Alan Machin's blog - April 2009
PLEASE NOTE: SOME POSTINGS ON HERITAGE TOURISM HAVE BEEN MOVED TO A SPECIAL PAGE "ANALYSING HERITAGE TOURISM" - SEE THE LIST ON THE LEFT.
If you want to read the entries about Heritage in the Story So Far in its proper sequence, scroll to the bottom of the page and work back.
A Heritage Footnote
A footnote to the postings here this month on heritage. Reproduced here an extract from a piece that was for a time included on this web site before being removed to free up space:
I always found curious a film presented by Robert Hewison and produced by Roger Burgess in the early 1980s. It was called The Man Who Made Beamish and was about the work of Frank Atkinson, its Director during the years of its foundation. Being interested in museums I taped it. Atkinson told Robert Hewison that in 1952 he had toured Scandinavia in order to see what was happening in museums there. In Lillehammer, Norway, he stood on a little wooden bridge in the towns open air museum one early evening and decided that there ought to be such a museum in England. This romantic little cameo is repeated in Atkinsons autobiography, which used the same title as that of the film.
What is curious is that in those years Frank Atkinson was Director of Halifax Museums. Two years before his vision in Lillehammer, the then Director of Halifax Museums was Robert Patterson. He published in that year an article in the Bradford Textile Society Journal which set out the case for a West Yorkshire Folk Museum at Shibden Hall. It had carefully drawn proposals for displays in out-buildings which included those for a wood turner, a fulling mill, a potter, a stone mason, and a weavers cottage. Mr Pattersons paper traced the origins of folk museums to Scandinavia, but also pointed to a failed idea for one in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1912. He referred also to existing British examples in the Isle of Man, Scotland, and especially, Wales. He goes on to argue the case for using Shibden Hall because of its particular history and that of Halifax in general. The Editors introduction to a reprint of the article says and what better place for [a folk museum] than Shibden Hall, in the ancient wool town of Halifax?.
Frank Atkinson had control of Shibden Hall when he became Director of Halifax Museums in 1952 and was responsible for turning the idea for a folk museum into reality. But he wasnt the man who had the original vision that was Robert Patterson, working within a movement which was already established. I have looked through Atkinsons autobiography, but can find no mention of Patterson, or that the folk museum idea already existed very firmly at Halifax. I notice that Mr Atkinson says he had the notion that the Lillehammer concept should lead to establishing such a museum in England the existing ones were in Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland. He did lead the establishment of the West Yorkshire Folk Museum at Shibden, and it can still be visited. It has to be noted that it was, and still is, quite a compact affair compared with those other museums.
So it seems to be the case that Robert Hewison, the supposed scourge of a heritage industry that falsifies the past in order to make money, had taken part in promoting a misleading piece of history about the museums that he was supposed to know about. Frank Atkinson seems to have forgotten that someone else had already provided the inspiration for what became his own lifes work, and on his doorstep, too, just two years before his Lillehammer visit.
Perhaps all is fair in politics, polemics and publicity.
Farewell To All That
Yesterday I delivered my last university lecture before retirement in the summer. It was aimed at rounding up a module on tourism geography and preparing the students in the first year of their course for an unseen exam. Im glad that a wide range of assessment methods are used by universities these days, but still believe that even unseen exams have value. Once these students are out in professional life they will be met with the need to know their stuff without spending hours preparing in a library and assembling their thoughts before presenting them in a cogent fashion to a demanding audience. That is what exams do with the added authenticity of psychological pressure a couple of hundred examinees writing busily all round them in their case the pressure to perform and win arguments in the professional situation.
It wasnt so much those thoughts that occupied me yesterday. It was the sense of coming to the end of an activity that has stretched over thirty-five years: delivering formal lectures in university and before that in public relations mode for a major museum and then a local government tourism and regeneration department. Besides being immensely enjoyable (bar a few minor catastrophes and a few, very few, uninterested audiences) it was a satisfyingly creative process. Plus, as many good teachers have said to me, I learnt at least as much as the audiences did. I never knew Halifax police, decades ago, had a blue light fixed to a prominent bridge that could be switched on to get the attention of patrolling bobbies and recall them to the police station. Or that it was the Germans in Bavaria who invented the cuckoo clock. That came from a discussion with a student yesterday just before the lecture. While I have doubts about secondary school classes these days I can only say what a joy teaching students has been: theyre remarkably pleasant and far more open in their appreciation than ever we were in the long-lost sixties. Few real problems of discipline, and a number of them have actually read one or two of the books on the reading list J
Even in the seventeen years I have been inhabiting lecture theatres in university there have also been the technological changes. My annual consumption of AA batteries and rechargeables advertising my love of gadgets and techno-teaching aids. Back in 1992 we were still using chalk with our talk. Acetates were things not on the legally-banned substances list. It was the height of sophistication to use a sheet of paper to uncover each bullet point projected from an acetate sheet onto a screen as we delivered our words of wisdom. Now we can upload lectures prepared at home to the university system and call them up in any lecture rooms as we require. Full-colour photos, videos and animated effects can be included. We can write on special whiteboards and commit the results to a computer file for students to access from New Zealand if they wish (yes, its happened). Actually, I havent come across one of those systems at Leeds Met yet but Im sure theyre around in some of the brilliant new buildings going up everywhere.
