What exactly is ‘wrong’ with interpreting the past in order to make it more accessible and more interesting to the visitor?  Illustrate with reference to an actual example of a heritage site.

Lyn Winter 

This essay begins with a story about an incident that occurred in a small rural Dartmoor town.  Last year, while I was doing some research at the Visitor Centre, my husband took our dog for a walk.  Returning damp and cold they retired to one of the pubs, for some warmth, to dry out, have a drink and wait for me.  When I joined them, other visitors had engaged him in conversation and had assumed that, sat by the fire, pint in hand and soggy springer spaniel at his feet, he was local. They were asking him all manner of questions about the area.

These visitors had obviously made assumptions based on what they expected to see, what they saw and their own interpretations.  But were they right, and would any harm have been done if they had been wrong?  In fact, it may be argued that they were only partially right.  Although not resident in Princetown, he was born and brought up in a small Exmoor village.  He now lives in the suburbs, and works in the centre, of a Devon city, but with strong family and friendship connections in rural areas, still considers himself to have an empathy with countryside issues.  This essay looks at the latter question - was there anything wrong with not challenging the visitors interpretation?

Using Princetown as the example of a heritage site, this essay attempts to find evidence of Postmodern, New Times, Disneyfication, and McDonaldization theoretical frameworks and related issues.  The issues identified link to social, economic, technological and political influences which may explain changes which have occurred in Princetown over the last decade.  Because of the wide range of arguments surrounding these issues, it is only possible to acknowledge some of them here.

Princetown is located on southern Dartmoor, approximately nine miles east of Tavistock and twenty miles north east of Plymouth.  Its name originates from the connection with the Prince of Wales (later George IV), and the fact that it is built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.  The town occupies a high moor site and may seen in juxtaposition to Dartmoor Prison, built in 1809 to hold French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars (Ordnance Survey 1988). The prison still in use as a penal establishment.  Buildings are predominantly grey, the weather often damp and windy and the location exposed.   These combinations may lead anyone to consider the town a dull, drab and uninviting place.  Nevertheless, on any given day the town attracts many visitors. 

At first glance, this small moorland town would seem to have little in common with the four theories identified.  Nevertheless, it is the contention of the author that there is evidence of all four theoretical frameworks at this location, and that, while all have something to offer to understanding, no one can offer a definitive explanation of the changes which have occurred in Princetown over the past decade.  Much of the evidence for this work comes from visits, observations and conversations, as a result of leisure activities over many years and research at the visitor centre in 1999.

Consideration of Princetown as a heritage site may be contested.  Prentice (1993) points out the heterogeneity of the word ‘heritage’ and its uses.  He lists twenty three types of site which may be defined as of a heritage nature.  What can be said is that developments to incorporate visitor facilities, in the town, have changed it over the past ten years.  When I first visited Princetown, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was never a reason to stop; when I took my own children there, in the 1980s, we had to search for somewhere to get refreshments, now there are several establishments which offer a range of facilities for visitors.

While it is difficult to pin down a definition which offers clarity to the concept of postmodernism, one characteristic is diversity (Lyon 1994).  Fowler (1988 in Uzzell 1989a) sees heritage as eclectic and diverse, and says that “The past, or more strictly our perception of it, is both organic and dynamic” (1988:63).  Changes to the town may be seen as examples of diversity which indicate a postmodern framework.  The range of facilities now offered in Princetown, and the different agencies responsible, would suggest that the concept of postmodernity may explain the changes.

Facilities in Princetown used to consist of three public houses and a shop, which had limited opening times and catered, mostly, for the needs of residents.  Over the last decade derelict buildings have been re-developed and facilities improved with visitors in mind.  Today, tourists and day visitors may: make use of the visitor centre with its displays, gallery and shop; visit any of the three pubs; stay at the campsite or hostel; browse in any one of four shops; look in the prison museum; park in one of several car parks and eat at any one of four different venues.  These developments have been undertaken by different people or organisations in response to various perceived needs and wants, and are still being added to.

In the centre of the town, the High Moor Visitor Centre is run by the Dartmoor National Park Authority.  The building is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, used to be the Prison Officers Mess, and before that was the Duchy Hotel.  After having been derelict for several years, the building re-opened as a Visitor Centre in 1993.  The aim of the Centre is to ‘inform and educate visitors about the unique and special landscape of Dartmoor’ (Dartmoor National Park Authority 1999).  The exterior of the building has been painted cream, which is brighter and more cheerful than the previous grey.

Hewison (1987) is highly critical of, what he sees as, constructed history, and highlights dangers associated with showing only one aspect, usually an elite and economically motivated aspect, of the past.  This critique may be associated with a New Times approach to heritage sites and encompasses political, economic, technological and social issues. 

