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Posts Tagged ‘heritage’

Last week, three high court judges dismissed an application for judicial review and thus paved the way for Richard III’s remains to be buried at Leicester Cathedral.

There are three key things that strike me about this whole process.

The Authorized Heritage Discourse at work
The basis for the applicant’s claim (that they are relatives of Richard III) was portrayed in the media as ‘tenuous’, and thus often, I feel, ridiculed. The reality is of course that this was the only way their – or anyone else’s – views would even be considered: they had to prove what’s called ‘locus standi’, or ‘sufficient interest’ [1]. Why? Because the decision on where Richard III’s body would be buried had already been made even before anyone knew they had found him. This was in the Exhumation License, and the decision was ultimately that of the University of Leicester.

 
That the university should have the decision-making power on this is in itself a result of the AHD: although it was the Richard III Society who initiated the whole excavation journey, it was the university that applied for the exhumation license, because (so the judgment) ‘an application for an archaeological license such as this would normally be made by an archaeologist who could satisfy the MoJ [Ministry of Justice] that he had the skills necessary to meet the terms of the licence’ (paragraph 43). In other words, the structures put in place are such that from the start experts are privileged in the process and given decision-making powers. Leicester Council, who was of course also involved, would have wanted a public consultation, but withdrew the suggestion upon objection from the university (paragraph 57). Why the university should object to the public having a say is anyone’s guess.

 

The inconvenience and challenge of public consultation
The desire for a public consultation was the core of the application, and a key reason why it was rejected. The applicants couldn’t define the limits to this public consultation: who would be consulted? Everyone? According to the court, this is ‘entirely open-ended and not capable of sensible limit or specificity’ (paragraph 156). Now that raises real issues for the idea of ‘public value of heritage’, which features so heavily in national and international policy. I quite agree that we may not already have the procedures and methods in place to capture this value properly, and this case has highlighted that. In fact, the judgment also considered various guidelines on human remains published by English Heritage (experts), the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (experts/bureaucrats), and the Church. Neither, apparently, indicates a practice of consultation. Other policies and guidelines, such as English Heritage’s Conservation Principles, at least in theory rely heavily on public consultation, for example on communal value. If practices are not embedded or well understood, then the sector really needs to start thinking about this properly. At the moment, it looks a bit like lip-service, and reduces ‘the public’ to prove locus standi, which clearly, as this ruling has shown, is difficult and can easily be dismissed as tenuous.

This, then, brings me to my final point.

 

We care because it’s Richard III
The one thing that not one single article that I’ve read about this has mentioned is what the wishes of Richard III himself might have been. He is truly being talked about like an object, or as Hewison in his book The Heritage Industry described it, a product and commodity. Quite openly there is mention of the ‘tourism income’ that having his body will bring, to the point where Leicester’s tourist promotion company apparently agreed to pay for part of the excavation costs (paragraph 38 of the judgment). I find that very troubling. Without wishing to cause offense, I see no difference in this than if a soldier who fell in Afghanistan today were buried there. I know that many will refer to the distance in time. But to this I respond that the reason we even care about these remains is because, well, they’re Richard III. And that makes him a specific human being, to whose life we owe respect. Would he have wanted to be buried in the place where he was killed in battle? Or would he have preferred to be buried where he spent his life, was happy and loved, wherever that place might be [2]? What we do know is that the only time Richard III spent in Leicester, according to the council’s webpage (accessed today), was once after his coronation as king, and then for the battle in which he was killed.

This raises another issue that must be considered even if you don’t agree with my moral argument above. By burying Richard III’s remains in Leicester they will become completely de-contextualized. Yes, you can talk about the Battle of Bosworth, and of course, the battlefield already has a visitor centre. There is nothing else in Leicester that illustrates the story of Richard III’s life and his historical time, one of the most important periods in English history. Indeed, you are left with that Richard III short break that Leicester now offers, and a self-guided walking leaflet around sites that have only the most tenuous links to the man himself, relating only to the last days of his life. Even with the forthcoming Richard III visitor centre, in terms of interpretation and heritage, that seems a missed opportunity [3].

