The Visitor Experience: Adapting in Post-Covid World

The heritage and tourism industry has suffered in numerous ways due to the Covid pandemic currently prevalent in our world. When we think about the relationship between heritage sites and consumers who are eager to explore history and heritage, this has naturally been subject to change during these challenging times. Ensuring that collections, artefacts and displays are appreciated, and that the heritage is valued by the visitor is key for a successful visitor experience (Wallace, 2017, p. 3) and this coupled with the new safety precautions, is what all heritage sites are attempting to balance. As a researcher, I have visited different heritage sites and experienced how they have adapted to the current circumstances where social distancing, improved hygiene practices and safety precautions have been put in place. One heritage site of note is New Lanark, where I have also had the privilege of working for the past year on a part-time basis. Awarded World Heritage Site (WHS) status in 2001, New Lanark celebrates the industrial history of Scotland through a Visitor Attraction Centre and various other tourist facilities such as a hotel, café and shop. It can be found alongside the River Clyde, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The purposes of this WHS are summarised below (New Lanark, 2020): Conserve the site’s heritage, site and environs, Contribute socially and economically to the area, Evolve to stay relevant to our people and the world. As the Covid pandemic has swept through the country, New Lanark has attempted to balance the consumer needs and wants with government restrictions and guidelines to ensure a safe, enjoyable and informative visit to the site. Arguably, this is in keeping with the above purposes of the site. With the visitor experience already being widely recognised in literature as a ‘multidimensional and complex’ learning environment with varying perspectives (Packer and Ballantyne, 2016, p. 129), adding necessary safety precautions into the mix has created many challenges which have required urgent solutions. Using online platforms such as social media to further promote heritage and history has enabled New Lanark to reach various target audiences and promote the visibility of the site. A new socially-distanced exhibition entitled ‘A Tenement Through Time’ has also been opened to the public, where the consumer can learn how people lived through their words, lives and wallpapers. Despite these successful promotions of history and heritage, New Lanark has been unable to fully open its doors to tourists which is sadly the reality for a great number of heritage sites. Thus, we ask ourselves… How long can this be sustained? The temptation to think negatively of such circumstances is to be expected but perhaps when...

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Acropolis: Marbled by Monumental Myths and Stories 

“During my first days in the city for fieldwork, I strolled around the small streets in Anafiotika, a Greek island-like neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis. There, I started chatting with a shop owner in his 60s, who was trying to sell his summer linen clothes and straw hats to tourists. When he asked me how long I was planning to stay and I told him that I will be staying to do some research, he became curious. His first reaction to the topic of my research was to tell me the story of Konstantinos Koukidis.”[1] He’s the one who committed suicide, preventing the Greek flag to not get lost to the Germans during the German occupation in Greece (1941-1944), by wrapping his body in the fabric and throwing himself from the Acropolis hill. Though there are speculations that Koukidis himself did not really exist, but rather became a myth told for almost 80 years now, for the shopkeeper I talked to, this story represents the beginning of the Greek resistance against the Nazis as well as many following movements. “It is one of these stories that often remain in the shadow of an impressive historic monument and the endless queues of tourists in front of souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, ice cream shops and shops selling Greek frozen yogurt. I am certain that on this day in late June 2018, when I was told this story by the shop keeper, thousands of tourists had already passed by the plaque commemorating Koukidis’ act of resistance on their way to climb the Acropolis hill – most likely without even noticing it. I was still at the beginning of my fieldwork and yet the shopkeeper’s story already made me aware of the gap between heroic testimonies of antiquity and heroes of modern Greek history in official Greek historical representation, as exemplified by the Acropolis.”[2] However, this is not the only story surrounding a fabric – here a flag – and the ancient site. There is another one, a bit less mythologized, as the main protagonists definitely existed: Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas became icons of the anti-fascist resistance during the German occupation in 1941, by taking down the swastika flag hoisted on the hill of the Acropolis. “I really like it cause it’s amazing how a piece of fabric can have such a big meaning of belonging,” states Della, whom I interviewed during a fieldtrip in 2018, when we are talking about acts of resistance and the Acropolis. Glezos himself remained politically active amongst others as the oldest member of the European Parliament for Syriza in 2014 and 2015, at the age...

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Why is history never set in stone?

July 13th, 2013 a socio-political movement took off across the United States of America. In the aftermath of a controversial judicial decision to acquit Officer George Zimmerman, in the shooting of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin, people took to social media platforms with the simple yet powerful statement: #BlackLivesMatter. Momentum gained across the next several years, with demonstrations against police brutality and civil rights violations, the movement was formalised as Black Lives Matter (BLM). Then in 2020, the unlawful death of George Floyd by police reignited the movement not only in America, but across the globe. The movement gathered between 15 to 26 million people in USA, becoming one of the largest movements in United States’ history. Then BLM has seen ramifications and support across the globe and stirred a new stand in the UK. By June 2020, BLM protesters in Bristol dislodged a public sculpture of Edward Colston, a philanthropist who also had connections to the slave trade, and pushed it into a nearby river. Why did the BLM movement shift from protesting police brutality in contemporary society to the destruction of historical figures in public spaces? If there is one thing we all rely on without necessarily giving it much credit, it is our understanding of the past. In many cases, history represents a core ideological narrative of any given society. It can shape our ways of behaving in any social context and represent the roots of many of our values, traditions and beliefs. The narration of past events represents a fundamental element of the heritage experience, producing meanings and sharing culturally significant values of a nation. Yet we tend to regard history as a fixed immutable asset. We can find comfort in knowing that while our society is constantly evolving, our past lies unchanged. But is this the case? Who wrote the historical records and for what purpose? The old adage ‘history is written by the victors’ has been problematised by the BLM movement and in particular the unquestioned presence of historical figures’ monuments scattered across cities. As the overarching controllers of historical narratives, museums and heritage sites have been actively rethinking past narratives.The heritage scholar Rodney Harrison argues that “heritage is not simply a collection of ‘things’, but instead constitutes the social ‘work’ that individuals and societies undertake to produce the past in the present.” (2013, p.113) In that sense, the BLM movement has certainly challenged the social ‘work’ that past societies created in the commemoration of Edward Colston in public spaces. While it was perhaps an agreed form of narrative in a very different period of time, it might not always reflect the understanding...

