Posts Tagged ‘heritage belief’

I’ve just returned from an excellent conference – the National Workshop of the US-American National Association for Interpretation.  I’ve picked up many good ideas that I will certainly blog about, but today I want to reflect on the responses I got to my own paper.

I presented some of the research I’ve recently completed into significance and interpretation.  In a nutshell, my case studies [1] as well as a review of existing interpretive planning models and organisational planning practices suggest strongly that interpreters do not undertake and consider inclusive significance assessments when planning interpretation.  Visitor surveys at the case study sites suggest that the resulting interpretation does not reflect or even shape why visitors think a site is important.  In other words, visitors to the case study sites formed their views about site importance independent of the interpretation although they did receive the intended interpretive messages.  They just didn’t think these messages expressed the site’s significance.

In my opinion that means the interpretation was fundamentally flawed.  What do we interpret if not precisely why the site is important?  How can we justify that our interpretation does not reflect a site’s significance to its stakeholders? [2]

An inclusive significance assessment must be at the core of any interpretation.  It will reveal the different meanings that stakeholders attach to a site.  Interpreting these meanings will avoid alienating stakeholders and it will ensure that those without prior knowledge will gain a true understanding of why the site is protected and important to others.

But what about those sites where two different groups have two conflicting meanings?  What about sites of shame, one delegate asked in my session? What about those heritage beliefs that some find offensive?

These are great questions and underline just how much responsibility interpreters carry.  And I don’t pretend to have an easy answer either beyond what I’ve already stated above: we need to consider all stakeholder meanings and preferably reflect them all, too.

The first step is therefore to determine who the stakeholders are.  In my opinion that goes a long way and it will reveal a certain weighting as well.  Taking Culloden Battlefield as the example from my research, a stakeholder assessment will quickly show that although English soldiers fought on the battlefield as well, the battle really does not occupy an important place in the sense of heritage of today’s English.  Experts on the battle [3] have pointed out that had the battle taken place in England, the site would most likely have long since been lost.  It is the descendants of the Gaelic community and the Scottish Diaspora at large who are the strongest force behind the protection of the site.  Historically accurate or not, to them the site represents a turning point in their culture’s and their family’s histories, and this goes across battle lines, for Gaelic speakers and Scots fought on both sides. [4]

I propose that the interpretive themes should flow from these stakeholder meanings. [5]  Above I mentioned that the stakeholder assessment may provide a certain weighting in terms of significance already.  For Culloden, this may be the overall acknowledgement that the site is a heritage site because of and to the Gaelic community, rather than the Scots-Government or English community of today.  This does not mean, however, that the relevant historical facts need to be hidden.  They just need to be introduced in a way that is respectful of the overall heritage claim of the site.

But what about sites where two meanings well and truly oppose each other with equal strength?  There seems to be a tendency to aim for what I call the ‘historical facts approach’ to interpretation in such cases.  Rather than set foot on what is perceived to be slippery ground, the interpretation presents ‘the historical facts’.  [6] This is what was largely done at Culloden Battlefield, resulting in visitors maintaining or gaining a view of the site’s ‘true’ importance quite independent of the interpretive messages.  In other words, the ‘historical facts approach’ will not reflect significance.  Therefore, I advocate to have the courage to present both sides.  This can still be done in a respectful, neutral tone that will enable the stakeholders in question to retain the site as their own as well as allow visitors to truly understand modern conflicts and make up their own minds.

Of course every site presents its own challenges.  I do not claim that the above is a fool-proof method to interpret significance.  However, if nothing else, it may help make interpreters aware of the far-reaching impact of their decisions early on in the interpretive planning process.  I hope it can help interpreters realise that their efforts may be wasted if they dodge these decisions.  They’re tough but they’re an essential part of our job.

And to all those that have joined my session at the NAI workshop in Las Vegas – thank you for your great comments and thoughtful questions, and the inspiration you have provided me.



[1] My case studies were Bru na Boinne in Ireland, Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, and Stanley Mills, also in Scotland.  However, I only considered Bru na Boinne and Culloden Battlefield since low visitor responses at Stanley Mills made firm conclusions impossible.

