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Posts Tagged ‘heritage values’

I recently heard a short description about an interpretive encounter that made me think again about the construction of heritage, the use of interpretation to represent that particular view of heritage, and the social structures that are expressed and recreated in doing so.

 

The anecdote concerned a guided tour with a school group [1]. Before I recount it as I was told it, I want to make it clear that the teller did not intend to give an in-depth account of the interpretation, and therefore I do not know the precise context in which the original story was narrated, or indeed how. The facts, however, are as follows: the guide told the school children that in the past, there existed the practice of tossing a biracial boy (in the retelling the term ‘mulatto’ was used) to danger, to see who in the attending group (I have strong reason to believe they were white men) could rescue him first. There was a black boy amid the school group who, upon hearing this, burst into tears. He then was told that this was ‘a long time ago’ and ‘obviously’ this ‘would not happen today’ (I think were the words used in the retelling).

 

Now, for a start, I’m simply going to assume that no guide would actually use the term ‘mulatto’ in public, in front of a school group, and in front of a black boy.

 

However, I can well imagine that if the guide did use the term, it was in the context of ‘the past’. For in the past, that’s what they would have called the child. And I can – sadly – imagine that somehow, that seemed to make it okay to use the term today in the retelling of the practice. As if the passing of time had purged the term of the disdain and discrimination it expressed back then: ‘mulatto’ comes from Spanish ‘young mule’. And clearly the people of the past had little more respect for the boy than they did for a mule as they endangered his life for their own amusement and sport [2].

 

Of course, that may have been the whole point of telling the story: to show up the racism of the past and analyse it unflinchingly so that we may understand the racism that is still happening today and build a better future for tomorrow. However, the fact that the guide apparently told the boy who cried that this happened a long time ago and obviously wouldn’t happen today, just doesn’t make me believe that that’s actually how – and why – the story was related. First of all, such racism obviously does happen today, so that clearly wasn’t part of the conversation. And while I understand why the boy would have cried no matter how the story was told, the fact that the other children as far as I know weren’t affected tells me that he was the only one who understood what was truly going on in this little ‘story’.

 

And what is this story? If it wasn’t shared to examine the inherent racism of 19th century Britain (as I believe the period concerned was) then why share it at all? I wondered: in what other context would anyone think it appropriate to tell this story? Again, I do not know the precise context of this piece of interpretation and how it came about. However, the fact that it was told in the first place and then subsequently rationalised as ‘a long time ago’, ‘obviously’ and ‘would not happen today’ suggests a view of an ultimately benevolent society that created something good from which we still benefit today [3]. This is the quintessentially sanitised past turned heritage. Only by willfully ignoring the darker aspects of history are we able to represent it as heritage that is universally claim worthy. By declaring that racist actions of the past ‘of course’ would no longer happen today, we deny the pain and hurt of that boy who cried upon hearing the story. We refuse to acknowledge that those very same structures of discrimination and disregard that are evident in the story are being recreated quite literally as we speak: we’re expecting that boy to share in our sense of benign heritage, when quite obviously all he heard was a shocking and frightening action that may have more resemblance to his everyday experience than we may be prepared to face.

 

Like me, your first reaction upon reading this example of interpretation may have been to pronounce that, ‘This is why you should have professional interpreters.’ And maybe we’re right, maybe the guide wasn’t a professioal – I don’t know. And yet, I think there is every chance that a professional interpreter by our standards may simply have chosen not to tell this story at all. But is this truly better? Is simply leaving out the nasty bits any more responsible or professional? Especially since a ‘professional’ very likely would have understood and represented the heritage overall in the same way: that this site was created by kind people for the benefit of others, and now we are benefitting from it too. The message: the site is worthy of our protection and all of us can (and should) enjoy it. And meanwhile, on our 21st century streets, the racism continues and black people die.

