Festpiele allow us to do: like my mother and I, I saw lots of families with and without children around, and they laughed and spent time together. Winnetou was a conduit for something else; a gathering, a bonding, a memory and an identity shared and reaffirmed.

 

It is not about Native American reality. This also became clear around Christmas last year, when one of the broadcasters showed their new adaptation of the Winnetou trilogy. The first clue was in the trailer: referencing not only the books, but also the 1960s films along with the title theme, it announced that, ‘Every generation has its Winnetou’ [1].  But, as the director pointed out, this Winnetou is ‘not a real Indian’ [2]. He is a ‘totally romanticised idea of being an Indian’. And that’s why he didn’t cast an indigenous actor, the director said when pressed on the matter, because ‘this somewhat fairy-tale character’ of Winnetou couldn’t be captured by a Native American.

 

I actually think he’s right. An indigenous actor would have forced a different gaze onto this story. He would have brought with him the demand and the necessity to make it realistic, and making it realistic would have meant to make it different. And with that difference it would have ceased to be Winnetou and part of German heritage. For Winnetou to stay Winnetou it needed not only an Albanian actor, as was the case this time [3], but also a return to the Croatian landscape of the previous films, standing in for the American Southwest. Winnetou, you see, also has a European dimension. In a bizarre way, this fits right in with Germany’s post-WWII identity.

 

As I said, it’s a German story. Karl May’s legend, of him having been in jail, of not having been to the US before writing the books, and of having lived in a bit of a dreamworld of his own making, is as much part of it as are Winnetou and all the other characters in May’s stories. All these ingredients come together to form a unique little package of German culture.

 

But.

 

The story’s origins are still a romanticisation, and thus a misrepresentation of another culture. Such a misrepresentation is not a harmless thing; it suppresses, denies, and colonises. If tomorrow it weren’t hundreds of thousands of Syrians coming to live in Germany, but Native Americans, and if they felt insulted, because this part of the story for them outweighs the ingredient that is Karl May, then what? Would I let go of it, of the great opportunity it offers to connect with my mother and my childhood? I honestly don’t know.

 

Notes

[1] I wonder whether these films will become the new cultural reference for a new generation. They didn’t do it for my mother and I.

[2] I’m using this term here, ‘Indian’, because in German ‘Indianer’ is the term they use. It sounds a bit rude to my ears, though.

[3] In the 60s, it was a French actor who played Winnetou. Oh, and the German was played by an American. I love it.

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Over recent months I’ve had numerous discussions about art and interpretation. Many people suggest that art doesn’t need interpretation. As someone who began her university career in the arts before entering the field of interpretation and heritage, I find this stance puzzling [1]. And the more I think about it, the more troubled I am by it, particularly in a museum context.

 

On the one hand, the issue certainly lies with people’s lack of knowledge of interpretation. Interpretation does not exist in Germany as the comprehensive discipline and practice it is in the English-speaking world [2]. And so when I talk about interpretation, the first thing people tend to respond to is the term itself. They think of interpretation in the classic sense, as a single viewpoint or understanding, or as a particular rendition of a creative work. This isn’t a new misunderstanding, of course. Even in English, the language of origin of the discipline of interpretation, the term has caused confusion and debate. Nevertheless, in English we’ve come to an agreement which, as the discipline gained traction, has widely become accepted by others also. The consensus is that interpretation in the museum and heritage contexts means ‘x’. Discussion over. Moving on.

 

I generally try to explain ‘x’ along the lines of ‘giving people a foundation to engage with an exhibition’. I explain that in interpretation, a basic principle is to carefully consider visitors and their needs, in other words, to have a visitor focus, or what in German is termed Besucherorientierung. And this is where people often start to argue.

 

Art, I am told, cannot be ‘about visitors’. To consider visitors within an exhibition, to provide an infrastructure that responds to their needs, is to stifle art. Interpretation, it has been suggested to me, would prevent exciting concepts, leading to art exhibitions that are commonplace and boring. And so interpretation is in fact an insult to visitors, for they do not need it and are visiting to appreciate art undisturbed by such banal intrusions.

 

Interpreters know of course that just the opposite is true. And the experiences with the success of interpretation by whatever term it goes in Germany, as well as the evidence of visitor books and visit numbers tell us another story also. This rejection of interpretation is therefore not based on the evidence. So the question begs what else might be going on here. We can’t know the underlying motivations without further research, so I’m focussing instead on the consequences of such attitudes and this desired act of not providing interpretation.

 

The first consequence is that we’re sending out a subtle message: if you don’t understand art without additional aids, then probably an art museum isn’t the right place for you. It also creates two groups: those who understand art (and therefore don’t need interpretation), and those who don’t. Considering that the claim is that interpretation somehow stifles and diminishes the quality of art, there is also a message of superiority here, of a higher level of understanding and sophistication.

 

Not providing interpretation, in other words, not making visible the underlying (intended) concepts of the artwork or its wider context also means that the breadth and depth of its critical examination is limited to a small number of people (supposedly) ‘in the know’. It’s the ‘Authorizing Discourse’ all over again, self-referential and self-affirming. Non-experts are unlikely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the art they see, either. If you don’t even know what an artwork is meant to address, you can neither form an opinion on the validity of the concept nor on the quality of the execution. Your views can be easily dismissed (because you clearly don’t understand) or they are castrated (because they remain superficial).

