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