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Posts Tagged ‘1066 Battle of Hastings’

Professionally speaking, I, like many interpreters, was raised on Freeman Tilden’s second principle of interpretation. It reads:

Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.’ [1]

So when I started my field research, having conversations with visitors at sites in England and Germany [2], I was a bit unsettled when what they were asking for was much more about information than Tilden’s principle ‘allows’. They most definitely wanted information. They wanted facts and markers. They wanted interpretation to state what happened, when, and where, and to physically guide them through these locations. They wanted context and importantly, they wanted balance and transparency through being given all the information available.

That came through quite strongly in Germany, where the interpretation very obviously favours one view. One respondent very angrily pointed out that the interpretation left out facts (and questions) that radically would alter the story that was presented. Others seconded this, albeit less eloquently and with less passion.

And that’s where my real issues with Tilden’s principle began. If interpretation is defined by only partly being information, then what is the other part made up of? Tilden says, of ‘revelation’. He assumes that there is a ‘complete and perfect knowledge that is concealed beyond the horizon of the perception of the senses’ [Staiff 2014, p. 37, see note 3], and interpretation ‘reveals’ this knowledge. I agree with Staiff that this assumption cannot be maintained, for one because ‘reality does not need to be conceptualized as a binary, the visible and the invisible, with the latter somehow more important in the scheme of things’ [ibid]. There is no one, ‘larger truth’, as Tilden (1977, p. 9) suggests, which interpretation can ‘reveal’. There are many truths, and they change over time.

‘Revelation based upon information’ is therefore fundamentally also about the omission of information: interpretation selects facts that will present ‘a whole’ (Tilden 1977, p.40) – we now call this ‘thematic interpretation’. And that’s exactly the practice that respondents in Germany criticised: what they were presented with was one interpretation, and they found this unsatisfactory, and in conflict with why the site was heritage to them.

And then there is of course this idea that visitors do not have, and cannot on their own make sense of information, facts, or material reality. They are seen to need the interpreter to ‘reveal’ the knowledge, supported by ‘specialists’ (Tilden 1977, p. 23). This notion of the ‘ignorance’ of visitors, as Staiff (2014, p. 37) called it, also cannot be reconciled with many findings, including my own. Most of the visitors I spoke to in my study already knew a great deal about the event and the site they were visiting, and they often engaged me in remarkable debates that ranged from the conclusiveness of archaeological evidence to the processes of identity creation [4]. They were far from ignorant [5].

So in light of the above, I want to give information much more credit [6]. In fact, I want to suggest that interpretation is precisely about information [7] – or at least, it should be. It must give the facts – all the facts, not just our selection of them. Interpretation as information acknowledges people’s heritage values, their competence, and their existing connections. It levels the playing field between visitors and interpreters and it reminds us to constantly, and critically, check our own positioning. Interpretation as information provides the balance and transparency that respondents in my study were asking for [8]. To think of interpretation as information requires a different conceptual approach, as shown above, but one that I think is urgently needed [9].

Notes

[1] Tilden, F, 1977 (3rd ed). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of Caroline Press, p. 9.

[2] In England, my case study site was 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey, and in Germany, Varusschlacht – Museum und Park Kalkriese.

[3] Staiff, R., 2014. Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation. Enchanting the Past-Future. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited

[4] As it were, I don’t think visitors need to have neither this kind of historical/scientific knowledge, nor the ability to talk as eloquently about it as many of those did with whom I spoke. But it makes the point that if that is the criteria, as it appears to often be the case in interpretation discourse, then there is plenty of evidence of visitors’ knowledge and ability.

[5] Just to point out too that this is not a question of assessing ‘prior knowledge’, and pitching interpretation accordingly. It is also not about giving visitors credit for not being stupid. The way in which we use both notions is still in support of communicating our messages. What I’m talking about here is a fundamental acknowledgement of people’s existing connections to sites, and their sovereign right to that heritage.

[6] In another interesting twist on the critique of Tilden’s principle, Staiff pointed out that, ‘information is interpretation’ (p. 39), and ‘facts…are themselves an interpretation’ (p. 38). He’s absolutely right. And not just in Tilden’s sense that ‘all interpretation includes information’. As Staiff writes, ‘To name is to interpret’ (ibid).

