Articles - Reading the Visual: - Representation and Narrative in the Construction of Heritage

Articles
Reading the Visual:
Representation and Narrative in the Construction of Heritage

Steve Watson
York St John University
Emma Waterton
University of Western Sydney

Résumé

Cet article examine le pouvoir du « visuel » dans les représentations de la culture et du tourisme patrimonial. Bien que le visuel soit essentiel à la manière dont on représente la culture matérielle, la primauté donnée aux objets et aux artefacts a brouillé les processus eux-mêmes qui les animent et les privilégient dans la production du patrimoine. Cela a pour résultat que la culture matérielle est classifiée et catégorisée, placée dans des séquences temporelles et interprétée de diverses manières, sans que l’on pense beaucoup à ses contextes sociaux et culturels. Dans cet article, nous cherchons à replacer le « patrimoine » en relation avec l’esthétique et la valeur intrinsèque de l’objet. Nous considérons la visualité comme une partie essentielle du processus par lequel le patrimoine culturel est produit, ce qui, en retour, permet à la culture visuelle d’être « lue » comme un récit de l’identité, de la politique et du pouvoir.

Abstract

This paper examines the power of "the visual" in representations of culture and heritage tourism. While the visual is fundamental to the ways material culture is represented, the focus on objects and artifacts has obscured the very processes that animate and privilege them in the production of heritage. As a result, material culture is classified and categorized, placed in temporal sequences and variously interpreted without much thought as to its social and cultural contexts. In this paper, we seek to relocate "heritage" in relation to aesthetics and the inherent value of the object. We examine visuality as a key part of the process by which cultural heritage is produced and which, in turn, enables visual culture to be "read" as a narrative of identity, politics and power.

1 The purpose of this paper is to explore the role visuality plays in forming the cultural meanings at the heart of heritage tourism, something that has been surprisingly absent from heritage literature. In taking this focus, we hope to theorize and illustrate the "secret life" of heritage as a specific form of knowledge drawn upon by a range of socially and societally important discourses. Our choice of the phrase "secret life" is deliberately provocative and we use it here with the acknowledgement that it is something much more easily evoked than defined or illustrated. To make our case, we draw upon the wider social sciences, although our position is influenced primarily by the work of Norman Fairclough, a linguist by discipline, and Laurajane Smith, a scholar in the field of heritage studies. We use Fairclough’s term "semiotic modalities" to take account of more than just language in the processes of meaning-making and thus inform our understanding of the performative role played by "the visual" (2008: 163). In addition, we use critical work already undertaken by Smith (2006) to problematize the way heritage is commonly understood within the heritage and tourism sectors. Smith uses conceptualizations of power and performativity already animating cultural studies, cultural geography and sociology in order to understand the definitions, uses and consequences of heritage in Britain and Australia. Her work does not deal explicitly with the visual, however, and with this in mind we have also turned to scholars such as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998) and Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (2000) who have framed the visual as a key discursive category within heritage studies. In drawing on the work of these scholars, we hope to add to current attempts to recast "the visual" as an active textual context rather than as a mechanical or sensual process that has historically conflated, in the modalities of representation, what is seen and what is.

2 A distinct understanding of visual culture has developed over the last two decades in studies which have recognized the pervasive visuality of contemporary culture. As Mirzoeff defines it, visual culture: … is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology. By visual technology, I mean any form of apparatus designed either to be looked at or to enhance natural vision, from oil painting to television and the internet. (1999: 3)This technological context, which continually expands and elaborates what Walter Benjamin (1969: 217-52) referred to as mechanical reproduction is, in turn, based on an understanding of visuality that is increasingly meaningful in social and cultural terms and, using Debord’s (1983) concept of the spectacle, is a kind of conflation between what is visual and what is significant: "what appears is good, what is good appears" (9-10). To this must be added the problem of the "observer" as distinct from the "spectator," and Crary’s (1990) concept of the former as an active subject rather than a passive onlooker, albeit one "who is both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions and procedures of subjectification" (5-6). Such processes are essentially social, cultural and political in that they are energized by power relationships and identified through them. "At stake," claims Rogoff (1998: 23) "are political questions concerning who is allowed to speak about what" and the concept of a social visuality that reveals, in both its methodology and its claims, a schema of valorized cultural referents.

