Posts Tagged ‘interpretive planning’

Two things recently have made me think again about what should be included in a ‘good’ interpretive planning process.  One was hearing at a meeting that first should come the decisions about the content, and then we’ll ‘add on’ the interpretation, suggesting an understanding of interpretation as, well, an add-on, a media solution.

The other thing came up in the paper that I’ve been writing for the last month for my PhD studies.  In one of my case studies, staff responsible for creating the interpretation actually considered interpretation to be misleading: essentially a ‘making up’ of narrative that is unsubstantiated.  Consequently, they preferred what I’ve previously called ‘the history approach’, and what they saw as scientific distance.

Ironically, both in my MSc research and in my current research it emerges that such interpretive planning approaches sail right past what is important to visitors.  While visitors ‘get’ the interpretive messages [1] these don’t capture why the site is important.  In fact, in my current research, data at the moment looks like the interpretive messages might actually be preventing visitors’ engagement.  And if that’s the case, then the interpretation is in real trouble.

So here are a few thoughts that I’d like to share about the interpretive planning process:

1.    Be clear about what interpretation actually is

I was frankly gobsmacked hearing these views on what interpretation is by people involved in the process.  It is not an add-on – that’s just poor practice.  It is also not a forced narrative, misleading visitors as to the completeness of substantiated knowledge – that’s not even poor practice, that is just plain unprofessional.  I could get into definitions of interpretation now, but actually I don’t think that’s even necessary here.  What is important to understand is that interpretation encompasses the whole: the content, the visitor, the site, the science, the management, the policy framework and only at the end, the media.  In that sense, Lisa Brochu’s 5M model is as relevant today as it has ever been [2].

2.     Grapple with the complex issues that interpretation deals with

Interpretation isn’t an easy thing.  We can’t just present ‘scientific facts’, especially not when it comes to history.  Not only does it not work, as several studies have shown, but it’s also plainly not possible.  Scientific facts, if they exist at all, never exist in isolation.  People always have a response to them.  History always means something to someone, has affected their life or that of their ancestors.  Nature, biology always touch emotions.  And it’s these emotions, these existing relationships that interpretation needs to account for.  Now what do you do?

3.     Start with people, not content

It goes without saying that without content there is nothing to interpret [3].  But to start with the content, as selected by the specialist content expert, is to miss several key points.  Firstly, this content is likely to be someone’s heritage.  We have to understand what that heritage is.  It’s unlikely to be the material thing.  If we don’t understand that heritage, and interpret it, then we’re interpreting something irrelevant to most people.  Secondly, we have to take people into account when selecting content.  This is an Interpretive Planning 101 classic: What are people interested in?  What excites them? What connects with the heritage value they already hold?  It’s not about specialists making their scientific selection [4].

4.     Do not, under any circumstances, impose a preferred reading

Ironically, in my case study where interpretation was rejected as misleading in favour of ‘scientific fact’, there is a clear preferred reading or message within the interpretation provided.  To me, that is not acceptable.  People, visitors, are autonomous beings with as much right to their own opinion as any interpreter – even more so at sites that are their heritage.  It is not up to anyone to sanction one view and reject another.  I’m afraid it’s that black and white for me.



[1] Should they though?  Is it about ‘messages’?  This is something that I asked here.

[2] I think the 5M model is excellent in reminding us of all the aspects we need to consider.  The only thing I would add is that we need more guidance in interpretive planning models on how to deal with heritage value and significance, and the danger of interpretive bias.

[3] just on an aside, the concept of ‘content’ is usually understood as a material content – as with the person in my example.  Many times that may be so – we have some material – but that material isn’t the heritage for most people.  It’s how it makes them feel.

[4] Just for the sake of completeness: I do appreciate that in some areas, visitors do want to and need to be guided by specialist knowledge.  But even in say, art history, people’s sense of heritage and interests should take precedent over the curator’s assessment.



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I recently read Sharon MacDonald’s fascinating book Difficult Heritage.  Negotiating the Nazi past in Nuremberg and beyond [1].  There were a lot of thought-provoking observations in the book, but the one I’d like to focus on today are the guided tours of the Nazi rally grounds.

Geschichte fuer Alle organises these tours.  Their website explains that they are an organisation ‘working scientifically’, which aims to provide a critical point of view.  For the tours of the Nazi rally grounds, MacDonald writes that the organisation wishes to ‘present the site factually rather than through moralising statements’ (p. 149).  This last bit I think is worth highlighting.  No moralising statements.  This sounds really progressive.  It suggests that visitors are allowed to make up their own minds.  We’re facilitators, not dictators.  We won’t moralise, or preach to you.

