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Authenticity is not usually a term we come across in interpretation literature with the exception of writings on costumed interpretation of various kinds [1].   Interpreters tend to treat authenticity as a given: we base our interpretation on sound research and so it must be authentic [2].   However, my recent visit to the Big Pit National Mining Museum in Blaenavon, Wales, suggests to me that there is interpretation, and then there is authentic interpretation [3].

Very little seems to have been changed about the physical environment of the Big Pit coal mine. Visitors enter the same hall as the miners did to go down the shaft. They are handed hard hats and helmet lights as well as a gas mask – again, much like the miners were.  Many of the original signs are still on the wall, and the notice for visitors to leave behind any battery-operated items and lighters etc. is merely a repeat of another sign that reminded miners of the safety precautions prescribed by law (and it is of the same home-made style too).

The underground tour of the mine was led by a gentleman who had actually worked in the mine up until the time it was closed in the 1980s.   The same appears to have been true for the other men we met along the way: about 20 ex-miners now serve as tour guides.  Our guide pointed out that the site is still very much run like the working mine was run: there are electricians, firemen checking the gas levels and men looking after the shaft.  The conditions in the mine tunnels we saw appeared to be essentially the same as they used to be also. Certainly there were no lights beyond our helmet lights to make the space more inviting, nor was the floor groomed to make walking as easy and as comfortable as possible. In fact, I experienced a continuous sensation of unease: I hated being in the dark, and the low ceilings and rusting steel frames had me in constant worry.

But in terms of authenticity, nothing I have seen beats this site.  Of course one might argue that much of that authenticity will disappear with the ex-miner tour guides as they go into retirement one by one (our guide is due to retire next year). And yet other areas of the museum showed that authenticity can be achieved even without a personal presence.

The bath house on site provided the space for the exhibition. Items that belonged to miners were placed in lockers alongside descriptions and sound bites of the lives and stories of their owners. There are also pictures of miners in this very space, and again it felt like visitors had stepped in right after the miners had left. Their voices rang in the space like they might have done when the mine was in use, and it took very little imagination to visualise the men scrubbing off the dust and dirt of the tunnels we’d just seen.

So what made this site feel more authentic than others? The ex-miner tour guides were hugely important, there is no doubt about that. However, what I think was even more crucial was that visitors were ‘kitted out’ much like the miners had been in a space that was largely unchanged. This allowed us to live the experience and engage directly with the environment of the mine. Above ground the experience continued as the interpretation supported rather than explained the site.

For authentic interpretation this suggests two things: first, interpretation should facilitate a site’s telling of its own story, rather than tell that story for the site. Second, as much as possible interpretation should allow visitors to participate in that story instead of banishing them to the passive role of spectator. The experience at the Big Pit showed that interpretation does not require obvious intervention but may instead consist of using a site’s existing resources and seamlessly managing and facilitating visitors’ engagement with these.

Notes

[1] See for example Magelssen, S (2004) ‘Performance Practices of [Living] Open-Air Museums (And a New look at ‘Skansen’ in American living Museum Discourse)’. Theatre History Studies (24), 125 – 149

[2] Elsewhere I have already pointed out that in fact interpretation necessarily requires a degree of selection. That selection in itself has an impact on authenticity. Add to that considerations of personal perception, the minefield of communication media and finally, the eye of the beholder, and authenticity quickly slips from our firm grasp like a wriggling fish. To complicate matters even further, a look at discussions of authenticity in tourism literature reveals that authenticity may never have been the clear-cut concept we thought it to be. Centred on cultural practices, opinions vary widely from the modernist point of view that says authenticity is objective and inherent to the activity, to the postmodernist view that dismisses authenticity as irrelevant: tourists don’t care (say the postmodernists; for an overview see Reisinger, Y., Steiner, C.J. (2006) ‘Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity.’ Annals of Tourism Research 33, (1) 65 – 86).

[3] To proclaim the existence of authentic interpretation in light of what I’ve just written under note No. 2 may seem contradictory. However, in my view, authenticity does exist at heritage sites, both on an object level and on an experience level, the latter being defined by the stakeholders, i.e. those whose heritage it is. Similar to significance, there may be various versions of authenticity, and the challenge for the interpreter is to find a way to do justice to all of them.