 

Superficiality of engagement is the real tragedy for me when it comes to the refusal of interpreting art. Art is not like heritage in that sense. Art can be so abstract, so conceptual that without further explanation people truly will not manage to fully engage and respond to art. To take their reactions of dispproval as real engagement is a betrayal of them. They haven’t engaged. They are frustrated. That is not the same.

 

The result of all of the above is ultimately exclusion. And in a museum context I cannot find any justification for this. No matter what contemporary definition of a museum you use, one of its core elements is always a variation on education and/or engagement. If museums do not make possible either, then they are not fulfilling one of their main purposes.

 

Professional interpretation doesn’t get in the way of art. It doesn’t force itself on visitors, nor does it provide a one-size-fits-all solution. What it does do is widen the reach of art. It provides an infrastructure that makes it possible for more people to engage – dare I say ‘meaningfully’ – with art. If that is not in the interest of art, then the problem in my view is not with interpretation.

 

 

Notes

[1] Here’s a not-so-well known fact about me: I studied Comparative Literature to BA-level (I switched after what was thens till the Intermediate Exam) before I completed a Masters of Art in Creative Arts, with a focus on Interdisciplinary Arts.

[2] Interpretation as a comprehensive discipline doesn’t exist in Germany, but that doesn’t mean its basic principles and indeed its practices are entirely unknown. Thankfully, there is a lot of overlap, the difference being, however, that what is covered by Interpretation is split into multiple disciplines in Germany. Which also leads to what I find is a discursive jungle. It makes me appreciate the formation that’s been developed in Interpretation, even if I wish much of it were moving on more quickly than it is.

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Recently, I strolled through my local woods and came across a carved Irminsul leaning against a tree some way back from the path. Intrigued, I made my way over, to find that the Irminsul had runes carved across the top. Now, my rune reading skills are a little rusty. But after a while I established that two people had been married here and this marker left as a witness.

 

I was absolutely thrilled at this point, and also a little disturbed. I was thrilled because this was such an unexpected display of heritage. It was the first of May, too, a day which in Germany is full of traditions, from Maypoles to dances. That had already made me think about intangible heritage, and what importance it has in creating not only a sense of identity but also a sense of place. Through the First of May events going on all around me, it really felt like being back in Germany proper. It was, and felt, entirely different from all the other places I had lived in.

 

The Irminsul of course has further interesting layers. I have come across this symbol before since returning to Germany. I found out at the time that it is meant to represent an actual column of sorts which in the 8th century AD stood in a town in North Rhine-Westphalia. What exactly it represented, or what purpose it served, cannot, as far as I understand, be established through any historical sources.

 

In other words, for the Irminsul to be used today means a reappropriation and reconstruction, and certainly to a degree a reinvention that fills in the blanks of a past symbol and associated meaning. And in this way, it illustrates a lot of what has been written about heritage as a selection and appropriation of the past for present-day needs. In the case of the Irminsul in the woods, for the couple that placed it there it clearly has a ritualistic meaning, perhaps a religious one, and perhaps one that connects them to the time and people of the historic column.

 

Here is where my discomfort had its root. For of course, we’re talking about a German context here. And the last time I came across this symbol was in a news item about an Irminsul that had been erected on top of a protected, natural stone formation called Externsteine on New Years Day this year. Unlike the Irminsul in the woods that I found, this one was painted in white, red and black, colours that were used by the German Reich (although in a different order). For this reason, but also because the symbol is used by a neo-nazi organisation in Germany, the Irminsul was seen as a right-wing symbol, and the Staatsschutz,  a special police force dealing with politically motivated crime, went to investigate.

 

On one hand, one might of course argue that any symbol can be misused by anone. After all, even the Arthurian legend, of generally harmless association in the UK, is shamelessly misused by clearly far-right groups, without the tale itself being tarnished. But the sensitivities and fears are strong in Germany when it comes to anything potentially far right. And so in the news article about the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine, management of the monument put right-wing, reactionary positions in one sentence with all and any interpretation of the site that is not fully scientifically proven, saying that they equally distanced themselves from both [1]. Thus the connection is made: the symbol is intrinsically suspicous, the right-wing interpretation the most likely.

 

The discursive process that begins its work, then, is a forced framing of a symbol that in itself really has no association whatsoever with right-wing views. Objectively speaking, one must acknowledge that with so little known about the historic Irminsul, one may disagree with the reappropriation, reproduction and reinvention of the symbol and its meanings by some folks, but one cannot reasonably assign to them a far-right attitude by default. And while the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine had other characteristics that do seem to make a far-right intention likely, never mind disrespecting a scheduled monument, the strength of this reframing applied to all uses of the symbol quickly becomes a form of censorship.

 

I was relieved when I realised the runes on the Irminsul I saw in the woods merely referred to a wedding celebration. I was relieved because actually, in the back of my mind I had applied that censure. And that makes me wonder about the impact of such ever-present pressure on this couple’s practice, assuming, as I have every reason to do, that they are not, in fact, right-wing radicals. It is an impact that also lacks objective justification in and of itself, just as the scientists accuse reconstructions and reappropriations of lacking a scientific basis. As I found out, it clearly puts groups in a position where they feel they must justify themselves (which is of course what many people constantly demand of Muslims today as well).

 

As a society, and definitely as heritage managers, we should be weary of allowing such processes to run their course without critical examination. A more distinguishing attitude is called for, and I cannot help but feel that this is a task for interpretation: to represent the diverse perspectives without pre-judgment, and to help people gain the skills to be critical for themselves, and to not jump to any conclusions.

