The Gaze of the Other

Keynote address by Dr Andrzej Leder, Polish philosopher and essayist, at the Interpret Europe conference in Krakow, Poland, 7th June 2015 [1].

Consider the following: an Israeli husband and wife, aged 57 and 60, are arrested at Balice Airport, Krakow, accused of removing objects (spoons and other small domestic items) from Auschwitz and attempting to take them out of the country. The maximum penalty for such a crime under Polish law is 10 years’ imprisonment.

A spokesperson for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum considers this a “crime of a special dimension” – such objects are the only things that remain of the 1 million plus people who faced annihilation at the death camp. Removal of these remnants represents a further annihilation.

The couple plead guilty and are fined. They apologise and return home. Once back in Israel, however, the couple are less repentant. While they regret any hurt their actions may have caused Holocaust survivors, they maintain that they did not really ‘steal’ anything. The objects concerned had been recently unearthed by weather, sitting in the ground. Their motivation for removing the objects was to ‘save’ them by turning them over to the custodianship of the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel.

The couple and the Museum spokesperson thus have competing moral frameworks, or “social imaginaries” to use Leder’s term. They may well know and understand each other’s perspectives on an intellectual level, but they choose to ignore or otherwise fail to acknowledge the aspects that challenge their own moral framework.

The couple would have known that Auschwitz-Birkenau is a museum site, and you can’t just take objects from museums whenever you please. However, many Holocaust survivors do not recognise Auschwitz’s legitimacy as a trustee of Holocaust memory. They consider the only true trustee with the moral authority to act in this role to be Yad Vashem.

Similarly, the Museum would have known that the couple, being Israelis of late middle age, would very likely have had direct connections to Holocaust survivors and that their intent was preservation, not destruction. Nonetheless, how can Auschwitz be properly managed and maintained if every visitor with a link to a Holocaust survivor is entitled to treat the place as their own property?

In its response to the incident, the Museum management emphasised the significance of Auschwitz as a grave site, for which they are ultimately responsible. In Polish tradition, the guardian of a grave has a right to speak for the dead. Delegitimising the right of Poles to take this guardianship role is seen as the first step down the road as casting the Polish people as bystanders, complicit in the Holocaust.

In post-war Europe, there were many competing different narratives and social imaginaries at play. There are the perpetrators and victims, those who were complicit (Vichy France and Quisling Norway for instance), and many questions about whether others did enough to stop or prevent what happened. With the lowering of the Iron Curtain, there are further narratives in the West that served to cast Eastern Europeans as the ‘bad guys’.

All of these different social imaginaries create Us and Them moral frameworks. Such comfortable certainties deny ambiguities, and ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ are) are always the ‘good guys’ in our own moral frameworks. Such positions undermine empathy. We cannot accept what the Other says, even if we understand it on an intellectual level, because to do so would undermine the social imaginaries/moral frameworks of our world.

Resolving this requires what Leder calls a “Kantian imperative of empathy”. This means being ready to face inner tension between your own moral position and that of another. It also means being willing to look at yourself through the eyes of the other – and endure that gaze. Knowledge alone is not enough.


[1] The official session title was Imperative of Empathy – the Kantian pre-condition for any kind of European future. This summary has been hastily pulled together based on my notes taken during the session and without benefit of having a copy of Dr Leder’s slides (I’ll post a link to them if they become available). Any errors or misrepresentations are mine.

The Half-Life of History

There was a recent post on the Museum Audience Insight blog about “Historical cooties”. In a similar vein, I want to think about history being radioactive. By this I mean considering history as having a “half-life” – and thinking about how this influences what we tell and how we tell it in our museums and heritage sites.

A typical radioactive decay curve. Half of the radioactive nuclei decay in the first half-life, then half of what’s left decays in the second half-life, and so on.

I started thinking about this late last year, in response to Susan Cross’ blog post about Remembrance Sunday. At the time I saw a distinction between events that occurred within living memory (i.e., things we lived through ourselves), events within family recollection (i.e., it was before our time but we know an older relative who was directly connected to it), and events beyond the reach of this living recollection (where the past really is a foreign country). I guessed the limit of this living connection to be about 100 years. Once you get much beyond this, distinctions between eras and events start to diminish and smooth out, a bit like the decay curve above. So 20th century history has an immediacy to it that (say) the Victorian era no longer has. Fewer shared cultural touchstones and assumptions survive that length of time. So, things that would have been self explanatory to the Victorians need re-interpreting for a 21st century audience (an important thing to recognise when interpreting objects and sites from this period). Even more so when we go further back – such as the medieval period or the Roman empire (both of which span several centuries in themselves but are now considered to be more or less homogeneous from this temporal vantage point).