3 The application of visual theory in heritage tourism studies will be discussed in more detail below. For the moment it is sufficient to note that this paper is underpinned by a methodological framework influenced by critical discourse analysis and a theoretical foundation in studies which have, over the past two decades, established visual culture as an important, if not predominant, discursive medium. The rationale for taking such an approach lies with our belief that the selection, reproduction and consumption of heritage representations is never a fully transparent process, but one that is obscured by its own surface reflexivities. "Seeing," according to Schirato and Webb, "is a kind of reading," and one which constructs distinct visual narratives (2004: 57, 81-104; 2010). Indeed, what we find within the realm of heritage tourism is rarely the full possibility of historical, aesthetic, cultural and social values one might expect; rather, it is more often characterized by a partial, and sometimes misleading, collection of images selected for display.1 Crucially, such images are thus also representations of the secret life of the objects depicted—the logic, assumptions and processes used to select them for display in the first place. In short, they can be "read" as narratives of identity, politics and power. Their analysis can thus be used to unpack the role that semiotics plays in the operationalization of some social and cultural narratives at the expense of others.

4 In addition to adopting a broadly critical approach to visuality within heritage tourism, this paper also draws from a conceptualization of heritage developed by Laurajane Smith (2006), who convincingly decentres the object and focuses on the actual processes that transform things, places, acts and experiences into heritage. For Smith, heritage is "a mentality, a way of knowing and seeing" (54). These processes are not merely the modalities of interpretation, marketing, heritage management or museum curation. They are the cultural processes that support social structures and identities—national or otherwise—and which act to establish and sustain discourses that make sense of the past in the political nexus of the present (cf. Allcock 1995). The object as a visual phenomenon supports these processes and the discourse that is thus created. The object gives substance to the visual and affirms it, and the visual gives empirical truth to whatever it signifies. This truth is revealed by experts, aesthetes and professionals to produce an authenticated past; and when further selected and assembled in the social and cultural world view of a particular society, an authorized discourse which reproduces its concerns, priorities and content also emerges.

5 This theorization renders the visual performative and blends nicely with Campbell’s (2007: 361) position that images need to be understood for what they do, or, as he terms it, as a "visual performance of the social field." This idea of performativity is illustrated in two diverse locations: the United Kingdom and the Greek island of Rhodes, each of which provides compelling evidence not only for the use of heritage in identity-making and nationhood, but also as a point of entry into the secret life of such object-representations. The two examples provided are not, however, exceptional cases and so we do not pretend to offer an isolated area of research here; rather, we seek to add to and reflect on a well-developed body of research within cultural geography, visual studies and performance studies, which we consider is worthy of further investigation in the area of heritage studies. Our first example examines the semiotic modalities of heritage tourism in the United Kingdom, for which a total of 478 images were examined deriving from sixteen tourist brochures produced between 2001 and 2007 and collected from tourism kiosks, bed and breakfast establishments and heritage attractions. Our purpose is to illustrate how visually constructed ideas of tradition and nationhood are often drawn upon to help create a timeless and permanent sense of national identity, evidence for which is seen to lie in the materiality and age of the objects displayed: ancient monuments, imposing buildings and ruins carefully tended by organizations such as the National Trust and English Heritage. Likewise, the island of Rhodes, a place keenly concerned with heritage tourism, can be used to explore nationhood through constructions of Greek identity. A number of objects and structures are "privileged" in this example and used to construct a portfolio of heritage tourist attractions, their selection being based on how they relate to the dominant discourse of "Greekness." The material remains of Hellenistic classicism, Byzantium, the Knights Hospitaller and the tradition of monastic church building all find ready entry into the island’s heritage tourism (Watson 2010).

6 In focusing on visuality, this paper reveals and elucidates the role of the material cultures of heritage in supporting both authorized and exclusionary discourses. We argue that the materiality of heritage in these diverse examples shows a similar foreclosure of cultural meaning and substitutes for this the modalities of aesthetic judgment, connoisseurship and expertise. This, we argue, is a form of reification, where the objects of heritage at once represent and distort the social relations that produced them, a process that is compounded by the visual modalities of interpretation, marketing and visitor management. For the purposes of future research, it is also intended that this analysis will support investigations of the spaces between such representational practices and the subjective and inter-subjective understandings that emerge in moments of engagement with heritage material and our plea for constructive debate and further research in this area is contained within our concluding section.

