When heritage is stranger than fiction

There is a battle within heritage.  The ‘truth’ of history – factual, provable – is competing with the uncontrollable force of the public’s interests and emotions. The educational and the entertaining are pitted against each other.

This is a particularly acute problem when it comes to the heritage of things which never, in fact, happened. We know people like to visit heritage sites linked to famous figures – anyone from Henry VIII to Elvis – because it makes them feel closer to that person, or makes their lives feel a little more real. We like to imagine our favourite stories taking place somewhere real.

One of London’s best known addresses, 221B Baker Street now houses a museum to its famous fictional resident. Image from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sherlock_Holmes_Museum_221B_Baker_Street.JPG

But what happens when stories become more real to us than a place? Heritage is all about telling stories – but experts tell themselves that these are educational, engaging people so that they become entrapped in a world of archaeology or architecture. People should exit a heritage site not only enthralled at having trodden in the footsteps of history but also, miraculously, more knowledgeable about the correct names for various bizarre pieces of plate armour or the technical workings of an industrial cotton mill. And yes, in some cases, that may be true. Sometimes, though, the need for people to take heritage seriously in fact stops visitors enjoying the experience. If we are not careful, we might put audiences off heritage tourism for life.

Where the real cognitive dissonance comes for those who attempt to control and direct the public’s education is when the heritage site itself is an artefact for a different type of heritage. People do not always come to Chatsworth to marvel at the architecture, but to wistfully imagine Mr Darcy emerging from the lake. King’s Cross is near-constantly thronged by people who don’t care nearly as much about the beautiful new glass roof as they do about gathering underneath a sign for Platform 9 3/4 to push a trolley towards the Hogwarts Express. Cardiff Bay has a memorial site for characters from the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood; Highclere Castle is packed with Downton Abbey fans; Nottingham advertises itself as Robin Hood country; New Zealand makes considerable tourism money from showing visitors around locations from the film of the Lord of the Rings.

Josh Kidby’s ‘Check Mort’, in the Terry Pratchett exhibition at the Salisbury Museum, shows the author in conversation and playing chess with his own fictional characterisation of Death, a blending of the real and fictional that every reader will understand.

Of course, there has been a long history of visits to the graves of authors, their birthplaces, or their carefully-preserved writing desks. These are historically accurate, and therefore acceptable as ‘true’ heritage.

A woman dressed as a witch poses next to a blue image showing a collection of objects suspended from string
Salisbury Museum encourages Terry Pratchett fans to dress up and take photographs. Here, posing as a favourite character, I stand next to an original artwork from the same book, adding tangible artefact to fictional memories.

But there has traditionally been a sense that by mentally overlaying a place with the imaginary events of fictional happenings, people have been willfully ignoring the unique qualities of the place itself, throwing aside all the experts’ careful research and interpretation. It has been a long, slow process towards the realisation that people who are entertained and engaged are, in fact, more likely to learn and to remember, whether or not that learning is directed in strictly historically factual channels. (It helps, of course, that by selling yourself to fans who are more interested in fiction than reality, your ticket income rises drastically.)

Heritage sites that have embraced multiple ways of knowing a place – a fictional alter-ego blending with a tangible presence –  are successful because they have realised that heritage does not have to be true to be shared. If a celebrity whose life and death is marked in plaques did not exist (or at least not on our usual plane of reality), does that really make a difference to the people who would never meet their hero in this lifetime anyway? And if significant groups of the population find entertainment, comfort or friendship through cultural phenomena, who are we to tell them that the legacies of their shared universe is not strictly heritage?

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