Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

A few days ago I had the chance to visit Titanic Belfast. It was a good opportunity to think about the theatricality in our presentations of heritage, or the production of an experience, especially after my last post and my post of a year ago about re-visiting Stonehenge.


Titanic Belfast was definitely a site where I expected the big production: impressive architecture, great facilities (shop, café, car park), and a full-on, high-spec exhibition. And it was all that. And it was satisfying for that reason, too, although there were definitely a few issues, or would have been, if the visit had been during the busy summer months [1].


I think the reason why a big production feels appropriate here is fundamentally about absence: there is little on-site, or at least not the one thing everyone probably craves to see, and that’s Titanic herself. Mind, there is nevertheless a very strong sense of place. The museum is right beside the slipway where Titanic was built, and the working harbour, including the company that built the ship, still envelops the site. That’s pretty exciting, but it’s made more exciting because of the production. For one, the architecture evokes the bow of the ship, apparently at the same size of the ship itself. Then there is the (very clever) view out onto the slipway from the building just at the right place in the exhibition where it talks about Titanic’s launch, and from a good height too (my colleague and I were wondering how the height compared to the ship’s height if it were in front of you). I can’t see how a stroll through the harbour could have engendered a similar encounter with it or with Titanic, and for that reason I would say that this production works; architecture that truly supports interpretation, visitor experience, and a sense of place.


And the same holds for many of the elements in the exhibition. There is an excellent three-sided video projection that takes you through Titanic; although it gave me motion-sickness, I thought this was a really good way of letting visitors experience the ship, something that most probably want. There are also recreations of cabins and of a part of the deck, all coming after well-designed interpretation telling you about Belfast’s industry and Titanic’s construction, and followed by a really tasteful and evocative presentation of the sinking, using morse code messages sent at the time. There definitely was no sensationalism here.


Although I didn’t think the exhibition made the most of what it could have been, it was staged in such a way that met my expectations for an experience to which I can’t see an alternative: a way to ‘touch’ the story of Titanic. I think in a case like this, where there isn’t substantial tangible connection with a story, a big production can be both justified and immensely helpful as infrastructure. The Titanic story is still huge; people are still fascinated by it and it still plays a role in popular culture. To those interested, Titanic Belfast probably offers a focus for living and breathing the story, to make it part of their own biographies [2]. And despite the big production, the creators of the museum really did manage to avoid being cheesy. I know that some people would still dismiss it as Disneyfication, and the ‘Have your picture taken’ at the start did feel a bit over-the-top [3]. I would be interested in studies that capture both what attracts people in general to the story of Titanic and why people come to this particular attraction, for I think that gives the best indication of whether the production on offer is ultimately appropriate. For me, I thought in this instance the theatricality and slick production worked [4]. It is undoubtedly a manufactured ‘heritage product’, but since Titanic has sunk and people still feel inspired by it, I really can’t bring myself to criticise it for that – not the least because there is a real effort to connect it to more than a sensationalist story, including connecting it with contemporary Belfast. This is part of a wider regeneration project, and from what it looks like, that part has worked too.



[1] It started with not being able to find the car park, which apparently is right underneath the building. That’s convenient and great, but seriously, there was two of us and we couldn’t see the signs for the car park. Talking about pre-visit stress. The layout of the exhibition with separate themed exhibition ‘rooms’ was also such that it created bottle necks even on what was a not very busy day. There were several instances where you couldn’t see the panels, and no-one dared to use the interactives, because there were just too many people clustered around and trying to get a glimpse. There was also a ride, which in my opinion added nothing to the experience, except the need to queue on a busy day. We walked right up, but if I had had to wait the 20 minutes that were indicated along the wall I would have been less than impressed.

[2] Just like visiting the locations where films were made becomes a part of our own biographies, an expression of our own identities in the things that interest us, who we are, what we identify with, and what inspires us.

[3] Although, had I been there with a friend, I would have cheerfully embraced it as fun – who says that history, or heritage, can’t be lighthearted?

[4] I write this especially in light of just having done an assessment of the interpretation of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, where I also had an expectation of a bit more presentation and production than what is there, similar perhaps to Stonehenge. And while I think there are good visitor management and access reasons to think about doing a bit more (if and where possible) at the WHS, I also really came to appreciate the simplicity of the visits. To lose that would be to lose the essence and experience of the site. A different infrastructure will be more important.

Read Full Post »

A couple of weeks back I visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Historic Art) in Vienna. Interpretation of art is not my specialism, and I’m always intrigued by what art museums do. You get anything from, well, nothing, to rather tediously specific texts that try to explain every dot of paint on the canvas. Sometimes I’m inspired, and rather more often, I want to pull my hair out.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum did both to me. The Egyptian Gallery was a blast just for the decorations. Firstly, it incorporated actual Egyptian columns into the architecture of the suite of rooms, which let you subtly appreciate what these beautiful things were actually meant to do. Secondly, on the walls were reproductions from wall paintings found in Egyptian tombs, which created a kind of artistic-mock authentic experience that I thought gave more depth to the objects [1].

