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The commodification of the

past, postmodern pastiche, and
the search for authentic
experiences at contemporary
heritage attractions

Received February 1998
Revised July 1998

Christina Goulding

The Business School, University of Wolverhampton, UK

Keywords Consumer behaviour, Post-modernism, Grounded theory
Abstract Aims to explore the nature of authenticity as defined and constructed by visitors to
sites of heritage. The concept of authenticity is explored through the literature relating to the
commodification of the past and also in the context of postmodern theories regarding the
blurring of the boundaries between high and mass culture. The paper draws on findings from a
study of consumer behaviour at three distinct attractions and offers an explanation of authentic
experiences in the light of three identified types; the ``existential'', the ``aesthetic'' and the
``social'' visitor. These findings are then discussed in relation to theoretical and managerial

Since the 1960s there has been a dramatic growth in the number of museums
and heritage attractions opening in this country. During the 1980s titles such as
``The past for sale'' and ``Theme park Britons'' became the subject of television
documentaries, and what had previously been of little mass popular interest,
namely, museums and historical sites, came to be described as a new industry,
the ``heritage industry'' (Hewison, 1987). However, the merging of the
boundaries between what were once considered to be separate and distinct
realms, essentially leisure and culture, precipitated an ongoing and
controversial debate. Tiersten (1993), proposes that the private spheres of
leisure and consumption have been segregated to the sphere of capitalist
production. They constitute a culture industry which substitutes escapist
commodified leisure for authentic experience and by doing so have fostered
conformity, passivity and political indifference among participants turned
spectators. This is seen largely as a consequence of the way in which history,
as interpreted in commercially driven museums, has become sanitised,
entertaining, and inauthentic, in order to appeal to popular tastes. This paper
explores the nature of the heritage experience by focusing primarily on the
concept of authenticity and the criteria that is used for evaluating it at sites of
heritage. The literature on the subject is briefly outlined, first in relation to the
commodification of the past, and second in the context of postmodern theories
with particular regard to culture, the individual, and the ``pastiching'' of

European Journal of Marketing,

Vol. 34 No. 7, 2000, pp. 835-853.
# MCB University Press, 0309-0566

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heritage. The second part of the paper outlines the method used and
summarises the findings from a study of consumer behaviour at three heritage
sites, with a focus on the construction of authentic experiences. Finally,
theoretical and managerial implications are discussed.


Theoretical context
The commodification hypothesis
The issue of how the past is interpreted in museums and heritage attractions
is a well aired argument among historians, curators, archaeologists,
anthropologists, sociologists, and more recently marketing and management
specialists in the area. It is a commonly held view in academic circles that
popularising heritage involves sacrificing scholarly credibility by presenting
only those images of history that have broad market appeal (Hewison, 1987).
As a consequence of this, versions of, for example, gender (Porter, 1988),
social class (Bennett, 1988; West, 1988), and ethnicity (Garrison, 1990), are
often excluded from the agenda of dominant discourse. This, in turn is said to
lead to the internalisation of partial knowledge about the social, economic,
and political developments and contributions of such groups. It is also a
theme that dominates much critical analysis of the relationship between
consumer and heritage (Bennett, 1988; West, 1988; Jenkinson, 1989; Hasled,
1990; Garrison, 1990; Katriel, 1993; Bertens, 1995). This relationship has been
the source of a number of empirical studies (Blud, 1990; Boisvert and Slez,
1995; Masberg and Silverman, 1996; Merriman, 1991, Prentice, 1993) and
theoretical developments (Pearce and Stringer, 1991; Moscardo, 1996) which
offer a variety of insights into the motivations and experiences of a public
increasingly fascinated with the past as represented by the ``heritage
industry'' (Hewison, 1987).
One thing that does seem to have occurred is that heritage has undergone a
process of industrialisation. This it would appear mirrors the earlier debates
regarding the commodification of tourism (MacCannell, 1973, 1976, 1992).
Hillier (1976) while convinced of the escapist motivation of modern mass
tourism, also believes that tourism replicates the essentials of the industrial
process in that it has become just another commodity to be bought and sold.
Ryan (1991) in his discussion of socio-cultural determinants of demand puts
forward a number of hypotheses which could account for the motivational
behaviour of the modern tourist. Among these is the ``spill over'' hypothesis
which suggests that people's leisure activities are an extension, or a reflection
of, the type of activities they engage in at work. Therefore those involved in
creative or challenging employment will seek out similar mind expanding
experiences. Urry (1990) on the other hand suggests that the tourism
experience, of which heritage has now become a part, holds different meanings
depending on the nature of the individual and their desire and ability to
deconstruct the objects upon which their gaze falls. In keeping with Ryan's