[7] Yes, that information has to be presented in an accessible way (as Staiff also pointed out, p. 38). But communication isn’t – or at least should not be – the distinguishing foundation of interpretation as a heritage practice. Lots of disciplines are based in communication: presenting information and messages in an accessible or persuasive way – like marketing, or journalism (it’s no surprise Tilden was a journalist). This focus on communication as the conceptual foundation for interpretation leaves out a lot of things that to me seem much more important to interpretive practice. I’m sure I’ll come back to this on this blog at some point.

[8] More research is needed to test whether my findings will be replicated at other sites.

[9] Of course, there is a lot more to this: how do we go about capturing ‘all the information’? How about the conflicts between information? And what about the differences in sites? What about those visitors whose heritage it is not, and who have no other connection to the site than having read about it in their guidebook (or worse, just having stumbled across it)? What about foreign visitors, or people that are not even on site? What does ‘information’ do to the power balance – can it really fix it? I do have some thoughts on all these questions and will surely blog about them at some point too. But I’m conscious this is a blog, not an academic monograph.

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

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

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

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

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

I only notice what is in my lifeworld

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

I have judgments coming out of my ears

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

[5] sich an der eigenen Nase fassen.

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

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

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

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

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In a piece on The Conversation UK earlier this month, Jacqueline Baxter of The Open University argues that all teachers should have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) [1]. Her piece reminded me of the fact that in many museums, QTS is the required qualification for museum educators – the people that deliver the programmes for schools.

Now, museum educators aren’t teachers in a school classroom. In surveys that I have done in various roles, teachers bringing their classes to a museum or site have said that they want the children to experience something that they can’t give them in the classroom. A school trip is a huge administrative and financial burden for schools, so the value for the children has to far outstrip the effort. In our surveys, teachers have expressed that they want the children to experience the museum (or site), see the collection, handle artefacts, become immersed in history with opportunities teachers simply can’t offer in school.

And yet, I continue to see school programmes delivered as structured sessions in ‘education rooms’. Even where children are taken out into galleries, all that changes are the surroundings – the management techniques, the way that children are expected to behave, the way that they are invited to learn often stay the same as in the classroom. Educators count down to ‘stop talking’ with primary classes, children are sat down and asked questions, which they must answer by raising their hands. More often than not, the programmes don’t extend into the galleries at all. Teachers are expected to take classes there on their own, with resources that are often little more than historical background information, and possibly a ‘quiz’. [3]

I think museums can do so much better than that. Interestingly, at heritage sites the dynamic seems to be consistently different. When I was at 1066 Battle of Hastings two weeks ago, for example, I twice observed school groups going around with costumed interpreters. The children got dressed up, learnt to wield weapons, and re-imagined parts of the battle right above the battlefield itself [2]. Yes, they were expected to follow rules (they did get a bit excited by the battle re-enactment, and who can blame them?), but there was none of that tightly controlled discipline that seems aimed at supporting intellectual learning. This was hands-on, immersive and, judging from the children’s reactions, fun.

I don’t know if the interpreters at English Heritage are qualified teachers. If they are, they certainly have learnt to be interpreters rather than teachers. And this is why I would argue that museum educators should have interpretation as their required qualification, not QTS. Interpretation teaches us about learning styles, communication, managing groups, and working with children. We don’t need to know about classroom discipline or assessment. In fact, I believe it is this training in classroom techniques followed by formal assessment in the discipline the teacher is trained in that is responsible for the classroom programmes offered in so many museums. While interpretation encourages us to think creatively about ways of engaging people with the heritage that is there, QTS is ultimately about making sure children succeed in passing tests. And it shows. [4]

Notes
[1] Academies and free schools in England can hire teachers who do not have Qualified Teacher Status.

[2] This was one of the Discovery Visits that English Heritage offer. Note on their website the emphasis on ‘out-of-the-classroom experience’. Because that is what it is about.

[3] Obviously, teacher resources are necessary. Not every teacher wants a formal programme, nor can every school be accommodated. Teachers do ask for resources. What I would suggest, however, is that the resources are structured in such a way that teachers themselves can step outside their usual role (something that incidentally will also help children pay attention, as it’s not ‘the same teacher doing the same thing’). They should contain more than information, and a few suggested questions and ‘search’ activities. In effect, the resources should present a fully structured programme, supported by in-gallery resources, that teachers can quickly access, understand, and guide themselves.

