Posts Tagged ‘sense of place’

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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About a year ago, I blogged about the sense of place I experienced when visiting a May festival in Germany.  At the time, I identified two ingredients to ‘a sense of place’: a ‘symbol’ and the ‘activity’ around it.  A few months later, I highlighted that in my opinion, an inclusive significance assessment will uncover the core of what makes a place distinctive, in other words, it will reveal the ‘sense of place’ we need to communicate.

I still uphold all of the above.  And yet as I am working to communicate my own (Welsh) site’s ‘sense of place’, I’ve thought some more about what makes ‘a sense of place’, and what this means for interpretation.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

– the place [1]

I know this sounds obvious, but hear me out.  With regard to nature interpretation (which is not my main focus) it has been noted that ‘less is more’.  If you’ve been reading this blog you will know that in my opinion, interpretation isn’t just about media, it is also about visitor management.  Where a site has a strong sense of place, the best interpretation guides visitors naturally to the best places, without disrupting their experience with media.  Interpretation here may be best compared to landscape architecture.

For me, the Highlands of Scotland are a great example of a place with natural ‘sense of place’.  When I visited there for the first time and without any prior knowledge, it was the (uninterpreted) wildness of the landscape, its unforgiving harshness and soul-aching beauty that struck me with its ‘sense of place’.  Through a flute-playing tour guide traditional Scottish music became a part of that sense of place, and it is interesting that Visit Scotland nowadays use these very same incredients in their adverts.


– the place [2]

It’s easy to see how a place of natural beauty can have a strong ‘sense of place’ but the same is actually true for buildings and built environments.  I’m not just talking about historic town centres such as that of Stein am Rhein.  I’m also talking about places like the Open Air Museum at Detmold in Northern Germany.  At least for someone from the South like me, the sense of place was created by the spaces in these relocated houses and villages.  This was enhanced by recognising similar architectural styles in the surrounding areas of today.  However, unlike with the natural places of strong sense of place, I think the man-made spaces want a little support from interpretation to highlight the human stories hidden underneath the architectural spaces.  At Detmold, for example, interpretation is practically non-existent, and people are conspicuously absent.  So while the fabric of the site has considerable sense of place, the fact that its raison d’etre – people and their lives – is not visible leaves the sense of place somewhat hollow.


– an emotion

Remember what I wrote about significance assessments helping you to reveal the core of a site?  Sometimes that core is encapsulated in an emotion, and the entire ‘sense of place’ flows from that emotion or human experience.  It’s similar to a novel: the novels we tend to remember the most are those with universal human emotions.  The example of a heritage site that derives its sense of place from such an emotion is Montgomery Place along the Hudson River in New York State.  I worked there as a tour guide, and on the proch of the house, facing the river Hudson, we told visitors of Janet Montgomery who fainted on that spot when after decades the body of her husband, General Richard Montgomery, was brought down the river from Canada to be reburied in New York.  Richard was the first general that fell during the American Revolution, and Janet, dedicated to his memory, had never remarried.  That human experience, told at the very spot where it happened, expressed everything the site was about: sacrifice, and commitment, and one woman’s strength.  Many times over it is what visitors commented on after the tour.  All we did in the interpretation was tell the story in three sentences – the rest was left to visitors’ imagination, and their experience of the ‘authentic’ site which otherwise would have been merely a pretty viewpoint.


– a story

We’ve now properly entered the human realm of ‘sense of place’, widening it out from an isolated emotion.  Here, sense of place comes entirely from a story.  A good example is the story of the Gainsboro sit-ins, the start of the sit-ins during the American Civil Rights Movement, where students demanded service for non-whites by sitting at lunch counters.  A section of the Gainsboro counter is now at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History, and regular participatory performances allow visitors to hear the story of the sit-ins and share in some of the experiences that the students at the time had.  For me, the ‘sense of place’ doesn’t come from the counter – it’s authenticity is a nice addition, but the real ‘sense of what this is about’ lies in the story of courageous young people who had a vision.  The performance does a great job at conveying that ‘sense of place’.

So in summary, as we move further away from the fabric of a place, interpretation becomes more important.  It may also be helpful to remind ourselves that the ‘place’ in ‘sense of place’ is literally about a distinctive experience whereever you happen to be and of whatever it is you’re interpreting.  Sometimes the location is pre-determined – as with the Highlands of Scotland – sometimes it isn’t – as with the museum.  Sometimes no interpretation is required, sometimes you do need interpretation to convey the ‘sense of place’.  At the end of the day, however, what it all comes down to is having a good understanding of why a place or topic you wish to interpret is significant.

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The maypole in my village.

I visited my home village for 1 May.  In Germany, and certainly in the South, the raising of the ‘Maibaum’ – the maypole – on the eve of 30 April is generally a village celebration, followed the next day by the ‘Maiwanderung’ – the hike on 1 May.  The weather wouldn’t quite collaborate, but I still had an overwhelming sense of being here and not anywhere else.  It was a very strong ‘sense of place’.

It made me wonder why some interpretation I’ve encountered hasn’t quite instilled me with a similar sensation, especially since communicating a ‘sense of place’ has often been stipulated as one of interpretation’s primary goals.  In 1997 the Tourism and Environment Initiative in the Scottish Highlands even called its interpretation handbook ‘A Sense of Place‘.

However, much interpretation seems to rely on the uniqueness of its material to communicate a ‘sense of place’.  Brochs, for example, are uniquely Scottish Iron Age dwellings, and this is pointed out on the (admittedly dated) text panels that interpret them.  This form of interpretation, however, did not give brochs a sense of place – it merely factually declared them to be unique.  It treated brochs in isolation as an archaeological phenomenon without evoking the people and the landscape they responded to by building brochs.

Other sites appear to understand ‘a sense of place’ primarily as the use of local materials or locally sourced food.  Neither are likely to stand out to visitors, and even the infamous Scottish Haggis’ ability to communicate what is unique about Scotland is basic and limited.

Uniform design is also often considered a means of creating ‘a sense of place’.  However, very often what is communicated is the image of the organisation caring for the site (or museum etc.) rather than the site’s sense of place itself.

So how could interpretation better communicate a ‘sense of place’?  When I analysed my own experience of the May celebrations, I roughly identified two main ingredients: a strong symbol (the maypole) and the activity related to it (the practices surrounding the maypole).  In other words, perhaps what we need to do is a) understand the essence (similar to the theme) of the place and identify the one aspect that symbolizes that essence, and b) reinforce this symbol through the stories of the human (or otherwise) activity that created or responded to the symbol.

For example, in Gloucester’s National Waterways Museum the exhibition is, naturally, about the waterways: the symbol (= the maypole).  But rather than present the canals in isolation, the exhibition immediately pushes them to the background and instead tells the story of the people (and animals) who lived and worked on and around the canals: the activity (= the May celebrations).  In the end, I experienced the canals indirectly as unique living environments: they had acquired a real ‘sense of place’ for me.

As I enjoyed sharing the May experience with the people around me, I thought again how that sense of place truly is the strongest bond to a place or topic.  Perhaps as interpreters we need to take a step back and ask ourselves why so often, we still miss out on creating that bond.

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