More recently, a discussion with Gretchen Jennings on the Museum Commons blog got me thinking about the other end of the decay curve. When events are so new, so raw, so contested, that museums decide they’re too hot to handle. Gretchen describes how US museums are engaging (or more to the point, not engaging) with the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war as a case in point. Getting back to the radioactivity metaphor, museums might be collecting the hot, unstable material of current events, but then they are “burying” it – until such time as the “stable isotopes” of history (less dangerous, less contested) can be safely recovered and interpreted.

So if history were a radioactive isotope, what would its half-life be? I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. Currently I’m thinking it’s somewhere in the order of a single generation – say 25-30 years. It’s interesting that this is the time period for which most Cabinet records are sealed, suggesting the most “hot” phase has passed by this time. But it might take 2 or 3 half lives before a period becomes a “stable isotope” – something like World War II. This is not to suggest that “stable” history is not contested either – as in the curve above, the “hot” parts of a story might fade with time, but they never completely disappear.


“Hot Interpretation”: Telling Difficult Stories

There is probably no such thing as “value-free” interpretation. But some stories are more sensitive, contested or emotionally-laden than others.

In the context of heritage sites, attention to the emotional content of a visitor experience has been described as “hot interpretation”, to distinguish it from the more cool, detached, and primarily cognitive approach that heritage interpretation has traditionally emphasised [1]. In hot interpretation, emotional engagement is seen as a way of challenging visitors to reconsider their values, preconceptions and beliefs.

There is no doubt that telling difficult stories is an important thing for heritage interpreters to do. This often involves acknowledging past wrongs – such as formal Government apologies for the Stolen Generation in 2008 and forced adoptions last week (to cite two Australian examples). But both of these examples have shown that there is a need to handle the issues sensitively and carefully, and to do your homework – much damage can be done by the wrong choice of words.

A 2012 article by Ballantyne, Packer and Bond [2] identified some general principles to guide the development of ‘hot interpretation’, based on visitor research at the Broken Links exhibition (about the Stolen Generation):

  1. Personal stories: including personal stories of real people helps people make a connection to the subject matter – stories connect more than statistics do. Allowing people to make multiple personal connections gives a story an emotional resonance that isolated facts and statistics do not.
  2. Balance despair and hope: despair is disempowering and ultimately unengaging. Hot interpretation means invoking difficult feelings – anger, shame, regret. Unless there is a way for visitors to deal with and work through these feelings, and see some cause for hope and optimism, they may get overwhelmed or otherwise enter denial.
  3. Educate, not persuade: if visitors get the sense that the interpretation is biased, or is forcing them to reach a particular conclusion, they will put their defences up. This will limit personal engagement with the story and render the interpretation less effective. Personal stories need to be balanced with verifiable facts and avoid propaganda. Of course, bias is in the eye of the beholder and it’s probably impossible to avoid accusations of bias entirely. 
  4. Provide space to reflect: the paper describes reflection as the ‘missing link’ between experience and action. Thus, if the purpose of hot interpretation is to encourage visitors to reconsider previously held attitudes and beliefs, there needs to be an opportunity for visitors to do this. Comment walls and other opportunities for visitors to participate, leave their own thoughts and see the reflections of others were suggested as effective ways for visitors to reflect.
  5. Focus on the past to inform the future: like the need to balance despair and hope, hot interpretation should not dwell solely on the past but also look to the future. What lessons can we learn? What can we do to avoid the mistakes of the past? What can we change about our own lives?


  • Disclosure: two of the authors of this paper, Jan Packer and Roy Ballantyne, are my PhD supervisors. This is just a quick (and possibly ham-fisted) summary of a far more detailed body of work and I encourage you to go to the original source if possible.
  • This blog post came about because someone sent a query to me via this blog’s comment form about difficult content for interpretation. Writing this post seemed like a good way to answer their question. Do you have a question or a suggested topic for a blog post? Feel free to ask me – I’ll do my best to answer if I can.

[1] Uzzell, D., & Ballantyne, R. (1998). Heritage that hurts: interpretation in a postmodern world. In D. Uzzell & R. Ballantyne (Eds.), Contemporary Issues in Heritage and Environmental Interpretation (pp. 152–171). London: The Stationery Office.

[2] Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Bond, N. (2012). Interpreting Shared and Contested Histories: The Broken Links Exhibition. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55(2), 153–166. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2012.00137.x


Hallowed Ground

“It’s more than just grass . . . Imagine the amount of history and the superstars of cricket that have been on this grass. It’s a piece of history.”

If someone starts lining up at 1.30am to pick up four 30cm-square pieces of turf, it’s obviously pretty important to them. And this woman wasn’t alone – yesterday hundreds of Adelaideans lined up to get their own piece of ‘history’ in the form of a few squares of turf.

Adelaide Oval, a city landmark much loved by cricket fans, is undergoing a major redevelopment at the moment. Part of this redevelopment involves replacing the turf and the state government decided to give the old turf away on a first come, first served basis yesterday (Sunday) morning. This was promoted on the local evening news late last week but, not being a cricket fan, I promptly forgot all about it.

Then, yesterday morning, I headed off to the Museum (to do some PhD fieldwork). My route passes Montefiore Hill, which overlooks the oval and was the advertised pick-up site for the turf. I saw a queue snaking up the hill and wondered what was going on. Then I saw people returning to their cars with bundles of turf in their arms, and remembered the previous week’s news.

The queue was snaking up the hill like this when I rode past at about 10am. The giveaway started from 9am and the first person had started queuing up at 1.30am.

Footage of long queues and soundbites from happy turf collectors added some local colour to that evening’s news bulletin. Watching the news, my partner found it all a bit baffling – “It’s just grass”, he said. But obviously other people felt differently about this ‘hallowed’ turf. Was it just because it was free, and people love free stuff? Was there an element of jumping on the bandwagon given the high level of airtime the giveaway had received during the lead-up? Or do these squares of turf have a deeper meaning for at least some of these people? And if so, what are the criteria for this meaning? Looking at the comments on this news piece, it seems that some people felt the heritage ‘currency’ of the turf was diminished when they learned that it was only a few years old (the turf had last been replaced in 2007). Other people dismissed the interest as a sign of small-town parochialism and a populace with too little to do. There is also the view that cutting up and giving away the turf destroys the heritage value altogether, as in this tweet: 


So what do you think? Does a piece of ground from a certain place have meaning in and of itself? If so, under what circumstances? And is this meaning destroyed if it’s commoditised?

Review: Eastern State Penitentiary

I very nearly didn’t visit Eastern State Penitentiary. But I’m very glad I did.

It was the first Saturday in August, on my last day in Philadelphia. I had spent the morning trekking around the Philadelphia Museum of Art (yes, the one from Rocky – and people actually do train on those steps in the mornings before the museum opens). So I was feeling pretty museum-ed out. And I had to be on a bus to New York later that afternoon. AND the weather didn’t look like it was going to hold out and I didn’t want to get stuck in yet another East Coast summer downpour. But I decided to go anyway, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality and variety of their visitor experiences, which had been simply and sympathetically achieved.

Eastern State was built in 1829, when it was widely thought that it was a good idea to completely isolate prisoners so that they had a chance to silently reflect on their misdeeds and become truly ‘penitent’. Over the years the prison was expanded and solitary confinement was eventually phased out. It was in use until relatively recently –  the last prisoners were transported out in 1970. Over the next couple of decades, the site fell into disrepair, but from the late 1980s onwards was gradually rehabilitated and opened to the public.

A view down a typical cell block at ESP. These cell blocks all radiated from a central zone in a hub-and-spoke design; additional spokes were added as the prison was expanded.

Site interpretation was through a combination of audiotour and signage.

A group takes advantage of the juxtaposition of seating, signage and audiotour track.

The audiotour used a combination of guided and self-guided tracks that I thought worked quite well. The audioguide was one of the typical select-track-number-to-play types, so in theory you could choose whatever track you wanted whenever. However, the idea was that the first 10 tracks or so took you on a guided tour from the visitor centre around the site so you could get your physical and conceptual bearings.

The final part of the ‘guided’ part of the audiotour was called ‘Voices from Eastern State Penitentiary’, and it was paired with images displayed along the cell block. The idea was that each image was paired with oral history quotes from people with links to the site – former inmates or guards. The text above each image was the first line of spoken words associated with the picture, so you were clear what audio went with what picture. It was a simple but effective way of pairing sound and pictures that were being presented independently of one another.

From there you could choose from a further 20 tracks or so peppered around the site. On the site map you were given, these additional tracks were organised by topic (art installations, famous prisoners, etc), so you could follow particular areas of interest if you wanted to.

For the most part, ESP is preserved as a ruin rather than restored. This section, which you encounter early in the ‘orientation’ section of the auditour, is a recreation of what the penitentiary would have looked like in its early years of operation.

There were also face-to-face “Hands on History” stations around the site, where staff would do brief (10 minutes or so) demonstrations at regular intervals. I didn’t take part in any of these as I was more interested in doing things at my own pace, but these sessions appeared to be popular with family visitors in particular.

However, while ESP does cater for families (those with older children at least – I think they discourage younger children because of the subject matter), they don’t shy away from providing more confronting topics for adults. Some of the audiotour tracks are only accessible by getting the track numbers from reading certain graphic panels. As well as frankly presenting episodes from the site’s past, they presented interpretations and artworks that went to the heart of present-day issues.

The bar chart on the left shows the dramatic increase in the USA’s prison population from 1970 to the present day. The bar chart on the right shows that the USA imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world – at tremendous cost.
“GTMO” – one of the several art installations at ESP. The contents of the cage are the possessions that are allowed an inmate in Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay.

The other thing that struck me about this site is that it came across as very visitor-focused: a good variety of interpretive media, clear orientation, friendly staff, recognition of visitors’ intelligence. Upon departure one of the guides at the entrance was even so kind as to direct me to the nearest bus stop to take me back across town. A little thing maybe, but it finished my visit on a high note and helped make ESP one of the unexpected highlights of my visit to the US.


The “End of Heritage”

I borrow the title of this post from Francis Fukuyama, who famously (if rather prematurely) declared the “End of History” some 20 years ago. While I’m not going to make such bold proclamations here, I do want to be a little provocative and ask: has the heritage ‘industry’ planted the seeds of its own demise?

First a little background: at the Museums Australia conference a couple of weeks ago, several presentations reinforced the notion that heritage is both a process of preservation and of creation. However, it strikes me that the former is sometimes privileged at the expense of the latter. Indeed, we can become so preoccupied with preserving the cultural legacy of our forebears that we forget that we too have the opportunity (perhaps even duty) to create our own legacy as well.

One of the conference keynote speakers, Victor Steffenson (from Mulong Productions) spoke of his work using film-making to document Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices. In a later panel discussion, he talked about how he wants to dispel assumptions that Indigenous culture is a static relic of the past. He described working with Aboriginal youth who said that they could no longer perform corroborees because their traditional dances had been lost. To which Victor’s reply was: “why not make new ones?” In other words, while preservation of traditional Indigenous culture is important (and an important part of Victor’s film work), it should not subsume the ongoing evolution of that culture as a creative process.

This got me thinking about the balance of preservation and creation in heritage more broadly. Look at any ancient city or old building and what you see is a palimpsest – the ongoing destruction, creation and restoration is what gives these sites their historical richness. However, this overwriting of one layer of history by another is often put to a stop in the name of ‘heritage’ – no more layers will be added to the palimpsest.

One of the first heritage sites I worked on was a Grade I listed building in Lincolnshire, which had been constructed in the latter part of the 14th century. Over the course of the building’s history it had served as the headquarters of a Hanseatic guild, a town hall, a court house, a council chamber and finally a local museum. A point about that last incarnation: over the years I’ve observed that ‘turn it into a museum’ is the fate of many heritage buildings – sometimes because it is a logical adaptive re-use, but too often because there is no other viable use for the building in its present state, and given its heritage listing it can’t be adapted for anything else, so ‘turning it into a museum’ becomes the default (and sometimes uncomfortable) compromise. But how many heritage buildings can realistically be preserved as museums?

From my (admittedly non-expert) perspective, it appears our shift to a focus on preservation is a consequence of events of the mid 20th century. In Europe, two world wars had wreacked destruction on an unprecedented scale. The reconstruction (and in Australia, post-war boom) of the 1950s and 1960s was then heavily influenced by the harsh, minimalist aesthetic of modernism. Modernism didn’t quite work out as planned: designs intended to make built spaces work like efficient machines ended up being hostile environments that invited crime. Furthermore, it didn’t age well, and many buildings from this era are reviled as eyesores. At some point, it seems we collectively proclaimed ‘never again’ to such follies and decided we had to be much more careful about using the bulldozer in future. This is not necessarily a bad thing. That is, unless preservation becomes paralysis.

I see this paralysis in action (if that’s not an oxymoron!) in my home town of Adelaide on a regular basis. In the Australian context, Adelaide is distinctive in that it was a planned settlement from the outset. The city plan as set out by chief surveyor Colonel William Light is considered one of our most significant cultural assets. And it is. However I get frustrated by those who seem to be more preoccupied by the letter, rather than the spirit, of Light’s plan. Light and his counterparts were progressives of their era; they were adapting new philosophies and approaches to urban planning and design. In contrast, new developments in 21st century Adelaide are often passionately resisted by preservation lobbies. Proposals frequently spend protracted periods in planning limbo (for as long as decades in some instances). Meanwhile, empty sites become dustbowls and heritage buildings lay empty as they cannot be adapted for contemporary use. This ‘heritage for heritage’s sake’ approach does not seem to serve anyone, and taken to its logical conclusion would turn the city into a museum of itself. And this is what I mean by the ‘end of heritage’. It is when the desire to preserve tips over to become the fear of creation.

I see signs of the pendulum swinging back, and perhaps a more pragmatic approach to adaptive re-use of heritage buildings (after all, their preservation is only sustainable if an economically-viable use for them can be found). There is also potential for a greater role for interpretation here too (but that’s a whole different subject).

Yes we should preserve and restore. But let’s not forget that we can adapt and create as well.