The Obsessive Materiality of Heritage

7 Tangible objects, such as buildings or their remains, monuments, places of significance, artifacts and works of art, have become central obsessions for the heritage sector and the visual sense has come to be privileged as a means of understanding them (Hooper-Greenhill 1995, 2000; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998). The materiality of heritage is thus a basis for classifying and aestheticizing objects, revealing and displaying them, realizing their value in both economic and cultural terms and, crucially, in selecting for view that which is meant to be seen. Within this particular—and dominant—cultural practice of heritage, quotidian objects assume their secret life as emblems of identity and shared understandings of the normal, assumed and the expected. As Edensor has put it:[The] material worlds of objects seem to provide evidence of the commonsense obviousness of the everyday. By their ubiquitous presence, things provide material proof of shared ways of living and common habits. By their physical presence in the world, and in specific times and places, things sustain identity by constituting part of the matrix of relational cultural elements including practices, representations, and spaces which gather around objects and minimise the potential for interrogation. (2002: 103)That materiality obscures cultural meaning, or is active in suppressing it, is a point developed by a number of authors. Smith, in particular, has drawn the discussion into the heart of what constitutes contemporary notions of heritage and heritage display, in an effort to divert attention away from obfuscating notions of inherent value:The physicality of heritage also works to mask the ways in which the heritage gaze constructs, regulates and authorizes a range of identities and values by filtering that gaze onto the inanimate material heritage. In this gaze, the proper subject of which is the material, a material objective reality is constructed and subjectivities that exist outside or in opposition to that are rendered invisible or marginal, or simply less "real." (2006: 53)In the context of the museum, the object is at once venerated and at the same time denied any other past than the one that is selected for it. This is the same whether it is a museum full of glass-case displays, a themed exhibition or an up-to-date interactive museum. Indeed, the latter only serve to obfuscate the centrality of the object by appearing to break down the traditional modalities of display. As Maleuvre cogently expresses it:A museum is almost a textbook case for realistic description: there the eye looks upon a world made of objects undisturbed by human presence. Indeed a description of a gallery of objects may serve as an allegory of the objective stance called realism. That the world is ascertained by the staid and placid presence of objects. Objects are the grounding center of objectivity and objecthood is the fetish of objective realism. In a sense, the gallery of objects takes objective representation itself as its object. (1999: 97)The object therefore has a life beyond its materiality and the ways in which it is conventionally viewed as a "sight," its status as such being based on notions of inherent value that are aesthetically ordered and which may be expressed in economic terms through its representation as a heritage tourist attraction. In seeking to explore this other life, we begin from the proposition that these inherent and aesthetic values are susceptible to a level of inquiry and deconstruction that reveals deeper cultural meanings about the groups and societies for whom these objects, places and buildings are significant.

8 Heritage can therefore be seen as a system of representation, of signification that has effects far beyond its mere depiction of the past and its objects, as Raphael Samuel’s careful deconstruction of the history of the Tower of London demonstrates. Here, a "concurrence of different influences" created, from a mere "cabinet of curiosities" (Samuel 1998: 118), a monumental tourist attraction that, by the end of the 19th century, was attracting more than half-a-million visitors a year. During this time, heritage began to reproduce its medievality, as gothic revivalists (led by the architect Anthony Salvin) sought to reconstruct a romanticized gothic past in the Victorian present (118). The resulting "rehistoricization" (108) of the Tower of London thus transformed it from a military arsenal to an iconic touristic attraction and a shrine to national identity.

Visuality, Materiality and Heritage Tourism

9 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998: 17-79) uses the term agencies of display to describe the visual processes through which significant cultural referents such as nationhood, identity and social structure are encoded in certain materialities that are then projected into the social world. Once assimilated into the cultural fabric of society they become an essential component of the "scopic regime," a term coined by Metz (1977) to describe the object "reality" of cinema and borrowed by Martin Jay (1988, 1996) to define the broader social milieu in which visual conventions are established. This broadening of the concept invites us to conceive a scopic regime on a societal level, one in which are encoded the reflexivities of the authorized discourses generated by a particular culture at a particular time. The scopic regime thus determines what can and cannot be seen, as well as how, when and in what contexts (such as tourism, for example) the materialities of culture are displayed. This social visuality is, we argue, an active agent in the representation of heritage, not only through the long-established media of interpretation, but also through ancillary communications such as marketing and promotions in print and on the Internet and the paraphernalia of destination management. Thus, drawing on established, as well as new and emerging theories of visual culture (Crouch and Lübbren 2003; Schirato and Webb 2004, 2010; Waterton and Watson 2010), we are concerned here with the nexus of object-visuality, rather than the object-materiality of the authenticated artifact, the assumed inherent value of which qualifies it as an object of heritage interest and display. Visuality as a theoretical framework enables the secret life of heritage objects to be revealed and read, intertextually, in the range of representational practices that express touristic and heritage significance: from tourist guidebooks, brochures, postcards and websites, to embedded interpretation, labelling, signage and, perhaps most fundamentally, in the very selection of objects that is represented.

