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Posts Tagged ‘experience’

A few days ago I had the chance to visit Titanic Belfast. It was a good opportunity to think about the theatricality in our presentations of heritage, or the production of an experience, especially after my last post and my post of a year ago about re-visiting Stonehenge.

 

Titanic Belfast was definitely a site where I expected the big production: impressive architecture, great facilities (shop, café, car park), and a full-on, high-spec exhibition. And it was all that. And it was satisfying for that reason, too, although there were definitely a few issues, or would have been, if the visit had been during the busy summer months [1].

 

I think the reason why a big production feels appropriate here is fundamentally about absence: there is little on-site, or at least not the one thing everyone probably craves to see, and that’s Titanic herself. Mind, there is nevertheless a very strong sense of place. The museum is right beside the slipway where Titanic was built, and the working harbour, including the company that built the ship, still envelops the site. That’s pretty exciting, but it’s made more exciting because of the production. For one, the architecture evokes the bow of the ship, apparently at the same size of the ship itself. Then there is the (very clever) view out onto the slipway from the building just at the right place in the exhibition where it talks about Titanic’s launch, and from a good height too (my colleague and I were wondering how the height compared to the ship’s height if it were in front of you). I can’t see how a stroll through the harbour could have engendered a similar encounter with it or with Titanic, and for that reason I would say that this production works; architecture that truly supports interpretation, visitor experience, and a sense of place.

 

And the same holds for many of the elements in the exhibition. There is an excellent three-sided video projection that takes you through Titanic; although it gave me motion-sickness, I thought this was a really good way of letting visitors experience the ship, something that most probably want. There are also recreations of cabins and of a part of the deck, all coming after well-designed interpretation telling you about Belfast’s industry and Titanic’s construction, and followed by a really tasteful and evocative presentation of the sinking, using morse code messages sent at the time. There definitely was no sensationalism here.

 

Although I didn’t think the exhibition made the most of what it could have been, it was staged in such a way that met my expectations for an experience to which I can’t see an alternative: a way to ‘touch’ the story of Titanic. I think in a case like this, where there isn’t substantial tangible connection with a story, a big production can be both justified and immensely helpful as infrastructure. The Titanic story is still huge; people are still fascinated by it and it still plays a role in popular culture. To those interested, Titanic Belfast probably offers a focus for living and breathing the story, to make it part of their own biographies [2]. And despite the big production, the creators of the museum really did manage to avoid being cheesy. I know that some people would still dismiss it as Disneyfication, and the ‘Have your picture taken’ at the start did feel a bit over-the-top [3]. I would be interested in studies that capture both what attracts people in general to the story of Titanic and why people come to this particular attraction, for I think that gives the best indication of whether the production on offer is ultimately appropriate. For me, I thought in this instance the theatricality and slick production worked [4]. It is undoubtedly a manufactured ‘heritage product’, but since Titanic has sunk and people still feel inspired by it, I really can’t bring myself to criticise it for that – not the least because there is a real effort to connect it to more than a sensationalist story, including connecting it with contemporary Belfast. This is part of a wider regeneration project, and from what it looks like, that part has worked too.

 

Notes

[1] It started with not being able to find the car park, which apparently is right underneath the building. That’s convenient and great, but seriously, there was two of us and we couldn’t see the signs for the car park. Talking about pre-visit stress. The layout of the exhibition with separate themed exhibition ‘rooms’ was also such that it created bottle necks even on what was a not very busy day. There were several instances where you couldn’t see the panels, and no-one dared to use the interactives, because there were just too many people clustered around and trying to get a glimpse. There was also a ride, which in my opinion added nothing to the experience, except the need to queue on a busy day. We walked right up, but if I had had to wait the 20 minutes that were indicated along the wall I would have been less than impressed.

[2] Just like visiting the locations where films were made becomes a part of our own biographies, an expression of our own identities in the things that interest us, who we are, what we identify with, and what inspires us.

[3] Although, had I been there with a friend, I would have cheerfully embraced it as fun – who says that history, or heritage, can’t be lighthearted?

[4] I write this especially in light of just having done an assessment of the interpretation of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, where I also had an expectation of a bit more presentation and production than what is there, similar perhaps to Stonehenge. And while I think there are good visitor management and access reasons to think about doing a bit more (if and where possible) at the WHS, I also really came to appreciate the simplicity of the visits. To lose that would be to lose the essence and experience of the site. A different infrastructure will be more important.