Note
[1] For this and the following see the full text of the ruling here.
[2] I’m not an expert, but according to Wikipedia and other sources, he grew up in Yorkshire, ruled in the North of England for most of his life, his son is buried in Yorkshire, the people of York loved him, and his wife is buried in Westminster.
[3] Of course people will still travel to Leicester Cathedral, and they’ll probably visit the Richard III visitor centre as well. Where else can they go now to pay their respects if that’s how they’re connecting to him? Quite many will also simply enjoy the sensationalist story of the discovery of ‘the king in the car park’. Will it be sustainable once the novelty has worn off? We’ll see. I daresay most people will still nip up to Yorkshire, where the whole of the story is rooted and comes alive through buildings and sites.

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I spent last week at the Heritage and Healthy Societies Conference, hosted by the Center for Heritage & Society at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I tend to go to practitioners’ conferences, so this was great with its mostly academic focus on research. Here are a few impressions I brought home with me [1]:

The healthy diversity of the human past
The first keynote speech was by Michael Herzfeld of Harvard University. There were a lot of great sound bites in it, and the one that struck a particular chord with me was a “celebration of difference”. Relating to heritage, and particularly heritage management, this is the acknowledgement that people will have different views about what is heritage and how it should be managed. Professor Herzfeld advocated a healthy debate, and where this does not bring consensus, this should be recorded – for example on site in the interpretation. Importantly, the debate must be open to everyone ­– not just ‘the experts’. He also pointed out that what constitutes ‘the public’ changes all the time. This highlights to me the absolute need to continue research into the public so that we have a current understanding who the public are at any given decision point.

The audience as witness
Raina Fox, an MA student at Brown University, USA, gave a really interesting paper about ‘survivor docents’ at the Japanese American National Museum. ‘Survivor Docents’ are people that have personal experience of the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Today, they lead visitors on guided tours as a form of ‘truth telling’, a term, if I remember correctly, that comes from restorative justice. This is also the theoretical framework that Raina uses, something which I found very intriguing. In this account, the museum is a form of reparation: in my own words, an officially granted space for survivors to share their memories and effectively give their testimony. The audience becomes a witness to this testimony. Raina’s research focuses on the docents, so we don’t know how the audience responds and what impact this particular form of interpretation has on them. But I’m really interested in this theoretical approach of thinking about museums as official spaces for justice, where a society works through issues of guilt and atonement, as well as reconciliation and reparation.

Connectivity Ontologies
This was a key point in the second keynote speech of the conference by Rodney Harrison of UCL [2]. In a nutshell, this is the view that humans and the natural world all participate in life processes. The traditional boundaries between nature and culture are dissolving in “heritage’s ontological turn”, which also challenges the view that only humans bring meaning to heritage. This is also a challenge to a view of ‘intangible’ heritage as, in my words, pure meaning, and somehow completely separate and independent of material aspects. Heritage thus “has little to do with the past but with practices concerned with assembling the future”, a view that consequently also embraces change since “places may change their role”. This raises interesting questions about conservation practices. As far as I’m concerned, connectivity ontologies provide a really intriguing way of thinking about heritage that encompasses and transcends the tangible/intangible divide and offers an approach that is not backward-looking and conservationist.

Structural Violence in Heritage
This was a fascinating paper by Erica Kowsz, an MA student at UMass Amherst, looking at Authorized Heritage Discourse as structural violence. Her case study was of an Indigenous archaeological site in British Columbia. There were several points that intrigued me, starting with the definition of ‘community’ – the local community was the people that lived there, having moved there relatively recently – not those whose site this actually was historically. Now, the local community (and my notes are a bit sketchy on this so I may get the facts wrong) did do what we might consider ‘the right thing’ – they opposed the development of a road once the site was discovered, and went about having it excavated, recorded and protected. However, they didn’t contact the people whose ancestors had actually lived at the site, and buried their dead there. Once these folk found out, a conflict began, and with it the structural violence. In short, they were denied any say over the site because the experts wouldn’t define them as a tribal group according to law. So not only had they suffered historically, by having been expelled from this land, now the law (well, in 1956) declared them extinct, and this disenfranchisement continued by ‘expert assessment’. They didn’t fit in with the  heritage structures and practices in place, and so they remained excluded.