[4] Perhaps it would help if we dropped the ‘educators’ label altogether. Let’s call them anything but educators. Education as a concept sets us on a specific path that just doesn’t inspire in museums and heritage sites – even for school groups. Teachers are great at educating pupils, and schools (and colleges and universities) are set up for education. Outside of these places, let’s stick with ‘informal learning’, unless we’re entering into a more formal agreement, which is usually with Further or Higher Education institutions, to provide part of a course, or a formal placement. But that’s not a school programme.

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I spent yesterday at the Battle of Hastings site [1].  They had a big event on to mark the upcoming anniversary of the battle, and at some point during the day, people laid down wreaths at the Harold Stone – the stone marking the place where King Harold is said to have fallen [2].

It made me think again about ‘place’ and interpretation.  We interpreters talk about place a lot in one way or another.  It’s usually about two things: on one hand, we’re concerned about communicating, or creating a sense of place for visitors [3], and on the other, we’re harking back to Tilden and his bit about meeting ‘the Thing Itself’, which we tend to discuss only in terms of siting panels, or getting visitors to look at something.

But place goes far deeper, and is much more complex, than simply being something we need to explain or create, or a visual focal point for an interpretive intervention.  Place is a destination, a pilgrimage, as is obvious for example from roots tourism [4]. It doesn’t even have to be a historically legitimised place in order to become a destination, as war memorials illustrate, or, for a less-obvious study, Mount Rushmore [5].  On the other hand, where historical events are concerned, people do seem to want to know where it happened, as the search for the site of the Varusschlacht in Germany shows [6].  And yet, if there is a strong enough marker at another site, both may continue side by side as a destination – historical authenticity not being all that important to visitors [7]. One reason for this may be that place isn’t so much about place at all as it is about memory and social action, as Byrne has argued [8].

So what does this mean for interpretation?  Well, first of all we need to think about the above a little more when we talk about planning, or ‘doing’ interpretation.  If place is a social action with multiple layers of meaning, then we cannot pretend that interpretation is (just, or maybe even at all?) about explaining to visitors what is special about a place [9].  In other words, we can no longer treat place as the neatly defined physical object of interpretation. It does not do to assume that ‘visitors’ come without meaning, and will not already, for example by their very act of visiting, participate in ‘narrating place’, as Byrne has called it.  For many sites, meaning, and a desire to perform place, will already exist for people – as is the case at the Battle of Hastings [10].  Some interpreters may feel that by considering prior knowledge, existing attitudes, and a whole range of other segmentations, we’re already addressing this.  But I would advise caution here: for as long as the proclaimed objective of interpretation is to ‘explain’ something, to ‘change attitudes’ and to ‘evoke support for conservation’, we’re still falling into the trap of wanting to somehow change visitors – and that, I feel, too often means disenfranchising people, disrespecting their right to their heritage, ignoring their part in creating heritage.

The above makes me think that interpretation is very much about marking place, much more so perhaps than it is about anything else – at least in some places.  If I look at what visitors tell me at Varusschlacht in Germany, for example, that’s what they say: they want interpretation to state this is the place where.  Their favourite interpretation is the recreated Germanenwall, the turf wall from behind which the Germans attacked the Romans.  And some interpreters wouldn’t even call such reconstructions interpretation! Similarly, the Harold Stone at Battle Abbey literally just states the fact: Here is where traditionally Harold is said to have fallen.  But it is arguably the focal point of the entire site.  Is it interpretation? [11]

So finally, and this is contentious even to my mind, I wonder how much interpretation as a marker of place must actually be about stating facts, giving information, and not about explaining (or revealing, as Tilden called it).  Is this where facilitation lies? The giving of facts that visitors in Germany have requested, so that they may make up their own mind?  I don’t know.  I hope as I embark on analysing my visitors interviews over the next months, I’ll get an answer.  Watch this space.