 

 

Notes
[1] I could write here about the Authorized Heritage Discourse asserting itself in this attitude. But that’s not the point of this post.

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Since returning to my country of birth last year after nearly 20 years away, I have become acutely aware not only of how I have changed, but also how the country has changed. So now, in addition to catching up with the sites and topics that I am responsible for managing and interpreting, I am also catching up with the country’s thinking about its identity and its heritage while I was gone – both key factors in any work with heritage.

 

One development that I’ve stumbled across quite quickly has been the formulation of an official Erinnerungskultur, or ‘memory culture’, and so I’ve recently read a book about that [1]. The term was coined during the 1990s, the decade I left Germany. It does not, as you might think, denote a particularly thriving culture based on memories. Rather, it focuses on the memory of the Holocaust as the (negative) foundation myth of modern Germany. In this it is slightly different from the cosmopolitan memory of the Holocaust which is shared between ‘the heirs of the victims, the perpetrators and bystanders’ as a ‘memory of a shared past’ [2]. In the current German Erinnerungskultur, the engagement with the responsibility for the Holocaust is a normative framework for the present and a key factor in defining Germany.

 

The book I’ve read also examines how Erinnerungskultur is now being challenged due to other developments, such as Germany changing its status to a country of immigration. Critiques ask for example how migrants are expected to treat this Erinnerungskultur: Are they to buy into it and adopt the unique responsibility as perpetrators? But is this not assimilatory, requiring them to leave behind their own identity and heritage? And yet, if we don’t ask them to opt into ‘German responsibility’, are we then not suggesting that there is something ethnic about being German, i.e. the very thing that Erinnerungskultur wants to challenge?

 

Other critiques focus on the change of generations and globalisation.  Each time a new generation has come into adulthood, it has changed how Germany has related to the Holocaust: must it not change now, too, as younger Germans increasingly identify as Europeans and global citizens? And what place has a special German Erinnerungskultur  in a globally connected world where cultural identities blur? Does Germany not need a more positive foundation now of who it is and who it wants to be, not the least after decades of commitment to, and evidence of a strong German democracy?

 

The book also cites critiques of the taboos that Erinnerungskultur has created, a type of Political Correctness that deems alternative narratives morally questionable, an approach that some political theorists have suggested may engender the very (narrow-minded) nationalistic mindsets that something like Erinnerungskultur actually tries to dissuade.

 

As an interpreter and heritage researcher, all of this is of course immensely intriguing. This latter critique is interesting too, because it points to Erinnerungskultur as an authorizing discourse that judges and prunes other memories and the expression of other heritages, much like Laurajane Smith’s Authorized Heritage Discourse [3]. I’m wondering if this may also have something to do with the large number of museums founded and run by civic groups as Heimatmuseen, which may most appropriately be translated as ‘(local) heritage museums’. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an occasional rift between museums and clubs referencing ‘Heimat’ on one hand, and the professionals in the sector on the other, with a suspicion and rejection of the term ‘Heimat’ that Erinnerungskultur may be able to explain.

 

There is such depth to German heritage, and such complex connections to German identity across groups and generations, which makes interpreting German heritage really interesting. My only concern at the moment is that Erinnerungskultur as an official discourse is (still) so strong as to make it impossible to critically explore and represent all the diverse dimensions of Germans’ heritage values. I’ve never believed in interpretation being a mouthpiece for any singular view, no matter how morally justifiable. I’d rather not be forced to make it so now.

 

 

Notes

[1] Assmann, A., 2013. Das neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur. Eine Intervention. 2nd ed. (2016). München: C.H.Beck. All of what I’m writing about Erinnerungskultur in this post is based on this book.

[2] Levy, D. and Sznaider, N., 2005. ‘Memory Unbound. The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory.’ European Journal of Social Theory 5(1), pp.87-106, p.103.

[3] Smith, L., 2006. The Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

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I am currently coordinating two working groups, one on authenticity and one on inclusivity, for ICOMOS ICIP [1] and Interpret Europe [2]. To be truthful, I thought I would most enjoy the discussion on inclusivity. As it turns out, it is the conversations that we are having around the concept of authenticity that I personally find most stimulating.

 

It is not that we are discussing anything dramatically revoluntionary. The Nara Document on Authenticity of 1994 already acknowledged that authenticity is more than a material attribute to be determined by the relevant science. It highlighted that what matters are the ‘values attributed to the heritage’ (paragraph 9) and that this naturally leads to ‘judgments about values’ (paragraph 11). And while the text is still heavy on traditional terms such as ‘conservation’ and ‘protection’ – a red flag to all weary of the Authorized Heritage Discourse [3] – it does also make clear that the ‘judgments about values’ cannot be based on ‘fixed criteria’ but ‘must be considered and judged within the cultural contexts to which they belong’ (paragraph 11). This is really quite progressive, even if, let’s be honest, this is not how authenticity is generally treated and managed in everyday professional heritage practice [4].