I’ll stop here although there were many more inspiring papers that I’ve heard. I also presented my own on some preliminary findings from my doctoral research, called ‘Identity Work at Heritage Sites: A Stepping Stone to Intercultural Understanding and Peace?’ You can listen to it by downloading the presentation here.

Notes
[1] All of the following is based on my understanding of what people said and in my own words. I did write down some ‘quotes’ and these are in quotation marks. The quotes are as verbatim as I could manage without recording the presentations – but I may well have gotten the occasional word wrong.
[2] I have the immense fortune to have Rodney as my secondary PhD supervisor.

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I outed myself at work this week when I declared that I actually don’t want any interpretation at a lot of the National Trust-style country estates. We were talking about places that have no other story than one family’s wealth and privilege. The new-ish trend has been for a few years now to explore the ‘downstairs’ (or the attic, where most of the servants quarters were). Another, more recent initiative is to explore slavery and colonialism, which is, let’s face it, at the heart of much of the wealth that produced these often outlandish places.

Both developments are laudable, and they certainly respond to what visitors want: the stories of ‘the common man’. For me, however, these stories merely distract from a more fundamental question about privilege and class, especially in a modern (British) society that still has a hereditary class.

It has prompted a bit of soul-searching for me, as I wondered what this actually means for interpretation. The first question that came up for me was:

 

Should interpretation challenge the current social status-quo?

Well, since I keep harping on about how utterly unacceptable it is to push onto visitors a ‘preferred reading’, the answer might look like an obvious no. And it is, as far as a confrontational myth-busting approach is concerned, as the word ‘challenge’ suggests. However, I think the current Downton Abbey-style stories of downstairs/upstairs life and‘how the servants lived’ are themselves a selection that excludes, for example, explorations of why servants’ lives were different from that of ‘the family’ to begin with. Would visitors be interested in that? Is that so glaringly obvious to them already that they don’t care? I don’t know. For me personally, I know a lot of the downstairs stories already (working at a site like that does that), and I am aware of the hereditary system in Britain (coming from a republic takes care of that), so it gets my back up big time to notice that there is no acknowledgement of that in the interpretation at all: it makes me feel like I’m being manipulated.

This then had me think about the expectations that many policies have of heritage and by extension of interpretation. So:

 

Should interpretation really not ‘be challenging’?

Well, no, but also, yes: it should challenge. It should challenge the master narrative of our societies if that narrative is to the detriment of some people. It’s a hard one, because museums and sites, and the people (interpreters) working there are all part of that master narrative. We can only be a reflection of the societies we’re part of. But if there is a will in that same society to change things, then I think interpretation is called upon to respond to that will, and bring it out in the open. I keep coming back here to the concept of facilitation: interpretation as facilitation can do that. It can facilitate the exploration of that social will, provide a space and an opportunity. It’s not about giving answers, or throwing down the gauntlet to a specific view. More and more, I come to think of this as providing facts: from all sides. It’s that opportunity, and ‘professional authority’of knowing all facts and giving a balanced view that visitors are looking for. It doesn’t have to be ‘in your face’. But visitors should feel that they are able to explore these aspects, that they are encouraged to do so.

Which brought me to the next question:

 

Does everything actually have a story?

The British National Trust Acts (first south, then north) both talk about aesthetic value and enjoyment. For the longest time I scorned this, and actually criticised the National Trust for providing next to no interpretation and relying merely on how pretty their places were. These days, I can quite cheerfully walk around a National Trust historic estate and revel in its beauty – it’s why I go there. I feel myself expand and be at peace. It’s only when you start telling me about ‘the family’ that my enjoyment plummets. It’s when this is presented to me as ‘heritage’ that everything inside me shouts: Who’s heritage? For me, this is probably an expression of a sense of unfinished business – it’s not quite heritage to me if the exclusion on which it is built continues today. That doesn’t mean that I think all National Trust places should be flattened. But as far as I’m concerned more often than not their value does indeed lie in their aesthetic and the enjoyment they provide, and not in their story. Especially not in their story.

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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?