Yet the heart of teaching is not in the keyboard and computer but in well, the heart, and the head, and the communicative interaction between the tutor and the student working together. University education is as much a numbers game as it is one of high quality, thanks to government policy. I dont regret that, but I wish the job of leading young minds from school-level knowledge towards professional and personal excellence was not being talked of so much in terms of software solutions, and more in terms of real, direct, often emotional, human interaction the foundation of education.
Heritage The Management Imperative
The National Trust, the largest UK membership organisation devoted to conservation, is often targeted by the PC critics for being middle aged, middle class and middle of the road. All of which it is, overall. On the other hand, lets keep in mind that in the century-plus that it has been around it has had to rely on resources in those areas when dealing with enormous demands placed upon it. Without the National Trust many more houses would have been allowed to decay and beautiful countryside lost to some alien form of development. Tweed and twin-sets have helped to preserve much of our historic landscape.
It isnt just a matter of good taste. Clean, sympathetic design and maintenance helps attract visitors and manages the whole process of impressing, entertaining and gathering in the staggering sums needed to look after these landscapes. There is a lot to learn from the estate managers employed by the charity. And occasionally the lesson learnt is sometimes do it better.
Lanhydrock, near St Austell, is one of the best historic houses. Not only are the grounds surrounding it beautiful examples of the landscapers art well cared for, but the house is a whole series of history lessons. There is the story of wealth from the military and industry, well set out in the extensive rooms used by the owning families and the gardens around. But there is also the story of the serving organisation which supported that lifestyle, a way of living that largely disappeared by the second half of the last century. The kitchens where bread was baked on an almost industrial scale, where meat was cooked and carved and desserts decorated, are at least as interesting to the visitor, every one of whom must sympathise with the staff who toiled there.
This is a well-managed estate. It is also a well-managed attraction in which the visiting public is looked after from the car park to the house and gardens and back again. Good signposting, pathways, service points for tickets, booklets and refreshments are the things which make for an enjoyable and rewarding day out. People with disabilities are cared for and helped to visit as much as possible of the house and to experience the sights and sounds that make it a living place. Conservation and security concerns have to take a prominent place a burglary caused some losses from the collections on show not long ago and might create an ambience of keeping people away from what they want to examine. That is quite unavoidable. Heritage management is done well here.
Even if the shop is full of boring good taste somebody elses, not mine.
Heritage And Regeneration: Royal William Victualling Yard
The re-use of historic buildings connected with the sea is well established. Liverpool, Swansea, Bristol, Tyneside, even inland Salford on the Manchester Ship Canal, are well known and extensive. Plymouth has docks a-plenty but while it has made new use of, for example, Sutton Harbour's buildings, it has not taken on a major renewal campaign until recently. The former Royal William Victualling Yard is changing that. In the future it is likely that the Devonshire navy port will have to consider more schemes as it became the hard opinion of many local people that the naval base will lose its frigates to rival Portsmouth before long.
The imposing classically-styled Royal William's Yard, as it is now known, comprises sixteen acres with a collection of buildings designed by Sir John Rennie. Seen from the water approaches they are arranged in a neatly and balanced group around a central basin or dock with a focal point in a classically-designed clock tower in the middle. There are echoes of the naval buildings at Greenwich and even Buckingham Palace in the measured stateliness of the Yard.
An entrance gate in Greco-Roman style, topped by a statue of King William IV after whom the Yard is named, is the way in from Cremyll Street. Inside to the left is the former police station and on the right a former slaughter-house, though few buildings with that function look as dignified as this as it compliments the police post opposite. A cooperage, a bakery, and a bewhouse operated further inside amongst the structures laid out along a central roadway. However, the brewery was completed too late for its intended use as the navy's beer ration was ended in 1831. The Yard itself was all completed by 1835 and operated until 1992, though it had been declining in importance for many years. In the mid-eighties the Conservative government announced its closure, acknowledging the problem of using these high-quality architectural treasures for naval purposes.
The Yard then became the responsibility of the Plymouth Development Corporation, but in 1998 after the PDC was wound up it passed into the hands of the South West Regional Development Agency. Plans by the Phoenix Trust, patron the Prince of Wales, and the redevelopment groups Urban Splash and Enterprise PLC based respectively in Manchester and Preston were announced to convert various buildings into shops, restaurants, apartments and exhibition areas. Some of this has happened, but the task is a large one and this last week a representative of Urban Splash acknowledged that the credit crisis would slow down his group's activities by some years.
It's a long-held axiom in conservation and regeneration circles that the most important resource is that of a cool nerve. Saving historic gems takes a long time.
Heritage: PC Fashions
Castleton, in Derbyshire, is one of those tourist honey-pots which can be loved and loathed. Loved, because it is an attractive village with interesting history and set in beautiful spectacular countryside; loathed because it fills with cars and coaches and flogs quantities of cups of tea and souvenir jewellery to masses of tourists. On national holidays its probably best avoided.
