Posts Tagged ‘heritage value’

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?



[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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Last week, I had one of those exciting conversations with a colleague, which reminded me of why I’m doing what I’m doing.  This particular colleague doesn’t have a background in heritage, and I was trying to explain to them what I wanted our interpretation to achieve at our site.  In fact, so removed is their experience from working at a heritage site, that I also explained what made our site different from, say, a recreation ground in my view [1]. Afterward, I felt really fired up and passionate, so I thought I’d share with you what we discussed.


Heritage is about people…

My current site is of high regional (Welsh) architectural importance and of low national (British) historical importance.  But that’s not why the community (local and beyond) value it.  To them, the site is entirely of social value: it represents their own social empowerment over many, many years, and it acts as a focal point for community life.  That is why people care about this site.  That is what gives it its sense of place.  Architecture and history are just a bonus.


…and it is people’s values that we need to interpret

We could put together a stunning interpretive programme on architecture, but if that’s what we focussed on we would entirely miss the point.  Our local stakeholders would rightly question our ability to manage the site, and we would send our visitors from further afield away with no understanding at all of why the site is actually important.  Therefore, our interpretation needs to focus on what the community value about the site – see above.


Heritage is about identity…

The town that surrounds my site is one of the most deprived wards in Wales – and it shows.  However, the site itself is stunningly beautiful, and by its sheer physical presence in the centre of town it goes a long way to illustrating who the people of the town are.  It is not just about one particular moment in (historical) time; rather, it is about the entire experience of life that spans the history of the site. Anytime I talk to stakeholders I feel that this is where their passion for the site comes from: the site tells of prior hardships, and of the town folk’s empowerment.  It is this sense of empowerment, and the pride that flows from it, that folk enact every time that they come to the site.


… and interpretation should facilitate this enactment of identity

I should qualify what I’ve just said: it’s not ‘folk’ per se that have this sense of identity associated with the site.  It is the older generation.  Many youngsters have fond memories of spending time in the park, but few – if any – of them benefit from the positive identity that the older generation enact on site.  So while youngsters appreciate the site as a place to hang out in, without further facilitation the site can’t help them develop their own identity as members of this particular community.  I daresay that they cannot make sense of the dilapidated state of their town, and the existence in its centre of a tranquil, and attractive property – nor can they make sense of what the older people are so very proud of.  So this is what I want our interpretation to achieve: to help all members of the community, young and old, to experience this sense of empowerment that has shaped the site and the town over time, and to participate in it.  And in doing so, I hope that our interpretation will inspire young people to carry this empowerment into the future and to contribute to the town’s revival.


Heritage is about passion…

The majority of our stakeholders are truly passionate about our site.  In our case, their passion is primarily centred on a sense of ownership.  The site is theirs, as they continuously state, and of course they’re right.  The sense of ownership is intimately connected to the empowerment that the site represents; the community have shaped the site for over one hundred years. And in my mind, this passion is what it’s all about.  In managing the site as a heritage site, we need to place this passion at the centre of all we do.


… and our interpretation needs to be passionate

I have always been a firm believer in emotion in interpretation, especially if it is emotion that is at the core of the heritage value in question.  So at my current site, it is definitely this passion, this pride in ownership and empowerment that I want our interpretation to inspire.  I want people – local stakeholders and visitor-stakeholders, young and old – to be moved while they engage with the site through interpretation.  Only then will we have done justice to why the site is important.



[1] Of course, this hypothetical recreation ground may have a heritage value also, but for argument’s sake, we imagined it as having no relevance to people whatsoever.

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