 

Notes

[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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I’ve recently read English Heritage’s consultation on under-represented heritages [1] and it got me thinking, yet again, about target audiences. Here are some of the points that struck a chord with me:

We don’t want [insert under-represented heritage here] sites
In fact, one respondent called this idea ‘horrible’ (p. 10).  In other words, they didn’t suddenly want a load of sites that were designated as Black, Muslim, LGBT, whatever.  And there were a couple of reasons why:

The groups aren’t separate
It was actually in the disabled group that they pointed out that disabled people are also lesbian, gay, black, Muslim…But that’s not all:

Groups don’t like to have their marginalisation constantly reinforced
This was specifically said with regard to the language used by organisations: how are the groups represented?  They didn’t want to be represented as always different.

Don’t we all have an ethnicity?
…asked one participant when it came to judging categories for searching heritage lists, such as the category ‘Ethnic History’ – which, alas, doesn’t mean ethnic at all, it means non-White, non-European, non-Western.  But the point that touched me the most was this one:

It is ‘very dangerous’ to address [insert under-represented heritage here] history only to members of that community
This came out of the LGBT group, where they felt that for their ‘political safety’ (p. 25) everyone needed to understand why their history was important.

For me what emerges from the above is one key point: these people don’t want to be singled out and ‘targeted’.  They’re just part of our whole wide wonderful and diverse world.  The moment we focus in on one attribute of a person (“gay”) and then target a programme at that, mostly what we’re signalling is that we, too, see difference, exclusion and marginalisation.  We’re effectively reinforcing that segregation by addressing, as they said, members of that community alone, when the real need may lie somewhere else entirely – for example in addressing our own and society’s focus on just one attribute.  That’s an uncomfortable thought, I know.  But the reality is that there are museums, as mentioned in this report, that simply ignore for example the homosexual attraction their key historic figures may have felt.  And that, more than any lack of targeted programming, may be the reason why people feel our museum is not for them.

So do let’s search our visitor data for under-represented audiences, but let’s understand that what it tells us is not something about those that don’t come.  First and foremost it tells us something about our own organisation.  If there is a black strand to the story of our site, then let’s tell it.  But let’s not set out to tell it ‘for black people’, let’s tell it for people.  Let’s include that ‘ethnic’, LGBT, disabled imagery in our children’s activities as a matter of course, not because we’re doing a programme specifically for these groups.  If there are barriers that may prevent people from coming, be that cultural barriers or physical, then let’s address those barriers – let’s not address the people, as if they were the issue.  That’s what is the underlying principle of equalities legislation and practices, and it’s what museums should apply too.  Once we normalise what we consider an attribute that makes someone hard to reach, our place will become more welcoming to them.  And we may just find that they visit without a single targeted programme on the schedule.

And I will no longer have to use language that talks of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Notes
[1] As an aside, the selection of those consulted is quite interesting: Participants were shortlisted based on whether they had published a major body of research in one of the areas identified as under-represented.  Bless the LGBT expert who noted that it would be more relevant to speak to the local community.  If English Heritage is truly committed to giving equal consideration to communal value then this approach to currently under-represented heritage is unlikely to reach those communities.

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In a recent meeting, my PhD supervisors asked me: Is interpretation missing the point by focussing on messages?

That interpretation is about communicating messages is a conventional wisdom in the field.  Distinct messages are inherent in the definition of interpretation as a ‘mission-based communication process’ [1], and they are the basis from which we measure knowledge gain and attitudinal/behavioural change [2].  Expressed as objectives, we consider messages to be the core of any properly planned piece of interpretation.  In another guise, messages are also our interpretive themes, and I’m not even going to start to list the many books and studies that have persuasively argued the case for themes [3].

I establish objectives and themes in every one of my interpretation plans.  I scorn plans that don’t have either, and I have done so for years.  And yet, for years, I have also argued that interpretation is facilitation.  I have stated over and over again that interpretation is not a one-way street of imparting knowledge, or worse yet, educating our visitors. Now I wonder if on some level my practice – despite my best intentions – does actually miss the point I’ve been making.

When visitors tell me during my current research that they want ‘facts’ presented in an accessible way, and facts that equally represent both sides, then what they may try to say is that actually, they want just the opposite of predetermined messages (unless, of course, your message is a simple, ‘here’s the dough, now go and bake your own bread’).  Similarly, any meaningful theme, able to be expressed in a single sentence, may also sail right past visitors’ desire for an overview and orientation, and the ability to find their own space within the event narrative.