 

What excites me about the conversation in the working group is that we are approaching authenticity from quite different perspectives, yet they coalesce around similar ideas. We have historians in the group, archaeologists, a philologist, people from heritage studies, and interpreters, but most discuss authenticity in terms of different aspects, or layers, or perceptions of authenticity. Thinking of authenticity as a multitude of possible components to me radically makes clear what was rather more moderately suggested in the Nara Document: that authenticity is not invested per se in the material, or fixed on any other level of traditional science. The working group also quickly agreed that authenticity is socially constructed, and as such has a strong experiential element which transcends the material, or, if you will, combines the tangible with the intangible into a new whole (the ‘authentic’?).  I find it fascinating that a conversation about authenticity led me to deconstruct experiences in a different way.

 

The parallels to contemporary thinking about what (who) makes heritage and about the need for interpretation to make visible more than just one perspective or theme are also really intriguing to me. In some ways this makes perfect sense of course, and almost seems self-evident now that I write this down. But I don’t think it is self-evident, at least I’m not conscious of having read anything that really mashes up the discourses of heritage and authenticity in this way. However, authenticity as it emerges in the conversations within the working group, is really a great indicator for heritage. It captures that essence of an experience of what we may call ‘truth’, albeit in an understanding of truth that is constructed, socially within a group, but also in an ‘experiential’ (see above) exchange with the tangible. The group also floated the notion of ‘authentic’ as meaning ‘trusted’, which opens up further dimensions beyond ‘truth’. Because it is constructed and experiential, however, this trust is not about age, purity or continuity as assessed by science; it is inherently social, with all its cultural and political complexities.

 

At the beginning of this process, I was fully prepared to challenge a material framing of authenticity, and I probably expected the discussion to centre on this. Now I feel truly inspired to explore authenticity far more widely and creatively in the context of heritage and heritage making, as well as interpretation. The group is still in full swing and I am personally at the very beginning of this journey into the exciting universe of authenticity. But this is something I’m really looking forward to now: it promises to fundamentally influence my thinking about interpretation, and I’m sure my own practice can only benefit [5].

 

 

Notes

[1] ICIP is short for the ‘International Scientific Committee for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites’. Sadly, the committee does not receive any financial support, which means the current website is hopelessly outdated and unhelpful. I therefore won’t even link you to it.

[2] I do so in my capacity as ICIP’s Vice President for Policy and following a survey about the ICOMOS Charter on Interpretation, which identified that authenticity and inclusivity were two concepts in need of furter explanation and guidance. The working groups are working on producing policy statements and guidance notes.

[3] Smith, L., 2006. The Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

[4] This may be so because people don’t know how to practically approach authenticity other than in a material way. That is a central aspect of what the working group is trying to establish and outline in the guidance notes.

[5] In closing, thanks are due to the members of the working group. I’m looking forward to our final document.

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It is great to see American museums, national heritage organisations and professional organisations  mount a resistance against the divisive and dangerous policies of the new Trump Administration. And it is great that museums and heritage professionals as well as institutions elsewhere discuss these same issues and show solidarity.

 

However, we must ensure that for those of us outside the United States this doesn’t become mere tokenism. Trump’s immigration ban mustn’t become another Lampedusa Cross. It is all too easy to make grand gestures across the ocean while ignoring what is happening in front of our own gates. And many museums are still ignoring what is happening in their own countries. The very public outcry against another country’s issues makes the silence against our own issues that much more damaging. We must take this opportunity not only to show solidarity, but to take a hard look at ourselves.

 

Take this example [1]: A briefing published after the EU referendum in June last year was the first time I am aware of that the British Museums Association (MA) even acknowledged the damaging tone of the debate. Their condemnation of it, if you can even call it that, was tame at best. They wrote, ‘we are concerned that the tone of the referendum debate has made many museum workers, volunteers and visitors from ethnic minorities and/or other European countries feel unwelcome in the UK. This is not the tone that we want to set for a diverse and vibrant culutral sector..’ (p.1). Then, on 1 February, a full seven months after the referendum, the MA’s website editor via Twitter invited EU nationals working in British museums and worried about Brexit to email him, giving the first official acknowledgement by the MA that Brexit concerns more than funding for museums [2].

 

Some of you may not be aware of the personal impact of the decision for Brexit on people in Britain who are from the EU. Have a read here and you will realise that it very much is similar to some of the stories that we have all heard about Trump’s immigration ban. And that is why in my view, the questions the MA should be asking are not,  ‘What can/should museums do re immigration ban? Time to take a stand?’ [the MA’s Director on Twitter, 29 January, see also note 3], but rather: Why hasn’t the MA issued a statement yet to condemn the British Government’s use of EU nationals as bargaining chips? Why did the MA not issue a statement during the divisive EU referendum debate to make clear it didn’t support its tone? Why was there no statement about the equally divisive policies in Britain that targeted Muslims and immigrants?

 

I am fully aware that ‘taking a stand’ isn’t as easy as it sounds for museums on their home turf. At the beginning of the year there was a brief moment when Germany seemed on the brink of making the utterly unacceptable term ‘Nafris’ commonplace, and a comment in our local newspaper was part of that. But I didn’t say a public word about it, and I didn’t insist that our museums communicate that labels of any kind had no place in our buildings and that we simply welcomed ‘people’ [4]. I was too worried, too insecure still in my role. But I am aware that in doing so, I failed. Simple as that.

 

My point is that we must keep looking critically at our actions at home. We cannot hide behind gestures that are aimed rather far away from our own spheres of influence. These actions do count, yes, for in a globalised and interconnected world what happens in one place has impact elsewhere, and what is seen elsewhere is seen in our neighbourhoods too. However, these actions become hypocrisy if they are not matched by our actions on our doorsteps.