10 In accepting that it is the very materiality of such objects that obscures the fundamental role they play in the construction of heritage narratives, it is important also to identify the cultural work these narratives render in supporting, for example, the nation state and claims about identity that may or may not be coterminous with its boundaries (Kaplan 1994; McCrone et al. 1995; Macdonald and Fyfe 1996; Boswell and Evans 1999; Fladmark 2000; McIntyre and Wehner 2001; Mason 2004; Munasinge 2005). When the naturalization or reification of material culture is projected into heritage and heritage tourism, its identity-making power and its accompanying denial of interrogation (by diverting attention away from this role and back towards its own materiality) become evident. The object in the museum becomes alienated from itself. A spoon that becomes an artifact becomes, through display, not only a symbol of spoon-ness, but evidence of a past that can be represented—by spoons. The socio-economic nexus of which the spoon is a manifestation is lost in the object itself and cannot be recovered through the kind of taxonomic or curatorial practice or representation that makes it a worthy exhibit of the history of spoons.

11 Ancient buildings are perhaps a better example of obsessive materiality and "thingness" at work. In Britain, such buildings are represented primarily in the stock of ruined castles and monastic buildings owned by English Heritage, the national agency responsible for their upkeep and presentation as visitor attractions. Other "suppliers" of ancient buildings in the United Kingdom are the National Trust, which owns many country houses, the Church of England, which owns a vast portfolio of crumbling medieval churches and the actual owners of country houses who seek the income benefits that accrue from tourism. All of these buildings have been the subject of attention by antiquarians and tourists for at least two-and-a-half centuries, so that old buildings are part of the nation’s cultural fabric, imagined as symbols of an enduring national past and cohesive national identity. As such, they have been variously taxonomized, preserved, conserved and interpreted as aesthetic objects and, in this guise, they admit few other readings of their significance. Their obsessive materiality is exemplified in the aesthetic that Lowenthal (1985: 148-73) identifies as the "look of age," a quality that has its origins in the renaissance appreciation of classical ruins and the 18th- and 19th-century aesthetics of the picturesque, the romantic and the sublime. The belief, therefore, is that in looking old, objects are endowed with both a cultural value and guarantee of provenance. Thus, the "scars of time are the signs of life" (Lowenthal 1985: 180), the signifiers of authentic heritage, which goes on to form the basis of their authentication, their visuality and their ability to project cultural value in the present.

12 A well-known theoretical basis for the aesthetization of ruins is the eponymous essay by Georg Simmel, who asserted that ruins were interesting and appealing because they represented the vitality of opposing forces: construction and destruction; spirit and nature. Here was the source of fascination in things that showed the look of age: "sensing these contradictions within ourselves, we notice the salient beauty of the object in its passage through time" (Simmel 1959: 259). Ancient buildings, as well as looking the part, stimulate an emotional response in the viewer, a fact not lost on poets and artists as well as early sociologists. Françoise Choay has charted the historical development of the "ancient monument" as a symbol of pastness and power with a supporting visuality in the Western culture of the historic object, the object in time. The past has a present: objects that notionally belong to the past are owned and used in the present, their age and provenance creating the value that guarantees their privileged contemporary position as works of art, monuments, vestiges and remains. The value of the object in time is derived from both its materiality and visuality, and both of these contribute something to its role as a cultural signifier. Thus, when Choay (2001: 22) examines the Invention of the Historic Monument, reference can be made to the seducing sensibility of the objects of antiquity that beguiled the medieval mind even though from a religious point of view such objects made little or no sense. Their visibility and monumental materiality guaranteed them a degree of visuality that was assimilated and made meaningful in the medieval present (Choay 2001: 20-27).

13 For tourists of the 18th century, the medieval itself had a distinct cultural significance, with ruins forming part of the ensemble of components in a landscape that, according to William Gilpin, would look well in a picture, or as he wrote more than two centuries ago, would be "agreeable in a picture" (Gilpin 1792: xii). The activities of aesthetes such as Gilpin at once established medieval remains as being of interest, and modified the sense in which they were appreciated in accordance with contemporary taste. The picturesque, in itself a scopic regime, thus enshrined a landscape of which medieval relics were an intrinsic, but purely decorative, focus of the new aesthetic sightseer (Adler 1989: 22). This process continued until medieval relics became an adornment to the parks surrounding neo-classical country houses, as at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, suitably trimmed and dressed for the purpose. The medieval itself was thus named and framed as something distinct and of interest, albeit to a limited number of spectators through what might be termed the antiquarian gaze and the picturesque aesthetic.