According to MacDonald, the organisation provides their guides with in-depth scripts for reference, giving not only the key points that should be covered, but also a range of suggestions on how to deliver them.  Questions, for example, are strongly promoted as a good way of engaging audiences.  Now that’s something we all know from learning theory, and it’s a strategy well rehearsed in interpretative best practice.  However, as MacDonald continued with her observations of the tours, I began to wonder about the way the questions were employed, and what impact they may have on visitors as the tour progresses.

Questions such as, What were the party rallies? (p. 151) are no doubt a good way of gauging visitors’ level of knowledge. But what dynamics do they actually activate?  The question asks visitors to give quite a clear answer about what they know.  And immediately, there is the possibility of a wrong answer – either factually or in terms of social acceptability.  Will visitors take that risk?  Or, in the case of social acceptability, will they simply tell us what they think we want to hear? Either way, does a question like this really promote interaction, and achieve any positive aim for the interpretation?

The questions to me became even more doubtful when used as part of eliciting what MacDonald termed the ‘preferred reading’ of the site.  For example, the question ‘Do you like the façade [of the Congress Hall]?’ was then followed by explanations of how the stone for the building was quarried by inmates from nearby concentration camps, themselves illustrated by pictures which the guide held up.  On the face of it, this is a brilliant technique: you engage visitors emotionally with a building (Do you like it?) and then you ‘peel away’ at the façade (MacDonald literally calls this ‘façade-peeling’), leading to the hidden truth behind what you can see.  Great.

Except of course, you are also making it clear that any response that suggested a visitor liked the space, was, alas, wrong.  In fact, I can imagine visitors feeling as if they, by liking the building, are thought to have embraced the way in which it was built.  Their positive answer not only becomes wrong, but it becomes morally reprehensible.  Again, I understand that the technique means to peel away the façade.  But does it achieve that? You are asking a question based on one piece of information (how the buildings look) and then you effectively make a judgment about that answer by revealing additional information (forced labour, concentration camps) that completely changes the context of your first question.  You got interaction, certainly.  But is it the right kind of interaction? And what about those visitors that have a sense of awe, or of unity and community when it comes to the rallies and their buildings?  Can this technique really get them to critically engage with those feelings?  Or does it make it easier for them to reject the tour’s ‘preferred reading’, because they feel they are being censored and manipulated?

Which brings me to the preferred readings themselves.  It may be easy to embrace the concept of preferred readings when it comes to a site like the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg.  But how are preferred readings different to those moralising statements that Geschichte fuer Alle vowed not to make? MacDonald observed instances where eyewitnesses on tours were effectively neutralized, and their experience of having felt ‘forced’ to participate in the rallies or the Hitler Youth dismissed and muted by the guide.  Where is the line here between telling historical facts (and challenging inaccuracies), and the despotic inscription of meaning?

I’m intrigued by all of this, not the least because my own research in Germany suggests that such encoding of preferred readings in interpretation is undertaken without enough consideration or understanding of its impact on visitors.  Furthermore, responses from visitors themselves suggest that they are well aware of it, and that some most emphatically resent it.  I’ve yet to do some more interviews at a control study site, but if the findings there are consistent with the findings that I already have, then interpretation will need to rethink not only our practices as illustrated by the tours at the Nazi rally grounds, but also what motivates these practices.

[1] London and New York: Routledge.  2009.

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In March last year I blogged about my thoughts on architecture and interpretation.  When I visited the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California last week, I was reminded of that post –as an example of where it works brilliantly.

Now, I’m sure an Egyptologist would find plenty of faults with the pseudo-Egyptian museum buildings, or the various structures in the garden.  But for me and my friend (and probably many other visitors just like us), the pillars and low profile of the architecture got us excited before we even set one foot in the door. In fact, we were so enticed by the architectural presentation, that we immediately followed the little paths away from the sidewalk and into the green spaces between the museum buildings.  Exploring the gardens became a delight in its own right, and we spent quite some time there, taking pictures by the fountain, or sitting in the shade and looking out onto the temple-like Rosicrucian meditation space.

The atmosphere outside created anticipation and an eagerness to explore the inside of the museum. We obviously were always going to go inside – that’s why we went there – but having the Egyptian feel of the buildings, and the opportunity to engage with this by exploring the spaces they created, added something more.  It got me thinking about the place from where the objects we were about to see had come.  Just like the physical landscape of the country itself (Egypt), which was naturally out of reach, the architecture and garden gave us a framework to image the life to which the objects had once belonged.