The gallery with Greek busts was one of the best-lit galleries I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t tell you anything about who created the busts, where exactly they came from, or who they were of – which, in terms of interpretation’s usually proclaimed outcome of learning would suggest the interpretation was very poor indeed [2]. But the drama of the light was spectacular, and combined with the arrangement of the busts on high plinths I felt I was looking at them with much greater attention than anywhere else before.

And then there was room after room of objects in cases. I will say that the cases, which looked like they dated from the 19th century, when the museum was originally built, were actually rather pleasing. But as was wont to happen, I was quickly overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff there was to see. I suppose I craved some guidance, and found it, to some extent, in some interactives that allowed you to zoom into high resolution images of highlight objects. What was a bit frustrating was that once I’d done that, the interpretation didn’t tell me where to go to see the thing for myself.

And finally: the galleries of historic paintings. The display was of the cramped kind, the mother of all multi-hangs reaching all the way up to the already triple-height ceiling. Needless to say, in order to see the paintings on top you had to find just the right spot in the room, and then they were still too far removed to properly view them. The rooms had different interpretive approaches; in some there were railings in front of the walls, which had interpretive text in German and English: about the artist, the motif, and a bit of contextual background. Those were nice; I’m the kind of visitor who needs and likes a bit of info about the story that’s depicted in historic art. But in other rooms there literally was nothing but the dreaded (poshly) laminated sheets of photographs of each wall, that numbered the paintings and then gave you naught but the artist’s name, the title of the painting, and the date. What was even more frustrating was that you had to hunt for the right sheet – after all, there were four walls, four different sheets, lots of people, and lots of pockets where the sheets might be kept. Needless to say, I didn’t find the sheets I was after, nor could I be bothered to look extensively for them.

What was interesting was that I had similar experiences as what has emerged in audience research that for several months now, I’ve been involved in at one of the main art museums in the UK. Visitors criticized multi-hangs, they appeared to want introductory information, and they didn’t make the connection between art and culture – or the insights that art can give into culture. Knowing the art on display also made a difference to their experience, which holds a lot of clues about how art might be promoted, and displayed so visitors can become familiar with it.

At least, that’s what I thought when at Belvedere Palace I walked into a gallery of Gustav Klimt paintings. I’m not a Klimt expert, but I’ve also not lived under a rock: I knew these paintings, and I was excited to be able to properly, up close, look at them. This was the purist approach to a gallery hang, with lots of space between paintings, and I cherished it. And you know what? I bought tons of Klimt postcards just because of that positive experience – and nothing at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.


[1] Just for the record (again), I am not convinced we have sufficient justification to rob anyone’s grave of anything and then display it as art. But that’s just by the by.

[2] There were labels, some of which described the obvious: ‘Bust of a young man.’ And nothing else. Others did state who was depicted, where known – but nothing further.

Read Full Post »

I really took note of the design of many of the exhibitions I saw when I was recently in Poland [1]. There was change of pace, drama, art, and, from my German point of view, a startling lack of inhibition about using Nazi symbols to create experiences [2]. This was probably most evident at Schindler’s Factory [3].

The first section of the exhibition is all about Kraków in the months leading up to when war broke out. Through photographs and sound bites, you really get a sense of people enjoying themselves, living their lives, while very slowly fears begin to creep in about the possibility of war, and the German advance. Then the Nazis arrive, and the space becomes dark and narrow, and pierced by the staccato sounds of gunfire. I remember watching a video in this section of a woman talking about how they’d initially thought it was the French coming to protect them, until they saw the SS insignia, and ran. This use of personal testimony, together with the manipulation of space and design, really worked for me. I got that desire to flee too, and yet feeling there was nowhere to go.

That feeling became even more oppressive as next, you had to walk through a narrow corridor, weaving between enormous Nazi flags of the kind you never see ‘for real’, only as pictures. And on either side along the walls were the notices that the Nazis started to put up around Kraków . Their messages, and the sheer number of them, issued in short succession, created a real sense of how the city was taken over by a foreign, and hostile force. Then the exhibition opens up into a white space, the floor tiles also displaying swastikas, and the cases full of Nazi stuff. I honestly found it very difficult to be in that space, and yet I felt it was a brave, and very powerful choice to use the symbols (especially the flags). We can often be very subtle in museums, and this was not subtle. It was brutal. It was in your face. Exactly, I imagine, like the Nazis were at the time. You couldn’t get away from it.

But at the same time, it made me think about an older blog post I read not too long ago by Gretchen Jennings on empathy in the museum. Amid numerous, thoughtful observations, Gretchen also shared the comments made by her African-American colleagues about their own and their families’ unease about the display of Klan robes in museums. I wonder what the impact of the use of all these Nazi symbols might be on a Jewish visitor? How would they feel about this? The example of the Klan robe reveals that many African-Americans feel/felt the use of the robes to be ‘highly offensive and disturbing’. I imagine that it might be similar for Jewish visitors seeing Nazi symbols that are not even artifacts (the flags were replicas). Does that mean the flags shouldn’t have been used? I do hope the exhibition designers at Schindler’s Factory discussed this with Jewish groups. All I can say is that I don’t think I personally would have truly got a sense of what happened in Krakow as the Nazis took over without this. Those flags are still with me [4].