14 In contemporary tourism, this long established aestheticization of the past is represented in the very term "heritage," which conveys the inherent value of the artifact-object and is institutionalized in legislation and the terms of reference of official agencies and conservation organizations. The object of heritage is an object of respect and veneration—it needs to be protected, not least from the hordes of tourists who might damage it. At the same time, the imperative to realize the value of these objects as capital assets turns them into attractions and leisure spaces that generate cultural meaning in subtle reciprocity with authorized narratives of a national past and national identity. Heritage is thus very much a thing of the present rather than the past to which it constantly alludes.

15 The contemporaneousness of heritage is one of its key features; it is thus a "thoroughly modern concept" that somehow fulfills a "cultural need" in the modern age (McCrone et al. 1995: 1). Fulfilling this need is a process of selection and display, and the ascription of meaning to the objects concerned. As Dicks (2000: 33) has put it "[h]eritage is part of a burgeoning new culture of display, in which a variety of different sites are transformed into sights to capitalize on new forms of cultural consumption." It is in this latter sense that the concept finds its fullest examination: What kind of new cultural movements are responsible for this display, and what does the display seek to reveal (or obfuscate)? How do such transformations take place and why? What are these new forms of cultural consumption and what do they mean?

16 For Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, heritage is a new form of cultural production that "produces something new" by adding values of "pastness," exhibition and difference that convert locations into destinations that in turn become "museums of themselves" (1998: 151). The past then, as Wright has put it, is recoverable through the talismanic qualities of its "bits and pieces" (1985: 75): it has substance and reality and lends this to a particular discourse. Moreover, it can be visited by tourists. The materiality of heritage is thus configured, represented and invested with meaning, and while the meaning is separate from the object, it is dependent upon it. The material may be vestigial, mere traces in a landscape or the slightest of ruins, but as a quick look through the glossy policy documents accompanying the heritage industry will attest, tourism is a powerful medium of representation that selects, frames and then sacrilizes favoured objects (MacCannell 1999).

Dominant Discourses in Heritage Tourism

17 That tourism in general, and heritage in particular, is essentially political in its construction of meaning (Allcock 1995; Smith 2006; Smith and Waterton 2009) brings us back to the socio-cultural role that its materiality obscures. Constructed heritages are endowed with authority through the agencies of government, officialdom and, not least, the tourism industry itself, its operators and businesses. In turn, the very modalities of heritage management can be infused with authorized discourses, to the exclusion of others (Smith 2006; Waterton 2010a; Watson 2010), and are taken on by other agencies who seek to draw value from their association with them. In their own way and within the ambit of their own activities and interests, destination managers, hoteliers, city councils and attractions each draw upon and reproduce the authorized discourse, adding another point of access to it and (re)encoding its meaning (Dicks 2000: 241-48; Duke 2007: 22-25, 62-63). Furthermore, the materiality of heritage provides tangible evidence of a past that is selected and authorized. Indeed, that is its essential role, through its materiality and its ascribed value as an artifact: to authenticate the past that it represents. Tourism provides the means for heritage, as an encoded materiality, to be visually represented to as wide an audience as it can admit, and who might be susceptible to the relevant authorized discourse. So, the role of heritage objects in authenticating the past, or a past, relies to a very great extent on their visual presence, framed as exhibits in museums or preserved as buildings, monuments or landscapes, with all the paraphernalia of display and visitor management that heritage now assumes as standard practice.

18 In Britain, heritage tourism provides both media and content in support of exclusive and dominant discourses; discourses that are configured in specific contexts and become part of a broader way of seeing that Smith (2006: 29) has labelled the "authorized heritage discourse." To borrow from critical discourse analytical terminology, this "way of seeing" can also be understood as an ideological discursive formation (IDF), and is grounded in the materiality of heritage and its non-renewability, privileging the grand, the old and the aesthetically-pleasing (Breglia 2006:13; Crouch 2010; Waterton 2010a). Seldom acknowledged, however, is that this notion of heritage tends to privilege elite and middle-class cultural experiences, while actively marginalizing alternative and subaltern perspectives (Waterton 2008). Paradoxically, then, something that is largely imagined as a vibrant source of identity and sense of place is in fact better understood as a form of domination. Images, here, in the same way as speech and writing, undertake a significant role in legitimizing and promoting this particular way of seeing. As part of the process, visual imagery directly contributes to a mystification of heritage, through which a particular version of heritage has been successfully peddled as the heritage. People living in Britain, who hail from diverse backgrounds and cultural affiliations, are thereby encouraged to hold in common certain ideas about heritage and, by corollary, identity. It is here, in these semiotic modalities of heritage and tourism, that images may be understood as "…pervasive cultural performances of normalization" (Schirato and Webb 2004: 147) that let us know what is "normal" and "desirable."