In some ways, this also addressed an issue with museums that visitors at the study sites for my doctorate research have raised.  Visitors emphasise the importance of being in the place where the event happened, or where the objects were found.  Some visitors have gone as far as saying that museums away from the place itself are ‘boring’, even ‘pointless’, because they are too far removed from the (historical) context.  Nothing can replace that authentic context, and yet, at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum I felt that the architecture and landscaping went a long way to approximate a ‘sense of place’.

It really worked for me.  In this case of course the architects had it easy: a museum dedicated to one culture with easily identifiable symbols.  It’s more challenging in other places.  What do you do at a battlefield, for example?  Do you build something that imitates the building style of the period? Should the building interact with the site so that visitors can understand it better? Or should it be practically invisible so that it won’t disturb the site at all?  It’s a tough decision.  But what the visit to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has reiterated for me is that where architecture and landscaping  are in tune with the heritage presented, it can be an active part of interpretation, and truly enhance the visitor experience.

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As I continue to plough my way through transcribing the visitor interviews that I’ve done at Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany I am struck by one observation: a lot of visitors refer to ‘the presentation’.  They came because they wanted to see how the story was ‘presented’.  They liked ‘the presentation’.  ‘The presentation’ was excellent.

Contrast this to the relative silence when I probe them about what they take away from their visit, and I wonder if there is something going on here. If ‘the presentation’ is that good, then why does it appear to have left them completely cold?

Of course, this could simply be a wider cultural issue.  Germans may just turn out to be much more reserved when it comes to history.  Or, they may simply be reserved when it comes to the history of this particular site [1].  I am planning to do visitor interviews at a related, but less regimented site next year to test this.

However, I am reminded of what I learnt during my studies in art: If the audience thinks about the medium, then you’ve lost them.  If they think about how you’ve cut your film or created your scene, then they’re no longer in the story, and your film has failed.  It’s that simple.

Is the same true for interpretation?  If all visitors can think of when you ask them about their visit is how you’ve told the story, does that mean that they’ve actually not connected to the story at all?  This could be a matter of medium: it may be clunky, and draw attention to itself.

Or, and this is what I think may be going on in Kalkriese, it may be that your medium is indeed excellent, but what you’re telling is just not the whole story, or it isn’t what has meaning to visitors.  There have been several occasions where visitors almost seemed to censor themselves, and tell me what I think they believe they are expected to feel, or have learnt, or say.  The way in which the interpretation at Kalkriese was put together was marked by what seems an overwhelming fear that the site will be misused and misappropriated by nationalists.  Consequently, the tone in the exhibition is constantly tempered by relativism, caution, and an almost obsessive focus on material evidence [2].  The result is an exhibition that does not, ultimately, disinterestedly present facts, but one which is oddly misbalanced and focussing on the side which was defeated in the battle [3].  I cannot help but feel that this must have an impact on the way visitors respond to my questions.

If that is indeed the case, then interpretation has a few things to think about.  The first and most obvious point is that it is not enough to ask visitors whether or not they ‘liked’ the interpretation.  Clearly at Kalkriese they did, or at least as far as they feel at liberty to tell me.  It also means that ‘good’ interpretation cannot be marked off by material criteria alone.  In other words, we can’t develop a tick list of observable qualities to determine whether a piece of interpretation is ‘good’ [4] – heritage just doesn’t work that way.

It’s an exciting journey, and I’m really interested in seeing how visitors at the other site respond.  As ever: Watch this space.

[1] German nobleman raised in Rome turns against the Empire, (temporarily) unites the many German tribes and defeats three legions.  You can read more about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest here.
[2] I’ve written here about another side product of this focus on finds.
[3] In German, the site is called ‘Varusschlacht’, the Battle of Varus, Varus being the Roman commander that was defeated in the event. There are historic reasons for this also, but ultimately it was a choice.  The symbol of the site, reproduced on all signage and marketing as well as in an oversized replica greeting visitors as they enter the exhibition, is a Roman mask that they found early on in the excavations.
[4] It’s a bit ironic that I should write this today, when I received an invitation to propose ‘quality criteria’ for interpretation to Interpret Europe.  Some of the original criteria that were proposed and discussed at a workshop during the last IE conference were exactly limited to these observable, Tilden-based qualities, and I heatedly argued against this.  They’ve now agreed to include process criteria, which I think are better placed to fit the bill.

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I spent yesterday at the Battle of Hastings site [1].  They had a big event on to mark the upcoming anniversary of the battle, and at some point during the day, people laid down wreaths at the Harold Stone – the stone marking the place where King Harold is said to have fallen [2].