The exhibition then continued to tell the story of the Jewish Ghetto in Kraków (another dark, desperate space, that was also very hot), of the transports to the concentration camps (complete with recreated gravel floor and wire fence), and finally the liberation of Poland by the Soviet Army. There was a lot going on in this exhibition, and a part of me wondered whether this was ultimately all a bit over-engineered. Now, a couple of weeks later, my answer to that is, no. I think the exhibition was brilliant [5]. It really left me thinking, and I’m still thinking about it now. It moved me emotionally, it got me into a historic space, and it created an experience that it would have been difficult for me to have otherwise. This, finally, was also because of the intelligent and meaningful use of art:

The best, and absolutely most impressive aspect of the exhibition at Schindler’s Factory was the second to last room: a white, circular room, with black words in different languages. When I came through the first time, I only read the words written on the wall, all languages mixed: of people sharing the stories of how they’d been helped, by others, by soldiers. I felt uplifted. Comforted. When I came through the second time, I read the words on the rotating cylinders, each in one language only, situated in niches around the room. But these, I realized, weren’t stories of people helping. These were the confessions of people who had refused to help, who had looked away, out of fear, or out of avoidance. This time I did not come out of the room feeling comforted. I kept asking myself whether I really would have helped if I had I been in their shoes.


[1] At the truly excellent 2015 conference organized by Interpret Europe on ‘Sensitive heritage – sensitive interpretation’. This is still a fairly new organisation for professional interpreters, and that means there are lots of good discussions happening that people can be part of and shape: I really encourage you to join! I’ve let other memberships lapse, but not this one.

[2] A colleague wondered whether showing the Swastika is also forbidden in the context of German museums – I don’t know – do you?

[3] Where the exhibition isn’t really about the story of the factory and ‘Schindler’s Jews’, but more about Jewish life in general in Kraków . Oddly enough, while I had expected to find out more about the factory and that particular story, as soon as I entered the exhibition I hardly gave that another thought. The staff working there did share with us, however, that some visitors are infuriated about the lack of this story. It is there, but only presented very briefly. And never mind connecting to the building and the site itself – it’s just a (really well used) building.

[4] I find myself struggling for words here. The flags made me feel small, they made me feel scared, they made me feel ashamed, and they made me feel like this was the only way I could ever ‘share’ in the experience that the Polish people might have had. It’s a very complex feeling that I believe centres on the fact that intellectually, I have been taught much about the war, and Germany’s role in it, and I am familiar with Nazi symbolism and propaganda, and how to deconstruct it. But you still never quite experience it from the point of view of those that lived the experience of Nazi German invasion. I saw, and experienced those symbols differently this time. It was less about ‘what has my country done’, and more about, ‘this is what it felt like to those affected’. Therein lay the power for me, and hopefully for others that perhaps traditionally may be viewed as not a natural target of the Nazis (like me).

[5] And this is due to the design, and the use of replicas and original artifacts. There was very little of what we might think of traditionally as ‘interpretation’. There was no other voice (that I noticed) than that of the people who lived, and experienced this horror at the time, and of the Nazis, through their propaganda and notices.

Read Full Post »

A couple of weeks ago, the German Museums Association (Deutscher Museumsbund) published recommendations for museums on how to include and represent migration and cultural diversity in their work.

I was really impressed by two key concepts that frame the entire document:

Migration is the Norm

This is a fact that is evident when we burst open a fear-infused discourse about migration. The recommendations make brief reference to the history of migration through the ages, and conclude early on: ‘Migration is thus the norm in history’ [1]. There appears to be an acute awareness and acknowledgement of fears of migration too. The document takes a clear position: ‘To recognize this diversity as the norm is a task that we must perform daily and long-term in our society.’ [2]

The recommendations also highlight that there are various forms of migration: migration can be within one country, it can be temporary or long-term, it can be motivated by the economy or a desire to experience new cultures, it can be voluntary or forced. In other words, no two migrants are the same, and that’s not just because they may come from two different countries of origin.

Migrants and Non-Migrants are Alike

The recommendations place centre-stage an audience segmentation model that I had never heard of, but which seems eminently adopt-worthy after an admittedly casual read: the Sinus-Milieumodel (or Model of Milieus) [3]. The model identifies milieus on the basis of similarities in values, lifestyle/taste, and socioeconomic circumstances. According to the Museumsbund document, subsequent studies have shown that milieus are not determined by people’s migrant status. Rather, they cut across populations (i.e. migrant and non-migrant) which seems self-evident, but now we also (apparently) have empirical proof. And thus the recommendations state, ‘”People with migration background” do not exist as a homogenous target audience…They are represented in all social milieus.’ [4] They further make it clear that any orientation toward a target audience should therefore not be based on migration (p. 23).

I have previously questioned the usefulness of the concept of target audiences. It’s not something that I find discussed often in the UK, so this unambiguous statement regarding migrant groups (part of the British BAME concept [5]) is very refreshing.

The remainder of the document contains practical suggestions on how to start introducing migration as a ‘norm’ into a museum’s work. Some will be familiar to those of us in the UK and the US, around participation and community engagement. And where there might be the danger of slipping into tokenism, the document includes further really good points: For example, when reviewing collections, ‘collecting practices should be reconstructed and deconstructed’ [6], in other words, not just inviting source communities to comment (although this is recommended too), but to contextualize how collections came about in the first place, and what this says about historical (West/Not-West) world views – something that isn’t as often talked about over here in the UK. The aim is to cease the ‘dichotomy of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’’ (p. 14), which is a really important point to highlight.

