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As far as J. Geraint Jenkins is concerned, the Welsh efforts to present the nation’s industrial heritage (!) are mostly doomed.  The reason is that sites, and coalmines in particular, are just not grimy enough.  He also points out that much fabric has been lost, leaving the remaining structures without the all-important context.  In presenting these faint shadow images of what life in Wales was like is to fall prey to romanticism and nostalgia, two demons that Jenkins evokes continually in his book ‘Getting yesterday right.’

I cannot help but detect in his writing that on-going suggestion of ‘heritage’ as an institution and industry.  In between the lines images are conjured of thrifty economists concocting ‘the heritage product’ that they can ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’ desperate for the romance of the past.  I’m a heritage manager myself, and my day-to-day job could not be more different.

Certainly Jenkins is right that many a valley has tried and is still trying to create a tourism attraction with whatever industrial remains they have left (and who can blame them).  But the issue here does not lie with heritage value per se, but with the tourism industry that may too freely apply the term ‘heritage’ to anything that might prove a tourism asset.  Heritage isn’t a ‘product’, it is an act performed by people.  Tourism managers may call it heritage, but that doesn’t make it so.

The other criticism that Jenkins has is that any interest that is detached from the dirt and noise of the coalmines is romantic and nostalgic.  He doesn’t elaborate on where this view comes from.  However, it does seem to hark back to a historian’s disdain for heritage as something less than history.  Of course, as David Lowenthal has shown in his book ‘The Heritage Crusade’ history and heritage are actually two completely different things altogether.  Other writers have since established the view of heritage as a practice, and like Lowenthal they have highlighted that selection, reworking and reinvention of historical facts are all crucial and necessary aspects of this heritage practice.  And the practice itself is crucial for our identity and meaning-making.

In other words, where Jenkins would like to see a whole valley still stuffed with coalmine dust, and the terraced houses cowering underneath black slag heaps to present what life was really like, the people who once lived that life might actually be mightily glad to see it gone.  A pit wheel and the opportunity to go down Big Pit if they want to, without the dust and danger, may be all they need to remember the true heritage value of the industry: the sense of camaraderie and endurance.  That’s what the miner-guide at Big Pit talked about when I went there; he even explicitly said he would not want to go back to work in the mines except for the bond he had with his colleagues.  That is the heritage of the coalmining industry.  The rest is just historical fact.

But would Jenkins prefer that we tell people’s history and not their heritage?  It does seem so.  And he is absolutely right that in presenting a whole valley as it used to be visitors would get the whole picture as an immersive experience.  I only wonder how many of them would ever want to come back?  And what about the people who live here?  Are we going to force them to live amid the reminders of what was a very hard and difficult life?  Are we going to turn them into museum pieces as well?

In all fairness, Jenkins does acknowledge that this would not be feasible.  He suggests that probably a multi-media piece of interpretation would be better, and I agree.  Only to me, this solution isn’t a regrettable compromise.  It does what good interpretation and heritage management should always do: it enables people to act on and live their heritage values as symbolised in spaces, while it gives them room to build on it, and change it, and use the security of that heritage to move forward and better themselves.  The dust and the noise are not heritage, they are history.  And some history just doesn’t need to be preserved in every grimy detail.

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

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

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

1) Do you really need to correct the belief?

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

2) Never challenge visitors’ beliefs head-on

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

3) Start with respecting visitors’ beliefs

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

4) Weave the history in with the heritage

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

5) Introduce the contradictory fact subtly

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is some further reading for starters:

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

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

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

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

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