(ECO, 1986)

Jacqueline Priddle

This paper will explore the sensitivity of circumstances surrounding the interpretation and presentation of heritage to tourists in what appears to have been termed the Heritage Industry.  It will focus on analysing the validity of the statement by Eco (1986):
“Heritage sites are places where absolute reality is offered as real presence” using relevant examples.  There will be a strong emphasis on the contributions of Hewison, Fowler and Rumble to the  Congress on Heritage Presentation and Interpretation 1988 taken from Heritage Interpretation edited by David Uzzell (1989).  Hewison criticised the current philosophy of heritage management and presentation and, in comparison, Rumble attempts to answer some of the criticisms of Hewison.   Many would argue that the rationale of interpreting heritage has shifted from education and conservation to, what Peter Fowler described as, ‘a more post-modern attitude of pleasure and fun’ (1989: 57). 

Defining Heritage
The word heritage is subject to a variety of interpretations and presentations.  The definition from the Oxford Compact Dictionary (1996: 464) is split in three:

1.  Anything that is or may be inherited.
2.  Inherited circumstances, benefits etc.
3.  A nations historic buildings, monuments, countryside etc.
According to Hewison (quoted in Uzzell 1989: 15) these dictionary definitions tend to be deceptively straightforward.  Hewison’s favourite definition offered by the chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Lord Charteris, was, when asked the definition of heritage, replied ‘anything you want’.  Did he man heritage means anything you choose it to mean, or that you can have anything you want, provided you attach the word heritage to it?

Cultural Heritage refers to our past.  Monuments and groups of buildings of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science, and sites of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological points of view. 

 Natural Heritage refers to natural features consisting of physical and biological formations of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view; geological or physiographical formations and habitats of threatened species of animals and plans of outstanding universal value.

Uzzell believes interpretation is a practice that has been adopted by the tourism, leisure and public relations industry and has been regarded as a novel way of pepping up tired tourist attractions and giving them a value-added component (1989).  He also suggests that it has been used as a way of selling commercial products such as glassware, pottery or whisky and that the heritage industry has become marketised.  However, some would argue that the production of whisky in Scotland is an important part of Scottish culture as is wine in Bordeaux. 

Hewison (quoted in Uzzell 1989) pointed out that the First National Heritage Conference held in 1983 did, however, produce a useful definition of heritage:

“That which a past generation has preserved and handed on to the present and which a significant group of the population wishes to hand on to the future”.
However, this does tend to ignore the economic and commercial uses to which the so-called heritage is being put in the present.  Hewison believes that whilst those of a Marxist persuasion have difficulty in convincing people that heritage and the arts are a form of cultural production, the chiefly non-Marxist bureaucracy that manages them thinks more and more in terms of culture as a ‘product’ that is on offer to consumers. (1989)

The Growth and  of Heritage Sites and the Tourist Experience

During the 1980s we saw a rapid expansion of heritage sites with a museum opening nearly every week.  Half of the museums currently open were opened since 1971.  Margaret Thatcher, during her time as Prime Minister, didn’t agree they were still museums.  She believed that museums were a thing of the past and that they were more like department stores! 

Tourism is fast becoming the biggest industry in the world, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.  The life blood of much of that industry is heritage (Boniface & Fowler 1993: xi) Compared to that of the past, the crucial element in the heritage experience for the cultural tourist nowadays is that on his or her journey of historical curiosity, he or she is likely to be presented with a fixed narrative or interpretation, a history story; whereas in ‘days of yore’, as time past would be described by many nowadays, a comparable historical encounter would be solely with one or more ancient objects or sites - the real things in positivist terms.  A visit to many of the recently established heritage sites and museums like Plymouth Dome, where narrative tapes are played to explain the history of Plymouth, will support this statement.

The Marketisation of Museums and Heritage Sites

Hewison believes museums and heritage sites are changing in response to shifting demands from their potential users and they are keen to change as a result of economic pressures due to political decisions.  Since the British Museum Act of 1753, museums have been publicly funded and access was free at the point of entry.  This principle is now dying due to government policy.  Hewison argues that ‘museums are being forced into the marketplace’ and if entrance remains free, they must do more to justify their existence by the volume of visitors.

[1] Admission charges were introduced in 1989.
[2] Admission charges were introduced in 1991.
[3] Admission charges were introduced in 1987.    Source: British Tourist Authority.
Taken from Social Trends 27 (1997).

Table 1. Shows the British Museum had 5.7 million visitor in 1995, which was more than double the number it had in 1981 and made it the second most popular attraction.  Of those attractions that charged people for admission, Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds were the most popular in 1995, each with 2.7 million visits.  While the general trend has been for attractions to receive more visitors, the Science Museum (which introduced admission charges in 1989) and the Natural History Museum (which introduced charges in 1987) both experienced falls in their numbers of visits between 1981 and 1995, though visits to  the Science Museum were up on 1991.
Immediate competitors of national and local authority museums are the independent museums which have sprung up in large numbers since 1980. These museums may be funded by the English Tourist Board, local authorities, National Heritage and government supplements as well as lottery funding.  Hewison argues that they are not truly independent:

 “The true independence of these museums of recent foundation is their  independence from the traditional educational and social welfare motivations  which launched the original museum movement in the nineteenth century.  They  receive themselves to be part of the leisure and tourism industry .........  entertainment becomes an overriding factor in their presentation, and they have to  be ruthless in extracting revenue from the visitor”.  (1988).
This would indicate original museums are moribund.