 

I am a firm believer in people choosing and creating their heritage, and this, I am well aware, sanctions the choice to ignore the racism and establish a rosy view of times (and practices) gone by. But I also believe that heritage can be exclusive and dissonant, with inherent representations and views that shape and influence our present and future, and not always in a constructive manner for all. I also believe that heritage is fluid – as we contest and debate it, it changes. And that is truly where I feel professionalism enters the equation. In professional interpretation we must be aware of these representational dynamics and do all we can to make them visible. This isn’t about preaching to a heritage community to change their views. It’s about opening doors for all to enter into heritage making in our shared world. I honestly believe that the particular site in the example can become great heritage for the young boy who was reduced to tears – but not on the basis on which we’re currently trying to goad him into buying into our story of kindly benefactors. Acknowledging and sharing that the past was wrong means we can reclaim the site on a different basis that works for all of us, not just those with the power to tell the story. Heritage, after all, is not set in stone.

 

Notes
[1] I want to point out here that the incident was shared with the express recognition that something had gone wrong and that advice should be sought on how to do things differently in the future. So that’s an all-round good thing.

[2] Just for the record, I make no distinction between the worth of the life of a mule and that of a human being. But I daresay those chaps did.

[3] I know I’m being vague here, but unfortunately any more details may identify the site in question, and that’s not the point of this post. It’s not a critique of a specific site, but an underlying approach that applies to many other sites also.

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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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A few weeks ago, I attended a conference on ‘Understanding Museums’ in Germany. It was about researching museums and researching audiences, with a particular focus on new and innovative methods [1].

In the final plenary session, the organiser for the museum research aspect of the conference expressed his hope that the focus on researching audiences would not overshadow research of museums. I understand his desire to research collections, and displays more or less in isolation, and I will say that the session on provenance research was quite interesting.

However, the organiser’s comment was also a bit curious in my ears, as someone who passionately believes that museums are there not just for people, but because of people. Therefore, in my universe, audience research is the start and the end of all museums or heritage work. And please note that audience research here isn’t just research with those people that come through the door of the museum: it includes non-visitor as well. Audience research examines what they value about the heritage in our professional care, how they want to use it, engage with it – or not. It seeks to establish the barriers, the perceptions, anything that the museum is (apparently) doing wrong. But also what it is doing well: What do people value about it? What works? Why? In addition to this qualitative stuff, there’s the quantitative bit that can also give you an idea of how your museum works – and how it fails: the numbers, the stats, the visitor demographics. All of these things together are the basic foundation from which to do professional museum work.

‘Professional’ is quite important here. You would not believe the number of audience research I see in my work as a consultant that is frankly useless. People seem to think they can save money on this and just send the poor intern out to quickly whip up a survey and start asking people (or worse, just have ‘comment cards’ or the vexatious ‘visitor book’). In reality, audience research is quite a complex job. You have to know what you want to use this for and how. You need to think about sampling, bias, and analysis. You need to know how to administer your audience research: even doing surveys requires a professional approach. Planning audience research requires being familiar with the pros and cons of different methods, and not just relying on a one-size-fits all approach. Often, this is long-term data and developments you’ll want to capture, so there needs to be a proper strategy integrated into your management. Without that kind of professional audience research, your work will always suffer from an unprofessional, and thus shaky, foundation.

And why is audience research the necessary foundation? Because good audience research should inform business planning, business and options development, project development, infrastructure and visitor services, and interpretation. If you’ve cheated in the audience research, and allowed, for example, your biases to come through, or a notion that you ‘already know’ your visitors and non-visitors, then your entire project will suffer from it and most likely underachieve and under-deliver, be it in visitor numbers, satisfaction rates, or financial performance.

That’s why I found slightly curious the suggestion that audience research should take second place to museum research, understood here as research on collections, as far as I could gather. If you asked me, I would have it just the other way around. Without audience research, the heart of your museum can never properly beat.

 

Notes

[1] Here just a quick overview, and my thoughts:

Technology 1: Eye-tracking

It was quite noticeable that the non-British colleagues were very focused on technology-based museums and audience research. Eye-tracking and the use of video technology stood out. I wasn’t too sure at first about eye-tracking, especially with regards to understanding audiences, and how the museum worked for them. But then one presenter, Hanna Brinkmann of the University of Vienna, showed a ‘hot-spot’ map of a painting. It highlighted where most visitors looked (the face) and the areas they hardly noticed. She made the point that beside helping art historians understand how people ‘read’ art, it also gives a clue to interpreters about the things that visitors appear to be missing. That made sense, although I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a more cost-effective method available.