If heritage is equated with conservation (Hewison 1987, Urry 1990) then what is chosen to be displayed and whose interests are served by the choices made need to be addressed.  Light (1995) points to the combination of visitor characteristics as well as interpretative medium being important.  While it is true that artefacts and presentation are important, there are sites which display a mish mash of disparate artefacts and visitors previous encounters may influence how they experience or understand a site.
Examples of some of these issues may be found at the Visitor Centre by considering the choice of exhibits and its layout.  Visitors walk through the shop, housed in the foyer, and into the permanent exhibits.  These consist of static displays, audio and hands on facilities, which explain the flora, fauna, geology, history, folklore and some present land uses of Dartmoor.  There are subjects, such as Ten Tors, recreation and the prison, which are not, at present, permanently displayed, at the Centre.  Visitors go back through the shop, to the gallery and video areas, then through the shop again to exit the building.  The staff may usually be found in the foyer/shop area.  Someone, must have made decisions regarding which subjects are included in displays.  These decisions are still being made and may be said to reflect social values and those of the Authority.  While the raison d’être of this facility is not primarily economic, there is evidence that it is an important consideration.

Hewison’s (1987) view is that what should be displayed at such sites is working class struggle.  This may be as exclusionary as the stance he opposes.  Although it may be true that some aspects of any situation may often be ignored or trivialised in favour of the values of others, any attempt to tell a story is bound to reflect the values of the storyteller in some way.  One answer may be to try to incorporate different understandings, rather than choose one over the other, and acknowledge that choices have to be made. 

The New Times approach makes direct links between the rise of the heritage industry and Thatcherism, particularly the decline of the manufacturing economic base in Britain (Corner & Harvey 1991).  They see heritage and enterprise as interdependent.  Although they insist that heritage sanitises history, they do think that cultural influences are able to resist a totally free-market approach. 

There are fears that by linking heritage to education, history may be confused with heritage.  Hewison says that:

“Heritage is gradually effacing history, by substituting an image of the past for its reality.  Our actual understanding of history is weakening at all levels, from the universities to the primary schools.” (1988 in Uzzell 1989a:21)

Yet to assume that this is right or wrong may be too simplistic.  Schools make trips to sites for educational purposes, and sites make use of the National Curriculum in order to add value to a visit.  Primary schools borrow techniques from leisure and entertainment in order to make a subject more appealing.  Historical re-enactments are undertaken to assist teaching.  Children dress up, classrooms are organised and a day planned to run as a Victorian, Greek or other period event in order to encourage children to imagine living in such conditions.  Is it wrong to do this because the experience cannot be truly authentic, or is this a useful educational aid?  Is this different from a visitor centre producing an information, or quiz, sheet which mentions links with the National Curriculum? 

The prison museum in Princetown offers a different experience for visitors, but may be seen as an example of how a site could change perceptions.  Opened in 1997, this  facility is run by the prison authorities.  The museum building is not in the centre of the town and is not well signposted.  In fact, it may be seen as ironic that, on approaching the museum from the town, a signpost directs visitors to the right.  This is in fact a direction sign for prisoner’s visitors, as opposed to visitors to the prison museum. 

Entrance to the museum is free, but donations are invited and monies collected are given to local voluntary and youth groups.  Some items made by prisoners are for sale, and a charge is made to be photographed, as a convicted inmate may have been.  The area housing items for sale and photography must be passed through to get in and out of the main exhibition.  Exhibits include many artefacts relating to prison history, although not necessarily of Dartmoor Prison.  For example, a book of photographs of inmates from the early 20th Century comes from Reading Prison.  Other exhibits are more contemporary, for example, present day uniforms.  Visitors may watch a video about the Prison Service.  Examples of restraints, prisoner made tools and other prison paraphernalia may be viewed.  There are notices which inform visitors that exhibits have been stolen or that they may ask any questions, but that the explanations may not be suitable for children.  Artefacts relating to farming were not accessible on the day of my visit, but are being added to for future visitors.

One of the lasting impressions of Princetown is of the Prison buildings.  Remoteness, grey facades, an eerie look in the mist, and an imagination to guess at what goes on behind the walls, which may or may not equate to any reality, all lead to an impression of the place.  Because people may have a fascination with the darker side of human nature, this facility is a good example of where dilemmas about display need to be carefully considered.  It may be said that, by viewing the museum, some of the mystery has gone or that this museum adds to the construction of meanings associated with the prison which may add to our understanding, or stop us from questioning deeper. 

Balancing the needs of local people and visitors is an issue raised (Parkin et al in Uzzell 1989b, Ritzer and Liska in Rojek and Urry 1997, MacDonald in Rojek and Urry 1997, Corner and Harvey 1991).  Uzzell says that:

“The desire on the part of tourists has to be balanced with a desire to tell on the part of the host culture.”(Uzzell 1989a:8)

Parkin et al (in Uzzell 1989b) admire the Disney concept of a total provision for visitors and agree that there needs to be collaboration between the local authority, businesses and local people, but to provide a better quality all round experience for the visitor.  Although looking at urban areas, Bianchini and Schwengel’s (in Corner and Harvey 1991) assertion that “Planning should see its primary objective as being to improve the quality of life for local residents.” (1991:232) also has implications for rural sites.

