OMG Interpretation event review

21 June 2017

Dr Darly Leeworthy shares his thoughts about the recent OMG Interpretation event held in magnificent venue of Caerphilly Castle, South Wales.

Walking along the pathway leading to the Guardian at Six Bells, near Abertillery in South Wales, it is hard not to be struck by a sense of awe. As a monument to the forty five men who lost their lives in the disaster at the Six Bells Colliery in 1960, as well as to all miners who lost their lives underground in South Wales, the Guardian is also designed to convey a certain heroic poignancy. Having arrived in Six Bells by coach half an hour earlier, we were met by our tour guide, Meg. She began by showing us the former miner’s institute, which opened in 1902. It stands on the corner of Arail and Griffin streets, the original names of the colliery. We then crossed the road to look at Bethany chapel to where the miners were brought in the aftermath of the disaster. Through a tunnel painted by school children to tell the history of the village, we were brought to the first memorial – erected in the 1990s and now decaying; its simplicity evoking ideas of community conceived in a different age. Finally, we followed the line of the old railway, now used as a cycle path, which brought us within the Guardian’s gaze.

As we gathered our thoughts over a cup of tea and a Welsh cake at the Ty Ebbw Fach café, it was clear in the room that the tour and the effect of seeing the Guardian first-hand had produced a number of impactful emotional responses. Some found the shifting form of the Guardian remarkable, from its almost ethereal presence when viewed from a distance, to solidity when up close, a reflection perhaps on the realities and heritage of coal mining. Others turned to face the valley, as the Guardian does, and were mesmerised by the wooded landscape that betrayed little of its industrial past. And for those who stopped to read the interpretation panel, with Gillian Clarke’s poetry the centrepiece, a different emotion entirely – that of the women confronted not with the dangers underground but by the heart-rending disruption to their everyday work.

The trip to Six Bells was part of the two day conference organised by Dehlongli Cymru/Interpret Wales in association with AHI on the theme of OMG Interpretation! Creating and using impact. Based at Caerphilly Castle, South Wales, delegates explored issues around creating OMG reactions from visitors to attractions and heritage sites whilst remaining faithful to interpretive and historical meaning. As Carl Atkinson, the chair of the event, put it in his opening remarks – ‘the key to interpretation is eliciting a significant emotional response’. It must be meaningful and should be linked to the site in a clear way. The focus on meaning was reiterated by Professor Mike Robinson, whose wide-ranging talk began with a call for depth as well as meaning, and a warning to avoid assumed contextualisation. There are new audiences to be engaged with, especially transnational ones, he reminded us, and as a result the consumption of heritage is no longer monolithic nor can it necessarily rely on older messages. Depth can be created by linking heritage to contemporary issues that have universal appeal. Ironbridge, for instance, was once presented as the birthplace of the industrial revolution but today it might just as easily be presented as the birthplace of global warming.

A guiding theme of many of the talks delivered on the first day of the conference was inter-generational exchange. This can be achieved, as Sue Lipscombe, of Cod Steaks, suggested, through the elimination of words and the use of artistic interpretation and sculpture. A point that was echoed by Small World Theatre. Or, as Chris Walker, of Bright White Ltd, proposed in his discussion, it can be achieved through the incorporation of contemporary digital technologies to create an immersive, intuitive interpretive environment. And there is, as Ben Oliver, of Westonbirt National Arboretum, reminded us, always the ‘horrible histories’ approach – ‘it’s all about poo’ he said conveying the reaction of a young boy reading one of the panels on the walkway. Amidst the giggles from the audience, he reminded us that the world looks very different through the eyes of a child. It can, as Emma Thompson of the National Trust’s Powis Castle observed, also look very different from the perspective of those with emotions and stories that they carry to heritage sites. As she explained, the emotional complexity of trench warfare and the death of a son serving in the armed forces, can seem like a piece of history, but given recent conflicts it is a history that has a living rawness. Mothers of soldiers who died in Iraq or Afghanistan visiting Powis Castle succumbed to tears as their own stories intersected with those of the Clive family and their servants.

With the warm early summer sunshine tempting us outside, Small World Theatre led a participatory ‘advice circle’ session offering us all the opportunity to pose questions, gain practical advice, and to begin to digest everything that we had learnt over the course of the day. How do you shed light on the underground, I asked, giving away that at least part of my job involves telling stories in a coal mine. Others asked about the divide between emotional responses and educational responses, or the imprint of contemporary politics on the how stories and histories are manipulated at heritage sites. Ultimately, we all agreed on the need to find a way of capturing the attention of our audience, of prompting inter-generational discussion, and using emotional engagement to teach something about the past and the present. This was especially in evidence at the Caerleon Roman Baths, visited on the second day of the conference. With sound and light, digital representations and tangible display objects, the baths were brought to life for the conference delegates and the visiting students from France and Germany with whom we shared the site that day. Several weeks later, as I write this, the baths are still vivid in my memory. And that, as Fred Dinenage might have said, is WOW for now!

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  • Delegates at Caerphilly castle
  • Caerleon interpretation