[2] And let us not forget here that significance is at the core of heritage protection legislation

[3] such as Archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard and Historian Christopher Duffy.

[4] I don’t want to muddle up things by delving too deeply into a discussion of the history of the ’45 Jacobite Rising.  Suffice it to say that while many have blindly associated all evil that befell the Gaelic and Highland community after Culloden with the Government’s leader, the Duke of Cumberland, the underlying heritage belief is less about the protagonists and more about a sense of loss (of culture and home), injustice (even clans loyal to the Government were punished) and brutality (suffered by many Highlanders in the aftermath of the battle).  Again, this seems to be shared across the ideological divide and therefore transcends the historical facts of civil war.  The latter, however, is one of the main messages of the interpretation in an attempt to provide ‘a balanced picture’.

[5] We will leave out the management messages etc. which will also influence interpretive themes.

[6] Of course in reality, there is no such this as a ‘historical fact’.  History is made up of fragmented records which are themselves coloured by the opinions and understanding of the writer.  On top of that, these records are then – no pun intended – interpreted by individual historians.  See Lowenthal, D. (1998) The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press



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Most of us, when doing visitor surveys, will find that visitors arrive at our doorstep with some prior knowledge of the site.  The depth of this knowledge will vary as will its historical accuracy.  Especially where this knowledge is connected with a sense of heritage, however, this may pose a challenge for interpreters.

I have already written about the dichotomy of history and heritage, or as I prefer to call it, historical fact and heritage belief.  I have found through experience and research that heritage beliefs should guide our interpretation of a site, and yet sometimes we cannot avoid introducing facts that are at odds with those beliefs.

But how to go about it?  Here are a few lessons that I’ve learnt:

1) Do you really need to correct the belief?

Be very sure that you’re not planning interpretation of the historical fact merely out of your own missionary zeal.  The urge can be strong, especially if you’ve worked at a site or on a project for considerable time.  The heritage belief can begin to seem silly and uninformed but remember that if it weren’t for that belief, the site may no longer matter to people.  And their zeal to protect their own belief will certainly match yours to dismantle it.

2) Never challenge visitors’ beliefs head-on

Even where beliefs are not deeply emotional, it is always a bad idea to challenge visitors’ beliefs directly.  Avoid telling them, ‘This belief is wrong’ because it can make them feel inferior and defensive.  You will effect a similar reaction if you ask them to justify their beliefs, for example by asking, ‘How do you know that?’ Once you’ve put visitors’ backs up like that, you will probably have lost them for good  [1].

3) Start with respecting visitors’ beliefs

Every myth holds a kennel of truth.  It is the same with heritage beliefs, not the least because historical facts themselves depend on the importance that humans give them from within their own frame of reference.  Although you may consider the historical fact as contradicting the heritage belief, for visitors it may well seem different.  If you respect this and express that respect in your interpretation, visitors will become open because they will feel reassured and reaffirmed [2].

4) Weave the history in with the heritage

Build your interpretation from the heritage up.  In doing so, you start with something that visitors are likely already familiar with.  This will reassure them and allow you to build any new learning on this existing knowledge [3].

5) Introduce the contradictory fact subtly

Using the heritage belief as your starting point, you will still want to avoid knocking visitors over the head with the historical fact that is at odds with the belief.  The best method I’ve found is to simply present the fact nonchalantly in the natural flow of the interpretation.  My evaluations have shown that visitors still learn the fact and will often want to find out more of their own accord.  My theory is that introducing the possibly offending fact subtly allows visitors to take their time processing it without any pressure to decide what to do and how, if at all, to revise their beliefs.

6) Accept that visitors have the right to take from your interpretation whatever they like

Although visitors in general learn and accept the facts that are at odds with their heritage beliefs, I’ve also found that this doesn’t necessarily change the core of their belief.  For an interpreter that may at first glance seem like failed interpretation.  However, it is in line with what studies in learning have found (see the notes below), and more importantly, in my view, it represents that visitors and particularly stakeholders have the strongest claim on heritage sites.  It is their views and the inspiration that they draw from sites that makes them ultimately meaningful.