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Ethnographic Research in the Time of Coronavirus
Mar26

Ethnographic Research in the Time of Coronavirus

In Italy we have a proverb, ‘anno bisesto, anno funesto’ which can be translated as something like ‘leap year, fatal year’. I wouldn’t define myself as superstitious and I generally don’t pay too much attention to these kind of sayings. However, 2020 so far has been an adverse, if not disastrous, year. The outbreak of COVID-19, also known as novel coronavirus, has been at the centre of attention worldwide and has been affecting the lives of people all over the world in many different ways. This new, unknown, virus originated in the province of Wuhan in China and very rapidly spread around the world. It seems to be highly contagious, it dangerously affects elderly people and those with underlying health conditions, and hospitals are overall struggling with the capacity of infected people who need respiratory assistance. The WHO (World Health Organisation) has declared it a pandemic, and there is an ongoing state of emergency in several countries in Europe and overseas. Italy has been hit very hard by the virus, being the second country in the list of most confirmed cases and deaths after China. I live and study in Scotland, but I am from Sardinia, an island and region of Italy, which is not just my homeland but also the centre of my PhD research. As an ethnographer, I am familiar with the uncertainty that fieldwork brings about and I thought I was quite prepared (I might even say excited) to face the unforeseen and unexpected. Maybe even crash, less excitedly, into some ‘dead ends’. I can certainly state that I wasn’t prepared at all for a global pandemic that would force people to stay at home and practice social distancing and self-isolation. No, this wasn’t included in my contingency plan. My first personal encounter with the novel coronavirus was a few weeks ago, the day before I was meant to fly to Cagliari (my hometown) and finally begin my ‘proper’ fieldwork which, for the sake of frankness, is also an excuse for me to visit my family and friends. I am in my second year of my PhD path and, as in conventional academic manner, I had planned to undertake my data collection and fieldwork throughout the year. Specifically, between March and May. My research focuses on the socio-cultural aspects of folk and religious festivals. In particular, I am analysing the performance of gender and identity in the Festival of Sant’Efisio in Sardinia, a series of rituals and celebrations including a largely attended four-day procession and a folk parade at the start of May. A social distancing festival, how would that even work? I planned my visit...

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Choosing Sides: Doing Interviews in a Divided Field

“You are not going to agree with this, but I voted leave.” A participant in my research told me this early on in an interview. I had not shared with her my personal opinion on the EU, but from my accent (which does not sound Scottish) she discerned I was from continental Europe and decided that I probably did not agree with Brexit. During interviews I am not trying to find out how the interviewee voted in the EU referendum, but it is a difficult topic to avoid when discussing Europe. Navigating a divided field In the past six years, the Scottish people have taken part in two divisive referendums. In 2014 they were asked whether Scotland should become an independent state (55% chose to remain part of the UK) and in 2016 they were asked whether the UK should remain a member of the EU (in Scotland, 62% chose to remain part of the EU). Both referendums left a significant mark on the current political landscape in Scotland. My research focusses on the personal dimension of this: how do Scottish people, in particular supporters of Scottish independence, identify with Europe and what does the concept of Europe mean to them. To do this, it is important for me to get beyond the results of the referendums in my fieldwork, but this is not always straightforward. The problem with discussing politics in Scotland today is that opinions are immediately pigeonholed into the answers of the referendums: participants in my research often identify themselves (and others) first as yes/no or remain/leave. It is of course uncommon that reality is as binary as that: it is a messy and personal calculation of values, beliefs, influences and experiences. Participants are hardly ever completely yes or remain without a conditional but. To get a result which is valuable for my research, I aim to break through the referendum replies as early as possible in the interviews and uncover what is hidden below. Placing myself in the field At the same time as providing us with an opportunity to research beyond the suggested binaries of the referendums, ethnographic fieldwork forces the researcher to reflect on his/her own connection to the communities being researched. In my case, that reflection starts by asking and being asked where I fit on the yes/no, leave/remain spectrum. I have experimented with sharing my own opinions on these matters and keeping them to myself during fieldwork. Sharing my stance can have different effects: if it is in agreement with the participant, the interview feels more at ease, resulting in a form of ‘safe space’ which can be highly beneficial for...

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Wanted: A Mother of Cultural Studies

As a cultural anthropologist with a historical perspective, I really wonder: where are all the women in the history of our critical, self-reflective discipline?

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