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I recently read about someone saying that heritage managers and interpreters were ‘selling’ experiences. I’ve already written in a recent blog post how ‘experience’ seems to have been a popular concept for a while now.  In fact, even I was raving when the National Trust first changed all interpretation and visitor related job titles, along with their philosophy, over to ‘visitor experience’.

I’m a lot more sceptical about this now, and as I’m sorting out why, I thought I’d share my thinking so far.

‘Experience’ seems to express another stage in the development of our understanding of and approach to interpretation, but I’m not entirely clear what lies beneath it.  The early stages of interpretation – promoting preservation and then education – are clearly evidenced in legislation and policies, and go hand-in-hand with the (by now heavily criticized) material approach to heritage value [1].  But then the two seem to move away from each other.  Legislation today talks about benefit to communities and individuals, while interpretation has focussed on ‘experience’.

As the quote above shows (‘selling experiences’), the experience is often presented as a commodity, and something that we, as interpreters and heritage managers, create and package, and subsequently ‘sell’ to our visitors on a ‘leisure’ market.  I wonder therefore whether what lies beneath this understanding of ‘experience’ is related to an understanding of heritage which Hewison in 1987 criticised as The Heritage Industry.  In this understanding, heritage is called upon to replace vanishing economies and produce economic outputs as part of a growing tourism market [2]. In subsequent years, heritage was increasingly analysed within this leisure context [3].

Now add to this mix Pine and Gilmore’s 1999 book, The Experience Economy. In a nutshell, Pine and Gilmore argue that businesses [4] need to sell an ‘added’ value with their product, which is the experience that consumers have through engaging with the company and its product.  Sometimes this experience will be transformational, but that is not necessary – for Pine and Gilmore pleasure is enough to make it an experience.

When interpreters speak of ‘experience’, this seems to be what they mean: the added value of the heritage product traded on a leisure market. For some, the comparison with Disney’s practices thus becomes desirable, in that Disney of course are a giant in the experience leisure economy and hugely successful in providing a competitively memorable experience product.

I suppose this is where I’m getting a bit uncomfortable with the experience concept. If the above is really what lies behind our concept of experience in a heritage context – and it’s certainly all I can find – then I have a few issues with it:

  • To start with, I’m not convinced that visitors really see visiting a heritage site or a museum as simply one possible leisure pursuit among others, even if we allow for a mild ‘educational’ bias. There are varying degrees of heritage attachment to sites, of course, but I would be surprised to find that visitors treat even the most ruinous of English Heritage castles on a par with Disneyland.  I think a lot more research is needed here before we can make such an assumption.
  • Secondly, we know that visitors bring their own agendas to sites, so the notion that we ‘craft’ an experience for them is just not sustainable. They make their own experience, based very much, as my own work leads me to believe, on the heritage belief that motivated them to visit in the first place.
  • Thirdly, while we’re thinking of interpretation as creating an experience for our visitors, we’re neglecting to engage with what they think about their heritage.  This ‘experience-making’ approach to interpretation still suggests a one-way street, albeit a more entertaining one, from interpreter to visitor.  We’re still – apparently – disenfranchising our visitors by assuming that we will create an experience and then sell it to them.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course our facilities will contribute to the ‘experience’ that visitors will have at our sites, whether they will enjoy themselves and create memories, and recommend us to their friends.  Of course our presentation and marketing have an impact.  Of course all of this is important. I just don’t think an approach to interpretation as ‘crafting experiences’ is in step with other developments in heritage management.

Visitors have a fundamental stake in heritage even when they are not on site.  In my mind, our task is not to create heritage for them, because we can’t, heritage exists independent of our efforts.  What we need to do is facilitate visitors’ engagement with their heritage.  Thinking about experience as described above just doesn’t seem to encourage us to adjust our practice accordingly [5].

 

Notes

[1] Of course, these practices – promoting preservation and educating – still exist, and they may still have a place at some sites. However, I would argue that there is a progression; if promotion of preservation alone motivates your interpretation I would be worried.

[2] At least as far as the public-facing side of heritage was concerned.  Heritage Designation remained the same.  It should also be said that museums seem to have been unaffected by this thinking until recently, and it is interesting that now we’re beginning to hear the same talk of ‘experience’ here as we have done at heritage sites for a while.

[3] Not, of course, with regard to designation and preservation concerns.  Again, I’m talking about the public face of heritage, as it were.

[4] The book doesn’t deal with heritage or tourism, it’s basically about marketing and service industries.

[5] Of course, as a stage in the development of interpretation, ‘experience’ is perfectly legitimate.  A lot of museums could do with more ‘experience’ and Disneyification, since so many of them still just ‘talk at’ their visitors – or indeed provide no interpretation at all.

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