Thursday morning: ‘Emotional engagement in heritage sites’, Sheila Watson

Sheila Watson (School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester) presented a great paper – any presentation that mentions Black Shuck piques my interest – which had resonances with Andrea Witcomb’s keynote, yesterday afternoon, on the ‘pedagogy of feeling’. In it, Sheila discussed her recent research interest – the emotional responses and engagement we have with heritage. She uses the subject to critique Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD), as articulated by Laura-Jane Smith.

Sheila posed the question – who cares about emotions? She argued that visitors do (borne out by her research). But do exhibition designers, museum/heritage professionals and academics? Perhaps not, but emotional engagement is at the heart of what we (as professionals) do. Emotional engagement helps us to understand the past and its relationship to the present. At present, Sheila argues, the sector simply doesn’t understand the value of emotions in the process of engagement.

Norwich Castle Museum is, according to Sheila, an enigma. As a building it dominates the landscape. It is the focal point for the city and the venue for spectacular lights shows and firework displays. But it is not that popular as a museum (in and around the Norman castle keep) with tourists and local people. Typical comments from visitors describe it as having ‘little to offer’, that it’s ‘poor on the inside’ (meaning the museum displays). There is an emotional disconnect between what people see on the outside (the impressive Norman keep) and what they expect to see on the inside.

The AHD of Norwich Castle tells an official story of Norwich and Norfolk, is a showcase for the museum of Norfolk, with an emphasis on the architecture of the building. But there is no interpretation of the castle and its history and role. It is seen, by local people as a ‘good thing’, a symbol of the city. But it is characterised as a ‘lost’ castle – people want to place it within a narrative; they want to know more about the castle and the people who lived there. They have emotional preconceptions of what makes a castle, and so the reality is a let-down. Focus groups have revealed that what people want is realism and authenticity. They want Norwich Castle to feel like a castle, they want it to be brought to life through light and sounds, they want recreated interiors. And yet, currently, there is no emotion in the displays – this is a problem. Sheila concluded that the castle has lots of emotional narratives to uncover and that it is emotional responses to these narratives that makes them popular and engaging.

Burgh Castle, in Norfolk, is a very different site – remote and overlooking an estuary. It is an impressive building, a fort built by the Romans against Viking and Saxon raiders. Currently its interpretation is ‘classically’ archaeological, focusing on its Roman history. But Sheila has found that for local people, the Romans have little or no emotional relevance. Instead, they’re interested in local myths and legends associated with the site. In her experience, people are most keen to talk about the ghosts associated with Burgh Castle – Black Shuck, the devil dog of East Anglia – is said to retire to the fort at night!

In summing up, Sheila reiterated that heritage is too often perceived through the lens of the politics of power. But the visiting public and local people tend not to be receptive to these official meanings and are often completely indifferent to them. She asserted that we must understand people’s emotional responses to heritage, museums, objects and collections, otherwise we run the risk of rendering them irrelevant and less accessible. AHD is less powerful than we may think – people simply don’t care about the official narratives.

Dr Amy Jane Barnes

Heritage Consultant, Tricolor Ltd.
University Teacher, Loughborough University
Honorary Visiting Fellow, University of Leicester

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About amyjanebarnes

Independent Researcher
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