(1991) ``compensatory hypothesis'' he looks to escape from the everyday as a

prime motivator. Central to this is the notion of departure, and contrast
between what people routinely see and experience and what is extraordinary.
MacCannell (1973, 1976), and Turner and Turner (1978), repeatedly stress
two things. One, that the modern tourist is alienated and seeks authenticity as a
form of fulfilment, but is condemned to consume pseudo experiences. Second,
the tourist has a strong need for escape, to other zones, times or places as a
result of alienation from everyday experiences. However, Cohen (1988) and
Squire (1994) suggest that authenticity is a fluid concept which can be
negotiated. Furthermore, while much of the debate regarding experience
centres around the commodification of cultural products which in the process
renders them meaningless, they argue that this is not always the case.
Commodification refers to the process by which things (and activities) come to
be evaluated primarily in terms of their exchange value in a context of trade.
The commodification hypothesis proposes that culture becomes popular
culture and in the process a series of staged authenticity occurs. This staged
authenticity is said to thwart the visitor's genuine desire for authentic
experiences (Cohen, 1988). The tourist's desire for authentic experience is the
modern embodiment of the religious pilgrim (MacCannell, 1973, 1976, 1992),
but since modern, or more specifically, postmodern society is essentially
inauthentic, those who seek it must look elsewhere. One form of escape from
the anxieties of contemporary life is the experience of the past, packaged and
sold as authentic. These reconstructions offer the chance to step back in time to
experience what life was really like. Nonetheless, while the buildings, artefacts
and costumes may be authentic, the selective portrayal of events and histories
are all too often tailored to pacify the tastes of the modern visitor (Eco, 1987;
Fowler, 1992).
Postmodern consumer society: consuming the past
One perspective used to explain the phenomena of present day consumption,
and in this case the current emphasis on nostalgic heritage products and
experiences, has been to contextualise consumption in relation to the
development of postmodern society. The idea of postmodernism rests on the
proposition that we have entered a new phase or epoch, a post industrial age
characterised by schizophrenic modes of space and time. It is a concept that
distinguishes between evolutionary stages and thresholds which mark each
particular new era (Foster, 1990). Laenen (1989) argues that the main reason for
the massive interest in heritage and the past can be located in the moral, social
and identity crisis experienced over the past decades. The cultivation of
material welfare has in many cases resulted in large scale mass production and
uniformity rather than setting the conditions for individual self fulfilment. Such
characteristics are endemic in postmodern society which has been described as
consumer society (Baudrillard, 1988a), and society of the spectacle and the
media (Venkatesh, 1992).


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In postmodern society there is a constant search for stimulation through

events and images (Venkatesh, 1992), an obsession with the real thing which
ultimately leads to the hiding of everyday reality behind an overstated version
of the real (Eco, 1987). This depthlessness and lack of continuity contributes
towards alienation (Yalom, 1980) and decline in individualism (Jameson, 1990).
This is said to result in identity confusion (Kellner, 1995) and the fragmentation
of ``self'' (Plait, 1993). Manifestations of such conditions have been described as
feelings of emptiness (Cushman, 1990), or in some cases ``the vertigo of
unlimited multiplicity'' and personal saturation (Gergen, 1991). With the
idealised images offered by increasingly sophisticated heritage entrepreneurs it
is feasible to assume that such reconstructions add to the surge of nostalgia
and the pervasive appeal of the past, in what Denzin (1993) refers to as past
modern society.
Featherstone (1991) expresses the essence of postmodernism in this
particular context in his statement that:
The general expansion of the cultural sphere within contemporary Western societies not only
points to the enlarged markets for cultural goods and information, but also to ways in which
the purchase and consumption of commodities is increasingly mediated by diffuse cultural
images in which the consumption of signs becomes the major source of satisfaction . . .this is
evident in the forms of leisure consumption in which the emphasis is placed upon experiences
and pleasure and the ways in which more traditional forms of high cultural consumption
(museums and art galleries) become revamped to cater for wider audiences through hiding in
the canonical art and educative formative presentations with an emphasis on the spectacular,
the popular, the pleasurable and immediately accessible (Featherstone, 1991, p. 96).

This reaction against high culture has taken the form of eroding the boundaries
between high art and mass popular culture. Brown (1995b, p. 74), illuminates
this proposition in his observation that:
The blurring of the boundaries between ``high'' art and ``low'' is manifest in all manner of
cultural spheres (opera stars topping the hit parade, classical music performed by punks. . .)
but the seriousness with which popular culture is now treated is nowhere better illustrated
than in the changes that have recently been wrought in museums.

