Posts Tagged ‘hot interpretation’

When I recently visited Germany on my first research study visit, my interviewees used two terms to describe interpretive foci, which I found quite intriguing: ‘Ereignisgeschichte’ (event history) and ‘Rezeptionsgeschichte’ (reception history).

We don’t generally use these terms in English and in our writings.  However, I wonder if they can go some way in helping us conceptualize the (interpretive) issue around history vs heritage [1].

In German usage, the Ereignisgeschichte (event history) tells the story of what happened, when, where, and of the actors involved [2].  It doesn’t go into how it may have influenced the future and our present, nor how we relate to the event today.  In many ways, it seems to me that as such Ereignisgeschichte equates (much more elegantly expressed) to what in English we mean by ‘history’.

Rezeptionsgeschichte (reception history), on the other hand, focuses on how people have responded to the event since: how they wrote about it in poetry, for example, or how they made it part of their identity make-up over time. Rezeptionsgeschichte thus is a rather academic, life-less description of what in practice more often than not involves very personal and passionate emotions.  For this reason I wouldn’t equate it with what we mean by ‘heritage’ in English, which expresses (in my mind) just these emotions felt by people.  However, as an approach to interpreting heritage, Rezeptionsgeschichte strikes me as a rather perfect method.

Let me elaborate.  When I did research at the Battle of the Boyne, I was told that the interpretive focus was on history because the debate surrounding the battle and its aftermath still caused so much emotion and unrest in modern Ireland.  While I appreciate the argument, I wonder whether the site’s interpretation consequently has any effect at all [3].

Using a reception history approach, however, might have allowed to present all subsequent responses to the battle without being emotional or appearing to take sides.  Just as in presenting historical facts [see note 2], a reception history approach allows to be ‘objective’, while still acknowledging people’s stake in the event.

It seems to me that especially at sites with contested or controversial heritage the reception history approach to interpretation may just be the solution.  Personally, wherever possible I still prefer a more immediate interpretation that reflects and resonates with people’s heritage beliefs and emotions.  However, where such ‘hot’ interpretation, as Uzzel and Ballantyne [4] have called it, is not possible, the reception history approach is far more appropriate than the history approach.  I cannot help but feel that a history approach to interpretation is almost always a cop out.

On a final note, I also want to share another term they use in German: Geschichtspolitik. Now this is a term I really cannot adequately translate into English – we have nothing like it.  What it actually means is the political use of history, for example through the selective recall of facts, or the reframing of events to suit modern needs.  Interestingly, in the English-language discourse this is usually a concept associated with heritage, and in fact, it is this proposed political (and consequently presumably flighty) dimension of heritage that is used as an argument in favour of the history approach to interpretation.  I am not entirely sure yet how we might be able to use this concept – Geschichtspolitik – to improve our interpretive practice. However, I find it most helpful to separate the political use of history out from both history and heritage.  Maybe it can sit in a reception history approach to interpretation, or maybe it is a separate aspect altogether, as the German discourse seems to suggest.  Either way, it’s good to think about these concepts, and recognise that our understanding of and responses to these concepts as interpreters have far-reaching consequences for our visitors.  They’re not something we can ignore.


[1] Two years ago, I wrote this article on the matter.  Back then, I wrongly came to the conclusion that the debate of ‘history vs heritage’ had come to an end two decades before.  This is not so.  While today heritage is less often opposed to ‘history’ as a term and concept these days, the underlying questions are the same.  What is more, the concept of heritage has seen a much more vigorous critical examination than what existed in the 1980s and 90s.

[2] As far as that is possible.  But I won’t get into a discussion now of how objective or authoritative any history can ever be.

[3] I was not given permission to conduct visitor research there as the management felt this would stir up emotions when the site was intended to allow for peaceful and private contemplation.  Again, I appreciate the motivation here, and yet the consequence of this decision is that they will not know the impact of their interpretation, nor will we be able to learn from it. For all we know, the heritage communities in question may feel the site is lifeless due to the omission in the interpretation of their heritage represented in the site, while visitors, well aware of the tensions in Ireland, may feel they came to what they thought was an important site in understanding this history, and yet they walk away as puzzled and uninformed as they came.