 

I wonder what the MA will do with the feedback it now, finally, is soliciting from EU nationals in Britain. I live in anticipation of a strongly worded statement in their support. They deserve it.

 

Notes
[1] I don’t mean to keep targeting the UK Museums Association. It’s just that I’ve spent the better part of my professional career, and an important part of my personal life, in Britain. I’m beginning to slowly extract myself from there, but it’s a long process. And of course, I’m still affected by what happened in the lead up to and because of the referendum. If that hadn’t played out the way it was allowed to, I  may still be home in Britain. You have to forgive a woman for being bitter about that.

[2] In the December 2016 issue of the Museums Journal, an article on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland focuses yet again first on funding, and then cross-border tourism and collaboration with the Republic of Ireland. “Brexit could be a severe blow for arts in Northern Ireland.” P 12/13.

[3] It is possible that she aimed her question only at American museums. But I believe that what we ask of others, we must ask of ourselves as well.

[4] ‘Nafris’ was applied to young, aggressive men of North-African descent travelling in large groups. I do not question the necessity in situations like German New Years eve parties to use some kind of profiling based on empirical evidence – anything else would be stupid. And internally, when things must move quickly, label these groups by whatever name you think you must. But.do.not.use.it.in.public. Then it becomes a label and a stigma applied to all people who match one or more of those criteria: North-African, young, man. And that’s when it becomes inacceptable and divisive. I’m surprised we even had to have the discussion, brief as it may have been.

 

 

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A couple of weeks ago, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language) declared ‘post-factual’ as word of the year 2016. As we enter into 2017, the post-factual approach to reality and politics appears set to continue. So I want to consider what this might mean for heritage interpretation.

 

Accepted interpretive philosophy tells us that information is not interpretation [1]. Interpretation is more than a ‘statement of facts’ [2]: it is revelation [3]. These were corner stones of Tilden’s philosophy, and of course what he responded to in 1957 was a visitor environment dominated by subject specialists. So one can vividly imagine Tilden, the exasperated journalist, telling a detail-obsessed specialist that it isn’t enough to simply tell visitors facts. They need more.

 

However, I think interpretation has taken this principle, that information is not interpretation, and the associated denigration of a ‘statement of facts’ a step too far. In current interpretation philosophy, it is not information which is most important, but the purposeful selection of information to succesfully deliver a message. Information has been demoted to a mere ingredient in the realisation of interpretive aims.

 

Putting aside the fact that selection is also manipulation, and that evidence suggests that people do want more or less pure information, albeit skillfully delivered: the instrumentalisation and thus marginalisation of information in contemporary interpretive practice is particularly problematic when faced with the reality and threats of a post-factual world. While mis-information is blatantly used to make a point, the selection of information to make another point neither seems appropriate nor sufficient. We need more.

 

Of course, post-factual attitudes won’t be changed by simply giving more information. Post-factual doesn’t just mean ‘ignoring’ or ‘falsifying’ facts. It also means being motivated by feelings: feelings of helplessness, unrational fears, a hope that may have no other foundation than the sense that it simply can’t be worse than this. It is not enough to scorn people with post-factual tendencies. Like it or not, we need to take them seriously in order to have any hope of collectively working through these feelings and leaving them behind in favour of more factual and rational decision-making [4].

 

Many political commentators have observed how very close mainstream democratic parties have moved towards one another in their policies. But rather than enfold everyone in society, this has created a vacuum around its edges. People no longer feel that their views are represented, and they are turning to parties and organisations who do not share a commitment to pluralist, democratic debate. It’s not just that these ‘populists’ ignore or falsify facts. It’s that they encourage people to no longer engage with anything but their own (post-factual) views, a situation that endangers democracy at its very core. From populist echochambers all critical thinking is purged, and what you get is a post-factual world that takes over whole nations (like the UK, like the US).

 

So what should interpretation do?

 

With the framing of this post so far, I realise that I’m edging toward suggesting that interpretation become political. It’s not a term I’ve used before in relation to interpretation. And if I do use it now, it is in a complex, maybe even contradictory way. Because on one hand, when I say ‘political’ I mean it as a responsibility and response which we must openly acknowledge in light of the developments in the world around us. When I complained about the failure of British museums and the British Museums Association to respond to the vilification of (im)migrants especially during the Brexit campaign, I was really saying that they should make a political statement. To say that ‘this is not okay’ is a political statement. And if that statement comes from a museum, that still carries weight with a lot of people. It matters.

 

But on the other hand, when I say that interpretation should become political I mean it should play a role in our political systems of democracy. Democracy is characterised by a debate on views and opinions, with respect for others. If, in a post-factual world, people no longer engage with the views of others and/or attack them, then interpretation must step up. I come back to agonistic interpretation here: in a post-factual world we must do our best to make visible what people do not see: The differing views. Their validity. The humanity of the ‘other’. And I’m not just talking about making visible the ‘good’ views, the liberal, pluralist, democratic views. I mean a real engagement in all directions, taking seriously also those people that feel ‘the establishment’ has left them behind. Not to educate and change anyone. But to make the whole of this democratic world visible to each participant.

 

This is fundamentally about information. It is about actual facts, and information about how people feel. Not every place will be suited to this. But where we can, we must make a push for it. Because I don’t know about you, but from where I am standing this future looks really scary. We can’t rely on others to fix it while we gaze into the past. Right now is what counts.