 

Technology 2: User Video Study

I was particularly intrigued by an excerpt from a User Video Study shared by Johanna Barnbeck of the University of Amsterdam. Basically this type of study attaches a camera to one of the group members, in this case a little boy, to capture their visit. Johanna found that people quickly forgot about the camera, and I thought this was a great way of seeing how visitors move through spaces, respond to exhibits and use interpretation socially, and potentially also to get some candid insights into what they think. I can see this method work also for the type of study that I’ve just done, which looked at the benefits that visitors took from heritage, and their relationship with it. I was conscious that I couldn’t eavesdrop into their conversations while observing them, and this would have been a potential solution (well, with funding). I think one would still want to have an explorative conversation, to follow up and probe on what they said and did. Apparently follow-up conversations were in fact part of the methodology that Johanna used.

 

Qualitative Methods

Several presenters also talked about using qualitative methods for audience research, sometimes, but not always in combination with technology-supported visitor observations. Unstructured interviews and narrative inquiry featured strongly, along with accompanied visits, with several presenters making the point that pre-determining structures, similar to pre-set answer options in surveys, means that what you can find is limited by your expectations, discourses and biases as a researcher. I thought that was an important point to make at a conference about audience research.

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A few years ago, I read Marta Anico’s essay on representing identities at local municipal museums [1]. In it, she discusses the heritage activation process [2]. Over recent months, while Scotland was in the grip of the referendum campaign, the concept came back to me. Not quite as Anico described it [3] but rather as a reminder of that which is already within us: a re-activation of our heritage values.

In legislation, heritage values effectively express significance of something that is to be protected: usually material, but sometimes intangible. Crucially, it is not so much the value itself that counts. Rather, it is the relationship it has to something else – a building or a definable tradition.

It’s different in ethics. Here, it’s our values that matter on their own account. We may still view them as having a relationship to something else, for example in defining who we are as people. But what concerns us are the values themselves – everything else is a shared by-product of sorts.

The heritage values that were reactivated in me through the Scottish Referendum process are perhaps best described as those ethical values, worth in their own right, that are based on my heritage, understood here as the things that have been passed on to me, that are important to me and that denote me as a member of a specific community of some temporal depth [4]. I’m originally from Germany, and much of what I started to think about – for the first time in the seventeen plus years that I’ve lived outside of Germany – was German, but there were also the things that have made an impact on me in the other places where I’ve lived.

What reactivated these values was the referendum question we were asked to consider: Should Scotland be an independent country? And I started to think of things like the Weimar Republic abolishing the nobility and having a vision of an equal society that thankfully, the Germany I grew up in had – I appreciated that. I thought of the images of the Monday Demonstrations across what was then the German Democratic Republic in 1989 – I felt inspired by those people, and the end-result their actions provided, of a reunified Germany, which today feels truly united. I started to think about the property I interpreted in the US that was related to the War for Independence, and the way that Americans fiercely and proudly related to the underlying values of fair representation, a fair chance for everyone – I never did feel as free as in the US. These, I realised, are my traditions that I believe in and which provide the basis for the values that determined my answer to the referendum question.

The beauty of it was that on the level of these values I was the same as someone whose personal heritage from the outside would have looked completely different to mine. I remember an Asian lady coming to our stall one day, and I was stunned how much this referendum had done to make people recognise what they share, not what makes them different. This was true integration and cohesion. I wish there were a way to hold on to that.

I will mull all of this over for a little while yet, and if anyone has had similar experiences or observations, or if you have any thoughts about this post, I would, as ever, love to hear from you [5].

 

Notes

[1] Anico, M., 2009. ‘Representing identities at local municipal museums: Cultural forums or identity bunkers?’ In: Anico, M. and Peralta, E. (eds), 2009. Heritage and Identity. Engagement and Demission in the Contemporary World. Routledge: London and New York, pp. 63-75

[2] She credits Prats 1997 for this concept, but I’m afraid the original book is in Spanish, and my Spanish just doesn’t cut it.

[3] Anico described it as the promotion of ‘forms of belonging through the creation of local identifying discourses’ (p. 67). I want to go back and re-read this after my recent experience, but from how I remember it this is more of an external process that emphasises creation of identity, rather than the re-activation of something that is already there.

