After having worked for a long time in the heritage industry, I feel like this is something I need to share and talk about. I guess as a visitor of cultural attractions and a cultural historian with a keen eye for public history, it is something I have always been very aware of, but never really thought about until I actually had to deal with it on a daily basis. And the truth is, as sad as it sounds, that the heritage industry in this country (and others) suffers from an incredible mistreatment from the visitors – at least in some cases. Culture is at a great deal of being endangered. We live in the age of technology. Our cultural values may be replaced for new artefacts that reign in the digital area. The respect for the items of the past, of long gone civilizations, and even more those that still remain is very necessary to understand where we have come from and where we are heading as a species. Technology can help us preserve these things, but it needs to be done through a responsible use of such resources. War and hate crimes destroy our heritage. In the not so distant Middle East news reports advise of monument been obliterated by the likes of ISIS. Art pieces go missing or are stolen. And that is to name a few. Culture, heritage and patrimony are worth keeping alive. So here I will share some pretty common issues I encounter on my day-to-day job, which reflect pretty poor social practices and a terrible treatment of culture which we need to address and fix.
-“Why do I have to pay for entry? I am a local I pay taxes/It used to be free” – Yes, very good. Are you aware of the cuts done to local governments in term of culture and the arts? Do you know how many museums actually get funding from the Estate? Far less than you think. Just because some of the big museums in places like London (and not all by the way) are free, it does not mean everyone else has access to the same amount of resources. You may think that paying to go into churches is an abomination, but tell me how do you think that wonder of the English Gothic gets repaired and cleaned so it does not fall apart so people like you can come and visit it? And how do you think the person that has to be at the door get paid? Or that tour guide that was so nice to show you around? Hardly anything is free these days. I am not arguing whether it should be free or not – I wished! What I am saying is that, as much as this may seem outrageous, the heritage industry lacks a sincere amount of funding and resources and simply because you are unhappy with it, it does not mean you can make the staff working on that site feel awkward about it, or verbally abuse them and their job. We are people, we have feelings too, and simply because we are on a public facing role, it does not mean we can or will just take it.
-“Is that it?” …The what exactly? Are you aware as a visitor how terrible that sounds to the person you’ve just asked that as you come in? I appreciate some museums may not be as spectacular as others, or that some historical attractions have less content or less activities to do than some others – again, see the previous point. Sometimes, believe it or not, the historical record does not allow certain places to have more. Remember what I said earlier about destruction? Well sometimes things go missing, and all we can offer you is a panel or a screen telling you what it was and why it is lost. If you are standing on the doorway being unpleasant, you will most certainly not find out, and that will be IT, for sure. You know that of do not judge a book by its cover? Well, do the same here. History and value and culture are not always just perceptive through your eyes, you need some thinking juice going..But that is another problem: how badly educated as members of the public we are about our own patrimony. Perhaps if you gave it a chance, you may actually learn something and understand that IT can have many meanings. In the site where I work, the vast majority of the precinct was destroyed during the Civil War, as well as by several fires. But there is a lot of history in it. And it is often not until people take the guided tour that they are able to appreciate so. Culture sometimes takes effort and interest, just keep that in mind.
-“this dates from *insert here the most ridiculous and incorrect information possible*” – Dear visitor, if you have been to the site before and you are showing it to some friends, and you do not have a clue as to what you are talking about, do not misinform your friends. There are members of staff that are there To Help You – that is their job. Believe it or not they actually know about the place. There are also information boards, or guidebooks, or some form of literature on the subject that will actually give you the right details. Do not get upset or offended when then a staff member corrects you. And most certainly do not look and talk to them like they do not have a clue as to what they are talking about. I accept that the approachability of members of staff and their depth of knowledge may vary from site to site, but there are some requirements to do the job, they have no interest in lying to you about the age or veracity of any of the cultural artefacts in site. That would be against the entire point of having a heritage site. Allow us to educate you, so we can all have happy visits and visitors.
-When you go on a massive rant/complaint on social media/review devices such as TripAdvisor to state how terrible your visit was – I accept and agree that sometimes some visits are not as great as you may have wanted them to be. Okay, that is not a problem, these things happen. But be considerate and thoughtful about your expectations and how these may impact some people’s views. I remember going to our trip to Portugal to the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza and there was a review that said that the property was half empty and was not good value for money. Money being like a fiver for an adult…For a half empty property I spent there over an hour taking pictures of a lot of furniture in every other room…Half empty in comparison to what? To the British Museum?…Sure. Not value for money? In comparison to what? There was a recent uproar in Winchester because the Great Hall now charges money when it used to be a free attraction. The charge is all of 3/2.50 which is less than what a coffee in the city will cost you! Now you do not hesitate to pay so at Starbucks…why at a cultural site? Perhaps your values and moral compass need to think about where you are investing your money.
-Do not take the resources of the museum home with you! – I appreciate that booklet/activity sheet/whatever may be very good, but if you have not paid for it and you have not been told you take it home…do not take it! Practical example: we had an Easter egg hunt at the site where I work, with clues all over the site for children to find out a password so they could claim their Easter egg price. It took all of 4 hours during the bank holiday weekend for one of the clues (and more later on) to go missing because someone decided to take them home with them. How desperate and inconsiderate must someone be to do so. Not just for the sake of the site itself, because that it time, money and effort we had to waste at peak time to fix the problem, but towards other visitors, in this case children, who were upset because they could not complete their quiz. We have gotten pieces of costume stolen from site that you can try for free and that are good quality (not just from Poundland or Primark, you know? Not something that they usually sell; things like Jane Austen or Victorian fashion..). That is simply appalling.
-Come in to take a picture when you have been told not to – …And when you get caught and told to remove it abuse the staff, run away or get into an argument!! No means No. If you do not want to pay, do not pay. But do not then feel self entitled to do whatever you want to at the site. There is such a thing as intellectual property in the cultural industry, it is like copyright, or photography credits. You just do not get to have those because you want to. Most people would probably just keep the photo as a souvenir of their holiday, but the member of staff that has to deal with that situation is liable for issue like that. And if suddenly that picture appears somewhere it should not, then problems arise. That is, once, again, terrible attitude and a hideous social practice, showing little respect not just for the heritage itself but for those who are entrusted to keep it safe.
So this makes me wonder, what sort of culture and society we live in where we think we can just go and use and abuse this laces they way we want, simply because they are there? I have been told by people who I have encountered in either of any of the situations above that have told me they have the right to do as they please because they have paid or it is their heritage and therefore they can just get away with murder. As much as the heritage industry should evolve with the ages and keep up the pace with their customer base and update themselves to provide with better visitor experiences, we also have to get in our heads that bending backwards and forwards for that sort of visitor culture is wrong and should not be tolerated. The worst part is that some sites tolerate this – which is an even bigger grievance not just to the patrimony itself but to their staff members, and to other visitors who are not like that. However, by allowing the rotten apples to spoil the visit, we are not only promoting others to do the same, but losing any chances of promoting heritage and its benefits as a serious subject.
The arts; culture is a privilege. It does not come always as one of the essentials in the package of life. If we do not preserve it and take care of it, then we might as well forget about history, politics, the economy and the very founding tenements of our modern societies. I hope these experiences help some of you out there to think about how we treat our patrimony, what we can do to stop that from happening – and for those of you who have to deal with the frustration on a daily basis, you are not alone. We still have a chance at fixing this, but it takes everyone to contribute.