Which is all very sad because like many Pennine towns its economic lifeline appears to be strangling it. Tourism here is almost as ancient as the hills around it. Limestone country attracts attention and invites exploration for its mixture of rugged crags and soft green fields. There is space to walk freely up on the tops and there are cavernous spaces literally deep down to be explored with care. Treak Cliff, Speedwell and other caverns run deep into the earth with mysteries and marvels galore. An ancient castle perches above the village. The houses and even the shops seem to have grown as part of the rocky strata below them.
In the tourist information centre is an exhibit of walking gear photos above. The Peak District of Derbyshire was at the heart of the Right to Roam movement of the 1930s. Walking in the country was becoming a popular pastime. Anyone could go, needing little equipment apart from stout footwear and perhaps a map. Whole groups took to the hills at the same time as individuals escaped to spend a while the peace and quiet on a solitary ramble. Much of the countryside near Manchester was accessible by train, but on the other hand was fenced off and patrolled by gamekeepers employed by landowners wanting moorlands for game birds. Illegal trespassing began and in 1932 six people were jailed for walking on Kinder Scout. A national outcry followed but it was not until after the Second World War that legislation favouring the ramblers was passed by parliament, opening up large areas of hill country for leisure use.
Of course rambling is a form of tourism. For many walkers, several days away from home walking constitutes a good holiday. For others, making a one-day excursion is a source of great pleasure but might not be thought of as tourism. On the other hand so many activities and functions are shared by tourism and excursions that days out are now generally seen as tourism as well.
Which leads to a thought related to the discussions about heritage. Heritage is not just human history, it is natural history as well. The natural world has been inherited by humankind. The mass trespasses of the 1930s that built up pressure leading to legislation guaranteeing more access to the countryside were a left-wing political movement in many cases. They were a way of engaging in class struggles against landowners in the eyes of many people. So there is a political history here as well which makes the narratives depicted in the Castleton TIC display part of a movement venerated by many. Rambling, affordable by the working classes, would be thought politically correct. Other forms of tourism, as discussed in earlier postings, are decried by some leftwing politicians. Teashop economies are non-PC. Museums become nothing but creations of a so-called Heritage Industry.
Except when theyre to do with labour history from the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum in Dorset to the Peoples History Museum in Manchester. We cant praise those tourist attractions just for political reasons, and damn others?
Heritage Presentation: Charlestown Shipwreck And Heritage Centre
A dull day with threats of rain in Cornwall this last week might well have been of benefit to the countys museums. Charlestown can be a forlorn place in such weather. There is a small harbour with some historic ships, a shop and café or two and the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre. Its a village with an interesting history that is a key to understanding at least two chapters on Cornwalls story those of the dangers of navigating its rocky coastline and of the clay-extraction industry that fed millions of tons of the raw material to the Potteries and elsewhere. Not far away is the Cornish China Clay Park based on the former Wheal Martyn mine, and of course the Eden Project occupies a huge former clay pit in the area.
The Shipwreck and Heritage Centre is a commercial project with ticket admissions, a souvenir shop and a restaurant supplying income. How successful it is financially is a matter for the owners, but it must at times be a precarious existence. It looks precarious. The Centre is very old-fashioned as a museum. It has a huge collection of artefacts which it attempts to display in its entirety or again that is the impression given. The origins of this collection appear to have been in anything recovered from wrecked ships or the beaches where lost-overboard objects finished up. So it is very eclectic ships equipment and fittings and cargoes as diverse as barrels of old coinage and porcelain. As it grew the collection expanded to take in nautical instruments, diving equipment and documents such as maps and log books. An important part of the story it tells is that of the Charlestown harbour. Some of the clay-drying kilns, transport tunnels and ship-loading chutes which still occupy the site are displayed. There are room reconstructions representing homes and workshops in the area. This means that some of the displays have expanded one, dominated by a huge illuminated sign saying Gas is about the use of that fuel in homes over several decades. Some displays come closer to the present day the communication equipment used by seafarers is some of the more modern of what is on show. I noticed particularly, tucked in amongst a case of diving gear, the waterproof housing for a Eumig cine camera along with an instruction book showing a young lady finding it easy to use (must be the early equivalent of TV ads today showing that men are actually capable of using kitchen cleaners).
Even though it is a cliché it is still true that here there are fascinating things to see, and it would guarantee repeat business for the Centre if everyone came back again and again to see all of it. The staff were pleasant and helpful, the ambience cheerful. The restaurant is spacious and efficient, even if the menu is very traditional with chips and peas accompanying a variety of fried or grilled food. On the other hand
. Wasnt it Oscar Wilde who said that most museums ought to be in museums? Cornwall is a traditional British seaside resort in so many ways, and this is one of its attractions that could be so much better. It could do with remembering the old adage that less is more. Criticism of heritage centres of this kind has a lot to get its teeth into, and Cornwall, sadly, has more than its fair share. The displays are too crowded, too stacked together, with very poor interpretation. It tries to do everything be a serious collection for the knowledgeable and at the same time a place of entertainment for the children. It has technical, social and cultural history piled in. Thats not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesnt do enough well enough. The room displays have amateurish costumed figures (as in the photo above) with occasional token motorised limbs to introduce a bit of life, and some audio to tell a story the gentleman above is writing to a creditor to admit he cant pay his bills a real and very valid fragment of history which reminds us of the fragility of local enterprises at many stages of history, but it looks like it has been done by some amateur realising the need for some social history. The photo on the right illustrates the haphazard and confusing way some things are shown: a butter churn stands in front of a ships telegraph next to some intriguing but, as far as I recall, unexplained piece of sighting gear. Behind to the right can be seen the hand-wheels which were part of a divers air-pumping equipment.