[4] Uzzel, D. and Ballantyne, R., 2008. ‘Heritage that Hurts: Interpretation in a postmodern world.’ In: In: Fairclough, G. et al (eds), 2008.  The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 502 – 513


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


Heritage is about people…

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


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

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


Heritage is about identity…

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


… and interpretation should facilitate this enactment of identity

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


Heritage is about passion…

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


… and our interpretation needs to be passionate

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



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

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I vividly remember one incident while I worked at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland.  A visitor stopped me, his eyes glowing.  ‘Where,’ he asked, ‘did William Wallace fight in the battle?’  He went on to tell me that he had seen the film Braveheart and it had inspired him to visit Scotland, and Culloden.

Of course, William Wallace lived – and died – centuries before the Battle of Culloden even took place.  And my first reaction was to scornfully turn my nose up at the visitor’s ignorance and inform him that that film has nothing to do with history, thank you very much, and besides, it doesn’t even mention Culloden, so how did he come up with the connection at all?  Really!

But then something stopped me.  First of all, the visitor’s face was full of hope and eagerness and life.  What did it matter what brought him to Culloden?  I was going to do my best to keep those emotions alive in him, but tell him something about what really happened there (and during the Wars of Independence, little knowledge that I had of these).  Secondly, the visitor’s face was full of hope and eagerness and life.  He was inspired – inspired to come to Scotland, inspired to learn about and participate in the experience of whatever he’d found in the film, and inspired probably to be a better, a more courageous person.  And it was a film that had done that for him.

In 1935, the US American Historic Sites Act stipulated that one of the purposes for preserving heritage sites for public use was to inspire the American people.  A quick dictionary search defines ‘to inspire’ as ‘to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence’.

But when was the last time you walked away from a heritage site and felt inspired?  How often has interpretation filled you with an animating, quickening or exalting influence?  Compare that to the number of times a film has done that to you: I certainly felt inspired when Mel Gibson’s Wallace rode up and down the lines, crying ‘They may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!’

My point is that we need to rediscover the inspiration of heritage, and communicate it through interpretation.  Relevance may be a good rule when historical facts threaten to suffocate the last glimmer of meaning, but not even relevance can replace inspiration.  Let us have the courage to be emotional, and to look for the inspirational aspects of heritage.

This does not mean that we need to become historically inaccurate (and that’s where using Braveheart as the starting point for this article may not have been very helpful, what with it being probably one of the most historically inaccurate period films of all times).  But more often than not what is inspiring about a heritage story is quite obvious, and if not, then just ask the people whose heritage it is.  It is likely to be the very thing for which they cherish a site.  Inspiration also doesn’t necessarily come from a positive outcome – Culloden for example marked the end of the Gaelic way of life, but to many visitors of Scottish descent it is the site that symbolises that way of life and the site that provides a focal point for reaffirming that identity.  That is something I have always found inspiring.

In my opinion, we lose the inspiration of heritage when we become too obsessed with history.  As I have written elsewhere, history is not heritage.  There may be many historical facts about what is the heritage of some people, but are these really always relevant to why a site is considered heritage in the first place?  Culloden for example may well have marked the beginning of a period of British stability that allowed the country’s rise to world power, but does the site really hold heritage status in the hearts and minds of British people as a whole because of that?  I dare say no.  This doesn’t mean the National Trust for Scotland who is the guardian of Culloden Battlefield should not mention that fact.  But it does mean that they should have the courage to build on what is inspiring about the site.  I argue that that inspiration is why anyone cares about the site to begin with.  With the inspiration we eventually lose the heritage, I say.

Alas, I don’t know how successful I was in inspiring the visitor who had come to Culloden to stand where William Wallace had stood.  I do remember telling him that Culloden was the last time the clans fought as clans, and that it was the end of their culture – no matter what side they’d fought on.  I’d like to think that he found that as inspiring a story as that which Mel Gibson told, of a Wallace riding up and down the lines of men, ready to fight for Scotland’s freedom.

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