 

Notes
[1] 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey is one of my research sites for my doctorate research.
[2] This wasn’t a ‘scheduled’ laying down of wreaths, so unfortunately I missed the act itself.  The notes that went with the wreaths suggest that they were put down by the re-enactment societies involved in the event.  I actually think someone should do a proper study on re-enactment societies and what they do for the people involved.  There is a scheduled wreath-laying ceremony on Monday, 14 October, the actual date of the anniversary.
[3] That is in a nutshell what the interpretive handbook ‘A Sense of Place’ sets out to do. Here, as with other definitions of interpretation, the objective is, in my own words, to foster appreciation of place so that visitors may support its conservation.  Hello Tilden again.
[4] Paul Basu’s book Highland Homecomings (Routledge, 2007) is a good read on this topic.
[5] see Pretes, M. (2003). ‘Tourism and Nationalism’ In: Annals of Tourism Research 30(1), pp. 125-142.
[6] see for example Henige, D. (2007). ‘”This is the place”: putting the past on the map.’ In: Journal of Historical Geography 33, pp. 237-253
[7] see for example Hoffman, D. (1994). ‘Der Teutoburger Wald und andere Orte der Erinnerung.’ In: Fansa, M. (1994). Varusschlacht und Germanenmythus: eine Vortragsreihe anlaesllich der Sonderausstellung Kalkriese – Roemer im Osnabruecker Land in Oldenburg. Oldenburg: Staatliches Museum fuer Naturkunde und Vorgeschichte Oldenburg, pp. 87-107
[8] Byrne, D. (2008). ‘Heritage as Social Action’. In: Fairclough, G. (2008). The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 149-173
[9] This being the definition used in the above cited ‘A Sense of Place’ handbook.  Variations of this definition can be found in all definitions by our professional organisations, and the classic interpretation literature.
[10] There is a discussion to be had about where that meaning comes from.  School education is certainly one aspect, which comes through very strongly at the Battle of Hastings.  But there’s also something else, for at Culloden Battlefield, and indeed at Varusschlacht, there is a public association with the site that is in direct opposition to what has been taught at school.  This is interesting, but outside of my study, so for the moment I’m not aware of any studies that have been done on this.  I expect it’s something around public memory.
[11] Before you say it: yes, the rest of the provision, from the sheer tourist sign along the motorway to the café and finally the exhibition, also play a role.  What kind of role I haven’t established yet, and may not be able to either in my research, the focus being on something else.

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Last week I was back in Germany finishing up the visitor interviews at Museum und Park Kalkriese for my doctorate research.  One interview in particular struck a note with me.  A visitor was very upset about what they felt was a major lack of balanced representation.  They felt that there was little to nothing about the German side, even though the museum owed its existence to a battle in which an outnumbered force of German tribes annihilated (there’s really no other word for it) three Roman legions in 9 AD.

The visitor said that they expected objectivity in a museum. For them, this objectivity meant giving due consideration to historical fact without overlaying a modern bias.  The bias in this case, as they explained, was Germany’s difficult relationship to anything in German history that might inspire nationalistic sentiments – i.e. a tribal leader of 2000 years ago defeating the expanding Roman Empire.

My interviews with various staff suggest that this bias has indeed been present when the interpretation was put together.  However, when I specifically asked about why there is this prominent focus on the Roman side, the answer was mostly: there aren’t many artefacts that have been found from the Germans.  Moreover, the sentiment was that by focussing strictly on what has been proven archaeologically, i.e. via artefacts and physical traces, objectivity would be achieved.

I think the visitor I spoke to articulated a very good point [1].  When, numerically speaking, about 80% of an exhibition relates to one side of a story, there cannot be objectivity.  Objects and archaeological evidence do not ensure objectivity.  These are merely two sources of information, and if they don’t illustrate both sides of a story, then other sources need to be consulted and represented [2].

If this means drawing on different theories that may still be discussed, then so be it.  What interpretation needs is the courage to own up to the dictionary core of the meaning of the word: there are many possible interpretations of a story, or historical fact.  As this visitors’ reaction makes clear, we cannot hide behind archaeology and objects.  They cannot on their own deliver objectivity [3]. We have to acknowledge that there is more than one point of view. And we have to trust our visitors to be just as smart as we are.

This is an important point: what strikes me about my interviews with staff is this fear that the site will be hijacked by fascists, or at the very least misconstrued by visitors as a site of nationalist pride [4].  And in order to prevent this, any suggestion that there could have been anything like a ‘German achievement’, as the visitor called it, is carefully avoided.

In reality, visitors are also part of this German discourse.  They’re very capable of placing the historic fact of the German defeat of the Roman army 2000 years ago into the context of more recent German history.  The visitor that spoke to me was well-educated, eloquent, and fully aware both of the challenges of German history and the fact that there weren’t many German artefacts from the battle.  What they wanted was for the museum to provide a space free of the manipulation ever present in the outside world (they said) and show some (real) objectivity.  They were going to do their own thinking about the sources provided, thank you very much.