The Shipwreck and Heritage Centre needs much more space, or else it needs to reduce its exhibitions enough to allow proper story-telling. A good look at a professional gallery or two ought to inspire better practice, but its a safe bet that the managers here think it is the range of stuff on show that interests the audience and therefore brings in the punters. Im not convinced by that argument. If Cornwall has stories to tell they should be told well with displayed objects to illustrate the narrative. A rag-bag of heritage objects with a few labels stuck on them is not state of the art, and its not the state to be in, either.
How Do We See Heritage?
Heres an experiment to try.
The photos above all represent something inherited and are all attracting tourists. Some pictures show a single thing a rocky outcrop of gritstone for example and some, several things a restaurant, people, advertising signs, traffic etc in a city. So a visitor might react in a more complex way to a more complex view like the city, which also has noise, colourful display, smells and textures to touch (not sure about taste unless they go in to the delicatessen).
What do you see in each view? That is, what is the meaning and significance of each one? If you ask someone else to make notes of what they think the meanings and significances are, then compare with your own, there might be big differences. It illustrates how much our individual interpretations of things encountered can vary. Even when guide books, caption panels, tour guides etc are feeding particular views into our minds we are still going to see different importances compared with other people. Its the point I was making in the posting yesterday.
Number 1, for example with herrings being smoked under an open wooden shelter healthy, tasty, traditional, everyday food? Or bland, oily, bony, fisher-folks food? Old fashioned? Unhygienic because smoked in the open where anything could touch the fish? Interesting historically as part of a museum display (A folk museum at Enkhuizen in the Netherlands). And what else does the view suggest or mean to you?
The others are:
2 Bronze figures of slaves in a display at the National Underground Railway Museum in Cincinnati about the system used to free slaves from the southern states of the USA to the free states in the north. To us, a story of the repellent treatment of black people taken from Africa to the USA by force. To many Americans and British at the time a legal and perfectly ethical way of using people of inferior races in order to further white peoples prosperity.
3 A steam-powered water pumping engine reconstructed at the Black Country Museum, Wolverhampton, UK. The kind of pollution which poisoned whole swathes of Britain or a source of proud innovation and industry?
4 The English Heritage-managed Acomb Bunker in York. Thus was a regional monitoring centre for use in case of nuclear war, part of the defence system aimed at helping the country cope with such an event. Was the whole thing a sensible and resourceful way of ensuring that Britain would make the best it could of such an eventuality? Or a joke, with the whole idea of any kind of survival after nuclear bobs rained down just laughable?
5 A cannon on display at the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. Dutch power? Dutch courage? The rule of law or the exploitation of their colonies? Protection or murder?
6 Part of the Staffordshire moorlands in the southern Pennines: Ramshaw Rocks. Beautiful scenery, good climbing country? A beauty spot for locals to enjoy or tourists to invade? Before the mid nineteenth century rugged hill country and mountains were thought barbaric, uncivilised, best avoided. Women were sometimes advised, the story goes, to view such horrendous scenes through a mirror such as the Claude Glass employed by artists to help them paint landscape views. After the industrialisation of the nineteenth century and the spread of dirty, disease-ridden, smoky cities, the countryside was seen differently as Gods gift to humanity, clean and fresh, natural and full of basic goodness. Which it never was, of course, not entirely, at least, any more than the city was entirely unhealthy.
7 Venice and a cruise liner passing leaving for open waters. Jewel of the Adriatic or tourist trap? A city spoiled by oversized cruise ships destroying the quite ambience of the Canale della Giudecca or a source of income for a city becoming depopulated of real citizens in favour of tourist hordes? Should the ships have to take a different route (perhaps with a newly dredged cala being required at high cost) rather than parade themselves to the citys tourists as a way of self-promotion? Is the liner made to look ugly in comparison with the church viewed in the distance? Or is it a clean-limbed work of three-dimensional art produced by the best naval architects and buildings yards available?
8 Times Square in New York City. Fun, excitement, urban culture, shopping, dining out or gaudy, suffocating commercialism, crime, traffic pollution, noise, the claustrophobia of skyscraper city?
What do you think?
Heritage Nostalgia Doesnt Mean Putting The Clock Back
For 24 years I led local history weekends for Leisure Learning Ltd. This was an offshoot originally of Ind Coope Hotels from the mid-1970s. When that company became Embassy Hotels the name stayed on and remained a relatively small but very successful operation. It was never a great profit centre but it had a remarkably high rebooking rate, thanks to the personal service given by the main Leisure Learning organisers, Gordon Hopper and Tony Winslade. I was the subject leader as it were for a series of weekend breaks called Yesterdays World. As with most of the series that ran until the late 1990s these weekends included nine out of ten customers who I already new from earlier trips. The participants were generally middle aged or elderly with a fair sprinkling of younger people depending on the subject. Many were National Trust or English Heritage members.