19 Particularly significant for this discussion are the calls for "social inclusion" that currently characterize the heritage sector. Although social inclusion is in many ways specific to the European context, similar policy aspirations that attempt to tackle cultural and social difference can be mapped through tropes of "multiculturalism" and "cultural diversity" in North America, Australia and New Zealand contexts, for example (cf. Message 2009; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998: 243-28). In Britain, at least, the promotion of social wellbeing has been united with the authorized heritage discourse, and together they became one of the (former) New Labour government’s most durable platforms—and indeed solutions—for overcoming exclusion (cf. Waterton 2010b). As a counterpoint, we want to take up Stuart Hall’s (2005: 24) charge that: "… those who cannot see themselves reflected in its [heritage] mirror cannot properly belong." Hall’s argument makes sense to us because the functioning of ideology in the heritage sector has reached a point of discursive closure, such that the complexes of representations regarding heritage are almost completely organized by a white, Christian, heterosexual and middle-class understanding of the past and present. As such, the common ground found between the two positions put forward here forces us to grapple with issues of power, control and ideology, all of which naturally lend themselves to a probing of the secret life of representation.

20 A cursory glance at any heritage brochure, paraphernalia, website or policy referring to heritage tourism in Britain will reveal a core group of particular signifiers of heritage (Fig. 1).

21 In 2008, for example, a systematic review of material emerging from these genres revealed that seventy-seven per cent featured archaeological sites, ancient monuments, stately homes, ruins, castles or ecclesiastical buildings, with only one per cent of the remaining images containing something that stands outside of Smith’s authorized heritage discourse (Waterton 2008: 41). On a general level, the images used to advertise and represent ideas of heritage comprise a generalized and singular idea of heritage, predominantly hinged upon the visual-tangible and characterized by an aura that combines age, aesthetics, wealth and the grand. These images carry nothing of the banality of "the everyday" or "the familiar"; on the contrary, they radiate with "exceptional," "powerful," "excessive" and "luxurious" ideas of significance. Heritage, therefore, becomes something to bask in, a detour from the familiar, something that tells stories about the Great, the Good and the Powerful (Crouch 2010). It also slices off any deeper or alternative understandings of "heritage" in favour of an assumed universal significance that is seen to exist within that place or aspect of material culture. This idea of heritage works to suppress any aspirations for personal, local or regional identity or, indeed, any sense of identity that is not predicated on geography or history. What becomes apparent is an understanding of heritage and identity that is firmly drawn along the lines of similarity rather than difference. Collectively, this dominant imagery is able to communicate a socially encoded message, made more powerful through consensus and repeated formulations of power, fabric and wealth. Indeed, there is an extraordinarily high commitment to one image of heritage, which arguably acts as a marker of a categorical, non-modalized assertion: heritage is fabric, monumental and grand.

Fig. 1a, b, c, d, e English Heritage Custodianship Brochures are reproduced with permission from English Heritage.

Thumbnail of Figure 1
Display large image of Figure 1

22 The scopic regime—the filter through which images are selected—is thus seen to revolve around aesthetics, the accumulation of historical fact and realism, thus portraying a world full of resonant iconic images saturated by notions of "age" and "timelessness"—and, interestingly, devoid of people. Indeed, heritage becomes almost entirely people-less, indirect and distant, with no role or interaction revealed between people and places (Waterton 2008). This, as Kress and van Leeuwen (1999: 383) argue, reconfigures those places as something "on offer." Any viewer of heritage is thus not encouraged to enter into any kind of social relationship with the objects, places or buildings represented, even though the images used are very real and naturalistic. A paradox is thus set up between the naturalistic reproductions of items of heritage themselves in conjunction with their de-contextualized and un-naturalistic setting: the lack of people, or virtually anything other than the sites of heritage themselves and a bland, environmental backdrop, renders them somehow artificial, sanitized and unreal.

23 Our goal here is to raise questions about the reliability of images predominantly found in the heritage sector and the messages they impart. For the most part, this is something that has only recently started to happen within heritage literature—which, with its operational preoccupations, has had a tendency to take as given the images of heritage as reliable depictions of an identity source "we" all hold dear. We want to prompt a questioning of this "reality" by suggesting that tourism images have themselves become what Kress and van Leeuwen (2006: 154) describe as "modality markers," or things that establish degrees of "truth" within social groups. In this guise, tourism images tend to close the door on alternative notions of heritage, such that the heritage sector, more and more, finds itself in alignment (along with the imaginary "we" of the nation) with one idea of heritage while distancing all others. We do not, therefore, spend as much time as we should questioning the logic, assumptions and processes that were used to bolster such images in the first place. The semiotic modalities found within the realm of heritage tourism in Britain have thus come to carry what Bourdieu and Wacquant (2001: 4) term the "performative power" to transform into reality that which is being described. The heritage tourism industry thus acts to describe and frame a country’s heritage, becoming a powerful mechanism that appeals to audiences and users to similarly construct and frame heritage in that specific way.