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Last week I received a flurry of press releases about re-enactments and such at various Historic Scotland properties.  Fort George will soon host the ‘Colossal Celebration of the Centuries‘ with displays and presentations that range from Roman times to the 20th century, including a medieval encampment. At Dundonald Castle [1] a medieval day will see ‘The Arrest of Robert Stewart’ re-enacted and there will be weaponry displays and ‘Army Recruitment’.  And as I write this, there is ‘Medieval Mayhem‘ at Stirling Castle, to be repeated later in the month at Caerlaverock Castle, with junior jousting and the opportunity to do some archery.

The person quoted in these press releases is the events manager.  I say this to highlight the fact that re-enactors are still predominantly hired by events managers.  And events managers are NOT interpreters.  Quite naturally, therefore, their requirements are utterly different from those of the interpretation manager.

I am really dubious about re-enactments in particular used as interpretation.  Let me tell you why.

First of all, let us be clear that in general, when we speak of re-enactments we mean battle re-enactments.  And quite frankly, I am at a loss to see under what circumstances the re-enactment of slaughter and death will serve understanding.  Many sites have recognised this, and they do not allow re-enactments under any circumstances whatsoever (for example at Culloden Battlefield).

Of course, it is virtually impossible to ‘re-enact’ a battle anyway.  For one thing, the necessary numbers are hardly ever available (nor would they allow visitors to get a handle on what they see), and ‘realistic’ re-enactment would require elaborate tricks and stunts, not to mention years and years of training and expertise.  Therefore, what you normally get is a handful of people on either side pretending to use their weapons and to die on the field.  Not only does this not address one of the primary requirements of interpretation – to be historically accurate – but it also ridicules death.  No surprise then that at these events one sees hordes of young boys enthusiastically swinging their swords at each other.  The re-enactment has taught them nothing about war and death.

But war and death don’t seem to be the content of many re-enactments anyway.  As the press release called it, this is ‘historical entertainment’, and so the commentary that is necessary to explain to visitors what they see is more often than not light-hearted banter.  And this may even include the bending of historical facts to appease the audience – after all, even battles of centuries past can still arouse passion, at least in Scotland.  Consequently it was not surprising albeit no less disappointing when, two years ago, at a Scottish castle whose name now escapes me, the historically victorious English were swiftly turned into the losers after a crowd-pleasing survey.

Entertainment?  Yes, maybe, although certainly not ‘historical’.  But as an interpreter, I cannot but find fault with such ‘re-enactments’.  In my opinion, whatever you do at a heritage site should be clearly related to that particular site and, if nothing else, be as historically accurate as possible while serving to achieve SMART objectives [2].  Of course one of those objectives will be that visitors will enjoy themselves – that is one of the primary principles of any informal learning activity, including interpretation – but accuracy and meaningful activities do not exclude entertainment.

I believe the source of the issue lies in two areas: first, event managers are often not linked in with the interpretation department, and thus their briefs to re-enactors – if there is a brief at all – will mostly not include interpretive considerations.  Second, re-enactors themselves are by and large not interpreters as I’ve learnt both as a re-enactor myself (once upon a time) and as a manager working with re-enactors [3].  What needs to happen on the part of the organisations is that events and interpretation managers work more closely together.  On the other side, re-enactors who wish to continue working at heritage sites (if, alas, we must have re-enactments at all) need to develop an understanding of interpretation, and they need to learn how to follow briefs.

As for encampments I have sketched my opinion elsewhere already.  And as far as ‘The Arrest of Robert Stewart’ goes – well, I’ve noted on my blog to-do-list to write down my views on ‘museum theatre’ soon.  Watch this space.

Notes

[1] Dundonald Castle is not an HS property, however the event is staged by HS on behalf of the Friends of Dundonald Castle.

[2] Yes, depending on the nature of the site there are event opportunities that may not link in with the site’s history, like the antique car shows we hosted (and which are still hosted) at Montgomery Place, a mansion in upstate New York linked loosely with the American revolution.  But no visitor would engage with that event as interpretation, and that is one of the key points.

[3] Practically 99% of re-enactors that I have ever encountered are actually lay people who participate in re-enactments as a hobby in their spare time.  Both their knowledge and their ability to perform and interact with an audience vary from person to person with little to no quality management in place.