 

 

Notes
[1] This is of course first expressed in Tilden’s second principle of interpretation (Tilden, F., 1957(1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. 3rd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.

[2] Tilden, p. 8.

[3] This is also part of Tilden’s second principle.

[4] I write ‘factual’ and ‘rational’ with some misgivings, and only in contrast to ‘post-factual’. Although I do firmly believe in the importance of basing decisions on facts, I also know that half the time facts do not lead you to near self-evident decisions, as if the world were black and white. Mostly what is required is a judgment call, and that is based on a tangled mix of values, beliefs and yes, emotions.

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Sometimes you read a book and think: this is so centrally relevant to what I have been thinking that I cannot believe I’ve missed this all this time. Chantal Mouffe’s book Agonistics. Thinking the World Politcally (London: Verso 2013) was such a book for me [1].

 

Antagonism

Mouffe in effect argues that negativity and opposing views ‘can never be overcome’ (p. 130). She asserts this in contrast to a liberal tradition, which believes in ‘universal consensus based on reason’ (p. 3). Rather than dismiss passion and conflict as ‘archaic’ (p. 4) and thus inferior, as liberalism does, Mouffe holds antagonism as ‘constitutive’ (p. 130) and central to democracy (e.g. p.7ff). Antagonism means, Mouffe writes, that there exist conflicts without rational solution and a pluralism in which not all views can finally be reconciled (p. 130).

 

Agonism

Enter ‘agonism’. This may be most simply understood as a healthy version of the potentially destructive antagonism. In agonism there are ‘adversaries’, not enemies as in antagonism. Adversaries share democratic principles but otherwise have conflicting views (p. 7). And that’s okay because everyone ultimately recognises the legitimacy of their opponent’s demands (p. 138) even if there can and will never be a full reconciliation. The point is, the concept of agonism embraces plurality. ‘Agonistic’ thus is the adjective that describes the confrontation between adversaries and their different views within a context of mutual respect and acceptance (p. 7).

 

Hegemony

Importantly (and now I’m beginning to inch my way towards interpretation), Mouffe argues that because the many differing views can never be reconciled, any order that emerges is always hegemonic: it is a matter of what has, for the time being, become the dominant view, and therefore any order is contestable, exclusive, and only one of many orders that are possible (p. 17).

 

The Hegemonic Struggle

Mouffe therefore talks about the ongoing hegemonic struggle (p. 14), which is the struggle to unsettle the existing hegemony and build another, and so forth. For this process to work peacefully it is important that structures and opportunities are created that allow the process to be ‘agonistic’, that is, opportunities that make sure that people see each other as adversaries, not enemies, and have a respectful debate about their differing views.

 

Agonistic public spaces

Mouffe contradicts the view that public spaces should be spaces where people arrive at a consensus (p. 92). Rather, Mouffe argues that public spaces should be agonistic: not only should they be spaces where conflicting views are voiced without seeking an (impossible) reconciliation (p. 92), but they should also make ‘visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate, in giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony’ (p. 93).

 

Agonistic Interpretation

And so I arrive at ‘agonistic interpretation’. I have for a while argued that interpretation is not about messages and objectives of whatever kind, which are achieved by, for example, persuasive communication. Rather, I have been suggesting that interpretation is about creating an infrastructure to allow people to continue to create heritage. And I have suggested that interpretation is fundamentally about representation. It should aim at making visible the wider representational dynamics in society and history [2]. I have often called this ‘telling all sides of a story’, which is why Mouffe’s description above about ‘agonistic public spaces’ just enthused me. Agonistic. A concept that recognises the hegemonic order of societies, the pluralism of reality, the impossibility of consensus, and the consequent suppressive nature of the liberal-rational claim [3]. Agonistic is the political, it is an action and a process that has real socio-political consequences. As Mouffe asserts, the disarticulation of a hegemony (read: make visible) is not the end goal, it must be followed by rearticulation (read: facilitate, enable creation): a new order (p. 74). And agonism is at the heart of making this possible.

 

Mouffe’s ideas in this book mirror much of Laurajane Smith’s critique of the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) in Uses of Heritage (London and New York: Routledge 2006), only related to society and politics, not heritage. Smith’s book was another of those books that made me think I had been living in a dark cave for years. But what my engagement with Smith’s ideas hadn’t given me was a proper handle on what to call this interpretation that isn’t communication, education, or thematic, or persuasive. Earlier in the year, at the Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen, I presented my take on interpretation as ‘Critical Heritage Interpretation’, and discursively it undoubtedly is.

 

But agonistic! I think I may have just found the label for the kind of interpretation I think we all should be doing.

 

 

Notes

[1] I owe huge thanks to Lena Johansson at the Swedish National Heritage Board, who recommended this book to me after a presentation I gave at this year’s Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen.

[2] For example here and here.

[3] Which is of course also at the root of much of contemporary interpretation philosophy that aims at ‘educating’ people toward certain desired goals: the suggestion is that through rational through, aided by good interpretation, people will arrive at the ‘right’ understanding, and the ‘right’ appreciation. But to elaborate this here would go too far.

