A costumed interpreter writes

I’ve been reading Counter Tourism The Handbook, and while I want to celebrate it, there are already some points which I disagree with. Its not surprising, Phil Smith is out to subvert “the Heritage Industry” and that is an industry that pays my salary so, you might think, I’m exactly the sort of person that should be offended. But I’m not offended, I’m disappointed.

Lets start with a positive. Take this from page 15:

“No matter how ‘counter’ you are being, you’re still some kind of tourist. For a long time the prevailing attitude was that ‘tourists’ were bad things. Passive dupes of a giant industry tramping over cultures they didn’t understand. “We are travellers, they are tourists.” But there is another opinion – that toursists are people who pick and choose what and how they experience, whop mix and match things and their feelings about them, making up their own leisure and heritage as they go along. That for all the packaging (and the extreme and green alternatives), tourists are pilgrims, up for transforming themselves.”

This came at just the right moment when I was beginning to think, “this is fun but he he saying that most visitors are dupes, and only people like him really know how to visit places?” It reassured me that the handbook is exactly what it purports to be, a guide to getting more out your visit, for everyone.

But then there’s more than one place where the facts are wrong. For example, on page 85 he defines ‘interpretation’ as “the professional term for those who dress up and perform ‘historical persons.'” This simple statement is wrong in so many ways. Interpretation is a word coined by the profession long ago. Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting our Heritage was first published in the 50’s, and therein he says the interpretation is “an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by first hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” No mention there of ‘dressing up’ and ‘historical persons.’

Now I’m being a little disingenuous, and I know very well what Smith means, as I had a small role to play in the creation one of, if not the, very first professional companies of people “who dress up and perform ‘historical persons.'” We fought hard to prove that we were not (and thus worth more than) actors performing scripted theatre in museums. We grabbed hold of the term interpretation and called ourselves “live interpreters” to differentiate ourselves from the “illustrative media” that Tilden mentioned, or “costumed interpreters” to point that that guides might wear modern clothes or dress in historical fashion. Because not every interpreter who dresses up is “performing ‘historical persons.'” third-person interpreters talk about the past from a modern point of view, only first-person interpreters assume an historical persona.  And only first-person interpreters would struggle to react to some of the challenging questions Smith encourages the counter-tourist to ask of guides, because they have to try and stay in character. All the other live interpreters would welcome those challenges, because would be coming from a truly engaged visitor.

And therein lies the roots of my disappointment. I’m not quibbling over definitions. Rather I worry that Smith hasn’t read Tilden, because despite a very different political view of US National Parks, I think Smith would agree with Tilden’s principles of interpretation. I think, in their own very different ways, Smith and Tilden are talking about exactly the same thing.


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