So while themes and objectives are without the shadow of a doubt the perfect and most effective way to get across a message, and help us be clear about what it is we want to achieve, I’m beginning to wonder whether they steer us toward focussing on achieving the wrong thing altogether.  Am I, by holding on to SMART objectives (especially of the learning kind) and snazzy themes, in fact hindering the very facilitation that I want interpretation to be?

I’m not sure yet, but the answer is probably a conditional yes.  We’ll probably still need objectives to prevent us from going all over the place, but the objectives are likely to have to be more focussed on the interpretation, rather than any expectation of what our visitors should know/feel/learn. And as for themes?  My instincts tell me that heritage events do have a core, a key characteristic, even if it is as vague as ‘a tragic battle’.  This, however, should probably be treated more as a context and cradle for engagement, and not as a message for visitors to ‘take home’ and remember.

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Two days ago, I was told by someone calling himself ‘an Englishman’ that I should ‘go back to my own country’.  This has left me deeply shaken on several levels, and it is also making me ask some uncomfortable questions about my own assertions and beliefs about the potential of interpretation [1].

Only a few posts ago I asserted that in my opinion, interpretation can do a lot to support social justice. And although I fully agreed with Emma Waterton’s assessment that social inclusion was often proclaimed and pursued in simplistic and ultimately hegemonic terms within the sector, I did feel that if only interpreters were smart and insightful enough about it, they could still achieve a lot. After all, I would never have simply introduced the slave story at Monticello in the belief that the lack thereof was all the reason why African Americans weren’t visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home.  [2]

After what happened to me, I’m not that sure anymore. First of all, our current discourse about social inclusion, integration, and anything else that is aimed at bringing people together in a diverse society, are exclusively aimed at the newcomers, or other ‘excluded groups’. I may be making a shamefully discriminatory statement myself here when I observe that the gentleman who said these things to me isn’t someone that I would normally expect to visit a museum or heritage site.  So what does our inclusive programming do for him?  I also daresay that anyone who feels it is acceptable to racially abuse someone will not be enticed into ‘an English’ museum, in my case, by an exhibition on the culture and traditions of the immigrants to ‘his country’.

The other side of the coin, as Emma Waterton has already made clear, is also not that simple.  We may get a few more people through the door by putting on exhibitions that reflect their migrant or ‘excluded’ cultures [3], but I’m no longer convinced that such interventions actually achieve more than boost our figures.  Do they really promote inclusion and integration?  No.  Because this approach is still one-sided.  It doesn’t address the underlying causes of ‘exclusion’, or racism, or whatever social challenge it tries to tackle.

I can see a variety of reasons for this: our existing audiences may not appreciate having to see their society in such a harsh light, and feeling like they’re expected to take a stance.  And taking a stance is what it is ultimately all about: the museum, or indeed the whole heritage sector, is only a part of a wider social system that churns over these issues on a daily basis.  Our sector alone can’t tackle it: it may not even be the best place for it, as I expressed in my response to the Museums 2020 report.  Social inclusion, integration, racism, these are all political and social issues that are part of the daily negotiations and explorations of a diverse society.  In fact, they drip into our own conversations: in various workplaces I had staff call visitors ‘foreigners’, or advise strongly against portraying for example something as commonplace (in my opinion) as a lesbian relationship in our programmes. In Britain at the moment the talk is of benefit caps and limits on immigration, and there are reprisals against immigrants after a soldier was brutally killed in London three weeks ago.  These are just some of the daily factors that shape how a society grapples with the challenges brought on by a global world (and don’t get me wrong – I’m all for a discussion of any issue).

