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Posts Tagged ‘authorized heritage discourse’

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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I spent last week at a thought-provoking seminar on interpreting megalithic sites.  Most of the other participants were archaeologists, charged with unearthing the facts that might tell us what sites are all about. I couldn’t help but be impressed by their attention to detail, and their commitment to objectivity and truth.

The latter is of course not quite as clean cut as we may think.  As we strove to define megalithic sites, and whether there were enough similarities between sites across the globe to merit clustering them under the definition, my colleagues began to argue – not about the facts (usually), but about what these tell us. I found that illustrative of the whole issue of facts, objectivity and truth.  There are facts, yes.  But how we interpret them (in the non-heritage interpretation meaning of the word) is largely dependent on our own perspectives.

And this, incidentally, is what research on learning, evaluative studies on knowledge gain through interpretation, and even general practice books on interpretation tell us over and over again: how people interact with sites, what they take from them, depends on where they started their journey.

However, while we are quick to acknowledge the above in general terms, when it comes to letting go of our control over meaning, somehow we no longer embrace this fully.  We seem to allow people to have a range of views, as long as these are those sanctioned by the experts.  But if people stray outside of these, we’re no longer quite that easy-going.

I think our definitions of interpretation as they currently stand express rather eloquently that we have what is ultimately an autocratic view of meaning.  Interpretation ‘forges connections’, we write, as if people may not already have connections to heritage.  Even more bluntly, some state that interpretation ‘brings meaning’ to a site, again suggesting that the site doesn’t already have meaning for people.

Neither is the case, of course, as we saw for ourselves on our fieldtrips to megalithic sites in Wiltshire, UK [1].  At West Kennet Long Barrow, people had left flowers inside one of the chambers.  At Woodhenge, people had created rather lovely corn stalk circles and left them in the centre of the site, where once a burial had been.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t subscribe to the view either that Stonehenge once served as an alien landing pad.  But while one of my colleagues felt this view should be soundly dismissed, both in the interpretation offered at the new visitor centre and in any further engagement, I feel quite differently.  I have no qualms whatsoever about presenting all views put forward by people, or at least allowing plenty of room for them to express them, and live them, as it were.  What’s the harm?  Of course we should present all the facts as we know them, but clearly these facts don’t subsequently only lead to one neat meaning.

I think what might be happening is that as experts, we get too passionate, and dare I say too precious about our own meanings.  I feel the same way when it comes to interpretation, and I can certainly have heated discussions about it.  But at the centre of my view of interpretation lie the people themselves. I will give them facts, and facilitate their engagement with a site, and I’ll be on hand to offer further input when they seek it.  Beyond that, it’s up to them what they make of all of this.  It’s their site more so than it is mine [2]. I measure success not by whether or not they’ve accepted my meaning, but whether they’ve explored and arrived at their own.

I know there are a lot of issues surrounding sites, especially those where conflicting views exist, and where the desire to use a site clashes with its conservation.  Nevertheless, the seminar has highlighted for me once again how important it is that as interpreters we are honest to ourselves, and reflect on how we relate to visitors.  Do we think we know better than them?  Are we on a mission to ‘educate’?  Do we behave in a way that is disrespectful to their views where we find these unfounded, irrational, and perhaps a bit weird? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I think it’s high time to do some soul-searching.

 

 

Notes
[1] I’d like to emphasise this: out of all the sites we have, megalithic sites are the ones we know the least about.  And yet they still have meaning for people.  Some may argue that it’s precisely this lack of absolute knowledge that creates, or enables so many different meanings.  That may be the case.  But to me, it illustrates that people more often than not already have a connection to a site, and a site has meaning for them.

[2] And generally quite literally so, because I’ve almost exclusively interpreted sites outside of my own heritage.  I have no personal attachment.

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I’ve recently read Emma Waterton’s excellent book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. Waterton is not an interpreter, but much of her writing applies directly to interpretation also.

As in her other writings, Waterton raises excellent and critical questions in this book.  Some of these are of immediate relevance to interpreters:

 

1) Are we including people, or are we assimilating them?

In interpretive speak, what Waterton is concerned with here is target audiences: those audiences that are under-represented, and often considered to be ‘excluded’.

In policy terms, this is the concept of social inclusion.  After reviewing the introduction of the concept into policy and legislation, Waterton goes on to examine the discourse surrounding social inclusion, and the organisational practices that flow from it.

The conclusion that Waterton reaches should give all heritage managers and interpreters some serious food for thought: rather than ‘to include’, Waterton argues, what these practices are currently doing is to force the dominant culture’s heritage values onto the ‘excluded’.

 

2) Is there such a group as ‘the excluded’ in museums and at heritage sites?

This may be a hard question to face for many interpreters.  Identifying target audiences is still uncritically proclaimed as best practice by many, and yet Waterton argues that perhaps, the ‘excluded’ simply do not care about this particular heritage.  It may not represent them, and it may not reflect their own view of what constitutes heritage or how it should be presented and used.

Therefore, Waterton suggests, practices that claim to be motivated by social inclusion, or making heritage accessible to the ‘excluded’ and underrepresented, are actually deeply hegemonic.  She writes, ‘…to presume that everyone can or should share in an elite, class-based and white vision of heritage is to take unwarranted liberties with many peoples’ sense of identity, place and belonging.’

 

3) Is it fundamentally arrogant to presume that we are ‘educating’, and building bridges or creating connections between ‘visitors’ and ‘sites/objects’?

Underlying Waterton’s argument is her assertion of the existence of an Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD).  In summary, the AHD is a view of heritage that is based on materiality and dependent on expert definition and care.  In Waterton’s opinion, neither is justified.  For one, Waterton argues that heritage is a discourse: it is made, shaped and changed by people and their interactions with materiality.  Because of the nature of heritage as discourse, however, Waterton writes, heritage is ‘inherently exclusive’.

For interpreters, this immediately raises another challenge.  At the core of many definitions of interpretation are images of ‘bridges’ and ‘connections’.  In fact, the most frequently cited mantra in interpretation has ‘to relate’ as its focal point [1]. And yet, such an approach to interpretation quite obviously denies the (discursive) participation of ‘visitors’ in making heritage.  It seems to me that in interpretation, we therefore still practice what Waterton calls assimilation and hegemony.

 

4) Do we have a clue what we’re talking about?

Waterton criticises that policy and legislation make a link between heritage and social inclusion without actually understanding this link, or how it works – if it exists at all.  Consequently, she calls for further research that provides real evidence for the relationship, or lack thereof.  To some extent I suspect that Waterton hopes that such research will also provide the sort of persuasive argument that no theoretical writing or discourse analysis alone can achieve.

The same applies to interpretation.  The claims are many: interpretation helps protect sites, it adds value, it helps people connect.  But does it?  How do we know?  And how does interpretation achieve this?  There are plenty suggestions of how to go about it, but as far as I am aware the hard summative evidence is lacking.

I think the field of interpretation can take a lot from Waterton’s book and her other writings.  From research to discourse analysis, here are all things that will be worth looking at.  Some of it I imagine will be painful, but I would hope that rather than resist a good session of healthy self-examination, we apply that most important of interpretive qualities: to be open-minded.

 

Notes

[1] I am, of course, referring to Freeman Tilden.  I’ve already written elsewhere that I think we should give Mr Tilden a well-deserved rest.

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