From a British/US perspective, some underlying structures may seem slightly odd in the document [7] but overall, this is a really helpful guide that gets museums thinking about migration and how to reflect it in their practices. Now that I’ve come to identify myself as a migrant in Britain, I really appreciate the integrative approach this document reflects. This is not about ‘targeting the other’: the document makes clear that integration is a reciprocal process [8]. And that’s so true.


[1] Migration ist also der Normalfall in der Geschichte. (p.8)

[2] ‘Diese Diversitaet als Normalitaet zu erkennen, ist eine Aufgabe, die sich im gesellschaftlichen Miteinander taeglich und langfristig stellt.’ (p. 7)

[3] You can read the study that first introduced this model here (in German). It was developed through a narrative enquiry/hermeneutic exploration of lifeworlds methodology, so there were no preemptive categorizations that jumped out at me – but again, I’ve not thoroughly analysed it yet.

[4] ‘”Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” gibt es nicht al seine homogene Zielgruppe… Sie sind in allen sozialen Milieus vertreten. (p. 11)

[5] For non-British readers, the acronym stands for Black Asian Minority Ethnic, and generally covers colour, nationality, and ethnic/national origin. In theory, it would be split before it is used to define a target audience, but in practice it generally serves as a catch-all for a variety of museum offers. The issue is obvious: the concept and general application clouds the diversity of the groups clustered under the term, and thus hampers the way we discuss each group, their needs/interests/barriers, and the offer we put together to engage (with) them.

[6] ‘…die urspruenglichen Sammlungskontexte zu rekonstruieren und zu dekonstruieren…’ (p.13)

[7] For example, it too suffers – in my opinion – from the lack of the integrative power of interpretation as the discipline of (loosely defined) facilitating engagement, be that through exhibitions or public programmes. The continued split between ‘exhibitions’ (Ausstellungen) and ‘presentation’ (Vermittlung) is hindering, but at least there are signs that it’s starting to get addressed.

[8] p. 7. I’ve been thinking about how integration goes both ways quite a bit over recent months. I used to feel firmly integrated into British society and culture. This was my home, I knew more about Britain than I knew about my native Germany (which I left nearly 20 years ago). Since I’ve been cast as ‘the migrant’ in British media and public discourse, with comments permeating even into my personal and professional life, I can honestly say that I no longer feel integrated. I’m daily retreating further into my European-ness (first) and German-ness (second), and while other migrants may feel inclined to fight this negative discourse, I find myself wondering more and more whether I have a future here. That’s not just a sad thing to have happened to me as a person, but also, in my opinion, to Britain.

Read Full Post »

A few months ago, I came across the Secret Annex Online on the Anne Frank House website. It has all the ingredients of great interpretation: it tells a story using different media, there is a hierarchy of information that you can access depending on your interests, and you can quite literally choose where to go within the annex. It’s not lifeless either; there is an audio track of background voices, which makes it feel as if you had quite literally stepped into the house, and the audio narration and video options liven up the content further. Most importantly, however, it feels as if someone has really thought this through. The different media hold together, each exploring an aspect of the story according to its own strengths. The interpretation is not simply delivered digitally, it is digital, from the ground up. It gives a real sense of place for those that are not onsite. For some, this may be their only opportunity to explore Anne Frank’s hiding place, and it does the job really well. For others like me, it may make them doubly determined to see the place first hand.

I’d like to see more online interpretation like this: stuff that makes the best use of the medium’s strength and that responds to what off-site visitors may want and need, either before or after a visit, or indeed instead of a visit altogether. Too many projects seem to view ‘online’ as merely a repository of digitised collections, or whole collections management databases. These have a place, of course; participants in recent focus groups we did asked for just that. But these were the (art, in this case) experts. Other people have different needs. And for them, just as with other interpretive audiences, it is not enough to simply provide the raw stuff, the bare-bones catalogue information.

Sometimes, even where interpretation is the intended goal, the online medium seems to get treated as just another 2D platform. The impression is of reproduced panels or worse, of guidebook text that is split into clickable chapters, more or less graphically worked up into separate webpages. Whatever may be the original thematic link immediately disintegrates into separated fragments. The use of images as links becomes almost cliché, and just as meaningless.

Hyperlinks, intended no doubt to take the online visitor from one thematically linked piece to the next, also often do little more than string separate interventions together. Rather than weave a story they are like bubbles floating through the ether: the sum is definitely not greater than its parts.

I am no expert in online interpretation. But it seems to me that just as with any other form of interpretation, the key is to understand the medium and its strengths, and be clear how these can support what it is that you’re trying to facilitate. Online offers a wealth of unique communication opportunities that go far beyond hyperlinked text or the provision of digital images, video, or audio. It’s the intelligent interplay of these that make online exciting. And then, of course, there is the unique context of the visitor. Surveys that I’ve done in my work and my own research bear out other data, for example from the British Household Surveys, that suggests that people do a lot of research online. They appreciate stories that put something into context, while offering access to material that they wouldn’t otherwise see, and which they would not want to engage with while onsite. That’s all important, and I hope that there are studies about this out there that I’m just not familiar with – if you know of them, please drop me a line.