Accordingly, the postmodern belongs to persons who are immune to

incoherence, who can accept, even enjoy, discontinuity and schizophrenia at the
level of culture (Walsh, 1992).
Parody, pastiche and the past
Two further features of postmodern society that have a bearing on heritage
and the consumer experience are parody and pastiche (Jameson, 1990). Parody
is defined as the imitation and mimicry of other styles. It capitalises on the
uniqueness of these other styles and seizes on idiosyncrasies and eccentricities
to produce an imitation that mocks the original. Jameson describes pastiche as
blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humour. Pastiche, it may be
argued, is evident in the proliferation of museums and heritage centres which

abound in Britain today, however, it is a category of analysis which has been

given only cursory attention by marketing academics (Brown, 1995b). Brown
discusses the pastiche that is becoming part of museum representations.
Examples include industrial museums, folk museums, open-air museums and museums of
photography, design, television, fashion, toys, teddy bears, motor cars, perfume, pencils and
many more Post modern museums, moreover, are characterised by the abandonment of
traditional display cases, silent contemplation and the aura of priceless authenticity, and their
replacement with an anti-elitist emphasis on participation, involvement, sound and lighting
effects, performance and the creation of spectacular multimedia experiences. This tendency is
epitomised in heritage centres, such as the Jorvik centre in York, which comprises a curious
mixture of museum and theatre. Everything is meant to be authentic but, like the perfect
simulacra that they are, nothing actually is, not even the smells (Brown, 1995b, p. 74).

According to Babich (1994, p. 102) ``the pastiche-paradocilarity of the

postmodern, is double coding, it is deliberate and causal, disdaining high
culture even as it offers these very icons for the consumption of mass reception
of culture''. Jameson (1990), on a similar theme, proposes that the consequence
of this rejection or popularisation of high culture is that cultural production is
driven back inside the mind resulting in a search for a historical past through
pop images and stereotypes.
Research objectives
Lash (1990) maintains that post modernism is often the subject of aesthetic and
moral discourse but seldom, serious systematic sociological analysis. He
further claims that any real value to be gained from the concept can only be
obtained by applying it to the realm of culture rather than interpreting it as a
defining societal condition such as capitalism. While this research did not
initially set out to explore the nature of postmodernism, the findings from the
data directed attention to the literature on the subject in order to sensitise the
emerging theory. The research sought, through the use of an interpretive
methodology, to use the voices and actions of visitors to museums and heritage
attractions in order to construct a theory which has both empirical and
conceptual relevance for an understanding of the nature of authenticity and
how it is evaluated in the heritage context.
A grounded theory approach
The method used was grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) adopting the
model proposed by Glaser (1978, 1992) which stresses the ``emergence'' of
theory derived directly from data rather than forcing the theory into predefined
categories (Glaser, 1992; Stern, 1994). However, although grounded theory has
a long history, especially within the disciplines of sociology and health
sciences, and is particularly suited to the study of behaviour, there is scant
reference to it in the literature on consumer behaviour (Spiggle, 1994; Riley,
1996; Goulding, 1998). Grounded theory was first presented as a method in the
book The Discovery of Grounded Theory, (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Part of the


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rationale behind the development of the method at that time, was that within
the field of sociology, there was too great an emphasis on the verification of
theory and a resultant ``de-emphasis on the prior step of discovering what
hypotheses are relevant for the area one wished to research'' (Glaser and
Strauss, 1967, pp. 1-2). Given this priority, grounded theory was developed in
order to generate theory through the systematic and simultaneous process of
data collection and analysis. The theory evolves during the research process
itself and is a product of continuous interplay between analysis and data
collection (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1978, 1992; Charmaz, 1983; Strauss
and Corbin, 1990; Stern, 1994). Knowledge is seen as actively constructed, with
meanings of existence only relevant to an experiential world. Therefore the
focus becomes one of how people behave within a specific social context
(O'Callaghan, 1996). Consequently, at least to begin with, the research was
conducted on site while people were engaged in the heritage experience. The
site chosen was Blists Hill Living Museum in Shropshire. The museum is an
outdoor reconstructed nineteenth century village complete with demonstrators
dressed in period costume, a bank where money can be exchanged for old
currency, a mine, a chemist, a school, a candle makers and an array of houses
and cottages.
The research was carried out in three stages. The first consisted of a series of
20 tape recorded, semi-structured in-depth interviews with visitors to Blists
Hill. General questions were asked regarding the types of heritage sites visited,
who they visited with, who and what influenced choice, why they came, and the
nature of their experience at different exhibits and settings with a particular
emphasis on what they considered to be real and faithful representations of the
period. However, while there was a general structure to the interview in order
to avoid confusion, this was not rigid. Informants were encouraged to elaborate
on themes that they felt to be integral to their perceptions of reality and
authenticity within the heritage context.
At this initial stage, in keeping with the grounded theory method, sampling
was conducted openly with as wide a cross section of visitors in terms of age,
social class, and party composition as possible. The informants ranged in age
from 18 to 80, were all domestic visitors, were diverse in terms of social and
educational background, and were drawn from locations as far away as
Newcastle in the North East, and Surrey in the South. However, while this may
seem like a rather diverse spectrum of visitors, it is not entirely untypical of the
profile of visitors to Blists Hill (Horne, 1994).
As data in the form of interviews was collected, it was simultaneously
transcribed and analysed (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1978). This
resulted in a provisional framework of concepts being developed. These
directed the enquiry to the second stage of the research, observation of on-site
visitor behaviour. This approach was based on the rationale that sometimes
actions speak louder than words. While the interviews provided a rich source of
information, it had to be acknowledged that when asked about experiences,

