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As far as J. Geraint Jenkins is concerned, the Welsh efforts to present the nation’s industrial heritage (!) are mostly doomed.  The reason is that sites, and coalmines in particular, are just not grimy enough.  He also points out that much fabric has been lost, leaving the remaining structures without the all-important context.  In presenting these faint shadow images of what life in Wales was like is to fall prey to romanticism and nostalgia, two demons that Jenkins evokes continually in his book ‘Getting yesterday right.’

I cannot help but detect in his writing that on-going suggestion of ‘heritage’ as an institution and industry.  In between the lines images are conjured of thrifty economists concocting ‘the heritage product’ that they can ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’ desperate for the romance of the past.  I’m a heritage manager myself, and my day-to-day job could not be more different.

Certainly Jenkins is right that many a valley has tried and is still trying to create a tourism attraction with whatever industrial remains they have left (and who can blame them).  But the issue here does not lie with heritage value per se, but with the tourism industry that may too freely apply the term ‘heritage’ to anything that might prove a tourism asset.  Heritage isn’t a ‘product’, it is an act performed by people.  Tourism managers may call it heritage, but that doesn’t make it so.

The other criticism that Jenkins has is that any interest that is detached from the dirt and noise of the coalmines is romantic and nostalgic.  He doesn’t elaborate on where this view comes from.  However, it does seem to hark back to a historian’s disdain for heritage as something less than history.  Of course, as David Lowenthal has shown in his book ‘The Heritage Crusade’ history and heritage are actually two completely different things altogether.  Other writers have since established the view of heritage as a practice, and like Lowenthal they have highlighted that selection, reworking and reinvention of historical facts are all crucial and necessary aspects of this heritage practice.  And the practice itself is crucial for our identity and meaning-making.

In other words, where Jenkins would like to see a whole valley still stuffed with coalmine dust, and the terraced houses cowering underneath black slag heaps to present what life was really like, the people who once lived that life might actually be mightily glad to see it gone.  A pit wheel and the opportunity to go down Big Pit if they want to, without the dust and danger, may be all they need to remember the true heritage value of the industry: the sense of camaraderie and endurance.  That’s what the miner-guide at Big Pit talked about when I went there; he even explicitly said he would not want to go back to work in the mines except for the bond he had with his colleagues.  That is the heritage of the coalmining industry.  The rest is just historical fact.

But would Jenkins prefer that we tell people’s history and not their heritage?  It does seem so.  And he is absolutely right that in presenting a whole valley as it used to be visitors would get the whole picture as an immersive experience.  I only wonder how many of them would ever want to come back?  And what about the people who live here?  Are we going to force them to live amid the reminders of what was a very hard and difficult life?  Are we going to turn them into museum pieces as well?

In all fairness, Jenkins does acknowledge that this would not be feasible.  He suggests that probably a multi-media piece of interpretation would be better, and I agree.  Only to me, this solution isn’t a regrettable compromise.  It does what good interpretation and heritage management should always do: it enables people to act on and live their heritage values as symbolised in spaces, while it gives them room to build on it, and change it, and use the security of that heritage to move forward and better themselves.  The dust and the noise are not heritage, they are history.  And some history just doesn’t need to be preserved in every grimy detail.

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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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