I don’t know what the answer is.  But when the – in the grand scheme of things – minor incident of racism that I experienced completely threw me to the ground, I didn’t think of my local museum as the place to go to. I relied on my friends, many abroad, but some, thankfully, in Britain, to tell me that they didn’t approve of this, that I have a right to be here, as a German, without the need to forego who I am.  I needed the police to tell me that they were here for me, and my neighbours to pop around to see if I was okay. And I sought refuge in my own German-ness, defiantly listening to German music, watching German films, phoning my friends in Germany – and all of this as someone who thinks, writes, dreams in English, and knows more about the United States and Britain than she does about her native Germany.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that if interpretation and heritage really can help with integration, social inclusion, and racism, then we need to do a lot more reading into the research in those areas. It’s not an easy matter, especially not for those ‘excluded’ groups as we so simplistically label them.  As for me – I don’t know yet what will come of this, both with regards to my interpretive practice, and my personal life. I certainly have a lot to think about now.

Notes

[1] I would like to take this opportunity to say to everyone who experiences more substantial racism than the stupid comment and rant that I got how deeply, deeply I now empathize with you.  My outrage against all discrimination and racism that I had before was simplistic; I did not appreciate how hurtful it is, and what an impact it has.

[2] Please see my response to a comment in this post.

[3] I hasten to add that at no place where I’ve been responsible for interpretation have we ever used this approach.  I prefer a project approach, that brings people together, and the outcome lies in the process, rather than any output.  That way, what they do is up to them – I’m not going to prescribe what the participants have to talk about, or how they want to express themselves.  If they want to have a heated argument, then I’m happy to provide the platform for it.

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Next month I’ll be presenting a paper at the NAI/IE joint conference entitled ‘Interpretation can make us citizens of the world’ in Sweden. I’m really looking forward to what people will say about this topic.  As I’ve reported in my last blog post, only one couple out of the 100+ people I’ve interviewed so far have made a reference to something approaching world citizenship: they called it mutual understanding.

 

I’m interested in how this mutual understanding was generated.  The conference title suggests that interpretation has a role to play here.  I’m sure it does, but I wonder if that role is as active and targeted as the title implies.  My interviewees touched on ‘mutual understanding’ when they spoke about their own visits to foreign countries.  And ‘mutual understanding’ here wasn’t confined to heritage either.  It also arose from people on the street responding to the gifts they had bought for their grandchildren back home.  Arguably, there was no interpretation involved here – in fact, there was a language barrier, which seemed to have been overcome by the time-honoured means of waving arms.

 

But they did also specifically mention going to heritage sites as a way of connecting to the people abroad, and finding out more about them.  They found similar stories: of poor versus rich, power struggles and passions, and the hardships of survival in times gone by.  They didn’t talk about royal connections, or the many ways in which European histories crisscross back and forth. My impression was that the interpretation provided paid no heed to them as a ‘special’ audience (i.e. foreign): it simply told the story of the place.  And my interviewees found simple human stories through which they connected to the people: in seeing that their personal struggles past and present were similar to their own they did away with the unfamiliar, and recognized ‘the other’ as similar to themselves.

 

To me this does raise an important question that I’ve found myself asking throughout this research process so far: what does interpretation need to do (actively, purposefully) to deliver certain benefits?  Is there a limit to this activism, and the desire to prompt a certain outcome? Because listening to these visitors and many of the others, I was really struck once again by their informed approach, and their clear desire to create their own narratives, and not be dictated to [1].  They didn’t need the interpretation to tell them that x is similar to z, and really, the two hark back to a shared origin that makes us all the same.  They didn’t want an integrated story of European history, but embraced the uniqueness of the foreign heritage: that’s what they had come for.

 

I wonder if there is a danger for interpretation to go overboard.  I think there is a fine line between keeping your eye on the heritage in front of you and trying to (actively) create and deliver overarching outcomes that are, let’s face it, so often politically motivated.  For me, a stabilising factor lies in engaging with stakeholders, which is what my own paper at the conference will focus on.  But whether this is the ultimate answer, or indeed what the many complexities of these questions in general are, is something I suspect I’ll be contemplating for a while yet.

 

 

 

Notes

[1] That’s also what I suspect lay behind ‘the public’s rejection of the idea of the museum as a place for debate in the Museums 2020 research: they probably thought that the museum would take a side and try to brainwash them.

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I’m three-thirds through my interviews with visitors at Battle Abbey [1], and this seemed a good time to stop for a moment and reflect.