24 We can point to similar processes in very different contexts. As a Greek island, Rhodes has enjoyed a somewhat checkered past. Until 1948, it had variously belonged to the Byzantine Empire, the Knights Hospitallar, the Turks, the Italians and, after a brief post-war sojourn by the British, it was "returned" to Greece. The fact that its last period of Greek affinity was its place in the Byzantine Empire of the 13th century underlines, perhaps, the fragility of its latter-day Greek identity. This had, however, been reinforced in a number of historic contexts. For a start, it was a part of the Hellenic sphere, from the Mycenaean through to the early medieval period, when it became a part of the Byzantine Empire or the "Empire of the Greeks" as it was better known. Each phase of the island’s history stands in relation to its Greek identity, an identity that has framed a discourse about the past that can be presented to its own people and showcased through the materiality and visuality of heritage tourism. The Turkish occupation lasted until 1912, so there are compelling social, cultural and political reasons for re-asserting Greekness in the face a powerful, historic Other.

25 On the island of Rhodes, this process has involved a systematic framing and visual elevation of certain sites and types of sites that bear witness to the island’s Greekness as opposed to its Turkishness. Here, visuality assumes the role of a metaphor representing social, cultural and political significances (Watson 2010). This is visuality in the service of identity politics and what has been described in a Cretan context as "certain aspects being emphasized and others silenced" (Duke 2007: 93) through the filters of archaeological practice and the agencies of tourism: government bodies, managers, entrepreneurs and the producers of guidebooks and other visual cues. In this we can see how a scopic regime of Greek heritage is projected in a touristic space, based on a selected materiality of heritage that is duly signified and monumentalized.

26 As a specific example, we take here the "painted churches" of the island, so-called because of their expansive and colourful frescoes. These are Eastern Orthodox structures built over time from the early Middle Ages to the present day. They are often simple buildings dotted about the landscape and throughout the towns. Larger, more complex buildings may be cruciform in plan with the crossing domed. They may also have an apse behind the altar and a narthex—a lobby or porch area of varying degrees of complexity depending on the size and importance of the church. Buildings of all ages often contain frescoes depicting biblical scenes, such as the life of Christ or various saints painted in the strictly conventional styles that are typical of Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox religious symbolism. The largest and most significant of these churches are well established visitor attractions, although it is clear that their liturgical function is never diminished or compromised by the presence of tourists, who are often denied the use of their otherwise overworked cameras. Examples of such buildings are the Dormition of the Virgin at Asklipio, St. Nicholas at Fountoukli (Fig. 2) and the Church of the Panagia at Lindos, all of which are renowned for their extraordinary frescoes.

Fig. 2 Church as Tourist Attraction: St. Nicholas at Fountoukli, Rhodes.

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27 Smaller (often much smaller) buildings such as St. George Vardas, near Apolakia (Fig. 3), are more typical. These are always open and show signs of recent and frequent use. They date from the medieval period to the present day and occupy sites that were very likely those of Byzantine churches dating from the early medieval period. Pieces of Byzantine stonework are often incorporated into the structure. More frequently, fragments of Byzantine marble are placed around the church and within it, sometimes providing the columns upon which the altar is placed. In this they are acting as both a decorative visual feature and a material link with the Byzantine past, the Empire of the Greeks. Sometimes paved areas outside the church are painted with simple symmetrical shapes in white, circles or stylized leaves, recalling the black and white pebble mosaics of the earlier Byzantine churches.

28 The Turks who occupied Rhodes concerned themselves only with the city itself and seem to have been content to allow the Greeks in the small towns and countryside to pursue their beliefs and tradition of church building. The result is that the island, like other Greek islands, is endowed with a rich collection of churches of varying sizes that date from the early medieval period to the present day. What is remarkable about them is the continuity of building and decorative style that has persisted over the centuries so that they have become emblematic of the Greek stake in the island. The ancient churches have been subject to a modicum of conservation that has at least stabilized them, but a more obvious investment has been made in representing them as a material part of the island’s heritage, with their visuality enhanced accordingly. This representation appears first on the tourist maps of the island, where they are marked out, if somewhat imprecisely, and named, so that it is sometimes difficult to identify the building indicated on the map. A more recent innovation, however, has been the ubiquitous brown signage, which now proliferates, to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to ascertain which church is being signified and which church is which.