 

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘culture’ on one hand, and ‘the cultural sector’ on the other. The two are not the same, although many in the cultural sector seem inclined to claim they are. I am going to call that hybris. And I wonder if such hybris will cause – and may already be causing – the cultural sector’s fall. I’m cynical about the cultural sector, yes, but I would nonetheless argue that such a fall would be detrimental to all of society. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

The cultural sector is not the whole of culture

In a rather scathing review [1] of the European Commission’s brainstorming session as part of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants Through Culture, this fellow participant wondered, “Why is it always culture that has to make excuses? Why, despite all examples of good practices, should culture still be substantiating to its funders its importance and its role in major issues, such as the issue of refugees and migrants?” To me, this is a prime example of ‘culture’ being conflated with ‘the cultural sector’. ‘Culture’ exists without funders. ‘Culture’ is you and I going about our business on a daily basis, relating to others, expressing ourselves, making sense of our world. ‘The cultural sector’, on the other hand, is primarily made up of professionals and their initiatives asking wider society for funding. It is structured and organised, and made up of institutions such as the museums the author of the review refers to.

 

Why the equation ‘cultural sector = culture’ is hybris

It seems obvious to me, but perhaps it needs stating that it is hybris for the cultural sector to claim sole ownership of ‘culture’. Not only that: it is also a questionable hegemonic attitude that dismisses the cultural practices of everyone else. We might want to explore whether this attitude isn’t also a reason for the diversity issues the sector continues to struggle with. And there is a democratic problem here too: noone has elected us ‘cultural professionals’ as the spokespeople or architects of culture. We may have been granted a greater voice and clout in the larger (social, political, economic) system we live in, but that is also the very reason for the following:

 

Yes, ‘the cultural sector’ is accountable to the rest of society

It is becoming tiresome to hear cultural professionals bemoan the fact that wider society is asking us to ‘prove’ our impact and worth [2]. After all, we’re taking their money, and in quite considerable sums, too. ‘All the examples of good practices’ that we heard at the brainstorming session had not in fact been evaluated, so we can hardly be surprised to be asked about the basis for the cultural sector’s claims, especially with such grave social challenges as those we currently face regards integration of large numbers of people. The fact that cultural impacts are hard to measure is not an excuse; it is a call to us ‘professionals’ to use our professional skills to assess what we are doing, and to do so critically. How else can we develop our practice? Furthermore, we claim not to act within the sanctuary of ivory towers, and yet this does make it seem a bit like we are. We’re basically asking funders – and society – to just accept that what we do is great and worthy of their money. However, not being untouchable and above everyone else also means answering to uncomfortable questions. That’s the reality of being on eye-level with others [3].

 

Or are we still living in ivory towers after all?

At the actual dialogue meeting with representatives from the European Commission in mid-September, a British colleague whose work and intellect I highly value expressed what I’ve heard from other cultural sector people in the UK: how shocked he and colleagues were by the Brexit vote, and how all of them had supported staying in the EU. And I felt and still feel for them, but I also pointed out during the debate [4] that not even the UK’s professional representative body for museums was making a positive case for staying in the EU, nor managed to speak up against the rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric of the debate. I cannot quite arrive at an explanation as to why the cultural sector in the UK now should be so shocked – unless I resort to the image of that ivory tower from where the cultural sector simply did not see what was going on elsewhere. As if the sector believed that people would naturally share its (unspoken) belief in the EU and follow its (invisible) lead. As if the debate was just too nasty for something as civilised as ‘the cultural sector’ to get down and dirty.

 

This hybris is dangerous

I won’t claim that this is objectively what happened in the UK, I’m merely stating my personal observations and thoughts. To me, they are a call to action: not only is it dangerously arrogant for ‘cultural professionals’ to see ourselves as above the rest of culture. It also undermines even the potential for the very impact we claim to have. The UK has shown us what happens if a country’s cultural sector remains so painfully quiet, and we need not wonder when funders ask whether we are indeed equipped to make a difference in the key issues that face our societies today. Now that I live in Germany, my greatest fear is to find myself, as a ‘cultural professional’, in a context where the AfD dictates what culture we may have, and our own europhobes further undermine the EU until we lose it altogether. While thinking we’re too obviously important to be ignored, the cultural sector may well find itself sleepwalking into oblivion, abandoning society to its fate [5].

 

 

Notes

[1] This is not the place to respond in full to the review. However, true to my new determination to speak up politically, I feel obliged to point out that the European Commission, by its very constitutional nature, cannot but act as a facilitator making suggestions to EU member states. It cannot, on its own, act. To criticise the Commission for pointing this out in an introductory session simply emphasises the need for this very introduction in the first place. To criticise the Commission for the treaty that limits its powers is to undermine the European Union in the ways we have seen during the EU referendum debate in the UK. Here, half-truths and flat out lies supported so-called arguments. If we as EU citizens want a stroger European Commission that can act on such initiatives as the Voices of Culture dialogues – initiatives which I find laudable! – then we must argue for it within our national borders. If we don’t like how the European Union acts, we must first take our national governments to task, for they make the EU, even more so than the European Parliament.

[2] It should also be noted that the European Commission, in the Voices of Culture process, specifically invited representatives of organisations with large networks, in other words, people within the organised cultural sector who are part of the ‘official’ system within which the EC acts.

[3] I ought to make it clear that I do think the cultural sector plays an important role, precisely because it is part of that official system and machinery in ways that regular ‘culture’ often is not. But that also means it plays by different rules than ‘culture’, including the rule of being accountable for the money and position we are given. It’s not a benign distinction we earn by our very existence; we earn it by our contribution and service to society. Mind, ‘culture’ would not die out if ‘the cultural sector’ didn’t exist. But it may be less visible, play less of a role at a higher, ‘official’ level, at least in the systems we live in today.