The changes to provisions offered in Princetown may be seen as predominantly for visitors.  Shops, restaurants and pubs are owned and run by private individuals and breweries.  With the opening last year of a re-developed building offering a restaurant, tea rooms and a shop selling gifts and walkers accessories, the range of provision for visitors in Princetown is expanding.  This may be seen as increasing opportunities for spending.  Is this type of development detrimental to local people?  This can only be assumed without researching local opinion.  It may be that they see both advantages, in economic terms and disadvantages, by way of changes to the character of the town.

Upitis (1988 in Uzzell 1989a) reminds us of different understandings of different people to a site.  She uses the example of aboriginal sites and the difficulties of translating meanings from one language, or understanding, to another.  This can also be applied to Princetown.  Understandings of what Princetown means to the casual visitor, a local farmer, an inmate at the prison, a serviceman on exercise or a hiker are likely to all be different, and show different priorities, needs and wants.

There are calls for more community led, as opposed to consumer led, tourism initiatives which do not devalue local cultures (MacDonald in Rojek and Urry 1997).  Changes and developments may then be seen as in harmony with the social and cultural needs of local people.  This also links with the New Times approach to the roles of community and citizenship in decision making processes (Hall and Held in Hall and Jacques 1990).  The danger with community led decision making is that  questions about who represents the community, why they do so and how they came to be in decision making positions, all need to be examined in order to avoid the critique that the values of one social group dominates.

Claims that McDonaldisation is evident in all social settings (Ritzer 1993) may be tested in Princetown.

Ritzer’s (1993) explanation of MacDonaldization is of a rational, efficient, predictable, controllable and quality assured service for customers.  There is evidence of this in Princetown.  There are honesty boxes in the car park and the visitor centre.  This means that staff do not need to collect money.  There is an efficiency in fulfilling customer needs in the best way for value and satisfaction.  The element of control can be seen in the way visitors have to go through shop areas, as described earlier, in order to enter and leave buildings. 

As Ritzer (1993) points out, taken further, the rational becomes irrational.  It is possible that the example of honesty boxes may also be one of irrationality.  It could be that by making visitors decide if they contribute, that many may not.  As Ritzer says:

 “Rational systems inevitably spawn a series of irrationalities that serve to limit, ultimately compromise, and   perhaps even undermine, their rationality.” (Ritzer 1993:121)

Issues of surveillance are also relevant to this discussion.  There are surveillance cameras outside and inside the visitor centre.  There is a concern that these may be used, in addition to peer scrutiny, to control a workforce in order to achieve just-in-time and total quality control management needs (Sewell and Wilkinson 1992).  So what is the reason for the cameras at this site?  Is it to control visitors, staff or the locals who choose to shelter under the front porch while waiting for a bus or to meet a friend? 

It has been argued that direct observation of non-verbal feedback is crucial to understanding audiences (Risk 1988 in Uzzell 1989b).  I believe that the danger of this type of surveillance is not only that it may be intrusive and subject to mis-interpretation (Harris, undated), but also that it may ultimately compromise visitor enjoyment.

In conclusion then, the small rural Devon moorland town of Princetown, seemingly far removed and remote from all things urban, mass produced or global, does show evidence of the contested heritage and enterprise issues linked to the theoretical frameworks of Postmodernism, New Times, Disneyfictaion and McDonaldisation.  This essay has only been able to look at some of the concerns surrounding these issues, but evidence of all of them may be found in the town. 

The developments of various facilities for visitors provided by a range of individuals and organisations offer evidence of the diversity of postmodernism.  Concerns of New Times are seen in the way exhibits are displayed, economic, conservation and educational priorities.  The emphasis on visitor needs reflects Disneyfication and evidence of rationality, efficiency, control and technology show the influence of MacDonaldization.  While each framework adds to understanding of the changes seen in the last ten years in Princetown, I don’t believe that any one offers a total understanding. 

Managers and planners will always have to make decisions and compromises, aware of contested issues, which affect what visitors and locals see and experience.  It may be said that by having to make choices and compromises about what or how artefacts, displays and information are presented, it is inevitable that some people may feel that their way of seeing is either not represented or mis-represented.  Awareness that these issues are contested, and knowledge of influencing themes, may go some way to informing the decision making processes.  Knowledge of vested interests, values and motives of all concerned should go some way to eliminating the worst of the potential for conflict, while acknowledging that it may not be totally avoidable.

In answer to the question at the start of this essay: was any harm done when the visitors thought that my husband was a local?  If he had been paid to provide an illusion the connotation may have been different, but the visitors didn’t seem to mind, the landlord was amused and my husband was able to answer the questions.  The irony that there were no locals there, to judge their reaction, sums up the dilemma.  I would hope that they would have taken the incident in the context of fun which was intended and that no offence would have been taken or harm done.  Without further research it is impossible to know.


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