I recently visited Bletchley Park, where the German Enigma codes were broken during the Second World War, and what struck me was how much information there was to read. That might seem like a slightly strange thing to say, but the modern way of presenting museums or other heritage sites seems to be to focus on the visual, the hands on and with only a few words at a time in bite-sized chunks. This is to make it “accessible” to as many people as possible, to find different ways to interest visitors and because, apparently, people don’t want to read anymore (although is this a truth or an assumption?). I agree with the motives behind the new style – yes of course visitors should be interested in what they’ve come to see and everyone’s brains work, and respond to things, differently. It would also be pretty dull to just have a room filled with nothing but text, and it’s usually the objects found at the site that bring it all to life. I’m also not going to pretend that I read all the information at Bletchley Park – but the point is, it was nice to have the choice.
I think what sometimes gets forgotten by the people who come up with the displays is that, I would guess, a substantial proportion of their visitors already have some interest in, and knowledge of, the type of site, the area or history in general. To use abbeys and priories as an example, once you’ve been to a few you get to know that there was often a chapter house where business was conducted, that monks ate in refectories and slept in dormitories. What you want to know is what is particular to that site – were there any significant meetings in that chapter house, or why they slept in individual cells rather than a dormitory, as at Mount Grace Priory. From a distance, abbeys and priories can look quite similar, so what are the unusual/unique features and histories of each one? What does this particular set of ruins tell us about medieval monasteries? Things like:
- the geometric patterns carved into the pillars in the church of Lindisfarne Priory and how they relate to those in Durham Cathedral;
- why Battle Abbey no longer has its church, when on most sites that’s the most substantial remnant;
- the modern internments at Dryburgh Abbey (Sir Walter Scott and Field Marshall Earl Haig); and
- the role that Kirkham Priory played in the preparations for D-Day.
One of the modules in my masters degree in Archaeology and Heritage was about interpreting and presenting heritage, and one of the things that stood out for me was a comparison of guide books over the course of about sixty years. Here are three descriptions of the west front of the church at Lindisfarne Priory:
“The west front of the church is pierced by a round-headed doorway, the outer arch of which, contained in a bold projection from the wall, is of three orders with chevron mouldings and shafts with cubical capitals in the jambs. On either side of it there are two arched recesses with shafts in the wall-face, and at each end of the wall the square turrets project, but not so far as the projection for the doorway, to which the whole design is subordinated.” (1949)
“The west front of the ruined priory church must have been completed by around 1150. The richly decorated west doorway is contained in a slightly projecting porch. Above it is an opening which would originally have been concealed behind a steeply pitched gable, probably containing a tiny chamber over the doorway. There is an original window higher up, but the gable above that was rebuilt in the mid fourteenth century. Note the two cross-shaped arrow loops in this masonry, a reminder of the troubled times which followed the outbreak of the Scots Wars in 1296”. (1988)
“The west front of the church was a grand architectural showpiece. It was originally flanked on both sides by tall corner turrets, intended to recall the twin-towered facades common in larger cathedral churches. That on the right hand (south) still survives, rising nearly to the full height of the building. Battlements were added in the mid 14th century when the whole priory was fortified in response to the outbreak of war with the Scots”. (2005)
The first tells you nothing about the history of the priory, and is clearly too technical for most tastes (you can only hope there was a decent glossary included), while the third version doesn’t actually tell you very much. My preferred option is the middle one, which actually gives you some specifics, without being overly complicated about it. It puts the building into its historical context, as well as describing its development – it invites you to look at the building and work it out for yourself. In fact it acknowledges that you’ve gone there to learn about something, rather than assuming that you can only cope with the superficial.
Accessible doesn’t have to mean superficial, and unfortunately that’s often what we end up with. I’m sure it’s a very hard balance to strike for those who produce these displays, but all I ask is that in trying to cater to all, please don’t forget the ones whose prior knowledge and interest brought us there in the first place.