In a posting on 18 March 09 I mentioned taking people on visits to heritage attractions. Besides those Leisure Learners these included guided tours at the Ironbridge Museum, Antiquarian Society members from Halifax and students on the Tourism Management courses at Leeds Metropolitan University. There were, I reckon, some 108 residentials and a few dozen day excursions. In the 18 March posting about Good Old Days Or Doleful Days the museum described was the Black Country Museum in Wolverhampton. Museums, historic houses, heritage centres and sites along with some long-established industrial centres like Cadburys and Wedgwoods were the main locations for visits. Two evening lectures and plenty of time over breakfast or dinner gave lots of chances for discussion. I have no doubt that, at least for the middle-age visitors and older, there was a powerful stream of nostalgia to be experienced. The cliché cry of so many visitors was We had one of those!. At Wigan Pier the costumed actor talking to people in her front room alongside the supposed coffin of a dead relative was profoundly moving not only because of her dignified speech but because so many of her audience had gone through the kind of experience she was describing. At Ironbridge one of the exhibit demonstrators showing people around a cottage noticed a young woman crying. When other visitors had gone he asked if she was alright. She explained that the long-forgotten sight of the coal fire in the cottage kitchen had suddenly brought back memories of a much-loved grandmother. On a more upbeat note many social history museums depict Victorian times or earlier when the achievements of the industrial revolution and growing British Empire were at their height. Yet while there was a feeling of pride amongst our groups concerning people in industry, the military and the arts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was always a strong recognition of the danger, squalor, diseases and exploitation at home and abroad that those times encompassed.
The obvious point that these were at least reasonably educated people who read newspapers and watched TV documentaries. They had jobs which exposed them to wide cross sections of society. Many were well travelled at home and abroad. One of the flaws in the arguments about heritage attractions misleading visitors, turning them to gaze backwards at a nostalgic past and yearn for the good old days is that it regards those people as some kind of simpletons. It is superficial and condescending. Museum visitors are not dummies. They arent morons being injected with insidious propaganda. The communication process in heritage attractions is very complex. There are different attractions with wide-ranging aims and some have more dubious aims, just like the history books of people you dont agree with. The audiences for these messages are highly varied culturally and educationally and they themselves want many different things out of the places they visit. Whatever knowledge and opinions are absorbed by the visitor depends not only on the actual messages received but also the time spent mulling over what it means and how it fits in to the existing framework of their knowledge. Over time some memories of the visit stand out and others fade away. Opinions about the meaning and significance of the past that has been depicted develop and change.
No-one can say for sure what effect heritage interpretation will have on its audiences. So lets stop making sweeping statements that pretend we can.
History And Heritage
Do tourists see heritage when they ought to see history? This appears to be one of the criticisms levelled at what gets lumped together as heritage tourism. And it isnt all that surprising since visitors could be said to be reading history as they go round a museum or historic site such as the one shown above in Rome. Add to the Roman arch shown here a few guide books or interpretation panels and maybe one or two men dressed to look like Roman soldiers and it definitely isnt surprising. So it becomes easy for critics to say that heritage tourism is corrupting the proper presentation of times past, because that is the specific jobs of the historians writing good quality history books.
The flaw in that kind of argument is that several very different elements are being muddled together, and I wonder if the cause is a failure to think through situations or a deliberate attempt to open a few opportunities for some rather superficial journalism.
First, the existence of remains in the landscape and artefacts in museums is a quite separate phenomenon to that of the interpretation of those remains through guide books, caption panels, costumed demonstrators or other technique. On the one hand there are the objects. On the other there is the telling of stories about them. The objects, of course, have usually been conserved to some measure, or other or at least, left along and not damaged or destroyed. That means that someone decided not to demolish or destroy them, and maybe do a few repairs and some kind of protective activity. So there is a degree of selection involved there, which begs the question of who decided and with what aim in mind. The nature of the interpretation demands answers to similar questions: who decided what to say about the artefacts, why, and with what audience and aim in mind? The presentation of historic objects is as much an activity of editors and writers as any newspaper article or broadcast report. The editors and writers might be using different media but they do use narratives carried by forms of mass media. There is selection involved in conservation, but far more in the stories, viewpoints and levels of communication which are the realm of the interpreter.
Second, a place like the Roman Forum might look like a landscape full of narratives, but these are largely in the eye of the beholder, or, to put it a different way, in the mind of the audience of visitors who are viewing them. That is also true of the glass-case type of museum with its artefacts. Visitor centres, by contrast by which I mean exhibitions in which the display media are dominant interpretive panels, video shows, demonstrations, re-enactments, audio presentations, interactive computer terminals there are many techniques are story-tellers. They might use some objects to illustrate their narratives, but thats the other way round from the museum whose artefacts are the raison detre with some story-telling added on. Examples of visitor centres include the very influential Jorvik Centre in York in the UK, or the National Underground Railway Museum in Cincinnati which tells the story of the system used in the nineteenth century to help slaves escape from the south across the Ohio and into the northern, non-slave states.