[4] I do think that heritage has something to do with connecting to what was before. Otherwise, it’s (contemporary) culture – which is no less important or meaningful.

[5] On a final note, I want to share with everyone what an amazing, important, life-changing, exhilarating, and empowering experience it was to be part of this referendum. I know from my chats with friends abroad that you will all have heard about the 84% of eligible people who voted. But that does not express the energy and the good will (for the most part) that was out there. For one brief moment, Scotland truldy did hold its fate in its own hands, and everybody knew it and took power. Please do not dismiss either side, and especially not the Yes side that wanted independence – as I have heard many friends in Germany do.  Unity is a great thing – it is the first word of the German National Anthem, and something that is engrained in me too. But German unity is unity of equals. This is not so in the UK. I wish for those that voted No that their hopes will come true. I’m still grappling with my own disappointment, and the sense of uncertainty that now hangs over my future in a country that on a daily basis has discussions that are anti-immigration, and anti-European. Because another thing that I realised during this referendum is that I am, truly, European, and that’s how I like it.

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I spent last week at a thought-provoking seminar on interpreting megalithic sites.  Most of the other participants were archaeologists, charged with unearthing the facts that might tell us what sites are all about. I couldn’t help but be impressed by their attention to detail, and their commitment to objectivity and truth.

The latter is of course not quite as clean cut as we may think.  As we strove to define megalithic sites, and whether there were enough similarities between sites across the globe to merit clustering them under the definition, my colleagues began to argue – not about the facts (usually), but about what these tell us. I found that illustrative of the whole issue of facts, objectivity and truth.  There are facts, yes.  But how we interpret them (in the non-heritage interpretation meaning of the word) is largely dependent on our own perspectives.

And this, incidentally, is what research on learning, evaluative studies on knowledge gain through interpretation, and even general practice books on interpretation tell us over and over again: how people interact with sites, what they take from them, depends on where they started their journey.

However, while we are quick to acknowledge the above in general terms, when it comes to letting go of our control over meaning, somehow we no longer embrace this fully.  We seem to allow people to have a range of views, as long as these are those sanctioned by the experts.  But if people stray outside of these, we’re no longer quite that easy-going.

I think our definitions of interpretation as they currently stand express rather eloquently that we have what is ultimately an autocratic view of meaning.  Interpretation ‘forges connections’, we write, as if people may not already have connections to heritage.  Even more bluntly, some state that interpretation ‘brings meaning’ to a site, again suggesting that the site doesn’t already have meaning for people.

Neither is the case, of course, as we saw for ourselves on our fieldtrips to megalithic sites in Wiltshire, UK [1].  At West Kennet Long Barrow, people had left flowers inside one of the chambers.  At Woodhenge, people had created rather lovely corn stalk circles and left them in the centre of the site, where once a burial had been.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t subscribe to the view either that Stonehenge once served as an alien landing pad.  But while one of my colleagues felt this view should be soundly dismissed, both in the interpretation offered at the new visitor centre and in any further engagement, I feel quite differently.  I have no qualms whatsoever about presenting all views put forward by people, or at least allowing plenty of room for them to express them, and live them, as it were.  What’s the harm?  Of course we should present all the facts as we know them, but clearly these facts don’t subsequently only lead to one neat meaning.

I think what might be happening is that as experts, we get too passionate, and dare I say too precious about our own meanings.  I feel the same way when it comes to interpretation, and I can certainly have heated discussions about it.  But at the centre of my view of interpretation lie the people themselves. I will give them facts, and facilitate their engagement with a site, and I’ll be on hand to offer further input when they seek it.  Beyond that, it’s up to them what they make of all of this.  It’s their site more so than it is mine [2]. I measure success not by whether or not they’ve accepted my meaning, but whether they’ve explored and arrived at their own.

I know there are a lot of issues surrounding sites, especially those where conflicting views exist, and where the desire to use a site clashes with its conservation.  Nevertheless, the seminar has highlighted for me once again how important it is that as interpreters we are honest to ourselves, and reflect on how we relate to visitors.  Do we think we know better than them?  Are we on a mission to ‘educate’?  Do we behave in a way that is disrespectful to their views where we find these unfounded, irrational, and perhaps a bit weird? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I think it’s high time to do some soul-searching.

