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Posts Tagged ‘preferred readings’

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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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.

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

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