informants were not always fully aware of them, or, able to articulate their
feelings. Consequently observation became a complementary part of the
process of data collection. According to Grove and Fiske (1992), observational
methods refer to data gathering techniques that focus on experience by
providing real world impressions in authentic surroundings. However, in line
with most writers on the subject, Adler and Adler (1994) suggest that the
hallmark of observation is its non-intrusive nature which minimises any
interference in the behaviour of those observed, neither manipulating or
stimulating them. Observation of behaviour also locates the researcher within
the context under investigation, a point which Belk et al. (1989, p. 1) propose
leads to revelatory incidents.
It is well recognised that we all use observational techniques as part of
everyday life. They are a way of constructing meaning and attributing sense to
interactions and actions, but as human beings, we do not, or cannot internalise
the whole range of activities occurring in the social world around us (Adler and
Adler, 1994; Grove and Fiske, 1992). This selectivity has filtered through as one
criticism of this method. Others documented by Adler and Adler (1994) include
questions of validity. For example, there are no informant's quotes to confirm
findings, and there are issues of reliability such as the degree of chance
occurrences versus real behaviour. In order to overcome some of these
fundamental problems they suggest the use of multiple observations, the
search for negative cases to enhance validity, and the repetition of observations
across various conditions and places to strengthen reliability. This involved
observation of behaviour at three distinct heritage sites.
First, a return visit to Blists Hill was made to observe the behaviour of the
museum visitors over a two week period, to verify or negate early concepts.
The second site for observation was the English Heritage property, Buildwas
Abbey which represented a heritage site totally devoid of interpretation. Here
all that remains are the ruins of the old Medieval abbey. There is no
information, either written or verbal, and no means of obtaining it, short of
purchasing a very brief booklet at the entrance. Finally, behaviour was
observed at a more traditional museum, the Birmingham Museum and Art
Gallery. This provided a contrast in terms of visitor reactions to museums
offering total interpretation as found at Blists Hill, no interpretation at
Buildwas Abbey, and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which offered
a mix of static, and interactive forms of representation through audio visual
display, computer games and virtual reality constructions.
The final stage in the research consisted of a series of focus group
interviews, again with a cross section of heritage visitors in terms of social
class and educational background. A total of 33 people participated in these
discussions, although approximately 60 people had been approached. The
focus groups were held in private houses, three in Birmingham and one in
Ironbridge. The objective was to encourage discussion away from the
immediate stimulus of the heritage site to see how individuals retrospectively


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recalled their experiences, what they defined as authentic, and also to gain a
fuller picture of their opinions regarding historical representations through the
exchange of views in a socially interactive situation. In order to avoid any
feelings of intimidation, the groups were divided into four on the basis of age
which ranged from 16 to 81.


The qualitative nature of grounded theory methodology focuses on the search
for meaning and understanding to build innovative theory and not universal
laws. It is a method where close inspection of the data extends theory through
theoretical sampling (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). This means that samples are
not defined to begin with, rather the researcher starts with a likely setting, talks
to individuals engaged in that setting, and then lets the initial findings and
early concepts direct the nature of subsequent sampling. A further feature of
the method is constant comparison which requires that transcripts of
interviews, memos, and observational notes are analysed from the start,
grouped together on the basis of noted similarities in the data, and then
constantly compared against further data to note recurring themes and also
highlight negative cases. This process involved coding strategies which meant
that the prime sources of data, in this case interviews and observations, had to
be broken down into distinct units of meaning.
Methods of analysing the data included full transcription of interviews
which were then analysed line by line in order to identify every possible code.
This stage was associated with open coding and was followed until a recurring
pattern was noted across data sets. Once patterns were identified, open coding
was forsaken for more focused axial coding which meant that codes were
clustered on the basis of their explanatory relationship to each other. These
were then labelled to generate concepts. These concepts were initially grouped
into descriptive categories. They were then re-evaluated for their
interrelationships and through a series of analytical steps were gradually
subsumed into higher order categories which suggested an emergent theory. In
order to verify the existence of these concepts, researchers not involved in the
collection of the data were asked to code raw transcripts in order to identify
themes. Through this process of ``member checking'' (Riley, 1996) consistency
of interpretation was strengthened.
In the wider sense, the culmination of the research was the development of
three core behavioural categories which offered a theoretical explanation of the
influences upon, and the experiences of, contemporary heritage consumers.
These were linked to perception of self and were labelled according to
differences in levels of alienation defined by the fullness of role repertoire,
social affiliation and autonomy, the degree of cultural and personal
identification with the historical resource, educational and social motives, the
intensity of consequent nostalgic reactions, and the quest for, and the criteria
used for evaluating authenticity. However, it is important to note that this