Notes
[1] It is really striking just how reserved responses in Germany are compared to those that I’m getting in England at the Battle of Hastings.  A few responses have made me wonder whether the issue does actually lie with this bias identified at this particular museum.  I have therefore decided to do a trial study at the mirror site to Kalkriese, the Hermann’s Monument.  It’ll be interesting to see if there are differences in visitors’ responses at these two sites.

[2] Ironically, where the German tribes are discussed, this is generally done via reference to Roman writers.  And yet, the interpretation then goes on to call into question the reliability of these sources, and even contradicts them – although I’m not clear what the basis for the contradiction is.

[3] Just on a quick side note, the focus on objects in our social history museum has led to key events of local history being neglected. I’m feeling a bit smug when I write here that for this reason, I wrote into our Interpretive Vision as a principle that our interpretation at the new museum would not be object driven. It did cause a mini-mutiny by our curators, but now they’re on board.

[4] In England, at the Battle of Hastings, neither visitors nor staff give this another thought.  Of course this is where The Nation Was BornOf course it’s part of their British identity, and they’re proud of it.  I hasten to add that with none of the British visitors did I get a sense of irrational nationalism.

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I have a confession to make: as I prepared for my first weekend of field research last week, I was suddenly overcome by a terrible fear.  What if it turns out that interpretation has no real importance to visitors?  What if they don’t come because it’s heritage?

Quite a few of the staff involved at the sites I study [1] told me that visitors ‘just come for a good day out’.  At Kalkriese, the museums manager is convinced that no one visits for ‘public benefit’ reasons – they’re just here for ‘something to do’.  I’ve not asked her or any of the other staff yet why they think visitors come to heritage sites for fun.  I wonder if their statements have something to do with experience seeking in Falk’s sense [2]: it’s a well-known site, so people come to tick it off their list.  In other words, the attraction is not the heritage, but the prominence of the site. People don’t care greatly about the story or how it is told, they really just care about the facilities that let them have a good time.  As one of the front-of-house staff told me yesterday at 1066 Battle of Hastings: They always ask about toilets and the café. They’re not that interested in the history.

And this is when I worry.  If my field research really finds the above to be the case, without any as yet unrecognised heritage motivation, then the question begs why anyone should invest in something as expensive as heritage.  Why not shed the conservation costs for Battle Abbey by flattening the site and building a miniature Saxon-Norman Amusement Park on top?  If people really just come for ‘fun’, would they care?

Of course, the real attraction could be a connection to ‘place’.  Kalkriese is a good example of how important ‘place’ seems to be to people: experts and local groups have argued for years over whether or not this is really the site where the battle took place [3]. But then, place can also be created: again taking Kalkriese as an example, the original Hermann Monument has lost none of its attraction power just because the site of the battle was determined to have been quite a distance away. In other words, our Saxon-Norman Amusement Park on the site of the battlefield might serve the same purpose. I dare say it would bring in more money.

I would have a major crisis as an interpreter if I really found the above to be the case at these sites. I fundamentally disagree with a view of interpretation as ‘doing’ something to visitors: in my book, interpretation is NOT about telling visitors about why a site needs to be protected, invested in, conserved. I do NOT want to spend my expertise as an interpreter on manufacturing something for visitors that they’re really not already interested in. I actually think public money can be better spent.

What comforts me at this stage is my own experience.  Working with people directly at various sites I’ve always found that while yes, they care about facilities, they still come for a (heritage) reason.  Yes, they want to have a good day out – but they’ve chosen this, a heritage site, over another leisure activity precisely of the site’s heritage value to them.  They may not be able to articulate it very well, and the level of heritage attachment to the site may be superficial, but I’ve always found it to be there.  Even at our Roman Museum, one of the sites I work with now and which is the furthest removed in historical terms of any site I’ve ever worked at, our visitor surveys suggest that visitors come for the history.  I’ve not taken this response apart; it could be anything from general learning interest to a feeling that this ‘history’ is part of their wider identity as British or European people.  But it does convince me that even where visitors tell us they’re here ‘to have fun’ the reason is linked to the sites’ outstanding characteristic: heritage.

Notes
[1] My study sites are 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey in England and Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany
[2] Falk, J.H., 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
[3] Incidentally, someone is bringing the same challenge to the site of the Battle of Hastings now.  See here.

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