[1] Part of the issue here is so-called ‘supplantive learning’ where visitors are asked not only to learn new knowledge but to replace existing knowledge.  There is also the ‘cost of learning’ which can involve a felt loss of status and self-confidence (since one is asked to admit that one’s knowledge is wrong).  You can find a good overview here.

[2] Again studies on learning provide good insights here.  The social aspect of learning is especially important in a leisure environment such as heritage sites and museums.  Pressure and a challenging atmosphere are not conducive to learning in museums.  See for example Jarvis, P., Holford, J. and Griffin, C. (2004) The Theory and Practice of Learning. 2nd edition.  London and New York: RoutledgeFalmer

[3] Studies have shown that people mostly learn what they already know.  In connecting new learning with existing knowledge, interpreters have a better chance of enhancing learning.  See for example Silverman, L.H. (1997)  Personalizing the Past: A review of literature with implications for historical interpretation, in: Journal of Interpretation Research, Vol 2, No 1, pp. 1 – 12.

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I am preparing a research proposal at the moment, and part of my literature review reminds me of an experience I had late last year at a history conference.  At the time, I was doing another bit of research looking at what our processes are for interpreting significance.  At one of my case study sites an anecdote was reported to me, whereby a man stood up at a public consultation and asked: ‘Are you telling the story of our history or our heritage?’

Wow.  This was a member of the general public, and yet he’d put his finger right on the heart of the issue.  In academia, the theoretical discourse about ‘history vs heritage’ was most vibrant about twenty years ago.  It seems to have died down considerably, which it really shouldn’t have: we still have much to learn about what the difference means for our interpretive practice.  But in short, the debate could be summarised as: history is the scientific (and thus supposedly unemotional) collection of observable facts, while heritage is the (personal, but mostly communal) experience and recollection of events in all their psychological guises and to all possible purposes.

I tried to explain to one of the historians at the conference why I felt this comment was so relevant to how the site should be presented.  After all, this person was both a stakeholder and a potential user of the site in question.  I tried to explain why telling the historical facts wasn’t enough, that in fact to some degree they were actually irrelevant to the heritage.  In other words, I tried to share some insight into the dilemma every interpreter faces.

I failed miserably.  To the historian, there was no question: what, they asked, could you possibly tell BUT the historical facts?  And everything about their facial expression accused me of proposing to tell lies.  In their mind, heritage omission or re-evaluation of historical facts simply proves the irrationality of heritage and its consequent inferiority to history.

However, it’s not quite that simple either.  As many authors have pointed out, without that heritage value attached to a site or object, it becomes meaningless.  What is more, history itself is not a value-free science: it depends on the historian’s interpretation and understanding of the facts, which may change as more facts are discovered.

Sadly, however, too many exhibitions, presentations of sites and interpretive programmes are still governed by history.  But this can easily border on disenfranchisement of those whose heritage it is, and a blatant case of expert hegemony over the ‘ignorant public’ who needs to be ‘educated’.

So, am I proposing to tell lies?  Most certainly not.  I’m not even proposing to hide the historical fact that might shed a different light on what I call the heritage belief.  After all, in many cases there are different ‘heritage beliefs’ that are attached to one and the same site/object/tradition.  But what I do advocate is to give thorough consideration to the beliefs held by those who claim the site etc. as their heritage.  Even where conflicting claims exist, very often a sensitive representation of both beliefs is possible.

Note that I am writing beliefs – not the historical fact.  For the fact most likely is meaningless to all parties involved if it is presented without reference, or indeed without giving precedence to the heritage belief.  A presentation of historical facts alone has on numerous recent projects been used to present what was intended to be a ‘balanced’ view of a contentious site.  I have found that the result was predominantly a lifeless representation that failed to capture the site’s meaning for its stakeholders and quite importantly, that also failed to ‘educate’.  The stakeholders wouldn’t listen because they were offended by what they felt was a patronizing tone, and others could no longer understand what the fuss was all about.  To me, therein lies a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the interpreters: they are, after all, not interpreting a history site, but a heritage site.

Here is some further reading for starters:

Edson, G (2004) ‘Heritage: Pride or Passion, Product or Service?’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 10 (4), 333-348

Hewison, R. (1987) The Heritage Industry.  Britain in a climate of decline.  London: Methuen

Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum

Lowenthal, D. (1998) The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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