Tuesday, September 04, 2007

On Interpretation

A friend of mine recently visited Kew Palace - recently reopened after a much-vaunted restoration. The place looks fine - and much improved, no doubt, from the lifeless husk it used to be - but the reopened palace has succumbed to an excess of what is laughably called Interpretation. Resting actors and Equity card-seekers clad in period costume accost unwary visitors at every turn, engaging them in entirely bogus, would-be educational Ye Olde 18th Century conversation (making little or no attempt at real 18th-century English). This embarrassing and unpleasant experience must ruin many a person's visit - and yet it is all the rage in the Interpretation business. Is it, in any useful sense, interpretation? Not of a kind that anyone but a purblind imbecile could possibly benefit from, I'd say - but maybe the ignorant and wholly unimaginative are the target audience now, and never mind the rest of us. This kind of idiot flummery is supposed, no doubt, to 'bring the building alive'. In fact, it kills it stone dead. It's one thing to restore a historic building to something like its original condition, but Interpretation should surely be limited to guidebooks and signage. Even (human) guides, especially in Stately Homes, are often a menace, spouting dubious information and preventing a quiet, contemplative round of the rooms. At one time I used to be paid to go around such places and write about them (happy days) and invariably the ones I got most out of were the ones where I was left most alone. The encounter with a historic building should challenge the imagination, not spoon-feed it to death.


  1. You are trying to defend contemplation in a world of increasingly frantic action. I'm with you all the way, so good luck, but do be prepared to be diagnosed as a poorly socialized misanthrope in desperate need of counselling. (In such a case, the most effective defence is to insist that, on the contrary, you are a very well-socialized misanthrope.)

    There is a large and very popular modern museum over here sonorously entitled "The Museum of Civilization". It contains a completely incoherent collection of mundane but amazingly life-like artifacts from a hodge-podge of cultures from the ancients to the aboriginals--no themes or story whatsoever. The highlight is the kids' section, which consists of brightly coloured walk-in bedrooms and kitchens from different lands. The artistry is amazing--you would swear all the thoroughly unappetizing meals on the tables were real. The kids all bounce around squealing "cool", much as they would in any playground, while their parents congratulate themselves for ensuring their children are getting a classical education.

  2. Oh, I hate those people in period costume who are supposed to represent earlier eras -- for one thing, they smell like modern deodorant and the reality is that they would have *stunk* -- bathing didn't get popular until quite a bit later, and wasn't ever a regular feature for manual laborers.

    You must avoid Williamsburg or Plymouth Rock if ever you visit the U.S., Nige. Even Phila. has its share of such idiocies, although it's often more low-key and therefore not so horrible: There's an actor named Ralph Archbold who looks just like a plump old Ben Franklin, and he hangs out in Old City in his 18th-century togs, but he doesn't talk to people unless they ask him something. And he IS good at what he does.

    A short story I recommend to everyone, but that you, Nige, would probably really enjoy if you know much about England's historic houses, is A.S. Byatt's "The Thing in the Forest." One of the best stories I've ever read about London kids who were ferried out to the countryside during WW II. It's in her collection "The Little Black Book of Stories."

  3. Thanks Susan I'll look that story out. And I rather like the sound of old Ben Franklin - it's fine if they just go about their business and wait for someone to speak to them - at least that's optional.

  4. Oh yes indeedy, they are a nightmare. My advice is, as soon as you spot them , run a mile. Otherwise you risk embroiling yourself in a buttock clenchingly awful discourse in which you are asked impossible to answer questions along the lines of 'Are you in the habit of keeping many servants, Madam?' How are you supposed to reply to that? How exactly do you chat realistically when caught unawares by a woman in a wimple ? And when you do actually ask them something relevant to the history of the building, they look at you completely blankly being unable to improvise or go off script, and then say something like 'I would ask you to take tea from her Majesty's china, but I don't think the mistress would be too happy!' I'm not five years old!!! They should all be given jobs as EastEnders extras and spare us this torture.
    J Cheever Loophole

  5. Cheever! They called you Madam! What are these people thinking of?

  6. Nigel, I find myself agreeing with what you have to say on interpretation ..... well ..... at least, part of it. As a volunteer at Historic Fort Stockton, Texas, USA, I often take to the parade field in the uniform and equipment of a private in the U.S. Army, circa 1870. I do what I can to give visitors a good feel for life on a frontier Army post during the Indian Wars, but I do NOT go into what we call 'first person' interpretation ..... I remain very much a man of the present time and place - I think the Beefeaters at the Tower of London might be a good parallel ..... I have always found that strict first-person interpretation places a barrier between you and your 21st-century visitors, reducing my communication and, sadly, their interest.

  7. Actually Nige, the woman in question was addressing my companion, but that didn't make it any less appalling an experience. Specially as despite our obvious embarrassment she refused to veer off course and continued ad infinitum while we backed , ashen faced and clammy, out of the room. Dear God, I'm coming over all queasy just thinking of it.

