Posts Tagged ‘Kalkriese’

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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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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I have a confession to make: as I prepared for my first weekend of field research last week, I was suddenly overcome by a terrible fear.  What if it turns out that interpretation has no real importance to visitors?  What if they don’t come because it’s heritage?

Quite a few of the staff involved at the sites I study [1] told me that visitors ‘just come for a good day out’.  At Kalkriese, the museums manager is convinced that no one visits for ‘public benefit’ reasons – they’re just here for ‘something to do’.  I’ve not asked her or any of the other staff yet why they think visitors come to heritage sites for fun.  I wonder if their statements have something to do with experience seeking in Falk’s sense [2]: it’s a well-known site, so people come to tick it off their list.  In other words, the attraction is not the heritage, but the prominence of the site. People don’t care greatly about the story or how it is told, they really just care about the facilities that let them have a good time.  As one of the front-of-house staff told me yesterday at 1066 Battle of Hastings: They always ask about toilets and the café. They’re not that interested in the history.

And this is when I worry.  If my field research really finds the above to be the case, without any as yet unrecognised heritage motivation, then the question begs why anyone should invest in something as expensive as heritage.  Why not shed the conservation costs for Battle Abbey by flattening the site and building a miniature Saxon-Norman Amusement Park on top?  If people really just come for ‘fun’, would they care?

Of course, the real attraction could be a connection to ‘place’.  Kalkriese is a good example of how important ‘place’ seems to be to people: experts and local groups have argued for years over whether or not this is really the site where the battle took place [3]. But then, place can also be created: again taking Kalkriese as an example, the original Hermann Monument has lost none of its attraction power just because the site of the battle was determined to have been quite a distance away. In other words, our Saxon-Norman Amusement Park on the site of the battlefield might serve the same purpose. I dare say it would bring in more money.

I would have a major crisis as an interpreter if I really found the above to be the case at these sites. I fundamentally disagree with a view of interpretation as ‘doing’ something to visitors: in my book, interpretation is NOT about telling visitors about why a site needs to be protected, invested in, conserved. I do NOT want to spend my expertise as an interpreter on manufacturing something for visitors that they’re really not already interested in. I actually think public money can be better spent.

What comforts me at this stage is my own experience.  Working with people directly at various sites I’ve always found that while yes, they care about facilities, they still come for a (heritage) reason.  Yes, they want to have a good day out – but they’ve chosen this, a heritage site, over another leisure activity precisely of the site’s heritage value to them.  They may not be able to articulate it very well, and the level of heritage attachment to the site may be superficial, but I’ve always found it to be there.  Even at our Roman Museum, one of the sites I work with now and which is the furthest removed in historical terms of any site I’ve ever worked at, our visitor surveys suggest that visitors come for the history.  I’ve not taken this response apart; it could be anything from general learning interest to a feeling that this ‘history’ is part of their wider identity as British or European people.  But it does convince me that even where visitors tell us they’re here ‘to have fun’ the reason is linked to the sites’ outstanding characteristic: heritage.

[1] My study sites are 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey in England and Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany
[2] Falk, J.H., 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
[3] Incidentally, someone is bringing the same challenge to the site of the Battle of Hastings now.  See here.

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I spent last week in Germany on my first site visit for my PhD research [1].  Many interesting aspects emerged, but the one I’d like to focus on today is – architecture.

The architecture of the museum at Kalkriese is nothing short of imposing.  As the commercial director explained, the building was intended to be a landmark– and that it certainly is.  It is built with oxidising steel and in the shape of an L lying on its back.  In other words, it is a long, flat building with a tower rising to about 40m above the entrance.

The building itself was not intended to dictate interpretation.  And indeed, the main exhibition space is simply a large empty room with a window on one side – flexible enough to already accommodate a redeveloped exhibition.

But can architecture be divorced from interpretation at all? Can architecture’s duty to interpretation be fulfilled simply by providing large enough empty spaces?

Or should architecture itself be seen and used as interpretation?  That is what I think.  Architecture may not be interpretation in the purest sense of the word, but it most definitely guides our senses and creates an experience.  It may not ‘explain’, but it certainly ‘sets the tone’.

Take the Kalkriese building, for example.  The tower above the entrance thwarts visitors.  Then the building sucks visitors into a dark, relatively narrow staircase, which they have to climb before they reach the exhibition space – a sensory experience of having to exert oneself to gain access to the knowledge presented here [2].

The building also dominates the horizon in the adjoining park, which encloses part of the original battlefield.  The tower, quite smartly serving as an observation platform to obtain an overview of the site, can be seen from every vantage point on the battlefield.

My question as I explored the site was: since this building is so omnipresent, what does it actually add to my understanding of and engagement with the site?  Personally, I felt – nothing.  I’m sure the architecture is successful in terms of the brief, but is a statement all we should expect from architecture?  Wouldn’t visitors get a better experience of a site from architecture that either interprets (through shape, for example) or provides understated facilitation?

I’m thinking for example of the visitor centre at Brú na Bóinne in Ireland (Newgrange), which completely blends into the landscape and is designed in such a way that visitors are subtly made to look out for the monuments.  It is the ritual landscape and the monuments that sit centre stage, while the architecture provides facilitation of the experience of and engagement with the monuments.  The architecture is also reminiscent of the monuments themselves, which is something I’m really excited about.  It is a continuation of the sentiments represented in the monuments (or at least how we imagine those sentiments today), and thus creates that connection between past and present that encapsulates what heritage is all about.  I don’t think interpretation guided the architecture at Brú na Bóinne, but one can clearly see in the architecture the same approach to the landscape as a whole that was taken in the interpretation.  As such, the experience holds together quite nicely.

In my opinion, whenever possible, interpretation should guide architecture, especially at heritage sites.  Sustainability may require architecture that is subtle and therefore adaptable to future changes in (interpretive) direction.  But interpretation should always be the starting point.  At heritage sites, I really do not believe an architectural statement should ever be made.  Because the site is not about the architecture – it is about its own story, and our heritage.




[1] Just a few words about the site: Kalkriese was discovered about twenty years ago to have been the likely site where Roman general Varus was defeated by Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius in 9 AD.  While archaeological excavations have uncovered numerous coins and fragments of armoury etc., there is little else to be seen.

The landscape has changed considerably in 2000 years, so interpreting the battle is a real challenge.  My primary interest in the site, however, is for its possible impact on ‘identity-making’ – one of the core public benefits identified in legislation.  But more about that another time…

[2] Comments in the visitor book about the architecture of the museum building are split into roughly one third positive, and two thirds negative.  Quite ironically, a few visitors complain that the building appears to have been ‘neglected’ and ‘not maintained’ – a sentiment inspired, as it turns out, by the oxidising steel.

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