Read Full Post »

Last week, three high court judges dismissed an application for judicial review and thus paved the way for Richard III’s remains to be buried at Leicester Cathedral.

There are three key things that strike me about this whole process.

The Authorized Heritage Discourse at work
The basis for the applicant’s claim (that they are relatives of Richard III) was portrayed in the media as ‘tenuous’, and thus often, I feel, ridiculed. The reality is of course that this was the only way their – or anyone else’s – views would even be considered: they had to prove what’s called ‘locus standi’, or ‘sufficient interest’ [1]. Why? Because the decision on where Richard III’s body would be buried had already been made even before anyone knew they had found him. This was in the Exhumation License, and the decision was ultimately that of the University of Leicester.

That the university should have the decision-making power on this is in itself a result of the AHD: although it was the Richard III Society who initiated the whole excavation journey, it was the university that applied for the exhumation license, because (so the judgment) ‘an application for an archaeological license such as this would normally be made by an archaeologist who could satisfy the MoJ [Ministry of Justice] that he had the skills necessary to meet the terms of the licence’ (paragraph 43). In other words, the structures put in place are such that from the start experts are privileged in the process and given decision-making powers. Leicester Council, who was of course also involved, would have wanted a public consultation, but withdrew the suggestion upon objection from the university (paragraph 57). Why the university should object to the public having a say is anyone’s guess.


The inconvenience and challenge of public consultation
The desire for a public consultation was the core of the application, and a key reason why it was rejected. The applicants couldn’t define the limits to this public consultation: who would be consulted? Everyone? According to the court, this is ‘entirely open-ended and not capable of sensible limit or specificity’ (paragraph 156). Now that raises real issues for the idea of ‘public value of heritage’, which features so heavily in national and international policy. I quite agree that we may not already have the procedures and methods in place to capture this value properly, and this case has highlighted that. In fact, the judgment also considered various guidelines on human remains published by English Heritage (experts), the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (experts/bureaucrats), and the Church. Neither, apparently, indicates a practice of consultation. Other policies and guidelines, such as English Heritage’s Conservation Principles, at least in theory rely heavily on public consultation, for example on communal value. If practices are not embedded or well understood, then the sector really needs to start thinking about this properly. At the moment, it looks a bit like lip-service, and reduces ‘the public’ to prove locus standi, which clearly, as this ruling has shown, is difficult and can easily be dismissed as tenuous.

This, then, brings me to my final point.


We care because it’s Richard III
The one thing that not one single article that I’ve read about this has mentioned is what the wishes of Richard III himself might have been. He is truly being talked about like an object, or as Hewison in his book The Heritage Industry described it, a product and commodity. Quite openly there is mention of the ‘tourism income’ that having his body will bring, to the point where Leicester’s tourist promotion company apparently agreed to pay for part of the excavation costs (paragraph 38 of the judgment). I find that very troubling. Without wishing to cause offense, I see no difference in this than if a soldier who fell in Afghanistan today were buried there. I know that many will refer to the distance in time. But to this I respond that the reason we even care about these remains is because, well, they’re Richard III. And that makes him a specific human being, to whose life we owe respect. Would he have wanted to be buried in the place where he was killed in battle? Or would he have preferred to be buried where he spent his life, was happy and loved, wherever that place might be [2]? What we do know is that the only time Richard III spent in Leicester, according to the council’s webpage (accessed today), was once after his coronation as king, and then for the battle in which he was killed.

This raises another issue that must be considered even if you don’t agree with my moral argument above. By burying Richard III’s remains in Leicester they will become completely de-contextualized. Yes, you can talk about the Battle of Bosworth, and of course, the battlefield already has a visitor centre. There is nothing else in Leicester that illustrates the story of Richard III’s life and his historical time, one of the most important periods in English history. Indeed, you are left with that Richard III short break that Leicester now offers, and a self-guided walking leaflet around sites that have only the most tenuous links to the man himself, relating only to the last days of his life. Even with the forthcoming Richard III visitor centre, in terms of interpretation and heritage, that seems a missed opportunity [3].

[1] For this and the following see the full text of the ruling here.
[2] I’m not an expert, but according to Wikipedia and other sources, he grew up in Yorkshire, ruled in the North of England for most of his life, his son is buried in Yorkshire, the people of York loved him, and his wife is buried in Westminster.
[3] Of course people will still travel to Leicester Cathedral, and they’ll probably visit the Richard III visitor centre as well. Where else can they go now to pay their respects if that’s how they’re connecting to him? Quite many will also simply enjoy the sensationalist story of the discovery of ‘the king in the car park’. Will it be sustainable once the novelty has worn off? We’ll see. I daresay most people will still nip up to Yorkshire, where the whole of the story is rooted and comes alive through buildings and sites.