It made me think again about ‘place’ and interpretation.  We interpreters talk about place a lot in one way or another.  It’s usually about two things: on one hand, we’re concerned about communicating, or creating a sense of place for visitors [3], and on the other, we’re harking back to Tilden and his bit about meeting ‘the Thing Itself’, which we tend to discuss only in terms of siting panels, or getting visitors to look at something.

But place goes far deeper, and is much more complex, than simply being something we need to explain or create, or a visual focal point for an interpretive intervention.  Place is a destination, a pilgrimage, as is obvious for example from roots tourism [4]. It doesn’t even have to be a historically legitimised place in order to become a destination, as war memorials illustrate, or, for a less-obvious study, Mount Rushmore [5].  On the other hand, where historical events are concerned, people do seem to want to know where it happened, as the search for the site of the Varusschlacht in Germany shows [6].  And yet, if there is a strong enough marker at another site, both may continue side by side as a destination – historical authenticity not being all that important to visitors [7]. One reason for this may be that place isn’t so much about place at all as it is about memory and social action, as Byrne has argued [8].

So what does this mean for interpretation?  Well, first of all we need to think about the above a little more when we talk about planning, or ‘doing’ interpretation.  If place is a social action with multiple layers of meaning, then we cannot pretend that interpretation is (just, or maybe even at all?) about explaining to visitors what is special about a place [9].  In other words, we can no longer treat place as the neatly defined physical object of interpretation. It does not do to assume that ‘visitors’ come without meaning, and will not already, for example by their very act of visiting, participate in ‘narrating place’, as Byrne has called it.  For many sites, meaning, and a desire to perform place, will already exist for people – as is the case at the Battle of Hastings [10].  Some interpreters may feel that by considering prior knowledge, existing attitudes, and a whole range of other segmentations, we’re already addressing this.  But I would advise caution here: for as long as the proclaimed objective of interpretation is to ‘explain’ something, to ‘change attitudes’ and to ‘evoke support for conservation’, we’re still falling into the trap of wanting to somehow change visitors – and that, I feel, too often means disenfranchising people, disrespecting their right to their heritage, ignoring their part in creating heritage.

The above makes me think that interpretation is very much about marking place, much more so perhaps than it is about anything else – at least in some places.  If I look at what visitors tell me at Varusschlacht in Germany, for example, that’s what they say: they want interpretation to state this is the place where.  Their favourite interpretation is the recreated Germanenwall, the turf wall from behind which the Germans attacked the Romans.  And some interpreters wouldn’t even call such reconstructions interpretation! Similarly, the Harold Stone at Battle Abbey literally just states the fact: Here is where traditionally Harold is said to have fallen.  But it is arguably the focal point of the entire site.  Is it interpretation? [11]

So finally, and this is contentious even to my mind, I wonder how much interpretation as a marker of place must actually be about stating facts, giving information, and not about explaining (or revealing, as Tilden called it).  Is this where facilitation lies? The giving of facts that visitors in Germany have requested, so that they may make up their own mind?  I don’t know.  I hope as I embark on analysing my visitors interviews over the next months, I’ll get an answer.  Watch this space.


[1] 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey is one of my research sites for my doctorate research.
[2] This wasn’t a ‘scheduled’ laying down of wreaths, so unfortunately I missed the act itself.  The notes that went with the wreaths suggest that they were put down by the re-enactment societies involved in the event.  I actually think someone should do a proper study on re-enactment societies and what they do for the people involved.  There is a scheduled wreath-laying ceremony on Monday, 14 October, the actual date of the anniversary.
[3] That is in a nutshell what the interpretive handbook ‘A Sense of Place’ sets out to do. Here, as with other definitions of interpretation, the objective is, in my own words, to foster appreciation of place so that visitors may support its conservation.  Hello Tilden again.
[4] Paul Basu’s book Highland Homecomings (Routledge, 2007) is a good read on this topic.
[5] see Pretes, M. (2003). ‘Tourism and Nationalism’ In: Annals of Tourism Research 30(1), pp. 125-142.
[6] see for example Henige, D. (2007). ‘”This is the place”: putting the past on the map.’ In: Journal of Historical Geography 33, pp. 237-253
[7] see for example Hoffman, D. (1994). ‘Der Teutoburger Wald und andere Orte der Erinnerung.’ In: Fansa, M. (1994). Varusschlacht und Germanenmythus: eine Vortragsreihe anlaesllich der Sonderausstellung Kalkriese – Roemer im Osnabruecker Land in Oldenburg. Oldenburg: Staatliches Museum fuer Naturkunde und Vorgeschichte Oldenburg, pp. 87-107
[8] Byrne, D. (2008). ‘Heritage as Social Action’. In: Fairclough, G. (2008). The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 149-173
[9] This being the definition used in the above cited ‘A Sense of Place’ handbook.  Variations of this definition can be found in all definitions by our professional organisations, and the classic interpretation literature.
[10] There is a discussion to be had about where that meaning comes from.  School education is certainly one aspect, which comes through very strongly at the Battle of Hastings.  But there’s also something else, for at Culloden Battlefield, and indeed at Varusschlacht, there is a public association with the site that is in direct opposition to what has been taught at school.  This is interesting, but outside of my study, so for the moment I’m not aware of any studies that have been done on this.  I expect it’s something around public memory.
[11] Before you say it: yes, the rest of the provision, from the sheer tourist sign along the motorway to the café and finally the exhibition, also play a role.  What kind of role I haven’t established yet, and may not be able to either in my research, the focus being on something else.

