Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Public and the Past: What do YOU want from your heritage?

As a tour guide for Durham Castle, I have noticed a strange thing with the public (and myself) when they are on a tour. They are a mixture of young and old, local and foreign tourists (and the occasional inquisitive Durham student), but what unites them all is the "wow factor": that feeling of the extraordinary and uniqueness of a particular feature, something that does actually make you say "wow!". So what is my problem with this?

It is one of "too many wows". Durham Castle has far too many items of brilliance, rarity and uniqueness for tourists, leading to an overload of information. Let me give an example from my tours- the statement "England's largest Great Hall in the 14th century" is soon followed by "this beautiful 17th century late renaissance style door" and that precedes  "England's oldest working kitchens", and this is all before the oldest stone building in the castle, which contains the oldest depiction of a mermaid in Northern England! This leads to a delicate balance of giving out selected information, and 45 minutes is not enough for all of the Castle's history, and I give the latter proviso at the start of the tours I give. While I do not dictate the tour times, some places, such as the Fengate excavations near Peterborough, have been able to experiment with their tour lengths and they found that the average tourist is best suited to an hour long tour; long enough to give a lot of information about the site, but also not so long that they don't forget the important bits!

Hatfield's keep (author's own image, November 2012).

However, what sometimes annoys me is when I give any information I give about the University's involvement, and the students in particular. This seems to be what they have come for; if anything, the students are more likely to be destroying than appreciating this building! Furthermore, any mention of Harry Potter in Durham Cathedral and everything I have just talked about feels, like Hedwig, as if it has flown out of the window, in favour of a modern cultural phenomenon which happened to be filmed across the road. is this because the Castle's history pales in comparison to the film about "the boy who lived?"

My problem, you could argue, is moot; I provide a service, and nothing more. I am not entitled to force people to enjoy things that they do not; after all, they are paying my wages. The public enjoys these tours, so I shouldn't need to give them more "boring" information about the Caernarvon arch leading to the Undercroft. Furthermore, if I provide this huge variety of information to the public, then the chances are that everyone will enjoy it and maximise their return out of their £5 investment. I have tarred people with the same brush; some will enjoy the history, some will enjoy the fleeting "Hogwarts" feel of the Castle, and some will enjoy the stories about the students. Not everyone will have come for the history, some will have interests in the Castle that date from very recently (some are alumni of University College!), and some are even prospective students.

However, the archaeologist's and heritage industry's job is to provide much more than a service. They are stewards of the past; its stout defenders, who present the story of these monuments while preserving them at the same time. A steward by definition is someone who looks after or manages another's affairs. Moreover, different cultures (or even different people), will tell different stories about the past, usually involving different stories about the same monument. So this raises the question; is the best custodian the one who can preserve the monument the best, or those who can tell the best story? This is not a simple divide between economic benefit and trying to preserve the past as an expense, as some people might have you believe. Many sites can provide an educational benefit too. Lots of school groups regularly visit Durham Castle, but sadly not enough sites can or will provide this important service to allow local/ national heritage to be appreciated for more than just a tourist attraction.

Perhaps I am just enjoy the past too much; after all, the students have not destroyed any of the treasures within the castle; in fact, the University appealed to save the Castle back in the 1930's when part of it was going to fall into the river Wear! This is part of the Castle's more modern history, but it can just as easily be argued that this preservation of the Castle shows that back then, as today, the vested interest of the University is to preserve the past; to know where we came from and to understand why it was done.

A tourist come up to me and ask about the architecture of the Castle in more detail, particularly the Norman arches (you won't believe how many styles of arches there are...)! It turns out that he was an engineering lecturer from Canada, and gave me a priceless quote; "ET had the technology, but without the knowledge to fix his craft, how could he get home?" What he meant by this was that people today don't realise how important it is to learn where their heritage comes form, as this is where innovation and new ideas come from. The vaulted arches in Durham Cathedral, as well as many of the architectural features in Durham, were innovations in their day, unrivalled except for the cathedrals of central France; even then, Durham independently began building their magnificent arches. If we don't appreciate this, then where will our innovation come from?

My personal perspective is from academia, which does scare people off with lots of jargon, which means they won't enjoy the history so much, where my main interests lie. I have been lucky that the University allows the tours to be reflexive (or to reflect and improve with each time). So my tours have evolved to explain the jargon as much as possible without compromising the quality of the complex architecture of the Castle (which was why it was given a world heritage site designation in 1986- Therefore, my tours do give an eclectic mix of every part of the Castle's life, and their owners, who had even more eventful lives than the Castle! I also have copies of old maps to pass around the tourists, so they can understand the layout of the Castle in a more in-depth way (which is my way of putting my landscape perspective across to the tourists). I even have a map from the 1950's which shows how the University originally turned the Norman Chapel into an entrance for the keep! You coulod argue this may be too much information, but so far tourists have very much enjoyed the maps, and make it much easier to explain the Castle's development. This is one way in which academia can be used successfully to inform and inspire the public.

So this leads me to the conclusion- what do you want from your heritage? It is a personal question, and there is no right answer. I personally would enjoy these tours more (not that I don't!!) if I was given more freedom to talk about the stories of Scottish invasions of Durham in more detail during the Middle Ages, but this would mean losing bits of information elsewhere which are arguably just as important, since I would then be fired for making the tours simply far too long. But the most important thing I want you to take away from this article is to be inquisitive, and not to just sit there and accept statements as fact. Be proactive about your experience. Ask these questions the next time you are on a tour of a historic monument, or even a museum  "But why?" or "What was is used for?", "Why build this building here at all?", "Did Kings visit this Castle?" and "What's that?" Basically I'm asking you to test your tour guides about information they should know. It's our job, after all!

Please leave comments below, and I will endeavour to respond!

N.B. unfortunately I will no longer be doing tour guiding of Durham Castle after June 2013, since I will be moving to Southampton University!


  1. This post really speaks to me Alistair; as a tour guide for children, sometimes I feel completely trapped by having to provide basic information. However the salve for this, as you quite rightly concluded, is when someone inquisitive keeps asking questions! Makes my day. Excellent article.

  2. Its nice to know my post is making your day!! Children are a slightly different audience to adults (which is what I'm usually dealing with); I'm not sure how I would cope with having to repeat basic information over and over again in increasingly enthusiastic or exasperated tones! Ultimately, I have found that tour guiding is a reflexive experience, and often finding out information for yourself about your site or place of work makes it that much more fun/bearable.

  3. I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenter here! It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I'm sure you had fun writing this article.

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