analysis focused on behaviour at three sites of heritage which were quite

distinct in their interpretation of the past; a living museum, an orthodox
museum and an English Heritage site. There are a number of other heritage
experiences which could possibly be used for further exploration such as those
offering a mix of heritage and amusement, as in the case of Alton Towers
Theme Park, countryside heritage, war museums, or even those which offer
little more than pastiche such as the Dracula Museum in Whitby, or the Robin
Hood Experience in Nottingham. The remainder of this paper focuses on one
concept which emerged from the research as having explanatory power in
relation to the heritage experience, that of perceptions of authenticity in the
heritage context. This differed across and between three groups of people who
were identified as:
(1) existential;
(2) aesthetic; and
(3) social visitors.
The ``existential'' visitor
This group of visitors was largely defined by extremes in age. They consisted
of either the youngest informants who ranged in age from 18 to 21, or the oldest
group many of whom were aged over 70. They were predominantly drawn
from the lower socio-economic groups with little academic interest in the past.
Role deprivation or frustration with roles was also a key feature. For example, a
number of the elderly informants had suffered quite severe role loss, while the
younger informants saw little to look forward to in the future with regard to
career promotions. The label ``existential'' defines the nature of alienation in the
present and the search for meaning and temporary control in the past which
typified the behaviour of these informants.
The ``aesthetic'' visitor
This group was mainly middle class professionals or students. Their ages
ranged from 20 to 59, although the majority were in their 30s and 40s. This
group was different from the first in terms of their perceptions of, and criteria
for, what constituted authentic representations. They also differed in how they
perceived and used the past. The label ``aesthetic'' was applied to describe
perceptions of the past in relation to the arts, architecture and craftmanship, the
consequent idealisation of previous eras, a desire for authenticity, and their
quest for imaginative escapism which was characteristic of this behaviour.
The ``social'' visitor
This group constituted a middle ground in terms of behaviour. They might be
described as ``mainstream'' in so far as they used heritage for both leisure and
education, there was little to suggest any disaffection with the present, nor any
hint at romantic idealisation of previous times. Their ages ranged from 19 to 80,


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but the key distinguishing factor between this group and those labelled
``existentials'' was the degree of social belonging and security which negated
any need for escape into the past. Although there were a number of elderly
visitors in this category who could identify with the artefacts on display,
particularly at Blists Hill, there was an objective and sometimes critical
evaluation of the times associated with such objects.
Category one: ``the existential self'' and the search for authenticity
While no informant indicated a conscious motivation to experience the fake,
perceptions of what constituted authenticity differed quite widely. Those
labelled ``existential'' were fairly similar in terms of the criteria they used for
evaluation. This revolved largely around observable, tangible and familiar
objects. For example, when describing Blists Hill, the following interview
extracts represent fairly typical reactions.
Woman aged 80+:
It's not like a normal museum is it . . . . there's so much going on . . . .I spent over an hour in
the squatters cottage down the hill . . . .I had a go at the peg rug . . . .I could spend hours in
there looking at all the old things . . . it's like going back

I mean you get a feel for the time. All the objects on display are really old, and the clothes are
in keeping and the buildings . . . .I'd say it's all very real.

On visiting other museums:

I don't no . . . it's not the same, they don't give you a feel for the past and they tend to be full of
really old things, you know, mummies and vases, not like here where you can relate to what's
going on.

18-year-old woman:
It's all so realistic, the furniture and the things in the shops, even swapping the money for the
old coins . . . being able to buy the old products with it . . . Living museums are fun . . . there
are things happening around you. They're not like those other museums where you can't
touch anything, here you can see people making things the old fashioned way . . . you can
walk into the houses and it's like stepping back in time . . . with museums you just have to
stand there reading or just staring at a case . . . that doesn't really tell you much. It's not like
that here, it's more like being on a film set.