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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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Last week I was back in Germany finishing up the visitor interviews at Museum und Park Kalkriese for my doctorate research.  One interview in particular struck a note with me.  A visitor was very upset about what they felt was a major lack of balanced representation.  They felt that there was little to nothing about the German side, even though the museum owed its existence to a battle in which an outnumbered force of German tribes annihilated (there’s really no other word for it) three Roman legions in 9 AD.

The visitor said that they expected objectivity in a museum. For them, this objectivity meant giving due consideration to historical fact without overlaying a modern bias.  The bias in this case, as they explained, was Germany’s difficult relationship to anything in German history that might inspire nationalistic sentiments – i.e. a tribal leader of 2000 years ago defeating the expanding Roman Empire.

My interviews with various staff suggest that this bias has indeed been present when the interpretation was put together.  However, when I specifically asked about why there is this prominent focus on the Roman side, the answer was mostly: there aren’t many artefacts that have been found from the Germans.  Moreover, the sentiment was that by focussing strictly on what has been proven archaeologically, i.e. via artefacts and physical traces, objectivity would be achieved.

I think the visitor I spoke to articulated a very good point [1].  When, numerically speaking, about 80% of an exhibition relates to one side of a story, there cannot be objectivity.  Objects and archaeological evidence do not ensure objectivity.  These are merely two sources of information, and if they don’t illustrate both sides of a story, then other sources need to be consulted and represented [2].

If this means drawing on different theories that may still be discussed, then so be it.  What interpretation needs is the courage to own up to the dictionary core of the meaning of the word: there are many possible interpretations of a story, or historical fact.  As this visitors’ reaction makes clear, we cannot hide behind archaeology and objects.  They cannot on their own deliver objectivity [3]. We have to acknowledge that there is more than one point of view. And we have to trust our visitors to be just as smart as we are.

This is an important point: what strikes me about my interviews with staff is this fear that the site will be hijacked by fascists, or at the very least misconstrued by visitors as a site of nationalist pride [4].  And in order to prevent this, any suggestion that there could have been anything like a ‘German achievement’, as the visitor called it, is carefully avoided.

In reality, visitors are also part of this German discourse.  They’re very capable of placing the historic fact of the German defeat of the Roman army 2000 years ago into the context of more recent German history.  The visitor that spoke to me was well-educated, eloquent, and fully aware both of the challenges of German history and the fact that there weren’t many German artefacts from the battle.  What they wanted was for the museum to provide a space free of the manipulation ever present in the outside world (they said) and show some (real) objectivity.  They were going to do their own thinking about the sources provided, thank you very much.

[1] It is really striking just how reserved responses in Germany are compared to those that I’m getting in England at the Battle of Hastings.  A few responses have made me wonder whether the issue does actually lie with this bias identified at this particular museum.  I have therefore decided to do a trial study at the mirror site to Kalkriese, the Hermann’s Monument.  It’ll be interesting to see if there are differences in visitors’ responses at these two sites.

[2] Ironically, where the German tribes are discussed, this is generally done via reference to Roman writers.  And yet, the interpretation then goes on to call into question the reliability of these sources, and even contradicts them – although I’m not clear what the basis for the contradiction is.

[3] Just on a quick side note, the focus on objects in our social history museum has led to key events of local history being neglected. I’m feeling a bit smug when I write here that for this reason, I wrote into our Interpretive Vision as a principle that our interpretation at the new museum would not be object driven. It did cause a mini-mutiny by our curators, but now they’re on board.

[4] In England, at the Battle of Hastings, neither visitors nor staff give this another thought.  Of course this is where The Nation Was BornOf course it’s part of their British identity, and they’re proud of it.  I hasten to add that with none of the British visitors did I get a sense of irrational nationalism.

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