‘Hot’ interpretation: why tourists need us to tell the tough tales

It can be hard to understand a country as a visitor.  Some parts of national history, usually the highs and lows, are so well known by the natives that they need no explanation.  These parts of the heritage, arguably the ones that matter most, that give the most insight, can be hard for tourists to find.

There are good reasons for this. Some heritage stories, particularly where there is a history of conflict, are hard to tell. They can be fraught with difficulty for  the teller and we may fear the impact on the listener. Working as an Englishwoman in the Republic of Ireland has taught me more about this.

A while ago, I was at a leading Irish attraction that deals  in part with including the Potato Famine in 1840s.

The attraction wasn't in Sligo but this evocative and distressing statue to Famine victims is.

The attraction wasn’t in Sligo, but this evocative and distressing statue to Famine victims is.

The dates and events of the Potato Famine are written deep and hard in the Irish national consciousness.  This is not so for the English: we know it happened but probably not when or why. It does not feel like part of our story. But actually, it is.

I discussed a new display about the Potato Famine with the curator, asking about visitors’ responses. It had opened outside the tourist season, so the visitors had been mainly local people. The feedback had been good but the museum was concerned by some comments about the lack of political context.

They had been accused of letting the British ‘off the hook’ by not explaining the role of the government in prolonging the suffering. I asked if this was true. The curator confirmed that it was and told me bits of the history that I didn’t know. We don’t talk about it on this side of the Irish Sea. It was a grim revelation.

How can I tell that story to my English visitors. I want them to feel welcome and comfortable here and to have a good visit?’ the curator asked me. I thought that was a great question.

We had a long and fascinating discussion over many weeks. In a nutshell, my answer was ‘There are ways you can, and I can help you find them. More importantly if you don’t tell that story how will I ever hear it, how will I know? Your story it needs to be told here. It won’t be told in London

Sometimes the responsibility for telling the tale can be a burden.

I told this story at a workshop in Dublin. Afterwards an interpreter from Kilmainham Gaol came to me and talked about a similar anxiety.  They felt that some of their English visitors arrived expecting a thrilling shock-horror ‘London Dungeon, type experience.  They don’t get – they get a clear explanation of how British justice treated Irish rebels over the years. I probably comes as a shock to many.

As a result I visited Kilmainham, looked through the visitors’ book specifically for English visitors comments. They were overwhelming positive. “Eye-opening’, ‘excellent’ , ‘amazing’, ‘important’ came through over and over again. It sounded to me that the Gaol had showed them and told them things that they recognised as significant and that had they appreciated that.

If Irish interpreters don’t tell these difficult stories of Anglo-Irish history, not only I but also the UK visitors who make up 50% of their overseas tourism market may never hear them. And we need to, because they connect with our country’s story, they deepen our understanding of and insight into Ireland (a country we love to visit) and into the still-evolving relationship between our two countries. We should never underestimate the importance of this.

In November, I was a keynote speaker at the Museums Australia / Interpretation Australia in Perth, Western Australia. This is the fifth extract from my talk: you can read others herehere, here and here.

My title was Bridging experience; story as a vehicle for interpreters’.


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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 Cultural difference, Culture, Heritage attractions, Historical interpretation, Interpretation, Interpretelling, Ireland, Mentoring, Stories, Storytelling, Tourism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to ‘Hot’ interpretation: why tourists need us to tell the tough tales

  1. Regan says:

    Hi Susan,

    My supervisors presented a paper on Hot Interpretation at this year’s IA conference and identified five key principles:
    1) Narrative and personal storytelling should occupy a central place
    2) Despair should be balanced with hope – a way of dealing with feelings and moving forward
    3) The overall balance of interpretation should leave visitors feeling educated, not persuaded
    4) The need to provide place or space for reflection
    5) Focusing on past to inform the future, learn from mistakes of others to build better future

    (Link to article here: http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:264379)

    As Australia Day (26th January) rolls round again, it’s a salient time to think about some of these issues with respect to our colonial history and its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It’s been pointed out that Australia is unique in that its national day does not celebrate the anniversary of a liberation or of independence, but rather commemorates a date of invasion (I actually don’t know if Australia is unique in this but the point is still the same). Views on this issue are a key fault line in Australian culture – on the one side you have the thong-wearing, beach going, beer swilling thugs with Southern Cross tattoos; on the other you have the latte sipping, black armband wearing, right-on apologists (of course I’m speaking in caricatures and stereotypes here). What role could interpretation play in building bridges between these two extremes, I wonder?