Here the attention to detail served to strengthen the impression that the
museum offered a faithful reproduction of the period. Objects were perceived as
real, they existed and continue to exist, therefore the context was accepted with
very little question. This does, however, challenge Cohen's (1988) assumption
that the greater the alienation experienced by the tourist, the greater the search
for authenticity and the more exact the criteria used for evaluating it. In both
the cases of the very elderly and the young, their search was for positive
experiences that allowed them to escape, rather than factual representations of
the past. This group had more in common with Eco's (1987) vision of hyperreal
consumers where objects and attention to detail bestow upon the context the

label of reality. Here pleasure and escape were key concepts behind the visit,
and even such factors as the lack of exact dating or periodising scene setters
merely allowed the visitor to impose their own version of reality and engage in
it accordingly. It would appear that regardless of age, there is a need for a past
but the main difference lies in the images and objects that are used to define it.
This is supported by Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981, p. 46) who
talk about a kind of self that develops at each of the three broad divisions of the
life cycle, adolescence, parenthood and late adulthood. ``The young receive
meaningful information from interacting with objects that are appropriate to
their stage of life, as defined in this culture: These are different objects, and
therefore different selves, from those that their parents and grandparents
develop''. This was similar to the way in which both ages related to the past,
they both ``chose'' mediums that reflected their own age culture. For example,
the elderly visitors were drawn largely to the squatters cottage, a two roomed
dwelling which once housed 12 people, but is occupied today by a friendly and
charming lady who keeps the fire burning and provides a willing ear for
nostalgic reveries. Younger informants tended to focus more on the shops, their
displays and the physical reconstruction of production methods. However, in
both cases, the degree of physical engagement served to heighten the sense of
realism and participation. Furthermore, there was little desire for the grim
realities to intrude on the experience. This however was a different perspective
from the second group labelled ``aesthetic''.
Category two: ``the aesthetic self'' and the search for authenticity
For this group it is possible to draw on the work of Cohen (1988) in his analysis
of the alienated tourist seeking authentic experiences; on MacCannell's (1973,
1976, 1992) proposition that authenticity is the main quest of the tourist as they
strive to escape the realities of modern life and on Jordanova's (1989)
description of fantasy and imagination as a means of defining authenticity.
However, while all proved to be useful concepts, individually they did not
fully explain the nature of this group's evaluation of authenticity at heritage
There was clear acknowledgement that true authenticity cannot be achieved,
and therefore was a fruitless quest. This resulted in a dichotomy between the
search for a ``real'' authentic-experience while recognising at the same time its
unobtainable nature. Knowledge based nostalgia was an integral element
behind the experience, and consequently, rather than a need to participate in
reconstructions of the past, authentic situations which allowed the imagination
to construct the experience were, on the whole, preferred. Imagination became
the source of escape and was largely stimulated by the atmosphere of the
resource, the degree of freedom experienced by the individual, and the stimulus
to construct an experience of the mind.
This group was possibly the most concerned with historical accuracy as the
main purpose of any museum. With regard to attractions, this group


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characterised visitors to sites such as Buildwas Abbey, where interpretation

was minimum, and the imagination allowed to run free. Yet, while there was
varied reaction regarding the interpretation at Blists Hill, most accepted that
they were striving towards as complete a picture within the confines of
available information and other material. For example, one 33-year-old woman
I mean, look at the attention to detail, the research that must have gone into collecting all this
stuff, it's not just thrown together . . . you talk to any of the demonstrators there's nothing
they don't know about their particular role . . . I know it would have been a much smellier
place had it really existed and working conditions would have been hard, but would anyone
really want to see that?

However, all those classified as aesthetic were regular visitors to a range of

heritage sites and museums, not just living museums, and for those who had
not visited a living museum such as Blists Hill before, the search for
authenticity and atmosphere resulted in disillusionment:
40 year old male:
I shouldn't really complain about this place I mean there are enough people enjoying
themselves . . . it's just not me . . . People tell you to come here, that it's exactly like it would
have been . . . .but this is more like a scene from The Railway Children, there's no sense of
realism . . . I mean it's the birthplace of industry but you wouldn't know it

One thing they have done here is recreated the shops well . . . but I want the impossible . . . .
I'd like to see it at night with just the gas lights on . . . . it's all to do with imagination I don't
think you can beat that.

Imagination was a recurring theme across this group. They were all well
versed in history of one kind or another, but while some were willing to engage
in a collective experience, for others the very presence of unwanted informers
served to detract from the sense of realism which the imagination provided, to
quote the same informant:
My ideal day out is just looking and thinking what it would have been like . . . I go to art
galleries and spend hours in front of a painting imagining the artist working on it . . . but you
need time and space for that.

