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Posts Tagged ‘communication’

 

A project that I’m working on at the moment had me think again about how we conceptualise ‘heritage’, and how our particular concepts and approaches are fermented by funding processes and dare I say the industry that has evolved around them. The project is what we in the sector in the UK call ‘a Heritage Lottery project’, which indicates not only the main funder (the Heritage Lottery Fund, or short HLF) but also a particular process that their funding programmes set in motion. So for an HLF project you’ll have a team of specialist consultants, including business planners (us, in this case), an architect and their whole support team, an interpretation planner, and an activity planner. It was the activity planner who began to worry that this project didn’t have enough ‘heritage activity’, at least for HLF.

 

The project is a historic pool, claimed to be the oldest of its kind in the UK if not in Europe (we’re talking just over 200 years old). The site is incredibly steep and tight, making space a precious commodity. After one of the most extensive market appraisals that I’ve ever done, we as business planners concluded that there was neither need nor a financially viable basis to create anything other than facilities that support a restored pool operation. We know HLF very well, so we still envisaged interpretation and activties, but both integrated into the wider pool infrastructure with a light touch without building special facilities. We’re satisfied that HLF will be happy. But that’s not actually my point.

 

What made me pause was just how much we’re focused on providing these things – interpretation, activities – when quite possibly they are not needed at all. It’s a pool. It’s an old pool, granted, but it’s still a pool. When I read through comments that stakeholders made previously, I find people’s fond memories of swimming in the pool. Not 200 years ago, but within their lifetime – the 1960s, 70s, before it closed. Quite possibly (they don’t say) there is indeed an awareness of, and a sense of connection to the people that have swum in the pool before them, stretching all the way back to the 19th century. After all, amazingly the infrastructure that’s there has largely remained unchanged –while you swim, you can still imagine it’s the 19th century.

 

But actually, you may not want to. You may just enjoy to be swimming in a really pretty environment.

 

I am convinced that even if we provided not one word of interpretation, and not a single ‘heritage activity’, the pool, once opened, would still be ‘heritage’ to people – and become heritage to others as well. And this may or may not have anything to do with how old the pool is, or the fact that it is considered to be architecturally significant.

 

Here’s the thing: if HLF weren’t involved in this, as long as the building substance is respected (the pool is listed), we probably wouldn’t have this conversation at all. In fact, one of the comparators we looked at (not quite as old, but almost) was restored and redeveloped by a private company. There is no ‘heritage activity’ here, and only the briefest of nods to the site’s history in a few historic and restoration pictures online. And yet it is clear how much people value that pool and what it has become, judging by its popularity.

 

I’m not really making a ‘heritage industry’ critique here, although it pains me to admit that one could. I’m also not suggesting that whatever interpretation and facilitated, non-swimming ‘heritage’ activity is implemented will be anything less than excellent. And it is also true that some of the stakeholders would have built a whole block of buildings just to accommodate a vast historic exhibition and a dedicated education space. So it’s not just ‘us professionals’ that may be adding artificial layers to heritage [1].

 

I think for me this project is really driving home the point about thinking differently about heritage. Heritage is not the building. It’s not what we add on to it to ‘communicate’ it as heritage. It’s also an example of not managing heritage, but managing and providing the infrastructure that allows people to continue to create their heritage: in this case, by swimming in this pool. This was one of the things that really emerged for me from my visitor research: infrastructure was what was important, more so even than any form of what I used to think of and advocate as active facilitation. I’m not sure yet how far one way or the other my thinking will go as I continue to mull this over, but if there were nothing else to this project than the restoration of the pool so people can swim there again, I would feel I’ve done good work as a heritage professional.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] There has been the suggestion that people are so accustomed to the ‘Western’ way of thinking about heritage (experts, need to educate) that they’ve absorbed it too. Not all – there are plenty of case studies from ‘the West’ that show alternative views of heritage.

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According to my visitor interviews to date [1], the key benefits visitors get from visiting a heritage site are ‘being in the place where history happened’, ‘imagining what it was like’, and ‘[expressing] national or personal identity’[2].

This made me think of the title of David Lowenthal’s book: The Past is a Foreign Country [3]. Ignoring Lowenthal’s own framing for the moment, I started to think about visitors’ visit as a journey to another place, not all that dissimilar to visiting another country. Then I began to wonder about how ‘foreign’ that place was, not the least because I recently re-read Interpretation for the 21st Century [4], in which the authors write that ‘interpretation is to give meaning to a “foreign” landscape or event from the past or present’ (p. 1).

How visitors described the benefits they get, and the way they ‘receive’ these, was very similar to what Paul Basu reports in Highland Homecomings [5]. But while my interviewees are natives of the country in question, Basu’s ‘informants’ were ‘foreigners’, visiting Scotland on a pilgrimage to what they perceived to be their Scottish roots. On the face of it, to them Scotland was indeed a ‘foreign country’, in that most had never been before. And yet, they did not see themselves as ‘tourists’, the quintessential travellers to foreign places. No, they were on a deeply personal journey to a place that was a homeland, a spiritual and emotional marker of origin. They knew something about it already, and sometimes they knew a lot. They certainly had a deep connection with it before they ever set foot on Scottish soil.

In other words, Scotland wasn’t really a foreign country to them at all. And for the respondents in my study, the places they visit are of course not foreign either – they are located in the country they live in. But neither are the events that took place there foreign to them. They have an awareness of these events that is woven into the fabric of who they are. What they visit is somehow a part of themselves and thus, similarly to the roots ‘tourists’, a source of origin (which incidentally is exactly how one respondent described it to me). So when they say they want to imagine what it was like, it’s not that they don’t have an idea already: they do. It’s rather a case of being in the thrust of it, placing themselves at the heart of the goings-on and the physical space, in order to experience it and connect with it with all their senses, rather than just intellectually, and remotely-emotionally.

So what does that mean for interpretation? I’m not entirely sure yet. It certainly does suggest that heritage sites aren’t all that foreign to people. We may need to be careful about approaches that place too much emphasis on messages, organisational mission statements, or education. At the moment, I’m even wondering about approaches centred on meaning-making, collaboratively constructive or otherwise, and even more generally a view of interpretation as a communication process. I’m just not sure that either of these do justice to the strength of heritage connection that especially tourism studies show ‘visitors’ to have over and over again. In fact, in my interviews, visitors have made me think that interpretation is actually much more fundamentally about information than what we’ve allowed ourselves to acknowledge. At the same time, my professional practice has required of me much more community engagement and facilitation knowledge than knowledge of communication, as what was important wasn’t content but facilitation. So that’s the spot I find myself in at the moment: what does facilitiation around information mean in a context in which heritage is heritage because visitors have made it so?

 

Notes

[1] As part of my doctoral research in Germany and England.

[2] Swapped around a bit between Germany and England, but intriguingly, the top four benefits are the same in both countries.

[3] I think, but can’t remember, that Lowenthal got it from the first line of L.P.Hartley’s book The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’

[4] Beck, L. and Cable, T., 2002. Interpretation for the 21st Century. Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd edition. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing

[5] Basu, P., 2007. Highland Homecomings. Oxon: Routledge

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