Posts Tagged ‘guided tours’

I recently read Sharon MacDonald’s fascinating book Difficult Heritage.  Negotiating the Nazi past in Nuremberg and beyond [1].  There were a lot of thought-provoking observations in the book, but the one I’d like to focus on today are the guided tours of the Nazi rally grounds.

Geschichte fuer Alle organises these tours.  Their website explains that they are an organisation ‘working scientifically’, which aims to provide a critical point of view.  For the tours of the Nazi rally grounds, MacDonald writes that the organisation wishes to ‘present the site factually rather than through moralising statements’ (p. 149).  This last bit I think is worth highlighting.  No moralising statements.  This sounds really progressive.  It suggests that visitors are allowed to make up their own minds.  We’re facilitators, not dictators.  We won’t moralise, or preach to you.

According to MacDonald, the organisation provides their guides with in-depth scripts for reference, giving not only the key points that should be covered, but also a range of suggestions on how to deliver them.  Questions, for example, are strongly promoted as a good way of engaging audiences.  Now that’s something we all know from learning theory, and it’s a strategy well rehearsed in interpretative best practice.  However, as MacDonald continued with her observations of the tours, I began to wonder about the way the questions were employed, and what impact they may have on visitors as the tour progresses.

Questions such as, What were the party rallies? (p. 151) are no doubt a good way of gauging visitors’ level of knowledge. But what dynamics do they actually activate?  The question asks visitors to give quite a clear answer about what they know.  And immediately, there is the possibility of a wrong answer – either factually or in terms of social acceptability.  Will visitors take that risk?  Or, in the case of social acceptability, will they simply tell us what they think we want to hear? Either way, does a question like this really promote interaction, and achieve any positive aim for the interpretation?

The questions to me became even more doubtful when used as part of eliciting what MacDonald termed the ‘preferred reading’ of the site.  For example, the question ‘Do you like the façade [of the Congress Hall]?’ was then followed by explanations of how the stone for the building was quarried by inmates from nearby concentration camps, themselves illustrated by pictures which the guide held up.  On the face of it, this is a brilliant technique: you engage visitors emotionally with a building (Do you like it?) and then you ‘peel away’ at the façade (MacDonald literally calls this ‘façade-peeling’), leading to the hidden truth behind what you can see.  Great.

Except of course, you are also making it clear that any response that suggested a visitor liked the space, was, alas, wrong.  In fact, I can imagine visitors feeling as if they, by liking the building, are thought to have embraced the way in which it was built.  Their positive answer not only becomes wrong, but it becomes morally reprehensible.  Again, I understand that the technique means to peel away the façade.  But does it achieve that? You are asking a question based on one piece of information (how the buildings look) and then you effectively make a judgment about that answer by revealing additional information (forced labour, concentration camps) that completely changes the context of your first question.  You got interaction, certainly.  But is it the right kind of interaction? And what about those visitors that have a sense of awe, or of unity and community when it comes to the rallies and their buildings?  Can this technique really get them to critically engage with those feelings?  Or does it make it easier for them to reject the tour’s ‘preferred reading’, because they feel they are being censored and manipulated?

Which brings me to the preferred readings themselves.  It may be easy to embrace the concept of preferred readings when it comes to a site like the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg.  But how are preferred readings different to those moralising statements that Geschichte fuer Alle vowed not to make? MacDonald observed instances where eyewitnesses on tours were effectively neutralized, and their experience of having felt ‘forced’ to participate in the rallies or the Hitler Youth dismissed and muted by the guide.  Where is the line here between telling historical facts (and challenging inaccuracies), and the despotic inscription of meaning?

I’m intrigued by all of this, not the least because my own research in Germany suggests that such encoding of preferred readings in interpretation is undertaken without enough consideration or understanding of its impact on visitors.  Furthermore, responses from visitors themselves suggest that they are well aware of it, and that some most emphatically resent it.  I’ve yet to do some more interviews at a control study site, but if the findings there are consistent with the findings that I already have, then interpretation will need to rethink not only our practices as illustrated by the tours at the Nazi rally grounds, but also what motivates these practices.

[1] London and New York: Routledge.  2009.

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A couple of weekends ago, I visited Hughenden Manor, managed by the National Trust.  I joined a guided tour on World War II, when the house had served as a base for map makers. The tour guide, a lovely and otherwise very welcoming lady, kept using ‘we’ as she spoke about Hughenden’s history during the war.  ‘We’ used this place.  ‘We’ made maps here.  ‘We’ photographed the maps.

At first I was merely puzzled. Did ‘we’, the National Trust, photograph the maps?  Did ‘we’, a collective of which I, as a visitor, was a part, use this place?  Of course, by the time the tour guide said ‘We bombed Hitler’s Eagles Nest’ I realised that ‘we’ meant ‘the British’.  And as the tour progressed, this group identity became even more pronounced.

I wasn’t the only non-British person in the group.  There was the French friend I was with, as well as a couple from the Netherlands and a few Americans, as far as I could tell.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether the guide and the National Trust as the organisation whom she represented had really thought through this use of language. The message sent to us non-British seemed clear: this wasn’t our past.  Our place in this narrative was as spectators, and judging from the proud and emphatic tone employed, we were supposed to be admiring spectators.

My own role was of course more complex than that.  I am German, so even in a non-philosophical way (I would argue that one country’s past is almost always also another country’s past, especially if you’re talking about a World War) the past that was represented was indeed partially my past.  But the language used left no room for my own engagement with that past.  I was to share in the celebration of the maps’ accuracy in enabling pilots to bomb German towns, dismissing the ‘few civilian casualties’ [1].  What is more, as the tour progressed, I noticed myself becoming self-conscious about being German.  I wondered what the guide’s, and the group’s, reaction would be if they ‘found out’.

Is this really how the tour guide, and the National Trust, wanted to make me feel?  I dare say the answer is no.  To me, this points to a few things.  It is not enough to devise a guided tour that shares facts in an engaging and fun way.  Evaluated on these criteria, the tour would score as outstanding.  But what we need to consider is visitors’ own engagement with a topic.  Do we allow them to contribute, to share?  Are we making it possible for them to look at something from a different point of view, while still respecting the one that they arrived with?  Are we providing a welcoming and safe place for everyone?  Are we inclusive?  Judged on these criteria, I’m afraid the tour at Hughenden Manor wasn’t very successful.



[1] I don’t think it’s necessary here to go into a discussion about the war.  It is needless to say that I acknowledge the harm that Germany did to many countries and people, Britain included.  But as someone who has interpreted war for the better part of her professional career, I feel keenly the importance of bringing sensitivity to war interpretation, no matter how long ago things happened, or who we think was the aggressor.

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