This was reinforced by a 33-year-old woman from the discussion groups who
although she differed in the form of heritage she frequented, still stressed the
power of the imagination as a key to the experience as opposed to either
restrictive methods of interpretation or simulated heritage:
I'm not a great visitor to museums . . . they are fine and I've nothing against them, but I can't
stand spending hours peering at things in glass cases, I don't think that gives you any sense
of the past . . . . but you get away from all that . . . out into the open . . . . lie down at night and
you can really feel the atmosphere . . . that has more to do with taking you back in time than
any reconstruction can.

Category three: ``the social self'' and the search for authenticity
The third group were not quite as emphatic about attention to exact detail or
historical processes although they were willing to question any anomalies.
While there was a sense of using the resource to gain a feel for the past there
was an even greater emphasis on developing a social and entertaining
experience. Therefore, original objects, buildings and demonstrations were
appreciated for what they were, backdrops to the social experience. However
this applied only to those observed at Blists Hill and Birmingham Museum.
Many of these informants were with children and had stated children as a
prime reason for visiting. They did, however, become more fully engaged
themselves when partaking in the action and watching demonstrations.
Nevertheless, rather than inspecting objects and exploring hidden
uninterpreted attractions there was a strong emphasis on shopping in the past
(Walsh, 1992; Norman, 1990), in old authentic retailing outlets. This proved to
be a novel aspect of the experience particularly for females. For example, one
65-year-old Welsh woman spoke about having a drink in the pub with her
family. She discussed the stories she had told her grandson about growing up
in a town like the one portrayed, and was delighted by his shock at the idea of
outside toilets. Another woman spoke about her enjoyment of the shops:
I could spend hours just browsing in these shops, especially the chemist, all the different
bottles, I think that's what they've got right here . . . the ambience . . . They invite curiosity.
You can browse in the shops, ask all sorts of questions about the ingredients, compare them
to today and buy the goods on offer if you want to.

Therefore, artefactual authenticity in this context was evaluated in a similar

manner as by the ``existential'' visitors with attention focused on the object or
demonstration. However, while the existential visitors tended to lose
themselves in the situation, observation of behaviour revealed that the social
visitors interacted communally and used the artefacts and information
provided to engage in problem solving exercises. This was particularly true at
Blists Hill and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Lowenthal (1986) proposes that interpretations of the past are reflections of
modern expectations and aesthetics. Jordanova (1989) claims that authenticity
will often be evaluated in the context of memories or fantasies which brings the
very nature of authenticity into dispute. Haskell (1993) does indeed challenge
the idea that true authenticity can ever be achieved in any form of museum or
heritage representation. He argues that historical interpretation is precisely
that, an interpretation, a picture pieced together from the available accounts
and artefacts remaining from the past. Furthermore, these often material things
are themselves symbols of a particular era and as such are value laden and


Journal of

Baudrillard (1988b) suggests that the nature of simulacrum, or hyperreal

representations, threaten the difference between real and imaginary. He argues
that there are four dimensions to the simulacrum, each of which it is proposed
here, can be applied to the experience encountered at various types of heritage
interpretation. These are:


1. A reflection of a basic reality

Here it is acknowledged that pure interpretation is impossible. The course of
history itself changes and distorts both the messages and the tangible remains
of the resource. However, sites of uninterpreted heritage, such as Buildwas
Abbey have not been subject to changes in their presentation in order to appeal
to contemporary appetites. The market, however, for such sites is small. The
data indicated that full enjoyment of such sites depends largely on two factors:

an adequate level of knowledge about the period; and

the ability to allow the imagination to determine the experience.

2. They mask or pervert a reality

In this case the selective portrayal of a history. For example, the history of the
British Empire may be distorted depending on the artefacts, objects and texts
that are used to convey the message. The exploitation of Colonials, or stories of
defeat, may be ignored resulting in a one sided account of a particular period
(Garrison, 1990; Hasled, 1990; Katriel, 1993). This method of interpretation can
be found in just as many orthodox, or traditional museums, such as the
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, as those focused on the titillation of the
3. Masks the absence of a reality
This can be applied to a number of living, interactive museums such as Blists
Hill, which offer the opportunity to experience the past through carefully
selected means of interpretation which can often become sanitised in the
process. However, the moving, living, interactive experience has the ability to
involve and occupy the visitor to a greater degree than static representation,
and in doing so fills the mind with constant information. This information
overload, provided by the demonstrators, often leaves little room to notice the
absence of certain realities and the product is consequently accepted as
4. Bears no relation to reality
This is the extreme ``simulacrum'' or ``hyperreal'' experience such as Disney
Land in America. Moreover, the increasing trend in the USA to such forms of
interpretation involving heritage reveals a thrust towards combining key
values such as religion, history and profit in a hyperreal situation which
purports to be more than a pure spectacle (O'Guinn and Belk, 1989).