 

Firstly, and as always, it is just humbling to talk to visitors. Every time I have the luxury of actually spending time with them, I am reminded that in the field of heritage, no amount of specialist knowledge can ever surmount the importance of people’s own connections with heritage. And don’t they know it: where heritage professionals fail, visitors’ judgment is swift and crushing.  They make it quite plain that they don’t need us, at least not beyond making sure they can come to the place when they want.  Where the work is good, like it seems to be at Battle Abbey, visitors make use of it, but never without suspending that awareness and expectation.

 

Visitors are really smart.  I can count on one hand the number of people out of the 100+ that I’ve interviewed so far [2] who have given me simple answers.  Most people have challenged my assumptions, provided insights I’d never even dreamt of, and engaged me in conversations that have left me feeling inspired and invigorated.

 

The primary purpose of these interviews is to establish whether the benefits that visitors gain from heritage are the same as those proposed in legislation (and to some degree literature).  And some are.  Historic interest is something that visitors cite quite often as a reason for visiting.  Upon further enquiry, this generally seems to split into a thirst for acquiring historical knowledge for its own sake and a desire to imagine the past [3].  The latter is also a benefit cited on its own: to see what it was like to live in past times, sometimes simply in order to better understand and compare it to the present, and sometimes as a sort of mediated time travel to experience a life that is desirable, perhaps as an adventure, perhaps as a missed destiny [4].

 

Imagining the past is also connected to another benefit cited on its own, which is the need to locate oneself in a long chain of events in the history of mankind, both nationally and internationally – a benefit emphasised in legislation.  Many have described this as providing a sense of anchor, of understanding how humankind have arrived at this particular place in time, and to feel prepared for the future (although the latter was rarely expressed without further requests for clarification).  In legislation, this is often related to larger concepts such as ‘peace’ and ‘mutual understanding’, which interestingly is a point that only one couple have made, but not with regard to visiting sites in England, but rather in relation to visiting sites abroad.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many visitors also cited having been taught about the Battle of Hastings in school as their motivation for visiting.  When I prompted them to explain why it was important to come on site, rather than watch a documentary about the battle, for example, two things emerged.  The first will make every heritage educator’s heart sing: heritage sites, visitors explained, provided different and more interesting opportunities to learn and engage than those offered in classrooms and through books.  Being in the place itself was the second point that many emphasised, and some even raised this as a point in its own right.   This also relates back to imagining the past – people spoke about standing on the battlefield, imagining the battle unfold, soldiers dying.  This experience of being in the place itself, more than any other, seemed to make the event real to them, and to allow them to connect with it.

 

I will confess that I expected visitors to connect with the site on an identity-level, and a few did as far as national identity goes.  However, the importance of the site, and the need to come, really related mostly to having learnt about it at school – an interesting point to ponder when it comes to national narratives, and the (manipulative?) impact of school curricula [5].  Nevertheless, visitors’ attachment was very strong – when suggesting (hypothetically) that the site might be redeveloped for something else, everyone without exception expressed the need for preserving it.  Place, the physical connection to an event, was of the utmost importance.

 

The above are just some reflections on what visitors have told me so far, not an actual analysis.  For that, I will have to wait until the end.  But I do feel reassured on one thing: almost nobody left it at saying, ‘It’s just a good day out’ (although it is that too).  Phew.

 

 

Notes

[1] This is part of my PhD research into the public benefits of heritage, and whether or not we are delivering these through interpretation.

[2] I’m doing group interviews, so these were 100+ people in 34 groups.

[3] The latter point – imagining the past – is not mentioned in legislation, and mostly frowned upon as a reason by academic writers.

[4] Destiny might be an unexpected term here, but I’m reluctant to dismiss it as nostalgia.  Most people that have cited this ‘benefit’ have been absolutely clear about their awareness of and even deep respect for the hardships that people experienced in the past.  Nevertheless, this was a life with particular values and a clarity of fate that they felt would have suited them better than their current lives.

[5] My initial reaction to this was to reconsider my rejection of public (or national) narratives arbitrarily determined by states, as clearly the selection of topics for the school curriculum has a big impact.  However, having worked in Scotland and Wales I am aware that official narratives are rejected, and popular ones, seemingly suppressed by the state, survive and prove to be powerful heritage motivators.  It would be interesting to look into this in particular – if you know of any studies, do let me know.

