A lot of our advice revolves around getting the ‘first five minutes’ right and giving a clear, concise introduction to what makes your place special. It can make all the difference to how, and whether, people remember it. This is particularly true for international visitors who may well have less background knowledge.
When we arrived at Kazimierz Dolny, we had no idea. No idea of Poland and certainly none of this small town. We stopped here simply because we needed a break in the long drive from Kraków airport to Bialowieza Forest http://www.telltale.co.uk/2015/06/18/thoughts-on-heritage-interpretation-from-bialowieza-forest/ and the Lonely Planet guidebook to Poland listed it as a top place, mainly because it was pretty.
We had no idea, and no Polish language. Pretty much like overseas visitors the world over. Pretty much like many visitors to Poland, certainly.
We looked around for starting point, an idea to hang on to, some insight into what makes this place interesting. Happily, within the first hundred yards we came across a simple outdoor panel exhibition. It looked like a good opportunity to see what this town had to say for itself.
As in the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb it was very helpful that the text was translated into English. Not only helpful to us as native English speakers, but helpful also to the many people who speak English as second or third language.
In Bialowieza and in Kraków we were to find English used as an universal language for tourism. It was used in restaurant conversations with fellow travellers from different countries, and to talk to mixed nationality tour groups.
This has big implications for interpretation and big implications for writing interpretation in English – I will return to this in another post.
However, here, as in Zagreb, the English was difficult even for a native reader.
Most of the content of the panels was not in words. It was in that other, more subtle, language of images.
I, being a wordy nerdy type, of course, read the words. Even If I hadn’t, I think that as an inquisitive, explorative, culturally aware tourist, I would have got the message.
I think I would have realised that this place had attracted a number of artists in the early 20th century. I think it would have reminded me of St. Ives or Collioure or Paris as a centre of artistic activity.
I would probably twigged that it here was an influential school of art here and wonder who the key artists were.
I like to think that I would have noticed the Impressionist influences and wondered about French links. I may flatter myself, but if I didn’t, Peter definitely would have been on it.
The introductory panel text answered those questions but was harder work than it could have been. I realised that if it hadn’t been there, we would have found out all we wanted to know at the press of a few buttons as soon as we got to a café with wifi. This is the trip where the Internet really has taken over from guidebooks (even from field guides and birdsong apps) as our preferred source of information.
It is absolutely clear that providing information is not what contemporary interpretation, particularly fixed interpretation, is primarily about. We are now finally free of the requirement to tell people everything they want might want to know. Hurrah for that, it never worked and regularly lured us into poor communication practice.
Modern heritage interpreters embed heritage stories and environmental content into the fabric of the place. We tempt people with things to notice, provoke them into questions, stimulate their senses and imaginations. We give them a starting point, a springboard for their own journey of discovery. That is always what we have done best, it is more vital than ever in this experience-seeking age.
Amongst other things, this means we must take images very seriously. Images are more immediate and more experiential than words. They are a subtle, more open-ended (and therefore less precise) and more universal language than words.
We should choose and use images well. We have seen this done well in Bushmills as well as in Kazimierz Dolny.
We saw well-chosen images used very effectively again, a few days later, in a different context at Narewka in the Bialowieza National Park. Those panels will be the subject of the next post.