Third, there are the differences between centres which are to do with making money and those which are aimed at education. Lets not forget, however, that commercial places can be highly effective at educating visitors, even if its in the course of making a profit. Cadbury World in the UK or a car factory in the Czech Republic exist to make and sell products but they are also educative. How much and in which directions is open to argument, but its still true. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the Louvre in Paris may be primarily places of conservation and education (and entertainment, too) but they still must turn a euro or two for every visitor entering their doors. OK, Cadbury world and the Louvre might both be decided to be Jolly Good Things: they are still basically on different points of a spectrum. What about the factory tour of the Jelly Belly Factory in Freshfield, California? It is aimed at selling jelly beans and all it does is let people see them being made, then flog a few boxes to the visitors. Yet it does the job to a very high standard and the viewers learn a lot about good quality food manufacturing processes. I can think of a good few grotty commercial museums and visitor centres which have scraped the barrel rather but thats partly a personal view and I wont name names here.
So all in all there are plenty of things to confuse, if confusion journalism is the name of some peoples game.
Just as much could be said of the historian. To think of some concept called real history is just as misleading. There are plenty of authors around who are really propagandists for somebodys cause or other. There always have been. Think of David Irvine and the denial of the Nazi death camps. And what about that paid propagandist on behalf of the Tudors what was his name, now ah, William Shakespeare. Yes, he was a playwright, but he is also used as a source by which to understand his age. There are historians and storytellers and there isnt all that much difference between them. So lets not get to wedded to the idea that historians are objective and flawless. History is about what we think happened in the past. What we think happened depends on our own experiences and viewpoints. Heritage is about the legacy of the past what we have inherited in the landscapes and libraries and human cultures surrounding us. Dont lets confuse them.
Touchy Feely History
I thought we had come a long way in the seventeen years I have been in higher education when I think that in 1962 we still used chalk on blackboards and now computerised data projection, DVDs, animated lecture slides and colour-printed handouts. In 92 overhead projectors were the state of the art, and students doing presentations used the advanced technique of uncovering bullet points one-by-one, slipping a sheet of paper away from the text as they talked.
In 1962 I began teaching full time in a secondary school (before university: you cant do that now) using chalk on those dreadful roller-blind blackboards. It was possible to borrow a film from someone like Guild Sound and Vision (free, because they were made by sponsoring companies) and that was it. You might find a slide projector in schools but there were few slides. My own school had got an epidiascope with glass lantern slides and a way of clamping a printed picture underneath so that a system of bright lights and lenses shone the image on a screen. There was an ink duplicator, messy and almost limited to reproducing typewriter text only.
Where I was teaching there was a spirit duplicating system. It was far more primitive than the ink duplicator, but, miracle of miracles, it could print in seven colours simultaneously! A paper master sheet had to be drawn on, colour by colour, using tinted carbon-copy sheets to make the colour original. Then it was pressed onto a gelatine block, with enough of the colours transferring to enable the printing of about 25 copies on paper pressed one after the other onto the block, by hand, until the colour ran out. At least, thats how a I remember it, and I see that the system is still encouraged as a very low-cost, low-tech facility in less developed countries.
Which is all by way of introducing the illustrations above. They were produced by hand and typewriter as reading material for a school visit to places in North Staffordshire by some of the children I was teaching. It was 1964. I see from a name on the nine foolscap pages (13 x 8 none of that A4 business) that the pictures were drawn by one of the pupils. Step forward Robert Wood, wherever you are now, 45 years later. Take a bow with thanks for helping out. These were mainly history notes and pictures about the past at our end of the County.
The only out of school activities then were sports events and an occasional visit to another school for some kind of stage entertainment. History was taught by chalk and talk and a few standard posters from a distant schools supplier. A more resourceful teacher might take some kind of objects into class in order to illustrate a point. That would be all. So one day Bernard Gilhooley, the history department head, and myself took a busload of the children to a nearby town and then into the city of Stoke-on-Trent to show them mills, canals, potbanks and different kinds of housing. They loved it. History in the classroom, however well described, is still an abstract concept. Out in the actual world all five senses can come into play sight, sound, touch, smell and even taste (try the oatcakes sold outside the pottery factory). Its a three-dimensional stage set on which life is acted out for real. Its an interactive experience where questions can be asked of the people you meet. Its a powerful social experience too full of the encounters with the people out there, but also between those making the journey, sharing reactions, thoughts and opinions. Maybe the most memorable benefit is the fun which sweetens the learning situation and gives more confidence to the youngsters discovering their world that they can make sense of it by getting out into it. Books are still needed. Teachers are still needed, stood at the front in the classroom but a bit of one-day tourism adds a whole spectrum of educational benefits. Whether its history and geography, social studies or biology doesnt really matter. Whatever the heritage is, getting out there to examine and question it is what makes it possible to live with it.
It Was A Dark And Stormy Night
The rain was pelting down as I searched one night in 1976 for a house near Ironbridge. With me I had a film projector (heavier than that titchy one in the illustration) and two large reels of film. They had given me an address, but this was a new town estate with flats in complicated little blocks. You could have knocked on the door of a broom cupboard by mistake.