Read Full Post »

I’ve recently read English Heritage’s consultation on under-represented heritages [1] and it got me thinking, yet again, about target audiences. Here are some of the points that struck a chord with me:

We don’t want [insert under-represented heritage here] sites
In fact, one respondent called this idea ‘horrible’ (p. 10).  In other words, they didn’t suddenly want a load of sites that were designated as Black, Muslim, LGBT, whatever.  And there were a couple of reasons why:

The groups aren’t separate
It was actually in the disabled group that they pointed out that disabled people are also lesbian, gay, black, Muslim…But that’s not all:

Groups don’t like to have their marginalisation constantly reinforced
This was specifically said with regard to the language used by organisations: how are the groups represented?  They didn’t want to be represented as always different.

Don’t we all have an ethnicity?
…asked one participant when it came to judging categories for searching heritage lists, such as the category ‘Ethnic History’ – which, alas, doesn’t mean ethnic at all, it means non-White, non-European, non-Western.  But the point that touched me the most was this one:

It is ‘very dangerous’ to address [insert under-represented heritage here] history only to members of that community
This came out of the LGBT group, where they felt that for their ‘political safety’ (p. 25) everyone needed to understand why their history was important.

For me what emerges from the above is one key point: these people don’t want to be singled out and ‘targeted’.  They’re just part of our whole wide wonderful and diverse world.  The moment we focus in on one attribute of a person (“gay”) and then target a programme at that, mostly what we’re signalling is that we, too, see difference, exclusion and marginalisation.  We’re effectively reinforcing that segregation by addressing, as they said, members of that community alone, when the real need may lie somewhere else entirely – for example in addressing our own and society’s focus on just one attribute.  That’s an uncomfortable thought, I know.  But the reality is that there are museums, as mentioned in this report, that simply ignore for example the homosexual attraction their key historic figures may have felt.  And that, more than any lack of targeted programming, may be the reason why people feel our museum is not for them.

So do let’s search our visitor data for under-represented audiences, but let’s understand that what it tells us is not something about those that don’t come.  First and foremost it tells us something about our own organisation.  If there is a black strand to the story of our site, then let’s tell it.  But let’s not set out to tell it ‘for black people’, let’s tell it for people.  Let’s include that ‘ethnic’, LGBT, disabled imagery in our children’s activities as a matter of course, not because we’re doing a programme specifically for these groups.  If there are barriers that may prevent people from coming, be that cultural barriers or physical, then let’s address those barriers – let’s not address the people, as if they were the issue.  That’s what is the underlying principle of equalities legislation and practices, and it’s what museums should apply too.  Once we normalise what we consider an attribute that makes someone hard to reach, our place will become more welcoming to them.  And we may just find that they visit without a single targeted programme on the schedule.

And I will no longer have to use language that talks of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

[1] As an aside, the selection of those consulted is quite interesting: Participants were shortlisted based on whether they had published a major body of research in one of the areas identified as under-represented.  Bless the LGBT expert who noted that it would be more relevant to speak to the local community.  If English Heritage is truly committed to giving equal consideration to communal value then this approach to currently under-represented heritage is unlikely to reach those communities.

Read Full Post »

After a few weeks off for illness, today I took the opportunity and left the house for a visit to Llancaiach Fawr, a historic mansion in South Wales.  I’d heard much about the place: at a conference a few months ago it was hailed as a site exemplary of visitor-focused interpretation, and a colleague’s enthusiastic report about ‘the servants you will meet there’ also made me curious.

Now if you’ve been following my blog, you will know that I am not a supporter of first person interpretation.  Nevertheless, I believe in testing one’s opinions every now and again, and so I went to the place in cheerful expectation.

And I must say, it went off to an amusing start.  Upon arrival, my friend and I were issued with a letter of introduction to the owner of Llancaiach Fawr, Colonel Prichard.  The reason being, the reception lady explained, that ‘you will step back in time to 1645’, and the letter would make sure that the servants in the house would grant us entry.  This was certainly one of the more interesting admission tickets I’ve ever received.

Next we went into an exhibition that took us from modern times back to 1645.  I struggled with this concept, for my mind naturally wants to start at the chronological beginning and work my way back to my own present.  In fact, it sadly took my friend’s explanation that the reason for this layout was the premise of us ‘stepping back in time’ – evidence of a genuinely confusing set-up or merely an embarrassing slowness on my part to keep up?

Once I got the concept, I quite enjoyed the exhibition.  There are loads of opportunities to touch, explore and interact (without a computer in sight!), mixed in with more traditional panels and contemporary testimonials.  The latter are used sparingly but smartly, to enhance a point made in the panels in just the right mix of historical encounter and explanation.

The exhibition centres on the Civil War, and Charles I’s visit to Llancaiach Fawr during that time.  It does a good job in highlighting the differences in opinion between the Royalists supporting the King, and the Parliamentarians that opposed him.  Many little facts make the story tangibly human, such as the origin of the term ‘cavalier’ for a Royalist, and the lack of obvious distinction between the two camps.  A nice touch is the opportunity to proceed either through a door marked as ‘Royalist’ or one marked ‘Parliamentarian’.  As soon as you step through, you are immediately confronted with facts that link either camp to the other – thus showing that this, in the words of one contemporary, was truly ‘a war without enemy’.

