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I recently read about someone saying that heritage managers and interpreters were ‘selling’ experiences. I’ve already written in a recent blog post how ‘experience’ seems to have been a popular concept for a while now.  In fact, even I was raving when the National Trust first changed all interpretation and visitor related job titles, along with their philosophy, over to ‘visitor experience’.

I’m a lot more sceptical about this now, and as I’m sorting out why, I thought I’d share my thinking so far.

‘Experience’ seems to express another stage in the development of our understanding of and approach to interpretation, but I’m not entirely clear what lies beneath it.  The early stages of interpretation – promoting preservation and then education – are clearly evidenced in legislation and policies, and go hand-in-hand with the (by now heavily criticized) material approach to heritage value [1].  But then the two seem to move away from each other.  Legislation today talks about benefit to communities and individuals, while interpretation has focussed on ‘experience’.

As the quote above shows (‘selling experiences’), the experience is often presented as a commodity, and something that we, as interpreters and heritage managers, create and package, and subsequently ‘sell’ to our visitors on a ‘leisure’ market.  I wonder therefore whether what lies beneath this understanding of ‘experience’ is related to an understanding of heritage which Hewison in 1987 criticised as The Heritage Industry.  In this understanding, heritage is called upon to replace vanishing economies and produce economic outputs as part of a growing tourism market [2]. In subsequent years, heritage was increasingly analysed within this leisure context [3].

Now add to this mix Pine and Gilmore’s 1999 book, The Experience Economy. In a nutshell, Pine and Gilmore argue that businesses [4] need to sell an ‘added’ value with their product, which is the experience that consumers have through engaging with the company and its product.  Sometimes this experience will be transformational, but that is not necessary – for Pine and Gilmore pleasure is enough to make it an experience.

When interpreters speak of ‘experience’, this seems to be what they mean: the added value of the heritage product traded on a leisure market. For some, the comparison with Disney’s practices thus becomes desirable, in that Disney of course are a giant in the experience leisure economy and hugely successful in providing a competitively memorable experience product.

I suppose this is where I’m getting a bit uncomfortable with the experience concept. If the above is really what lies behind our concept of experience in a heritage context – and it’s certainly all I can find – then I have a few issues with it:

  • To start with, I’m not convinced that visitors really see visiting a heritage site or a museum as simply one possible leisure pursuit among others, even if we allow for a mild ‘educational’ bias. There are varying degrees of heritage attachment to sites, of course, but I would be surprised to find that visitors treat even the most ruinous of English Heritage castles on a par with Disneyland.  I think a lot more research is needed here before we can make such an assumption.
  • Secondly, we know that visitors bring their own agendas to sites, so the notion that we ‘craft’ an experience for them is just not sustainable. They make their own experience, based very much, as my own work leads me to believe, on the heritage belief that motivated them to visit in the first place.
  • Thirdly, while we’re thinking of interpretation as creating an experience for our visitors, we’re neglecting to engage with what they think about their heritage.  This ‘experience-making’ approach to interpretation still suggests a one-way street, albeit a more entertaining one, from interpreter to visitor.  We’re still – apparently – disenfranchising our visitors by assuming that we will create an experience and then sell it to them.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course our facilities will contribute to the ‘experience’ that visitors will have at our sites, whether they will enjoy themselves and create memories, and recommend us to their friends.  Of course our presentation and marketing have an impact.  Of course all of this is important. I just don’t think an approach to interpretation as ‘crafting experiences’ is in step with other developments in heritage management.

Visitors have a fundamental stake in heritage even when they are not on site.  In my mind, our task is not to create heritage for them, because we can’t, heritage exists independent of our efforts.  What we need to do is facilitate visitors’ engagement with their heritage.  Thinking about experience as described above just doesn’t seem to encourage us to adjust our practice accordingly [5].

 

Notes

[1] Of course, these practices – promoting preservation and educating – still exist, and they may still have a place at some sites. However, I would argue that there is a progression; if promotion of preservation alone motivates your interpretation I would be worried.

[2] At least as far as the public-facing side of heritage was concerned.  Heritage Designation remained the same.  It should also be said that museums seem to have been unaffected by this thinking until recently, and it is interesting that now we’re beginning to hear the same talk of ‘experience’ here as we have done at heritage sites for a while.

[3] Not, of course, with regard to designation and preservation concerns.  Again, I’m talking about the public face of heritage, as it were.

[4] The book doesn’t deal with heritage or tourism, it’s basically about marketing and service industries.

[5] Of course, as a stage in the development of interpretation, ‘experience’ is perfectly legitimate.  A lot of museums could do with more ‘experience’ and Disneyification, since so many of them still just ‘talk at’ their visitors – or indeed provide no interpretation at all.

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