 

 

Notes
[1] I’d like to emphasise this: out of all the sites we have, megalithic sites are the ones we know the least about.  And yet they still have meaning for people.  Some may argue that it’s precisely this lack of absolute knowledge that creates, or enables so many different meanings.  That may be the case.  But to me, it illustrates that people more often than not already have a connection to a site, and a site has meaning for them.

[2] And generally quite literally so, because I’ve almost exclusively interpreted sites outside of my own heritage.  I have no personal attachment.

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Last week, UK’s Channel 4 aired a documentary about an archaeological dig in search of Richard III.  I found the show really illuminating.  Not because of its intended content – I actually thought the way they presented everything was neither here (archaeology) nor there (history). No, what I found fascinating was what the documentary revealed, rather unintentionally, about how little understanding some professionals have of people’s sense of heritage, and how unprepared they are for dealing with it.

Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society was the driver behind the project (the society funded it).  She was clearly deeply and emotionally connected to Richard III as a man and a king whose memory had been mutilated.  Everything about the dig had a meaning to her: the ‘R’ written on the parking space under which (apparently) they found Richard III’s body.  The rain clouds that drew up when they came upon his bones.  As she watched the bones being carefully freed of earth, she started to cry and practically hyperventilate.

The presenter, Simon Farnaby, a comedian and writer, clearly did not know what to do with this reaction or Langley’s emotional connection to Richard III in general.  Gazing down into the pit alongside Langley, he talked of how ‘weird’ it was to be ‘digging up a dead body’.  His choice of words said it all: while she talked about ‘finding him’ and ‘Richard’, to Farnaby this was something rather more remote and barely connected to an actual human life.

The scientists of course didn’t make this connection either.  To Dr Jo Appleby, the osteologist (bone expert), this was clearly neither about ‘Richard’ nor ‘dead bodies’.  This was a matter of an object to be scientifically examined in order to make a statement based on statistical probability about whether or not this was indeed the remains of a historically documented person (phew).  No humanity left in there at all. At first, this amused me – I thought of my own careful language when I write anything about my research.  Quickly, however, I became uncomfortable.  I could not help but feel that Appleby’s attitude toward Langley was downright patronising, never mind devoid of any understanding. A scene that highlighted this for me in stark contrasts was when Langley suggested that Appleby wrap the bones in Richard III’s colours for removal from site.  Appleby refused: ‘I’m not sure I’m very happy about doing that’, she said, allegedly because she felt it would be an inappropriate action if DNA testing later showed this was not Richard III (it didn’t and it was).

I have no issue with Appleby’s refusal per se.  What I did take issue with was how she made no effort to understand or show respect for Langley’s feelings throughout the documentary. Later, Appleby and a colleague told Langley that Richard III did have a ‘hunchback’, thus using a term to which it was clear Langley would take objection, it being at the heart of the defamation of Richard III’s character (they later qualified the ‘hunchback’ to have been a slight curvature of the spine that would have been hard to spot under clothes).  When Langley spoke of Richard III’s reputation as an able military leader, Appleby brought up a ‘source she could not now remember’, but which described Richard III as ‘effeminate’. Why?

For me, the documentary highlighted several points.  Neither Farnaby nor Appleby are likely to consider themselves heritage professionals, and yet here they were dealing with heritage and being confronted directly with the person holding a heritage belief.  Farnaby seemed merely befuddled, well-meaning but lacking depth.  Appleby on the other hand acted in a manner that seemed very arrogant, considering her own ‘evidence’ as above Langley’s heritage belief.

In reality, science and heritage aren’t even in competition.  They can, actually, live peacefully side by side, if it weren’t for the ‘specialist’s efforts to put all the facts straight.  There is a way of sharing evidence, and you can do it respectfully and without missionary zeal.  That is where the ‘heritage’ in ‘professional’ comes in – it does take training and learning to get it right.

As for Langley –  I don’t share her heritage belief, and I’m really not that fussed about Richard III.  But I thought it a poignant fact that if it hadn’t been for her and her heritage belief, the dig, and the celebrated discovery, and the documentary and Leicester’s (or York’s) future visitor attraction would never have happened.

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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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