Posts Tagged ‘Bru na Boinne’

A few years ago, I visited Stonehenge for the first time. Like many others, I was shocked at the (then) lack of interpretation and facilities, and after circling the stones once (also an oddly disappointing experience), I set off with the dog to go on a hike through the landscape, totally unplanned, merely drifting along the paths that led, un-signposted, from the car park. I had just seen a documentary about Stonehenge in its wider setting, and remembering what I had heard, my walk became the experience. It was a physical encounter, and one slow enough to really get me thinking about the people that built Stonehenge, and why, and what this all meant to me. My fondest memory is following the avenue as it rises up from a dip, and seeing Stonehenge emerge in the distance. I loved it.

With this in mind, I was really curious to see how the new visitor centre improved matters when I visited there earlier this week. I didn’t want to go back to the stones [1], but I did want to see the new exhibition, and repeat my hike through the landscape. Unexpectedly, my visit made me think about visitor management, and the norms we’ve come to accept – possibly to the detriment of visitors’ own discovery of and encounter with a site.

The new development at Stonehenge is everything we have come to expect at a site of this status: there is the large car park, the landscaped walk to the centre, the centre itself with its large café, large shop, obvious toilets [2] and a proper exhibition (inside and outside). The architecture is modern, light, with lots of glass, wood and stone, but no other obvious reference to the site it serves, like many such centres are these days. Access to the stones is by timed ticket and a visitor shuttle bus that takes you there. If you wish, the signs explain, there is a mid-way drop off point so you can walk the rest of the way on your own [3].

If this had been my first visit, I probably would have thought it perfect. Since it wasn’t, I became aware of how externally structured the visit was: there were no options. If you wanted to see the stones, you had to go on the shuttle per your timed ticket, or (as it appeared) walk along the tarmacked road used by the shuttles (presumably to coincide with a timed arrival at the stones). There were no sign-posted paths from the car park into the landscape [4], and no other visit option was discussed [5]. I became so insecure about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do without following the prescribed visit, that in the end I didn’t even ask about walking the landscape.

Stonehenge is not the only site to have approached visitor management in this way. Brú na Bóinne in Ireland, for example, also works on timed tickets and a shuttle bus [6]. We can easily argue that conservation leaves no other choice, but I would challenge that in a context where the landscape is quite vast, and surely has a carrying capacity that is nowhere near being reached. If anything, I imagine it would ease pressure on the main monument itself, especially for repeat visits.

Such rigid visitor management also seems to go against every principle of self-selection that we’ve established in learning theory, psychology and interpretation. More philosophically, I think it raises questions also about controlling heritage, and the ways in which people are allowed to encounter it. I’m not suggesting that unlimited access to the inner circle of the stones should be granted [7]. However, as many ways of exploring and encountering Stonehenge as possible should be actively enabled and facilitated. Tickets for different types of visits, and way-marked paths into the landscape seem an easy and obvious solution. Just as in interpretation and exhibition design we (should) think about giving space to visitors’ own meanings and relationships to the heritage in question, and facilitate many different encounters, this should be a key consideration for wider site developments and visitor management – another argument why one should never be done in isolation from the other, and why different disciplines should work together for the benefit of sites and visitors.

In many ways the new visitor centre at Stonehenge is a marked improvement on what was there before [8], and I would not wish to detract from this. My observations seek to question some of the norms we’ve come to accept about managing visitors, and the ways in which we do this. Every choice is also an exclusion of something else, and we better make that exclusion for very good, thought-through reasons, and never lightly.

[1] Since my first visit, I’ve had the opportunity to go inside the circle of stones during an ICOMOS workshop as well – nothing can top that.

[2] My visit was just after Christmas and I still had to queue at the toilet, so I’m not sure how this was calculated to work during peak time.

[3] I did see people set off along the tarmacked road from the visitor centre, so I assume that’s the only suggested path. Certainly no others were signposted from the centre.

[4] This actually seems a really odd omission, because the exhibition itself makes much of the landscape and its importance.

[5] In fact, I had to ask the attendant in the exhibition if it was okay to visit the exhibition only, as all the signs merely talked about a timed visit to the stones.

[6] Of course, the timed ticket at Brú na Bóinne includes access to Newgrange’s chamber.

[7] English Heritage as managers of Stonehenge do make it possible to have that experience of the inner circle, and they are working with people to allow access during the solstices – this is all very good. Nevertheless, having been inside the circle, I do wonder whether anything else has any meaning at all. If this just absoluely isn’t possible (and we’ll have to believe the experts here) maybe a real alternative could be created. The 360 degree projections in the new exhibition are not it though.