Nevertheless, although there are different dimensions to interpretation, this

research found that a desire for authenticity was an underlying influence on the
behaviour of many of those visitors who took part in this process. Virtually all
groups mentioned its significance, although a number, regardless of age, social
class or educational background were willing to accept what was portrayed as
authentic, despite gaps in the social history. We live in an age dominated by
simulacrum and hyperreality, particularly relevant to the leisure industry and in
this case, heritage. However, while simulacrum and hyperreality were a feature
of the experience along with the pastiche evident in attractive interpretation of
unattractive times, the effect had to be subtle as there was little evidence of any
desire for sensationalism. This has implications for interpretation management
and the nature of customer satisfaction at such sites. The important factor is to
strike the balance between obvious spectacle and total scholarly presentation.
For most, the museum or site must be seen to have taken great care to present
the past in as factual a way as possible. However, quite often the result is an
artificial authentic veneer where the label of authenticity is attached to artefacts
and objects, located in ersatz surroundings (Hewison, 1987). This juxtaposition
where ``genuineness'' cloaks the absence of historical social processes means
that attention to object detail becomes the criteria against which credibility and
authenticity are evaluated. The challenge therefore is to strike a balance
between providing accurate information whilst at the same time engaging the
interest of the visitor in as stimulating a manner as possible. The individual
must feel that what is on offer is genuine.
The findings of the research also highlight some of the weaknesses in
Hewison's (1987) argument regarding the nature of the heritage experience. He
proposes that cultural and educational museums will become largely redundant
as consumers demand more and more interactive, live history. While he presents a
seductive argument, in the final analysis it is primarily one that perceives heritage
visitors as manipulated, passive and incapable of creating meaning. This was not
in evidence from the data. Most consumers were capable of enjoying a range of
historical experience. Furthermore, they constructed meaning, and interacted with
the resource according to their own perceptions and not necessarily those of the
museum professional or academic critic. Additionally, themed heritage was not
perceived as the ultimate heritage experience. There were a number of informants
who came away frustrated with the intrusive nature of such reconstructions,
preferring interpretation that allowed for solitude and imagination. Consequently
the danger for museum managers lies in pursuing interpretation policies which
deny the use of the imagination and play down the educational aspects of heritage
for the sake of themisation.
The central aim of this paper was to explore the nature of the heritage
experience with a particular emphasis on the criteria used for evaluating
authenticity at sites of historical interpretation. This has been addressed


Journal of

through the identification of three different visitor behavioural types. However,

in the light of the interpretation of these findings, there remains one important
question to be addressed: have I posited my analysis within a particular
theoretical perspective, and if so where and how does it fit? While some of the
findings and the literature used to add theoretical sensitivity bear the
hallmarks of postmodernism, and the research process itself may be loosely
interpreted as postmodern, given its eclectic and sometimes fragmented nature,
I am reluctant to claim that this research was fully located within the
postmodern paradigm. This rests largely on one very fundamental difference
as pointed out by Brown (1995a, p. 300) who argues that while interpretive
methods have much in common with postmodern techniques they are not
necessarily the same, and to adopt postmodernism is to:
. . .deny that individuals have unmediated access to external reality, but also questions the
very existence of the free thinking subject. It maintains that the knowledge people possess is
unreliable, dispersed, fragmented and an epiphenomenon of language.

I am reluctant to abandon the idea that the individual is capable of free

thinking, making decisions and struggling for control through the construction
of, and engagement in, experiences that will enhance the quality of their lives.
The findings from the data indicated the contrary. Furthermore, there was
some support for Smith's (1994) critique of postmodernism, particularly
Gergen's conceptualisation of saturation. This critique centres largely around
Gergen's emphasis on the experience of successful business people or members
of the intelligentsia, the Euro-American elite of which Gergen himself is a
member. As a theory however, it falls short in explaining the experiences of
those born into poverty or who find themselves in reduced circumstances
(Smith, 1994). Certainly the group labelled ``aesthetic'' were more intellectually
informed, tended to be professionals, sought escapist experiences through the
imagination and had strong views on what constituted authenticity. Those
identified as ``existential'' on the other hand, were rather less typical of the elite,
and were more concerned with taking control through escapist activities aimed
at bringing temporary relief from less fulfilling lives. It is nonetheless
impossible, whatever the criteria used, to present a uniform and standard
picture of the contemporary heritage/museum consumer, nor was it my
intention to do so. There is acknowledgement that individuals change as their
life circumstances alter. As is common with grounded theory, the aim of the
research was to inductively build theory which has conceptual relevance to the
phenomena under study, not to quantify or measure behaviour. However, there
is recognition of the limitations of this type of method, given the extended time
period required in the field, and the fact that sample sizes tend to be small in
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