I had been invited by some local residents to show two BBC films about the Ironbridge Museum. At that time my job was Head of Interpretation at the Museum, a strange concoction of a job which covered at least three roles which could be done just as well by other specialists working for the Trust which ran the Museum and possibly was. Going out once or twice a week in the evenings was a remarkably effective and satisfying way to spread the word about our efforts and to garner the views of people. Over four years there I spoke to gatherings ranging from four women meeting in someone's house (there were often a dozen in that group) up to two hundred at formal dinners. This evening was one of the domestic-style meetings. The group gathered was not particularly domestic but political, and it only occurred to me later that although they were to talk about the rights and interests of local folk, they were mainly new town imports from much further afield.
It was a dark and stormy night, and I at last found the flat and met the group. It was curious that while they were reasonably affable there was no concern expressed that their directions had not been very clear or that I was close to becoming a drowned rat. Maybe they thought rats ought to be drowned. It soon became evident that they considered the Museum to be a rodent colony engaged in driving out the resident mice and nicking their stash of cheeses.
It wasn't a long evening and it wasn't full of animosity towards me personally, but the sole reason they had gathered was to have a collective whinge about the Museum and the way it was being portrayed in the films. These were about industrial archaeology and the creation of the Museum. There were several controversies around Ironbridge and its charitable Trust, and there probably still are. A local man, Bob West, wrote a critical chapter in a book discussing the trends in museums. There were criticisms from well-known and respected writers like Ian Nairn about the way the Museum was, in the first year or two of its existence around 1973, interpreting the past in industrial Shropshire. My little group was well versed in the criticisms and I could appreciate many of them. Especially as my own background was one of working-class mill workers. The opinion-formers in this group were middle class as well as being from outside Shropshire. One was the daughter of a well-known figure in the world of classical music.
I showed the film. All the way through there was a running commentary from the audience, critical of the Museum's sites (there were half a dozen then), its exhibits and its presentation of history. There were snide remarks about the way the film had been made, what it showed and how it was edited and presented. I knew the producer, Ray Sutcliffe, as a man who was keen to get deeper into the social grit of the ironworking past of the Severn Valley here, but he was making films primarily aimed at awakening interest in museums in general and the need for resources to reduce the huge loss of cultural artefacts in the 1960s and 70s. Of course, for this kind of group that wasn't the point. They wanted socio-political battles to fight. They were in truth more narrowly-visioned and didactic than the Museum itself was. I heard far more criticism, better founded and much, much earlier, from people within the Museum as they struggled to create the place than I ever heard from those outside. The fears about Britain being turned into one big, open air, museum or a theme park, or about the dangers of one-dimensional history, were frequently expressed. And expressed by people who actually had to take decisions, make compromises and even sup with the devil on occasion in order to get something done.
This group just wanted to sound off about the Museum and have a fun evening using one of its staff as an Aunt Sally. Funny how they felt quite happy to exploit someone and I must admit I felt used in a way no-one else ever has.
These were armchair critics and ineffective politicians. It was one of the examples of how the idea of 'heritage' was being created. The museum world had one perspective; the commercial world another; the politicians a third. It was one of the lessons I learned that most people, in whichever world they were living, came to a conclusion first and then bent their own perceptions of life accordingly. It was the case with the councillor in Calderdale mentioned in the previous posting. I have come across many, many politicians, business people and public sector leaders and the same is true of many. I get the feeling that it has become much worse as everyone sets targets for making money, improving services - even educating students in universities. The end is justifying the means.
Concepts like 'history' and 'heritage' just become ways of furthering personal goals. Humanity deserves better than that.
The Quality Of Comment And Democratic Debate: Heritage
I have to ask you to read the previous posting before reading this one. In it is some background to the Calderdale Inheritance Project aimed at regenerating a district in a partnership between a local government unit, commercial and voluntary sectors within its area. This Project took active form in 1985 but had been coming together for a decade before that. Other, voluntary sector projects of a similar nature had paved the way. The aim was to use the inherited resource of Calderdales places and people to push towards new forms of economic and social activity. Raising the quality of life in the area was the long-term aim. In other words, it was a heritage-based project.
Within the district and especially among its politicians any mention of heritage produced mixed responses. There were a few reasons. For some it meant a backward-looking preoccupation tied in to some mythical idea of the good old days. For others it was ignoring the decline of manufacturing in textiles, engineering and other production industries. Still more saw it as a dubious strategy chosen by local Liberal Party politicians. In Hebden Bridge the excellent pioneering work in reusing old mills and publicising the areas historical interest had been in the hands of a number of prominent Liberal politicians. This immediately drove a wedge between their chosen regeneration efforts and any being contemplated by members of other parties or by independents. Outsiders off-cumduns in the local phrase who were brought in to the area to boost activities through their own skills and experience found many self-destructive squabbles under way, some a legacy of local government reorganisation in 1974 when smaller towns lost their former levels of independence to the new Metropolitan Borough Council with its headquarters in Halifax. Some of these still exist well over three decades later. It sometimes feels as though a Calder Nostra has been trying to divide one part of the valley from the other by fighting propaganda battles in order to keep old feuds alive.
The incident I want to recall was not itself part of this warfare but it was part of the political squabbling that went on in the 1980s, and the arguments over the so-called heritage industry added fuel to the fire.