Post-Modern views of Interpretation
Boniface and Fowler (1993) explain that for many people the crucial element in a touristic experience is that it should not threaten or allow them to feel uncomfortably deprived of the comforts of home.  They believe we want extra-authenticity, that which is better than reality.  We want a souped up, fantastic experience and stimulation.  We want a state of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco have called hyperreality. 

Peter Fowler believes post-modernism, especially in literary and architectural matter, is a course of a mode or fashion. (Quoted in Heritage Interpretation, Volume 1 edited by David Uzzell, 1989).  He stated in his paper from the Second World Congress on Heritage Presentation 1988 that ‘we have reacted by adopting meretricious ornaments and cheap details, have robbed exotic styles and culture for easy affects, and produced designs that are no more than jokey’.  Together these amount to a trend, a characteristic of heritage presentation and interpretation (quoted in Uzzell 1989: 58).

To generalise, Fowler points to the sites of  ‘new’ heritage or of ‘old’ heritage now operating under new circumstances.  He continues to say, however, that not all of the new old is tarred with that brush and states that the heritage attraction at Cherryburn displays a tastefully modest presentation of Thomas Bewick, his work and his birthplace with no hype. (1989)
Fowler fears that what purports to be ‘heritage’ has been ‘antiqued’; not only in appearance but is being presented as if it was significant historically. He questions whether the heritage industry’s priorities are to focus on significance or to get more tourists through turnstiles to satisfy management requirements, or, quite simply, to survive.

Hewison questions that if heritage museums are centres of production, what is it they produce? (1987).  The commodity museums produce has been described in different ways.  Frederic Jameson states ‘Post-modernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism is that the latest stage of capitalism has been a massive internal expansion, the invasion and restructuring of whole areas of private life, leisure and personal expression”. ( quoted in  Uzzell 1989: 20)  Hewison suggests that ‘this invasion included the restructuring and commodification of private memory itself........we seek to reproduce the way we were and individual memories are erased by.......reconstructing image of a period or way of life’ (quoted in Uzzell 1989: 20)
Hewison states that in Eco’s essay ‘Travel in Hyperreality’ he describes this restructuring in terms of ‘deliberate replacement’ (quoted in Uzzell, 1989: 20) with examples being Disney Worlds, waxworks and USA museums.

Eco refers to a full scale model of the Presidential Oval Office and states using the same materials, the same colours, but with everything obviously more polished, shinier, protected against deterioration’ the results is that:

 The ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake’.  Absolute reality is offered as real presence.  The aim of the reconstructed Oval Office is to supply a ‘sign’ that will then be forgotten as such: the sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the  mechanism of replacement.  Not the image of the thing, but its plaster cast. Its double, in other words.  (Eco, 1986:7)

Eco called this hyperreality.  Frederic Jameson called it ‘post-modern hyperspace’, which he associates with ‘flatness and depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense’  (quoted in Uzzell 1989:21)  Jameson believes past styles are ransacked at random for an idea of the past which exists entirely in the present.

It could be argued that much of these post-modernistic views of the interpretation of heritage are true, however, others would disagree.  Peter Rumble, the Chief Executive of English Heritage, states that one recent heritage argument put over is that ‘the current interest in our heritage and the development of the heritage business is unhealthy because it concentrates people’s mind on the past, a past that can only be inadequately represented, and that an excessive interest in the past is a symptom of, or contributory factor to, a nation in decline’.  Rumble argues that there in no decisive evidence to support this proposition. ( quoted in Uzzell, 1989: 24)  He sees our present interest in the past as a response to greater leisure time and spending power and believes that interpretation should be defined as an attempt to create understanding and have a positive educational element. (1989)  He states in Uzzell (1989) that English Heritage is happy to follow trends that have been emerging in the heritage industry over the past 25 to 30 years that will satisfy customers wants and needs.  People should be given what they want, and if that’s fun, entertainment at a cost, then so be it.  It must be said ‘new’ heritage sites seem to attract more customer each year (table 1) therefore there is obviously a demand for this style of representation.


Boniface, P. & Fowler, P.J. (1993) Heritage & Tourism in ‘the Global Village’ Routeledge: London

Eco, U (1986) Faith in Fakes Martin Secker & Warburg Limited: London

Fowler, P (1989) 'Heritage: A Post-Modernist Perspective'  In D. Uzzell (ed) (1989) Heritage Interpretation Volume 1.  Belhaven Press: London.

Hewison, R. (1989) 'An Interpretation'. In D. Uzzell (ed) (1989) Heritage Interpretation Volume 1.  Belhaven Press: London.

Rumble, P. (1989) 'Interpreting the Built and Historic Environment'. In D. Uzzell (ed) (1989) Heritage Interpretation Volume 1.  Belhaven Press: London.

HMSO (1997) Social Trends 27. 

The Oxford Compact English Dictionary (1996) Oxford University Press.

Uzzell, D. (1989) Heritage Interpretation Volume 1.  Bellhaven Press: London.

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