Heritage interpretation as monuments and memorials

Last week I was at a fascinating seminar on Spaces, Places and Practices of Remembrance and Memory at the National Memorial Arboretum, one of my favorite places (see here). Lots of food for thought.

Part of the Armed Forces Memorial, the centrepiece of the National Memorial Arboretum

I found myself in the stimulating and heady company of academics from many subjects (from English Literature to Landscape History, Public History to Philosophy to Psychology) and sensed the emergence of a multi-disciplinary Remembrance Studies. This was fascinating in itself and the talks were all well-delivered and interesting.

Inevitably, as a practitioner, I was picking and choosing, holding up this glittery array of ideas up to the light of current interpretation philosophy and practice and asking whether they had anything to add.  I think they do.

Certainly I recognised a lot of common ground.  The discussions curved round ‘national identity’, ‘meaning’, ‘collective consciousness of the past’,’ empowerment’, ‘authenticity’ ‘memory makers’ – and the delightful new-to-me expression ‘memory choreographers’ – that one will go straight onto my CV. The whole was nicely seasoned with lots of ‘pedagogies’, several ‘discourses’ and a good sprinkling of hermeneutics to keep us non-academics on our toes.

This felt like the start of a discussion.  Talking across the boundaries of discipline is always a bit exiting and possibly a bit hit and miss. I wasn’t certain that the speakers always understood each other and I am pretty sure I frightened two or three of them with my “so … what can we do with that?‘ and ‘ does that mean  …?’ and ‘so how does that apply to?’ approach.  I was in rather a questioning mood.  I seems to me that that’s what academics are for. (Discuss.)

I was exercising my grey matter in thinking about how, and how far, the ideas of ‘remembrance’ and memorialisation’ fitted with my concept of interpreters having a special understanding of ‘legacy and inheritance’. I  talked about this in my keynote at the Museums Australia/ Interpretation Australia Conference in Perth last year:

Your conference organizers asked us to look to the future. Guessing the future is a chancy business, but as interpreters and museum professionals we have a clear and possibly unique approach to it.  … we have a grasp of inheritance and legacy – what was passed to us, and what we will pass on. Our professions are based on the preservation and perpetuation of places, wildlife, objects and their significance. We record people and events, animals, rocks and plants and, crucially, tell their stories. It is the stories that enshrine and transmit the value and significance of what we do. We are communicators, not just collectors or conservationists.  We …  take the treasures of our collections, our sites, out into the community, across the world, and through generations into the future. To do we need to become the modern equivalent of the ancient storytellers. 

I think this is close to the business of remembrance.  I see strong connections between working with ‘people’s relationship to the past’ which is what I think I do and remembrance. I did note, however, that when I drew the parallel in conversations at the seminar, I was greeted with some pretty blank looks. But I think learning about remembrance teaches us about heritage interpretation and so I value these discussions and hope to remain part of them.

That looks a lot like a interpretive plaque on the post office in the Ballitore Quaker Village, Co. Kildare, Ireland …

… as indeed, on closer inspection, it is.

… but across the street, this plaque, clearly in the same series, looks a lot like a memorial, even down to the family connection.

I was particularly struck by a couple of quotations from Arthur Danto as quoted by Professor Bill Niven of Nottingham Trent University:

We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and memorials so that we shall never forget.” and “The memorial is a special precinct, extruded from life, a segregated enclave where we honour the dead.

So does this apply to museums and other heritage sites? I think it does.  I did chat to Bill Niven obout the differentiation between ‘always remembering’ and ‘never forgetting’ and we, I think, agreed there wasn’t much.

Much of our work as historical interpreters is about highlighting what someone thinks should always be remembered. Many museums have this memorial function – I think immediately of  The Museum of Slavery in Liverpool, The Big Pit in South Wales, The Back to Backs in Birmingham. All of them trying to stop us forgetting.

There is a finer grain to this too; in Killybegs and Glencolmcille both in Co. Donegal Ireland, and on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, England, amongst many other places, we have worked on community projects where the impetus is clearly to pass on to the next generation, today’s children, what life was like in the not too distant past. These visitor attractions double as memorials, as monuments to a way of life and the people of the place.

All of which begs the questions – who decides what will be remembered and what will be forgotten?  Who writes the stories and who chooses the silences?


About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
This entry was posted in Historical interpretation, Interpretation Australia, Interpretelling, Ireland, Museums, Stories, Storytelling and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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