As a member of the partnership team working on the Project, renovating buildings, promoting the areas attractiveness to visitors and investors and developing many other ideas, I was sat one evening in early 1987 in Committee Room A of Halifax Town Hall (seen above). A committee was debating proposals to restore shop fronts in some of Halifaxs handsome Victorian buildings. The work had been achieving success but there was a long way to go to achieve its full potential. Conservative and Liberal councillors were in favour of further budgets being spent. Labour members were not. They had the kind of doubts in their minds that are mentioned above. To them, restoring 1960s shop fronts to the way they looked a century before was a waste of time. It would serve the tourist industry being developed locally and that would lead to what one councillor called a Cotswold tea-shop economy.
Right in front of me, Councillor Squibb rose to his feet. Remember this was early 1987 and the pre-publicity for Robert Hewisons book The Heritage Industry was well under way, but the book was not yet available and Councillor Squibb had only read the publicity. It didnt stop him. Theres this book coming out which proves what weve been saying were his very words. By we he meant his colleagues in the Labour Party. Of course he hadnt read it, didnt know the shape of its arguments or the quality of its discussions. The book would turn out to be in no way a proof that heritage-based regeneration was bound to fail, nor that it could not operate successfully as a catalyst for a wider-based economic upturn. Even though he was ignorant of its actual content he made claims about it in order to support the opinions of himself and his party. The committee debated, but since no-one could actually prove that Hewisons book did not supply hard evidence applicable to Calderdale, it was easy for the Councillor and his colleagues to inflict serious damage. Some of Hewisons polemics had been leaked out, seized upon by the media and lapped up by politicians casting around for ammunition. The councillors came to a vote and heavily watered down the propsal before them. We officers could only listen and keep our groans for the pub later.
Did this look like excellent social commentary, good journalism and the exercise of well-informed local democracy? Sat in Halifax Town Hall in 1987, to me it looked nothing like those essential elements of public life.
'On Living In An Old Country': Patrick Wright
Patrick Wright's examination of 'the national past in contemporary Britain' was first published in 1985 and a new and enlarged edition has just appeared. Of pocket paperback size and a penny under nine quid - but certain suppliers discount even that - it's a bargain.
Here, I have to declare an interest. At the end of this new edition there is a reprint of a discussion between Patrick Wright and Tim Putnam that first appeared in the journal 'Block', spring 1989. I had not seen this piece which appeared two decades ago, just a few months after a Council Of Europe conference on Heritage and Urban Regeneration in Halifax, UK. At that time I worked for the Calderdale Inheritance Project within Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council, a partnership between local government and many private sector interests. It was my main task during 1989 to act as Calderdale's coordinator of the conference, which had come to us thanks to the Department of the Environment. Having secured the conference for Calderdale against competition from several major northern cities, we determined to make the most of it and added a number of other events while it was on in October 1988. It was a particular project of mine to run a debate about heritage. We were basing our renewal project on the human and landscape resources of the area. It was only one of a number of pioneering efforts by local governmental and voluntary organisations with similar strategies that had spanned some twenty years even then. I mention this detail because while there were local disagreements about the value of heritage-based regeneration, there was also a very long and solid foundation established of work throughout the district from Todmorden to Brighouse, and most notably Hebden Bridge and Halifax. I will make further postings about what was done and what was said during this month.
At the public debate that we organised the speakers included the author Robert Hewison, Peter Addyman of the Yorkshire Archaeological Trust and the architect Rod Hackney. Robert Hewisons book The Heritage Industry had appeared in 1987, a polemical work which attempted to rubbish anything remotely connected with a heritage label. Heritage projects, his argument went, were damaging to the cause of real history.
In the Block discussion the following year Patrick Wright and Tim Putnam applied a better perspective to the history/heritage argument. Their approach was not polemical; it was not one-sided but quite properly teased out some of the many strands which Robert Hewison deliberately tied into knots in his book. As I hope to show in later postings I believe the so-called Heritage Industry debate did a great deal of damage. My personal view is that Robert Hewison, and a number of others, who depended on writing and even consultancy work for a living, created a Heritage Industry Industry. They opened up their own commercial opportunities with a series of newspaper and magazine articles, TV and radio broadcasts and lecture-circuit engagements. It was the unacceptable face of cultural studies.
On Living In An Old Country is described on its cover in a quote from the Times Educational Supplement as a quite exceptional and richly rewarding book and I entirely agree. It is mainly a reprint of the first edition essays from 1985, two years ahead of Hewisons book. A new introduction examines the context of the 1980s material and reflects on the whole topic from the viewpoint of the present day. Some of the chapters might seem a little dated in their focus one on the raising of the shipwreck of the Mary Rose in 1982 for example but this is a book about a debate which peaked in the 1980s and it is essential to understand the context of events leading up to it. Museums such as Ironbridge and Beamish hit the headlines less these days compared with the 1970s and 80s. That doesnt mean their actions in those days needs to be forgotten, it means they need to be understood because they, the Mary Rose and movements like urban gentrification and the critical responses to them have been key to appreciating many modern attitudes. So thank goodness Wrights book is valued enough to warrant a new edition. Which is more than happened to Robert Hewisons effort.
Wright, P (2009) On Living In An Old Country 2nd edition enlarged, Oxford, OUP