[8] It’s easy to pick holes in any exhibition, so I’m not going to start this here. However, I was surprised to see two outdoor signs point away from the thing they were talking about – that’s such a basic mistake even in my eyes, and I do no longer subscribe to easy-to-follow guidelines (but this might be one that should be kept). And I would be really interested in hearing why someone felt the need to have a First World War exhibition at Stonehenge – it really added nothing to my understanding of the site. Incidentally, it also nonchalantly mentioned questions that would have been really interesting to explore: like how it could be that this monument was owned by a private landowner and then sold? To whom? What does this say about how the site was valued – or not – by the nation, given its contemproary ‘iconic’ status?

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I spent last week in Germany on my first site visit for my PhD research [1].  Many interesting aspects emerged, but the one I’d like to focus on today is – architecture.

The architecture of the museum at Kalkriese is nothing short of imposing.  As the commercial director explained, the building was intended to be a landmark– and that it certainly is.  It is built with oxidising steel and in the shape of an L lying on its back.  In other words, it is a long, flat building with a tower rising to about 40m above the entrance.

The building itself was not intended to dictate interpretation.  And indeed, the main exhibition space is simply a large empty room with a window on one side – flexible enough to already accommodate a redeveloped exhibition.

But can architecture be divorced from interpretation at all? Can architecture’s duty to interpretation be fulfilled simply by providing large enough empty spaces?

Or should architecture itself be seen and used as interpretation?  That is what I think.  Architecture may not be interpretation in the purest sense of the word, but it most definitely guides our senses and creates an experience.  It may not ‘explain’, but it certainly ‘sets the tone’.

Take the Kalkriese building, for example.  The tower above the entrance thwarts visitors.  Then the building sucks visitors into a dark, relatively narrow staircase, which they have to climb before they reach the exhibition space – a sensory experience of having to exert oneself to gain access to the knowledge presented here [2].

The building also dominates the horizon in the adjoining park, which encloses part of the original battlefield.  The tower, quite smartly serving as an observation platform to obtain an overview of the site, can be seen from every vantage point on the battlefield.

My question as I explored the site was: since this building is so omnipresent, what does it actually add to my understanding of and engagement with the site?  Personally, I felt – nothing.  I’m sure the architecture is successful in terms of the brief, but is a statement all we should expect from architecture?  Wouldn’t visitors get a better experience of a site from architecture that either interprets (through shape, for example) or provides understated facilitation?

I’m thinking for example of the visitor centre at Brú na Bóinne in Ireland (Newgrange), which completely blends into the landscape and is designed in such a way that visitors are subtly made to look out for the monuments.  It is the ritual landscape and the monuments that sit centre stage, while the architecture provides facilitation of the experience of and engagement with the monuments.  The architecture is also reminiscent of the monuments themselves, which is something I’m really excited about.  It is a continuation of the sentiments represented in the monuments (or at least how we imagine those sentiments today), and thus creates that connection between past and present that encapsulates what heritage is all about.  I don’t think interpretation guided the architecture at Brú na Bóinne, but one can clearly see in the architecture the same approach to the landscape as a whole that was taken in the interpretation.  As such, the experience holds together quite nicely.

In my opinion, whenever possible, interpretation should guide architecture, especially at heritage sites.  Sustainability may require architecture that is subtle and therefore adaptable to future changes in (interpretive) direction.  But interpretation should always be the starting point.  At heritage sites, I really do not believe an architectural statement should ever be made.  Because the site is not about the architecture – it is about its own story, and our heritage.




[1] Just a few words about the site: Kalkriese was discovered about twenty years ago to have been the likely site where Roman general Varus was defeated by Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius in 9 AD.  While archaeological excavations have uncovered numerous coins and fragments of armoury etc., there is little else to be seen.

The landscape has changed considerably in 2000 years, so interpreting the battle is a real challenge.  My primary interest in the site, however, is for its possible impact on ‘identity-making’ – one of the core public benefits identified in legislation.  But more about that another time…

[2] Comments in the visitor book about the architecture of the museum building are split into roughly one third positive, and two thirds negative.  Quite ironically, a few visitors complain that the building appears to have been ‘neglected’ and ‘not maintained’ – a sentiment inspired, as it turns out, by the oxidising steel.

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