[4] For new readers of my blog I should point out that I lived through the whole sad EU referendum debate in the UK, and what an unpleasant experience it’s been.

[5] Although of course in Germany  institutions have in the past taken a stand very publicly. My task will be to do likewise.

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I recently heard a short description about an interpretive encounter that made me think again about the construction of heritage, the use of interpretation to represent that particular view of heritage, and the social structures that are expressed and recreated in doing so.

 

The anecdote concerned a guided tour with a school group [1]. Before I recount it as I was told it, I want to make it clear that the teller did not intend to give an in-depth account of the interpretation, and therefore I do not know the precise context in which the original story was narrated, or indeed how. The facts, however, are as follows: the guide told the school children that in the past, there existed the practice of tossing a biracial boy (in the retelling the term ‘mulatto’ was used) to danger, to see who in the attending group (I have strong reason to believe they were white men) could rescue him first. There was a black boy amid the school group who, upon hearing this, burst into tears. He then was told that this was ‘a long time ago’ and ‘obviously’ this ‘would not happen today’ (I think were the words used in the retelling).

 

Now, for a start, I’m simply going to assume that no guide would actually use the term ‘mulatto’ in public, in front of a school group, and in front of a black boy.

 

However, I can well imagine that if the guide did use the term, it was in the context of ‘the past’. For in the past, that’s what they would have called the child. And I can – sadly – imagine that somehow, that seemed to make it okay to use the term today in the retelling of the practice. As if the passing of time had purged the term of the disdain and discrimination it expressed back then: ‘mulatto’ comes from Spanish ‘young mule’. And clearly the people of the past had little more respect for the boy than they did for a mule as they endangered his life for their own amusement and sport [2].

 

Of course, that may have been the whole point of telling the story: to show up the racism of the past and analyse it unflinchingly so that we may understand the racism that is still happening today and build a better future for tomorrow. However, the fact that the guide apparently told the boy who cried that this happened a long time ago and obviously wouldn’t happen today, just doesn’t make me believe that that’s actually how – and why – the story was related. First of all, such racism obviously does happen today, so that clearly wasn’t part of the conversation. And while I understand why the boy would have cried no matter how the story was told, the fact that the other children as far as I know weren’t affected tells me that he was the only one who understood what was truly going on in this little ‘story’.

 

And what is this story? If it wasn’t shared to examine the inherent racism of 19th century Britain (as I believe the period concerned was) then why share it at all? I wondered: in what other context would anyone think it appropriate to tell this story? Again, I do not know the precise context of this piece of interpretation and how it came about. However, the fact that it was told in the first place and then subsequently rationalised as ‘a long time ago’, ‘obviously’ and ‘would not happen today’ suggests a view of an ultimately benevolent society that created something good from which we still benefit today [3]. This is the quintessentially sanitised past turned heritage. Only by willfully ignoring the darker aspects of history are we able to represent it as heritage that is universally claim worthy. By declaring that racist actions of the past ‘of course’ would no longer happen today, we deny the pain and hurt of that boy who cried upon hearing the story. We refuse to acknowledge that those very same structures of discrimination and disregard that are evident in the story are being recreated quite literally as we speak: we’re expecting that boy to share in our sense of benign heritage, when quite obviously all he heard was a shocking and frightening action that may have more resemblance to his everyday experience than we may be prepared to face.

 

Like me, your first reaction upon reading this example of interpretation may have been to pronounce that, ‘This is why you should have professional interpreters.’ And maybe we’re right, maybe the guide wasn’t a professioal – I don’t know. And yet, I think there is every chance that a professional interpreter by our standards may simply have chosen not to tell this story at all. But is this truly better? Is simply leaving out the nasty bits any more responsible or professional? Especially since a ‘professional’ very likely would have understood and represented the heritage overall in the same way: that this site was created by kind people for the benefit of others, and now we are benefitting from it too. The message: the site is worthy of our protection and all of us can (and should) enjoy it. And meanwhile, on our 21st century streets, the racism continues and black people die.

 

I am a firm believer in people choosing and creating their heritage, and this, I am well aware, sanctions the choice to ignore the racism and establish a rosy view of times (and practices) gone by. But I also believe that heritage can be exclusive and dissonant, with inherent representations and views that shape and influence our present and future, and not always in a constructive manner for all. I also believe that heritage is fluid – as we contest and debate it, it changes. And that is truly where I feel professionalism enters the equation. In professional interpretation we must be aware of these representational dynamics and do all we can to make them visible. This isn’t about preaching to a heritage community to change their views. It’s about opening doors for all to enter into heritage making in our shared world. I honestly believe that the particular site in the example can become great heritage for the young boy who was reduced to tears – but not on the basis on which we’re currently trying to goad him into buying into our story of kindly benefactors. Acknowledging and sharing that the past was wrong means we can reclaim the site on a different basis that works for all of us, not just those with the power to tell the story. Heritage, after all, is not set in stone.

 

Notes
[1] I want to point out here that the incident was shared with the express recognition that something had gone wrong and that advice should be sought on how to do things differently in the future. So that’s an all-round good thing.

[2] Just for the record, I make no distinction between the worth of the life of a mule and that of a human being. But I daresay those chaps did.

[3] I know I’m being vague here, but unfortunately any more details may identify the site in question, and that’s not the point of this post. It’s not a critique of a specific site, but an underlying approach that applies to many other sites also.

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