Interpretation often is aimed at visitors. It can be designed for local people but that’s a different game. Often it is aimed at people who are ‘not from round here’. Interpretation can play a significant role in helping them understand the place they are visiting.
This post follows on from my recent one where I made the case for interpretation as an important part of the heritage tourism industry.
There I explained that someone had asked me for examples of interpretation at historical and archaeological sites that support heritage tourism. It set me thinking but I gave some answers. Here they are.
They are not the only answers. They may well not be the best answers. I bet you have some great answers too. Please share them.
The role of interpretation depends on whether we are talking about domestic or international tourism. In the case of the former i.e. people visiting heritage sites in their own country, we can often assume some cultural understanding (albeit limited) and beliefs about the heritage (not necessarily grounded in historical facts). In this case interpretation often aims to let people explore, question, debate that heritage and their relationship to it. This is great.
If we are looking at international tourists i.e. people visiting heritage sites in a foreign country, interpretation can have a different role. It can introduce the heritage as part of their exploration of us and our country. This requires being very conscious of and avoiding the unconscious cultural assumptions. It involves being able to look at the subject from a wide range of perspectives. It can make fewer assumptions, or none, about what people already know.
The examples I offered included:
Maes Howe – or, more accurately, all of the interpretation by Historic Scotland at the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. This included one of the best ever guided walks (Maes Howe) and excellent exhibition and panels (Scara Brae). Here, all visitors, regardless of where we come from, are looking into a past so deep that it feels like a foreign country. Nationals and internationals share a starting point.
This is also true of the National Trust property at Sutton Hoo, where another brilliant guided walk and a really first class exhibition brings the Anglo Saxon world to life. Again, after so many centuries, none of us have strong connections (although as an East Anglian, I like to think I have). We can all hear the stories as strangers.
By contrast, at the Back to Backs, Birmingham – another National Trust property- the heritage of working class life in the slums in the early 20th century is brought to life by people who remember it. It is a hugely evocative story which I found highly emotional. Again here the content is based on shared human experience and empathy. It is equally accessible and appropriate for nationals and non-nationals.
That is not always so. Sometimes the history is well known to nationals but needs explaining to international visitors.
The saga of Henry VIII and his wives may not be bread and butter to visitors from Russia, India or China – why should it be? So the excellent interpretation at Hampton Court Palace (Historic Royal Palaces), one of the top heritage attractions in London, has to do a fast track on that essential background. I take my hat off to the actor who gave a a vivid run-through of Henry’s marital history during a bawdy tap-room scene as part of the King’s stag-night before his final marriage.
Of course, it is often not only overseas visitors who need some help with the backstory. Bosworth Battlefield offers a fantastic interpretation of the Battle that ended the War of the Roses, one of the most tangled and tricky to understand parts of English/Welsh history. That is a great service to British visitors as well as a great showcase for international tourists
At other times the local or national visitors have powerful, passionate interests in the story and the way it is told. It enshrines something that matters about our ancestors, our land, ourselves and the way we feel about all of those. In these situations interpreters walk on thin ice and need to proceed with great sensitivity and caution.
Kilmainham Goal, Dublin is a favourite of mine for many reasons. It tells the story of the Irish fight for Independence from English Rule with understanding of the English position and fierce pride in the Irish achievement. I have discussed the interpretation at Kilmainham and the reaction of English visitors.
At Culloden, Scotland the story of a bitterly contested and maybe more bitterly remembered battle is interpreted. This was a part of my history I did not understand well enough. I remember vividly my somewhat harrowing visit to Culloden, during which my husband realised that here most of his clan was eradicated. Powerful stuff indeed. I think the visit made me a better, more aware, visitor to Scotland.
Those were the seven places that came to mind as examples of where interpretation of human heritage serves tourism well. What would you add to the list?