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I am indebted to the Association for Heritage Interpretation (UK) for publishing a news item that highlighted the National Trust’s ‘Bench mate’ scheme and a commentary on it in a national newspaper.

The latter is particularly refreshing as the voice of someone whose profession is not interpretation.  The commentator, a comedian, I’m told, makes a really good point when he describes the image he formed in his mind of the house’s lady by looking at the books in her library.  When he is told that the supposed ‘broadminded reader’ may in reality never have read these books at all since the Trust dresses (some) rooms with furniture and objects that may not be original to the house, the commentator felt willfully misled.

This may account for the underlying accusation in his piece that he levies against the Trust’s presentation.  Fabricated smells seem just that – a fabrication – and they represent a choice that favors the nostalgic while ignoring what are ugly truths.

The two issues raised here – authenticity and selectivity – are valid concerns about any interpretation.  Interpreters should always be mindful of both, and yet, I’m not convinced that every Trust property would gain from presenting, as the commentator writes, ‘the smell of soiled undergarments … in the cupboard below stairs, where the lord had forced himself upon the serving wench.’  I doubt that such historical accuracy is what motivates people to visit Trust properties, nor do I believe that they need to be told that such sad things did indeed occur – they already know.

Incidentally, the commentator himself makes a similar point.  He complains that the ‘bench mate’ scheme with its audio commentaries by national celebrities implies that visitors cannot be trusted to have their own thoughts.  Interpretation is accused of being patronizing, and often I would have to agree that yes, it can be – especially in those instances where interpreters haven’t spent the time to find out what the value of a site is to people (and this value may not be a heritage value at all).

The commentator of course raised his criticism in response to the audio commentaries.  Unfortunately I know nothing of the Trust’s process in arriving at these but I, too, was slightly disappointed.  First off, the introduction on the page reads that the commentaries are meant to ‘bring the National Trust’s special places to life’ [1].  Second, we’re promised ‘fond memories’ that these celebrities will share with us.  The two clips I listened to did neither of these things.  They may be the odd ones out, but if they are indicative of the other ‘bench mates’ then these are more marketing leaflet than memory.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love the idea of sitting down on a bench and listening to someone reminisce about the place.  At Dinefwr Park, however, the commentary goes on and on about the wildlife you can watch in Dinefwr Park, and its biodiversity.  This seems quite unnecessary: the visitor sitting on the bench is already there.  Why not take the opportunity to really draw their attention to something special that can be seen from this particular spot?  If the celebrity doesn’t have a memory they could still talk about their own response to this particular view [2].  Instead, Iolo Williams doesn’t even tell me what the kingfisher I’m supposed to be lucky enough to see looks like (and I wouldn’t know a kingfisher if I saw one), and so his enthusiastic delivery does very little to enhance my experience of the place.

At Calke Abbey, David Gower’s audio clip is a recital of the historical facts about the site.  He then jumps quite unexpectedly into musings about open spaces in general and the opportunities they offer for sports, and I’m sure that had I listened to this at Calke Abbey instead of at my desk here at home, I would have been even more puzzled about its relevance (or lack thereof) to my experience of sitting on this particular bench, in this particular spot.

Do I think that the benches are an example of the National Trust not trusting their visitors to have their own thoughts, like the commentator wrote?  Not at all.  I actually think the Trust had a really good idea – they just didn’t quite pull it off.  What I admire about the National Trust these days is that they are clearly committed to reaching out to wider audiences and breaking that image of the ‘gilded acorn’.  The organisational restructuring is brilliant, and what they envisage for the visitor experience is quite inspiring.  Now it’s simply a matter of implementing it to the best advantage.  I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.

Note

[1] This is actually turning into a meaningless phrase and I think interpreters should be banned from using it.  What does it mean, to ‘bring a place to life’?  Is it dead without our intervention?  If so, why do we bother preserving it?  In reality, most places are important to people because they inspire them and speak to them in some form.  An interpreter’s job is merely to facilitate and enable that inspiration and engagement for every single visitor.  You don’t ‘bring it to life’, visitors do, every single one in their own way.

[2] At my current site we’ve just completed and curated a memory project and exhibition about features – still existing and those already vanished – in our historic park.  It was a great way for us to learn about what people valued about the park, and it meant we could really engage with the community.  It also seemed that people felt reassured – the park has a brandnew management structure – and they realised that we valued their claim on the park and their input.  While practicality didn’t allow us to mount the exhibition outdoors as originally envisaged, I am looking into creating a trail leaflet from it.  However, even with having the exhibition indoors, it is clear that it sparks conversations among other visitors and inspires their own memories.  In my mind, that’s what interpretation is all about.

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I recently had a very interesting chat with a colleague who is working on educational programmes.  They covered a whole range of topics that may be of interest to teachers and so encourage them to bring pupils on site.  I admired their ideas for a broad variety of possible projects, and yet one thing remained missing for me: the programmes just didn’t seem to communicate the stories that were unique to the site.

Many educational and even interpretive programmes suffer from this.  The stories are generic and if you hadn’t made the trip you may well not know where exactly you’ve landed.  Just try and google ‘Victorian Christmas’ these days, and you will find sites as varied as the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey, UK (an industrial heritage site) and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, New York, USA.  Activities tend to centre on the same theme of Victorian gifts and decorations.  No sense of place there.

It is of course tempting to go for the ‘tried and tested’.  Victorian Christmas events are hugely popular, and the Victorians are a topic prescribed in the curricula across Britain.  You will have an audience, no doubt, but after their visit people (and pupils) will not be able to tell their experiences at your site apart from what they’ve had last year at a different site.

Is this good enough?  Will it be enough to convince visitors and funders when times get rough that your site is unique and worth the effort?  You can probably guess that my answer is no.  Any house that was in use during Victorian times can serve the Victorian theme purpose, but only Montgomery Place can tell the story of the first General killed in the American War of Independence, and his widow who became a national icon for decades and who remained committed to him for the rest of her life.  That is the story of the site.

And to uncover that story is what significance assessments are for.  I’ve previously written about the importance of (inclusive) significance assessments.  Sometimes these uncover conflicting stories, but in many cases they will identify a shared core that should become the spine of any interpretation.  In my opinion, only that spine can hold up what you do.   If you ignore it in any aspect of your site presentation – be it through educational programmes or events – you weaken your sense of place.

This does not mean that your site is condemned to obscurity if it doesn’t fit the most popular demands.  For school programmes it is often a simple matter of demonstrating how the experiences and activities which the site’s core story offers support pupils in similar ways as the popular topics do.  The site may also offer a unique angle on the popular theme that teachers will value because they can explore it nowhere else.  This requires more creativity and forward thinking from interpreters but it also avoids reducing the site’s story to the point of irrelevance.

 

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