After this section of the exhibition the tour of the house began, and with it my qualms about the interpretation.  Firstly, I go with other critics that are weary of interpretation and presentation that freezes a building at a particular point in time.  By focusing entirely on King Charles’ visit to Llancaiach Fawr and the year 1645, nothing else about the house’s history remains visible. The impression that I have after my visit is that the house ceased to be important after this date, and that it has no connection whatsoever to its modern social environment.  Maybe because all the sites I’ve worked at had a clear heritage value in the present, I find this difficult to believe.  At my current site, for example, one group of stakeholders recently expressed the worry that we would focus too much on the site’s distant past, thereby erasing the intervening years and the current importance of the site in its community connections.

The interpreters in the house did not help.  They truly did play-act as servants, and as such they were unavailable to answer questions about anything other than the year 1645 and before.  Not only that, but they also used a mock-old English language that I found difficult to understand.  Although English is not my first language, I think I have a fairly good grasp of it.  If I struggle to make sense of what the interpreters were telling me, I can only imagine the difficulty that non-English speakers will face!  This is creating an unnecessary barrier.

In fact, I have to say that all my reservations about first person interpretation were confirmed.  I felt utterly unable to ask any questions beyond the predetermined scope of the interpretation.  The interpreters set the parameters of what I was allowed to explore, and it felt rude to try to force them outside of the roles they so enthusiastically portrayed.  My own many questions remained unanswered because the interpreters did not enable me to even pose them.  That, in my mind, is quite an outrage – I’m afraid I cannot put it any more mildly.

To make matters worse, the interpreters in their role-playing quite rightly assumed that we as ‘contemporary’ visitors had the same historical knowledge as they (which in reality of course we didn’t have).  This meant that any questions we did dare ask, for example about the uses or decorations of rooms, were answered with mild condescension.  In their effort to maintain small talk, the interpreters also made reference to other things that happened at the time (1645), and they seemed to expect a response. At one point, to lighten the increasingly uncomfortable questioning from the interpreter, I said to my friend that next he’ll be called stupid – because that’s how I started to feel!  My friend himself reported a sense of anxiety about what the interpreter would say next.  Surely that is no way to increase anyone’s understanding of or connection to a site.

Don’t get me wrong – like other visitors we laughed heartily about the amusing experience of seeing someone pretend so decidedly that they are a person from 1645.  And yet, I wonder how many other visitors felt like we did, and how many of their questions remained unanswered.

What I think happens too often when site managers and interpreters decide to implement first person interpretation is that they believe this is the only way to interest visitors and ‘entertain’ them.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Good third person interpretation – costumed or not – will achieve far more: it will be interesting, entertaining, and most importantly, it will respond to visitors’ needs.  As seen above, first person interpretation by its very nature limits what visitors will be able to explore.  In contrast, third person interpretation enables interpreters to communicate an experience from a certain time period while still being flexible to connect to visitors’ current interests and horizons.  In fact, I often wonder how so many supporters of first person interpretation can, with conviction, cite Freeman Tilden’s principle of relating interpretation to visitors’ own lives, and then proceed to completely exclude visitors’ personal experiences from the interpretation they offer.

At Culloden Battlefield, I only ever wrote third person interpretation, and with regard to enjoyment these presentations and tours always achieved 95% or more ‘highly enjoyable’ scores from visitors.  They also managed to touch visitors emotionally and connect them to the experiences of the people at the time – I always cite the short guided tours of the battlefields that we did, not even wearing costumes.  And yet, visitors would visibly imagine the horrors of the battle, and their questions made it clear that they had connected to the suffering and the social changes that took place in the battle’s aftermath.

So overall, I really enjoyed the initial introduction to Llancaiach Fawr via the introduction letter, and I thought the exhibition was brilliant.  The experience of the house itself, however, was sadly disappointing – and this was entirely due to the limitations imposed by the first person interpretation.

Read Full Post »

A couple of weeks ago I visited the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, Wales.  The museum’s focus is on the industrial history of wales, and object cases alternate with high-tech interactives.

I’m not personally a huge fan of interactives.  The reason is that I have not seen many interactives that I feel were necessary and the ‘best tool for the job’.  I particularly dislike the off-the-rack, stand-up computer screen interactives shoved into an arbitrary corner: I might as well be sitting at my own computer at home surfing the web.  Why come to a museum?

In all fairness, these are not the kind of interactives I found at the National Waterfront Museum.  They did put some thought into their interactives, and a few of them were quite interesting.

My favourite was one about the 1851 census in Swansea.  The entire room was created around the interactive which integrated the technology into a more traditional exploration of museum objects.  The room as a whole was really successful at telling a story, and if you’ve been reading my blog you will know that I consider that to be the core of good interpretation.  A panel by the entrance talked about the man who walked through the streets of this particular neighbourhood in Swansea, knocking on doors, chatting with inhabitants, and jotting down their stories for us to participate in.  Once inside the room, visitors could sit down by a screen and see a map of the neighbourhood.  On the map, certain houses were highlighted, and you could tap on the house you wanted to visit.  At this point, an animation was projected onto a transparent screen hanging from the ceiling.  It took you on a carriage ride through the street until you entered the house.  You continue to interact with the screen on the table in front of you, but the content of the interactive is projected onto the transparent screen.  This made for a subtle dynamic which meant you didn’t get bored with the activity straight away.  The content was also very smartly organised: A little bit about the main character we meet in the house as recorded by the census man, and then the opportunity to explore the house for objects relating to that character.  You had to find the objects, which again kept the activity interesting, and then you could click on them to get information about the object, its relation to the main character and a little background on the wider story.  Most of this content was related through audio; again this was a nice change from using one sense only.  I found myself quite engrossed and spent about fifteen minutes exploring houses and people.  When I got up, I walked around the rest of the room and was delighted to see the actual objects I had just explored in the virtual world displayed in the show cases.  There was more information on panels here which made for a nice reenforcement of what I had just learnt, and then some.