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Early in December last year, the British Museums Association issued an exciting research brief.  They want to find out what the public think of the present and potential purposes of museums, and their roles in society.

I am really looking forward to this research report, which is due at the end of March.  Crucially, the research isn’t about what professionals think – the MA’s Museums 2020 campaign has already given us plenty of that.  This research finally goes out to the public directly and asks them what they think [1]. The brief asks for a ‘detailed, qualitative exploration’, and it will be interesting to see what methodology the researchers will apply (I understand they haven’t been appointed yet). 

The research questions are really intriguing for museums and heritage professionals:

  • What do the public think are, and should be, the fundamental purposes of publicly funded museum services?
  • Which purposes (if any) would they prioritise in times of limited funding
  • What principles do they believe should underpin public museums services; and
  • What should museums be trying to achieve now, and over the next decade.

It might be a real eye-opener for the sector to hear what the public think about the purposes, priorities, and principles that we have established for museums (and heritage sites).  My only concern is that these questions are very conceptual.  The brief suggests that these questions are further refined by the researchers, but answers to these questions is what the brief demands.  The brief acknowledges that this will require what it calls ‘deliberation’ on the part of respondents, and it expects that they will be given background information and time to ‘debate’ issues raised in Museums 2020 so far.  However, unless the methodology is radically different from the (traditional) focus groups and interviews anticipated by the brief, this will seriously limit the diversity of respondents and responses. The prospect of having to read through dry, specialist museums and heritage discourse will be intimidating for many, not the least for the underrepresented, hard-to-reach groups that are at the core for example of our social inclusion agendas – social inclusion being of course one of our self-identified ‘purposes’.  The irony is obvious. 

Another worry that I have is that the questions are also very much predetermined by our own professional framings.  The brief specifically requests that responses are sought to the existing professional discourse, including Museums 2020.  The underlying desire is clear.  However, we might limit respondents’ creativity and overwhelm them with our own learned conceptions.  I hope the researchers find a methodology to approach this whereby they truly enable respondents to develop their own discourse and free them from having to use our own thinking as their starting point.  What we don’t want is ‘our usual suspects’ to simply confirm what we think.  This might be comforting, but really wouldn’t be helpful.

The research will focus on publicly funded museums and those run as charities.  The brief consequently makes a distinction between ‘the public’ as visitors, and ‘the public’ as tax-payers and citizen/funders, the latter being the research subject.  Personally, I wish the MA hadn’t made that distinction. It artificially slices the whole person into separate roles, and asking someone a question about purpose on a funding and societal level might produce an entirely different response from one based on personal motivation/benefit [2].  My argument would be that it’s that personal motivation that determines the public view of a museum, practically expressed through visitor numbers and impact, for example.  I would say it is therefore that personal response that will give us the insights that the research seeks: how to make museums ‘more responsive and more sustainable’.  

Finally, it’s notable that when specifying the sample requirements, the brief uses demographic segmentation.  I’ve recently had conversations online and offline about how widespread the implementation of non-demographic audience segmentation is in the (British) museums and heritage sector.  My experience has been that it isn’t widespread at all, and the Museums Association’s brief seems another case in point.  I would be really interested to know why they’ve chosen this demographic approach, for I know that motivation for example is a key category in their current thinking on audience development.  It would seem that when researching the public’s views on the purposes and roles of museums it is particularly important to ensure a sample that is representative of the different motivations that bring visitors to museums, and that make the public care about heritage.  However, in practical terms the challenge is of course that motivation itself is far more difficult to establish as a distinguishing attribute than are demographic categories – you would basically need to do a piece of research first to identify your (potential) sample.

Either way, the research will be interesting when it comes out, both for its methodology and its findings.  I can’t wait.   

 

Notes

[1] Why research doesn’t do this as a matter of course in our sector remains a mystery to me.  Only yesterday I read through a book-length study of the continued relevance – or not – of (heritage) myth and symbolism in society, and the study had not spoken to a single visitor or member of the public.

[2] This is similar to issues around economic valuation, where studies have shown how willingness to pay changes in response to questions framed on a personal and political level.  

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