    • Hi Regan

      Thanks for that. Your account of the Australia Day debate seems very apposite.

      I think those principles are really interesting and helpful although I would like to see what ‘hope not despair’ looks like in practice. When we are looking at truly dreadful things like attempted genocide, it is hard to see the hope, particularly if you / your institution are more aligned with the perpetrators than the victims. The victims can speak of their resilience, their determination to survive, how they pulled together and there is inspiration, courage and some hope in that.

      The power imbalance makes the interpretation hugely difficult.

      I am tempted to refer back to something you said a while back in your comments on another blog about history being about ‘bearing witness’. That resonates for interpreters too and sometimes we bear witness to events where the only hope is in the horror they evoke jn us now.

      I came up with some guidelines of my own in dealing with this issue. I completely agree with your supervisors points 1), 3) 4) and some interpretations of 5). I have a load of caveats about ‘learning from the mistakes of the past’ which I don’t think happens as much historians like to think it does. I do think good interpretation of these traumatic events can help us view our own time/culture with a different perspective but that is different.

      I agree that personal voices are important in interpreting experiences and events that are hard for us to contemplate. We need to think hard about whose voices we use (and whose we don’t) and most of all where the institution’s voice is.

      My opinion is that an attraction probably can’t say, in its narrative voice, “This happened because the British are heartless, thieving, bloody, butchering barbarians – always have been, always will be.”. However, you can include the quotations from Hansard (record of the British Parliament) that demonstrates that certain MPs did indeed speak of the Irish as ‘vermin’. I have no idea what they said of the First People of Australia but I bet that wasn’t very lovely either. Contemporary evidence of how people spoke and wrote about the issue is powerful stuff.

      I like polyvocality in interpretation, particually of divisive issues. However this is an ‘advanced’ technique; it is hard to handle and needs considerable thought. At best it trusts the visitors to consider and respond. The exhibit design needs to create spaces that encourage that.

      And now I want to write about the Holocaust galleries at the Imperial war Museum, London … But this is already looking very like a blog in its own right. I fancy it may disappear from here before too long and reappear in that guise.

      Regan, thank you for your interest, provocation and stimulation.

      • Regan says:

        Hi Susan,

        I think I’ve got a blog post of my own brewing here, but I’ll just quickly respond to the ‘hope not despair’ point – the exhibition in question was one about the experience of the Stolen Generation in Australia. I think the point was is that people need to be able to see a light at the end of the tunnel, or a call to action of some kind as a way of putting things right or making them better.

        I think a lot of environmental interpretation can fall foul of this if it sells the ‘Earth in crisis’ message too hard – in the face of such a massive problem, people can just throw their hands up and think that we’re all doomed regardless so why bother doing anything? But if it shows how people CAN make a difference, it shows hope, not despair.

        Hope that helps!

  2. rob flynn says:

    Its kind of funny that you refer repeatedly to the “potato famine” which is a phrase mostly in use in England perhaps as a way of mitigating culpability. Most Irish people just call it the Famine.
    Other than that an interesting piece.I would add that maybe a lot of Irish people might want to collectively “forget” about the Famine too.

    • Thank you so much, rob. Mea culpa. That is an excellent point and yet another example of both the power of language and cultural blindness. I shall add to my increasing store of these things. I just hadn’t seen it, but your comment makes it glaringly obvious. Seeing beyond our blinkers is so very hard – as I am forever saying. It is why international communications in the heritage field are so very important. Thank you.

      I am coming , after a long journey through heritage communication, to wonder whether sometimes forgetting is a very good idea …

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