This was the primary strength of many of the interactives in the National Waterfront Museum: the interactives related to objects that were displayed in nearby cases.  Quite often, the museum had created environments for the interactives and objects, turning them into a whole experience where one part connotated and complemented the other.  That’s how museum interactives should be done.

On the other hand, there were many interactives where I couldn’t but feel that the interactives were there just because the planners had the technology.  Mind, I liked playing with the technology but I honestly couldn’t tell you much about the content I was supposed to have interacted with. In one such interactive the way you had to interact with the content was by sticking your arm through a frame and point at the screen in front of you.  I’d never done that, so it was fun, but the technology was also sluggish and looked terribly unattractive.  It must have cost an absolute fortune, and I’m convinced that the cost per contact and effectiveness ratio analysis would make me wince.

So overall, the Swansea National Waterfront Museum did have some interactives that were smartly used as interpretive tools.  But it also reenforced my opinion that technology should never be used for technology’s sake.

Read Full Post »

Now here’s an oxymoron in most interpreters’ view: how can any panel that reads like ‘a book on the wall’ ever be good?  And of course these interpreters are right in pointing out that rows upon rows of text are highly unlikely to be read and they will probably fail to get a memorable and relevant message across.  In other words, such panels are simply bad practice [1].

However, bear with me for a moment.  Last weekend I visited Rhondda Heritage Park in Pontypridd, South East Wales.  I didn’t have a lot of time so I only managed to explore their free of charge exhibition area.  Included in it was what they termed ‘an exhibition’ about the Tynewydd mining disaster of 1877.  I put ‘exhibition’ in quotation marks because it was very small indeed, consisting of two adjoining walls which were covered by a mural and on which were mounted seven panels (if I remember the number correctly).

The mural depicted scenes from the disaster: miners got trapped underground until their rescuers managed to break through to them (sadly, some of the men lost their lives in the disaster).  The panels told the story from start to finish, from the beginnings of the mine to the fateful day that it was flooded.  They included quotes from the survivors and their rescuers, as well as contemporary descriptions of life in the valley.  There were also contemporary photographs of the mine and the men, followed by a modern image of today’s rescue workers.  But there was lots and lots of text.

And I liked it.  Admittedly, as a visitor I am not anything to go by because my passion for history and my professional interest has me read panels where others would long since have moved on in disgust.  But this was different: the panel text actually made an attempt at telling a story in a captivating way.

So this is where I’m getting at: there are textbooks on the wall, and then there are novels. On my German blog I’ve already argued that writers of exhibition text have a lot to learn from commercial novelists.  The Tynewydd mining disaster exhibition illustrates that point.  The panels built up tension, they used emotion through quotes from the trapped miners themselves as well as observers, and they did not shy away from presenting controversy in terms of who was – or wasn’t – held responsible for the disaster.   It did help that the text flow was eased through use of photographs and the occasional illustration, however, the panels followed none of the traditional rules [2].  The mural behind the panels also helped create a sense of urgency which overall left me with a very vivid impression both of the hardships of life in the mining valleys and the community spirit among the miners which saved some of their peers’ lives in the disaster.

In summary, here is what I think made this ‘book on the wall’ work quite well:

  • The emotive, oversize mural that provided the backdrop
  • Tension building
  • Emotional language
  • Uncensored, contemporary quotes
  • Strongly representing the feeling of injustice and controversy (rather than white-washing it)
  • Contemporary photographs that link directly to the story told in the text
  • The link to today

Was there room for improvement?  Certainly.  Sub-headers would have been immensely helpful, both to allow for visual scanning and to strengthen the sense of tension.  A larger font size as well as better spacing would also have been preferable.  More space in general would have allowed for the text to be better laid out across more panels.  Select ‘high impact panels’, for example displaying a photograph only with perhaps strategically enlarged key areas, would have further increased the sense of a story unfolding.

However, as they are, the panels of the Tynewydd mining disaster exhibition go a long way in showing that panels with lots of text and a long story to tell don’t have to be boring.  They can be dramatic and emotional, and incidentally I think that’s what interpretation should be anyway.  But more on that another time.



[1] A good starting point for finding out about best practice panels is Trench, L (2009) Gallery text at the V&A.  A Ten Point Guide [online].  Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/files/file_upload/10808_file.pdf [Accessed: 12.05.2010].  You may also want to look at Dean, D (1994)  Museum Exhibition Theory and Practice.  Oxon: Routledge.

[2] For example there were no sub-headlines structuring the text and allowing for a quick scan.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »