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Katie Evans and Phillippa Gatehouse Department of Geography, Oxford Brookes University November 2018
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Evans and Gatehouse: Interpretation at Maltese World Heritage Sites: tensions between site authenticity and meeting diverse visitor needsWith increasing globalisation and ease of transport to heritage sites across the globe, interpretation management is faced with conflicting agendas. These include meeting the needs of a wider public, maintaining a high level of site authenticity and an authentic visitor experience, whilst preserving cultural values to be passed onto future generations. In depth interviews were used to provide a rich and deep data set and were carried out over three UNESCO World Heritage megalithic temples situated in Malta. The results show how previous experiences and individuality affected the way that the site was experienced by the visitor. Each interpretation method was viewed differently by each individual, with each person viewing the term ‘authentic experience’ subjectively. The paper concludes that interpretation can both enhance and detract from visitors’ experiences of site authenticity. In the future it is suggested that more research should be carried out regarding the use of unobtrusive technology at World Heritage Sites in order to achieve maximum visitor satisfaction, whilst preventing the degradation of site authenticity.
Heritage, Interpretation, Authenticity, Malta, Visitor Needs.
With increasing globalisation and accessibility to heritage sites globally, the heritage tourism industry sector has exploded (Poria et al: 2009). With huge volumes of different people visiting heritage sites, new challenges and pressures have risen for interpretation officers and heritage management teams, to create sites that meet the needs of a wider public.
The management of heritage sites is continually at the forefront of media, encompassing different academic disciplines with varying opinions on how to preserve tangible heritage sites, monuments and historic places (Poria et al: 2009). Pompeii is a current example, with UNESCO sending conservation specialists to advise on management following the collapse of Schola Armaturarum (UNESCO: 2010).
Lemaire & Stovel in 1993 underlined the importance of local cultural context determining appropriate conservation practices throughout the Nara Conference, demonstrating that these issues, as well as judgements about cultural value and authenticity, are not new within academia (Leask & Fyall: 2006; Lemaire & Stovel: 2007). The world is constantly being subjected to pressures of globalisation and homogenisation, therefore consideration of authenticity in conservation practice is to clarify and illuminate the collective memory of humanity (Leask & Fyall: 2006). Interpretation is used as a means of communicating collective memories with the visitor, therefore this article investigates how visitor experiences at sites are affected by interpretation, and how this can create tensions when interpretation curators try to cater for broadening visitor needs.
The republic of Malta has a total land area of 316 km squared, and is located 90 km south of Sicily (Theuma & Grima: 2006). Deep natural harbours have caused its land to be exploited by major players in mediterranean history (Theuma & Grima: 2006). This history is reflected through the World Heritage List, with three cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites designated (UNESCO: 2017). Designation of sites locates the relics on our mental map and lends the site status; the signposts and interpretation indicating the sites’ age also distinguishes it from present day surroundings making it an exhibit ‘contrived for our attention’ (Lowenthal: 1985). The designation of sites, coupled with the ease and cheapness of transport to Malta, has increased the number of tourists visiting every year to a total of 1,689,809 inbound tourists in the year 2014 (Malta Tourism Industry: 2016). With increasing diversity of visitors, there is an increased diversity of visitor needs.
This paper will introduce key concepts of heritage, interpretation, authenticity and sense of place.
To guide and focus this research, three research questions were addressed:
This paper examines literature surrounding authenticity, sense of place and interpretation. It outlines the methodology used for collecting and analysing the data. The paper discusses the results of the data before conclusions are drawn from the research questions.
In its simplest form the term ‘heritage’ means inheritance (Howard: 2003). It is interpreted differently by different individuals, organisations and governments, with generations redefining heritage with reference to personal experiences (Sofield and Li: 2005). Heritage is a concept managed by and in response to the present, open to constant revision (Graham & Howard: 2008: 3). It is important because it provides symbolic and economic sustenance, meaning and dignity to humans (Graham & Howard: 2008). It interests current cultural geography because it provides ‘keyhole access’ to past and present heritages which combine social/cultural values to spatialized landscapes (Castree: 2014).
Cultural heritage tourism focuses on historic monuments that present the preservation of traditional lifestyles, landscapes and important historical events (Irandu, & Shah: 2016: 156). Many institutions globally recognised tourism to be one of the main components that provides a source of income for the preservation of heritage sites (Poria et al: 2011: 483; Silberberg: 1995: 361). Goodall (1997), stated heritage alone is fundamental in attracting overseas tourists and thus heritage sites need to be maintained, improved and developed for countries to stay in the competitive market (1997: 43-44). Theorists have recognised that meeting the needs of tourists while maintaining site authenticity is 'easier said than done' (Silberberg: 1995: 363).
Meeting the requirements of people with physical, sensory or communication disabilities has been recognised as an issue and in 2006 the disability legislation ‘Rights of People with Disabilities’ was implemented to avoid discrimination at tourist sites (Small and Darcy:2010:6). While this widens accessibility and improves site satisfaction to groups with different disabilities, adapting protected sites for particular needs can lead to reduced satisfaction to others, a site must find a balance between conflicting individual requirements (Frochot: 2001: 154; Kwai-Sand et al: 2004: 948; Cazorla et al: 2013: 172).
Consequences that heritage tourism and the competition of heritage goods can bring to a WHS, include: overcrowding, funding, accessibility issues and a lack of interpretation productivity (Poria et al: 2011: 483; Navrud and Ready: 2002: 7). Interpretation productivity in this article relates to how effective a certain interpretative tool is at a site. Strangeness reduction is an interesting concept discussed in Mckercher & Du Cros's book (2012: 116-118). The idea of strangeness reduction can be an important link to how interpretation productivity works in the eyes of the visitor. As stated in Mckercher and Cros’s work the impact of making a visitor feel included can transform a cultural heritage asset into something more in the eyes of a visitor - a cultural tourism product (2012: 117). An example of this was the use of directions and signs at museums and how even such a minor change in a site could reduce a visitor’s sense of being out of their comfort zone (2012: 117-118).
Literature surrounding the term ‘authenticity’ concludes that it is not inherent within objects, buildings, places, or cultural practices, but is a quality that is culturally constructed according to who is observing the heritage, and from what context (Jones: 2009). Wang (1999) divides the term authenticity into two subcategories; an authentic tourist experience and an authentic toured object. Authentic tourist experience is defined as ‘one in which individuals are in touch both with the real world and with their real selves’. An authentic toured object is when an object is thought to be genuine, real or unique (Wang: 1999). This paper focuses on constructive authenticity, whereby experiences are determined by the activities and projection of viewpoints, beliefs, perspectives and powers onto toured objects (Wang, 1999). Tourists can question site authenticity depending on the site’s preservation, adaptations, management and interpretation (Albert.&.Hazen: 2010: 68; Henson: 2014: 148), all of which can affect tourist experiences. The consumer is thought to search for authentic experiences in attractions that have historical integrity and help create a sense of place (Waitt: 2000).
Understanding ‘Sense of place’ is critical when looking at how heritage sites fit into the environment and its perception by visitors. Poria et al (2009) emphasises the need to explore the relationship between the visitor perception of place, and the site. Kuusisto (1999) states ‘place is a site invested with considerable meaning’, this meaning often represents the heritage of groups or communities as well as on an individual level. Connections between people and place are seen when looking at the world through places (McDowell: 1988). Place links cultural values of a site with the visitor, interpretation communicates these values.
Heritage interpretation is defined as a communication process helping individuals understand and make sense of a specific site or collection (Association for Heritage Interpretation: 2017), through a range of activities aiming to strengthen conservation effectiveness, promote social cohesiveness and improve education (De Marco: 2005). It is key within heritage sites because it explains the significance of exhibits within the context of the site and their wider historical and cultural context (Buhalis et al: 2006). Visitors can range from those knowing little about the site to knowledgeable experts (Mckercher and du Cros: 2012: 164). To modify a heritage site to meet the needs of all anticipated visitors can be extremely complex. Interpretation can only try to meet the needs of as many people as possible. According to Millar (2006), many WHS deal with extreme pressures from tourism in regard to the site’s heritage values (Millar: 2006 :50). Pressures to modify a site in order to satisfy tourists with sensitive characteristics could jeopardise site authenticity.
Three megalithic temples: Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija, built in Malta by Neolithic inhabitants between 3600 and 2500 BC and described as the world's first stone temples, (Theuma & Grima: 2006 ; Renfrew: 1973) were selected. The sites were chosen for their UNESCO World Heritage status, providing large visitor numbers for greater sample selection (Poria et al: 2009) and a variety of interpretation types. This enabled generation of results about how interpretation affects the authenticity of the visitor experience whilst meeting diverse visitor needs.
Figure 1: The distribution of the three case study sites with Ggantija situated on Gozo in the North and Hagar Qim and Mnajdra on the south coast of Malta. Reference: Google Images: 2017
A mixed methods approach with the use of triangulation was implemented in hope of data saturation and validity (Fusch & Ness: 2015: 1411; Thomas: 2011). A pilot study at Stonehenge (a megalithic site in the UK) took place before the trip to ensure methods would provide valid results. Having a pilot study within a UK cultural context first, allowed for trials of different data collection methods. The resulting methods were: a checklist of interpretation types and semi-structured interviews. A checklist of interpretation types was prepared before the research began so analysis of interpretation at each site could be rapidly recorded.
Interviews are 'a conversation with a purpose' (Valentine: 2005: 111) leading to understanding a variety of opinions, interests and concerns from different individuals. We used semi-structured interviews to collect rich detailed answers when analysing the effects of interpretation among diverse visitors. They enabled a greater subjective and personal view on interpretation effectiveness due to our relaxed mannerisms. The sampling frame of participants was chosen to involve age groups of 20-75+ years, different genders and occupations to highlight opinions on how effective interpretation was at each site for meeting individual needs. A selection of visitors and employees were interviewed from each heritage site; allowing for more holistic and contextual portrayals of the sites (Holtzhausen: 2001).
Table 1: Three sites where the interviews took place, including the profiles of each participant. Table shows that only three out of the twelve participants were male which could demonstrate a skewed data set favouring the needs of female participants.
Key informants used were:
Collecting data in January, (off peak season with less than a third of total inbound tourists visiting Malta (Malta Tourism Industry: 2016), meant fewer visitors visited the three case study sites. This was advantageous as the sample had a greater proportion of cultural heritage focused tourists rather than young sun seekers. Six of the twelve participants sampled were key informants. Due to smaller number of tourists, an opportunistic and convenience sample was used to maximise the number of interviews carried out.
Personal accounts of site visits were important because authenticity is a subjective topic and changes depending on the socio demographics of individuals (Burgess: 1985). Typically, interviews lasted for ten minutes, varying depending on the person's willingness to talk, and the environment that the interview was carried out. We were limited to only English speakers, with an inability to understand other languages e.g. we were unable to interview a Chinese visitor due to the language barrier.
To ensure that appropriate ethical guidelines were followed, each participant was asked to read a participant information sheet, and sign a consent form if they were comfortable to proceed further. All names were changed to respect confidentiality and anonymity throughout the research. In order to analyse the collected data appropriately, each interview was transcribed and coded. Coding interviews helps identify key themes in research which allows proposed research questions to be answered (Cope: 2010: 441).
Individual's expectations and needs fell into four key themes: accessibility, funding, knowledge and technology (Table 2). The four key themes are important when understanding the requirements brought by visitors to the Maltese WHS since the themes affected everyone's personal experience at the temples. Evidence of this research can be shown with a small sample of representative quotes in Table 2.
“Not having any English guide books available was disappointing” (70, visitor)
“You have to pay 7 euros to go to both sites (Ggantija and the windmill) yet if you can't walk up steep steps then you can't even go up the windmill anyway which is not fair” (20, student)
“I would have liked it if there was rope supporters at the temples because I need support for my bad leg” (70, visitor)
Audio guides are a good idea but I bet they are expensive.. but heritage sites have a lot of money to put into them to attract tourists” (35, visitor)
“Better to view some places from the outside because they could be expensive to get in” (26, visitor)
“The interpretation was elementary I think it was designed for school kids because it had short explanations” (55,visitor)
“It's essential from a historical view I mean to have prior knowledge before visiting the stones and the information centre because interpretation of experts get in the way and doesn't allow you to form your own opinion” (70, visitor)
“I hate audio-phones they should be banned since they take away the visual aspect of the site” (65, visitor)
“There was information from a historical perspective displayed through posters, films and information on leaflets” (60, visitor)
Table 2: The four key themes in this research and how the themes affected the requirements visitors bring to Heritage sites.
The needs and requirements visitors bring to Maltese WHS can be a difficult challenge for the different temples to attend to. Individuals visiting the temples will note if the site is verbally and physically accessible, if the site will further expand on their personal knowledge of the temples, if the site fits their personal preference to technological interpretation and if the funding at the site has allowed access to a variety of resources. This individual approach can cause tensions for sites trying to meet diverse visitors needs as well as maintaining site authenticity.
Figure 2: Diagram showing Individual A and the four needs they will looking for when visiting a site in terms of their requirements. Image Source: Bing Images: 2017
An example of how individuals rely on the four themes when entering a site can be shown through Figure 2, which relates to a young French graduate (Individual A), with impaired hearing and visited the Hagar Qim megalithic temple as a tourist.
Figure 3: A concept map showing the different themes, codes and sub codes that affected the needs and preferences of individuals at the five heritage sites studied in Malta. The direction of the concept map one takes will all depend on which route would meet the needs of the visitor and what route will cause barriers.
Key: Yellow (individual) White (themes) Blue (Primary codes) Green (sub codes) Red Arrow (Indicates how all the themes are affected by each other) Blue Arrow (Indicates the pathway the different stages take in the map)
We propose a concept map (Figure 3) to show the important stages an 'individual' must go through in order to see how the different key themes: accessibility, funding, knowledge and technology affect their specific needs.
The first stage of this concept map starts with the 'individual' (yellow box), this individual will be looking out for whether the four themes are going to meet their needs at the site. Looking at each of the themes (white boxes) the visitor will then be looking out for more specific needs to fit their requirements, labelled 'codes' (blue boxes). These codes are split into different pathways which still link specifically to the different themes e.g. physical accessibility or verbal accessibility. The codes then lead onto the last stage in the map: 'sub codes' (green boxes), these sub codes can be a range of detailed requirements which diverse visitors bring with them to a WHS. A visitor in a wheelchair will be looking out for accessibility issues > then physical accessibility to the site > and more specifically access for wheelchairs. Examples from two interviewees of how this concept map can be adapted to different individuals are shown in Figure 4.
The interpretation examined at the three sites did affect the visitor's experience of authenticity. As shown in Table 3, a variety of different interpretation methods were used at the Maltese temples and positive and negative quotes were seen to depend upon the individual participant, with a saturation of results exemplifying individualism.
Children interactive area
Table 3: The interpretation methods implemented at each site. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra have a larger variety of media than Ggantija, with more modern technology displayed, such as 4D cinema.
Figure 4: Two adapted versions of the concept map to fit the needs of Individual A and Individual B who were both participants in this research. These diagrams have been adapted by having the specific needs highlighted in red for the two individuals to show how all the themes affect visitors needs but in different ways.
There were conflicting opinions surrounding the same type of interpretation, depending on the individual's specific needs. Audio guides had positive attributes such as ‘I have bad eyesight, so I enjoy using audio guides’ (Participant G) as well as negative ones such as ‘I find other people using audio guides distracting’ (Participant F). The contrast in
opinions demonstrates pressures on interpretation providers to give a range of interpretation types as the participation of a wider populace increases. This demonstrates that personal preference prevails about how interpretation of the past is displayed and through which media in order to get the most authentic visitor experience.
‘Staged authenticity’ has been suggested as preferable to a site’s truest/ real form as it can provide more entertainment for visitors (McIntosh and Prentice: 1999). This demonstrates how authentic experiences can be commodified, which becomes cyclical and a less authentic experience is created. ‘It has no real value’ and ‘it is just a tourist attraction now’ were comments that develop the idea that the authentic experience is commodified by insinuating that tourism has stripped Maltese culture from the sites. The authentic experience is aimed at tourists rather than locals, safeguarding global values over values of the local community (Theuma & Grima: 2006). While curators aim for an authentic experience for the visitor, it is not always beneficial to the sense of place of a locality and can prevent participants from imagining and interpreting the site in their own way: ‘Interpretation gets in the way and doesn’t allow you to form your own opinions’ (Participant K).
Research question 3: 'how can interpretation be improved to maintain site authenticity whilst meeting visitor's diverse needs' can be seen as a future goal for interpretation management at the Maltese temples. The results collected show that use of technological interpretation has brought positive and negative experiences to people. However, overall technology can help meet visitors needs and their authentic experience due to the options available such as: audio, visual or 4D experiences.
The 4D theatre experience at Hagar Qim, which aims to provide information to different learner types, was not always seen as benefiting the site, with elderly visitors stating that ‘it isn’t something that I would be interested in, I want to see the real thing’ (Participant G). This suggests that elderly populations are more resistant to newer technologies associated with interpretation. By using the phrase ‘real thing’, it also insinuates that a 4D experience is less authentic. Whilst the 4D experience was not valued as being real, models and artefacts that were not kept on the site were more valued: ‘I don't mind as long as you get to see them somewhere’ (Participant F). This makes the point that sometimes it is just enough for a visitor to visit an actual site, connecting to the environment and the site through aesthetically pleasing landscapes and their own imagination. This means that improvements to make the site more authentic could be to allow individuals to focus on the natural landscapes without too much interference from interpretation. Tour guides could help create an interactive sense of place.
Meeting the needs of visitors while maintaining a WHS is not an easy process (Silberberg: 1995: 363). Our own research supports Silberberg’s statement when recording the diverse needs of the visitors at the Maltese temples. As shown in Figures 2, 3 and 4 the four key themes: accessibility, knowledge, funding and technology all interplay to achieve or limit the expectations of the sampled visitors getting their authentic experience.
The introduction of elaborate interpretative technologies has created new questions that are central to the goals of conservation and public appreciation’ (ICOMOS Charter for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites: 2008). Participant L commented: ‘I think the ability for new media to create new perspectives is good if it is used to layer people’s different viewpoints’. This indicates that Participant L believed new technologies can be successful if portraying a range of perspectives of the site rather than just one solid answer. This can allow an individual to interpret the perspective they have understood in their own way.
Although most types of interpretation have been surrounded by both negative and positive comments, when asked to improve interpretation in terms of an authentic experience, the consensus was to have ‘more’ options such as: information boards or interactive technology. This shows that tourists are looking for authenticity in activities providing experiences outside of the everyday norms, encouraging emotion and a connection with the sense of place (Wang: 1999).
The sophistication of technological interpretation, however, has led to a debate about the loss of cultural knowledge at WHS (Voase: 2008: 150-151) and the educational experience individuals should encounter (Silberberg: 1995: 361). This was evident in our research when one visitor stated: ‘the interpretation did not help with the expansion of intelligence and knowledge. Interpretation gave you some facts through the 4D experience but I wanted to know information about the people who lived here. I would have preferred more written material to inform myself.’ This comment highlights ideas that technological interpretation could lead to the communication of partial knowledge.
The idea of a WHS giving visitors a ‘real’ or ‘realistic’ experience was a word referred to often in this research. This idea of ‘real’ is associated with the concept of authenticity since each participant referred to the term in different contexts. Two of the comments were: ‘I want to see the real thing’ and ‘it makes it feel more real’. As stated by Waitt (2000), the idea of the word ‘real’ is open to interpretation with history just being one version of the truth.
Historical inaccuracy affects an authentic experience just like realism. Pressures of visitors not thinking a site is truly realistic are as concerning as historical inaccuracy. For example, global organisations should be regarded with caution and in an ethnocentric manner, a consequence of being products of particular regimes of value that demand universality of views through the authority and power of the institutions that lent them value in the first place (Theuma & Grima: 2006). Interpretation uses values from those in power or management at the time (Poria et al: 2009). This is consciously demonstrated as a cause for concern as participant J states ‘I don't know where information is coming from’. This means that participants are less likely to value or trust information without a source so it will have less of an impact on their experience, causing a less authentic site visit experience.
To be successful, heritage sites must show examples of unique and outstanding traditions of past or current human settlements that are 'original' or authentic (UNESCO: 2017). Based upon the research conducted in this study, it can be concluded that pressures from a widening public at UNESCO World Heritage sites does not lead to a less or more authentic visitor experience. Site interpretation is experienced individually, affecting visitors’ holistic views of each site, meaning that an authentic experience depends on how well the interpretation met the needs of the visitors. Pressures from widening public access to sites create pressure to use new technologies to overcome the conflict between heritage authenticity and the diversity of the visitor’s experience.
The concerns visitors have expressed in relation to the four key themes of accessibility, funding, knowledge, technology and a site being realistic and historically accurate can be further adapted by site management. The next steps for WHS management at the Maltese temples can be to use different technological interpretation to meet more diverse visitors needs whilst keeping written material and the physical influence of a tour guide available to help make the experience feel as ‘real’ as it can possibly be.
While our research found that visitor needs were highly individual, future research could look at how different cultures value authenticity. UNESCO states that ‘in relation to authenticity, the reconstruction of archaeological remains is justifiable only in exceptional circumstances’ (2017: 27) yet Japanese managers of heritage sites prefer to rebuild a site in its entirety (Jones: 2009) to maintain sites with high levels of authenticity, perceived in that culture as wholeness. This highlights how culture can be reflected in the way that heritage sites are managed.
Katie Evans and Phillippa Gatehouse graduated with upper second class honours degrees in Anthropology and Geography from Oxford Brookes University in 2018. This research was carried out as part of a group project in Malta, during a second-year geography field trip in 2017, and was formally written up in both students’ final years.
We would like to acknowledge and thank Lily, Sophie and Maddy, fellow undergraduate students at Oxford Brookes University, for their help during the data collection process. Without their dedication this research would not have been possible. We would also like to thank Professor Helen Walkington and other members of the Geography Department staff for their support and guidance during the research process.
Interpretation at Maltese World Heritage Sites: tensions between site authenticity and meeting diverse visitor needs by Evans, K. and Gatehouse, P. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at /geoverse/.