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Recently I attended a ‘Medieval Phantasy Spectacle‘ in Germany.  This is an evolution of what used to be medieval-inspired markets and events in towns and at heritage sites across Germany.  The format has changed, and in fact it has become much more like the encampments one sees today in the UK, albeit without any claim to historical accuracy or even an actual historical event.

I lament this change, for the format that these events and markets used to have actually offered a great blueprint for participatory, fun events at heritage sites.  All stalls and stages were built of wood and decorated with medieval-inspired flags.  Costumed craftsmen would do their historical crafts right then and there, and sell their wares, too.  A clear effort was made to evoke a sense of medieval times – historified language was used both in writing and in speech that was easily recognisable as medieval and yet still easily understood.  A Euro for example became a thaler which meant that with every purchase of food or crafts item visitors participated in the ‘medieval experience’.  Food was inspired by historical food and when it wasn’t, it was disguised by the language used – adding a fun element as visitors tried to find out what was on offer.

There were also performances, sometimes music, sometimes a short play, again inspired by actual medieval arts.  The performers always tried to draw the audience in; I remember being pulled out to portray a messenger gallopping across the field to speak to one of the knights.  And what was perhaps the most enticing thing of all about these events was that visitors were actively encouraged to come in costume also – it awarded you free entry to the site.

Did it matter that one didn’t know to what extend this was actually historically accurate?  Not a bit.  But the event held together by a strong sense of a medieval core with easily identifiable modern interpretations.  In fact, at the same time as these markets became more popular, so did medieval music – again, in modern adaptations.  As many heritage scholars have argued, that is what heritage is: a constantly evolving, living tradition.  What can do more for the preservation of medieval musical traditions and their appreciation than their being used by contemporary bands that are hugely successful with young people?

Today, the format seems to have deteriorated to a heartless sale of products, few of which were produced on-site.  There were lots of encampments, and like I’ve seen in the UK they offered nothing more than a glimpse over a rope onto people enjoying their hobby of camping medieval-style.  The performances had no more tie to the actual medieval arts, there was no more interaction, and no sense of medieval times.

It is a real shame, and I do hope heritage managers will be able to revive these events as they used to be.  And I would go that one step further of ensuring a high level of historical accuracy in costume, decoration, tools etc. without changing anything else about the format.  We need events like these where the crafts people are truly knowledgable about the general period and able to answer questions when visitors ask.  But beyond that, the events as they used to be delivered what we strive for today: participatory, fun events that might just inspire our visitors to find out more.

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I have recently been directed to the virtual Roma exhibition of The European Library, called ‘A Roma Journey‘.

The European Library is effectively a portal to the national libraries of Europe, who have contributed and made available on the website a digitised selection of their treasures.  The exhibitions pull these together thematically.

For ‘A Roma Journey’ the description promises that it will ‘unravel[] the Roma’s rich oral heritage’, thus enabling the visitor to ‘share the experiences of this nomadic culture’.  What one encounters, however, is a mere grid of thumbnails without further comment or explanation, leaving me to wonder whether these two objectives – unravelling the heritage, sharing the experience – will be achieved for any visitor/user except those with an existing and in-depth knowledge of Roma culture.

Such non-experiences always frustrate me.  The notion of an online exhibition using treasures from multiple libraries is exciting and deserves the funding it received.  And yet an opportunity was missed to really enthuse ordinary people.

Meanwhile, the online medium is perfect for telling an engaging multi-media story that uses collection objects creatively and intelligently as part of a narrative.  In fact, what could be better than a storytelling format to convey the sense of an oral culture – a true ‘the medium is the message’ moment!  Such a solution, of course, requires interpretive planning and a good understanding of user needs.

Alas, I find that too often, proper interpretation still does not receive its deserved place in the European museum and heritage context.  However, there are a few beacons of light that recognize that museums etc. provide a public service and should be managed in a visitor-friendly way.  I do hope this insight will spread more widely.

Until then, I can only recommend a good browse of the US National Park Service’s WebRanger activities for children that use original objects in a way that could have been used for the ‘Roma Journey’.  I particularly liked ‘Photo Explore‘ and ‘The Patriot Spy‘.  Happy Exploring!

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