  8. Nige, were you asked to leave the Stately Home reporting business after your infamous piece that started 'Never in the history of the British Stately Home has so little of value been flogged with such sickening cynicism to so many gullible, unquestioning, moronic cave dwellers as here in this vipers nest where the ancestral gallery should be torn down and the space used for the ugly mugs of the cretinous bunch who run the dump. This, then, is ........... Hall.' ? Or am I confusing you with someone else?

  9. That, Johntyh, is the piece I wish I had written (more than once)...

  10. Jeff, your point is well-taken, and it reminds me to point out a very positive experience we had with re-enactors.

    Our kids, who *hated* Williamsburg with a purple passion a couple of years ago -- to the point that my rude and funny son asked a blacksmith if "Fruit of the Loom" underwear really dated back to the 1600s (this was your typical butt-crack-and-waistband-of-underwear-exposed guy a la Dan Ackroyd as the plumber on old SNL's) -- did find one place on that trip that they liked. Actually, it was my weapon-lovin' son who liked it: A Civil War camp set up not in Va. (sorry I can't remember the battle -- Fredericksburg? Antietam? -- but it was one of the many historic ones fought thereabouts).

    These guys, Confederate soldier re-enactors, were having a good time and they had some great stuff, too, including the medic's tent with all its wild 19th-century instruments for removing minie balls and administering clysters. And the guy really, really knew his nineteenth-century medicine, so I found it fascinating.

    Mark also got to help load and fire a cannon, which of course he loved. This was the same trip where he opted not to go out and play minigolf and instead nearly set our condo on fire (the flue of the chimney was not open on the fireplace and he was too absorbed playing GameBoy to notice the place filling with smoke). Luckily, we came back in time, though the walls were quite singed and the boy, though beginning to choke, did win his Zelda game.

  11. IN Va., not NOT in Va. Well, you get it.

  12. i find in these situations - also taking cold sales calls etc. - it's vital to counter-ambush: don't give an inch, launch into strange and sinister questions about period sexuality re: 14-year old boys, or start to ask excitedly about weaponry and how to get blood off of it, etc.

    Another tactic is to wave a hand slowly while smiling kindly and saying "You're not interested in me. We're not the tourists you're looking for. You can go your way." Just keep repeating it till they leave.

  13. As a one time professional interpreter, let me try to put up a valiant defence of the medium!

    I agree bad personal interpretation can be excruciating, and worse than useless. But many people enjoy good personal interpretation, which should be an enjoyable and enlighthening as the best conversations among friends. Good personal interpretation doesn't need a costume, it can be delivered by a tour-guide, a National Trust room steward, a gallery assitant, a yoeman warder, or a costumed interpeter, to name but a few. And all these roles can also produce bad personal interpretation.

    And there's nothing wrong with panels, guidebooks or even audio-guides (my own personal pet hate)either, but no one interpretive medium pleases everybody, or suits every situation. It is important for heritage sites to offer choices. And I am aware of some recent research that shows an increasing demand for costumed interpretation among visitors. I might even suggest, Nige, that your preference for quiet contemplation, guidebook in hand in an almost deserted house is not only a little elitist and snobbish, but also unsustainable, unless you are able to pay for private hire of a place that (generally) needs to appeal to the purses of a mass audience to survive.

    It's already been noted that so called "first-person" interpretation (that is to say a costumed person taking on the character of an historical personality) is often a barrier to communication. The worst form of this is when the interpreter takes advantage of his historical manners and crypto-archaic language to poke fun at the visitor. One classic example I'm aware of is when a group of Tudor 'soldiers' realized that spoken with authority, they could make "give head" sound like "make way" and then spent the next few days barging their way through groups of school-girls shouting "Give head to the soldiers!" only to be rewarded by the teachers repeating the command to their charges.

    That said I've even seen good first-person interpretation, in fact I like to think I've delivered it myself in the past.

    Now I have an admission to make. Costumed interpretation at Kew Palce is nothing new. In fact I worked in costume there, off and on, for the second half of the nineties. My team and I weren't in character, and we were brought in to increase visitor numbers after the company I used to work for proved successful at Hampton Court Palace. We weren't jobbing actors, or waiting for an equity card. Most of my team were historians with post-graduate degrees. One is now a respected arts journalist and another is a curator for English Heritage. We were specially trained in recognising the signs that people didn't want to talk to us, and initiating conversations in a polite, non-invasive manner. We were very successful, maybe too successful. When one of my colleagues had gathered a large interest audience in one upstairs room, the ceiling below began to crack. this prompetd a survey which in turn prompted the closure of the Palace until its recent restoration.

    I have an idea which company might be provide the interpreters Nige saw. And I must saw I can belive that the experience might have been just as bad as he suggests. But don't write off the whole idea. A Phd study conducted at sites around the world by a student from Surrey university some years back proved that where costumed interpretation was properly resourced with investment in good costumes and good training, visitors found their needs for enjoyment, learning and value for money met. The experience was negative only at those sites which failed to invest properly in training.

    Remember you are in control. If someone in character as a surly guard says (as one once said to me) "Who are you to ask me that?" reply: "I'm a visitor and I've paid (insert cost here) pounds!"