29 The important question here is not what the churches are as aesthetic objects (although this may be of great interest elsewhere) but what they represent in the cultural nexus within which they are represented. To establish this we might look a little more closely at the manner in which they are represented and the attendant modalities of display. The brown signage has already been mentioned, but it is also apparent that it is not only the ancient churches that are marked out in this way. As figure 4 indicates, even modern churches (Fig. 4)—some built in the last twenty years—are subject to this process of "heritaging" (Waterton 2007: 22). This continuing tradition is also represented in the activities of a small number of artists and decorators who produce frescoes and icons to order. A workshop in Rhodes Town is dedicated to the production of paintings for the tourist trade and local churches. On questioning individuals associated with this activity, it became apparent that accomplished painters of frescoes are much in demand around the island.

30 What can we make of this? The materiality of the churches has clearly entered another sphere, one in which the oldest buildings and artifacts lend authority and credence to the newest; tourists are encouraged to visit both old and new. But it is not the materiality that is on display here; it is a discourse of identity—of Greekness—that is imperative to the whole process on an island where this has been threatened historically by competing cultures. This discourse in turn modulates a scopic regime that selects what is appropriate for representational purposes in the showcase that is the island’s heritage tourism. The churches are an obvious candidate, not just because there are so many of them, but also because they represent a continuing tradition in which their materiality is both reproduced and reproducible in terms of the skills and interests of the island’s communities. Tourism animates this materiality and invests it with a visuality that ultimately stands as a metaphor for its social and cultural significance (Watson 2010).

Fig. 3 Churches represented: St. George Vardas near Apolokia.

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Fig. 4 Modern Churches as Heritage Attractions: Virgin Zoodochos near Apolakia.

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31 The churches are not alone in this regard. There are other monuments that can be used to support the island’s authorized heritage. There are classical Greek monuments, for example at Rhodes Town and Lindos that emphasize the island’s integration within the classical Hellenistic sphere. In an attempt to represent a Greco-Roman heritage for the island, it is significant that these monuments were extensively (and not very successfully) restored by the Italians during their occupation of the island in the early 20th century. Much of the recent work at the Acropolis at Lindos has concerned the restoration of these "restorations." The castles of the Knights Hospitaller are also significant monuments and fit the requirements of the Greek identity discourse in their historic narrative, standing, albeit unsuccessfully, as defences against the attacking Ottomans. Several castles such as Kritinia, Archangelos, Asklipio and Monolithos have become visitor attractions. As touristic spaces, however, they are limited by problems of physical access and visitor safety. Castles such as Feraklos and the fragmentary remains at Siana are simply too dangerous for full public access, yet all that can be opened to the public, is—even at the risk of pushing the boundaries of what is considered safe. Even Monolithos and Kritinia with all their visitor management, are surrounded by precipitous cliffs that would challenge officialdom in jurisdictions where public liability insurance is an issue. It is the "painted churches, therefore, that stand out as the primary signifiers of Greek identity in the materiality of the island’s heritage, with a visuality that is both evidence of its Greek provenance and of its continuity in the present.

32 We suggest that both Britishness and the Greekness of emerging heritage tourism in Rhodes offer compelling accounts of authorized heritage discourses in action. There is clear evidence in both examples of ideological formulations with attendant scopic regimes that "sign" (through the medium of expert authority), "seal" (through the modalities of heritage management) and "deliver" (via heritage tourism) a visual-material culture in the service of national identity. In drawing attention from competing readings and interpretations and focusing on a particular view of the past, this identity is exclusionary. Heritage tourism and its attendant visual practice of sightseeing thus provide the mechanism by which cultural imperatives are projected not only onto the British and Rhodean sense of themselves, but also onto the world stage that international tourism has become. The brown signs that now ubiquitously march across both landscapes mark the selected material for sightseeing, their visuality reproduced and enhanced in the myriad media that represent them. In this, the heritage attractions in both contexts act as both witness and a text, describing the role of heritage tourism as a cultural process, an economic imperative and, ultimately, a political act.

Conclusion and Future Directions

33 We have argued here that the objects of heritage have a life outside their materiality and beyond the things that make them significant for experts, archaeologists, curators and the operators of the tourism industry. This is not to say that the objects and places we have discussed—and similar objects elsewhere—have no aesthetic merit, but that these values are not intrinsic to them. Rather, they are invested with such values, for reasons that become apparent in the context of particular cultures at particular times, and which can be seen to service clear discourses and ideological formations that are significant for particular pockets of people within those cultures. How far this argument can be pursued, especially in relation to specific objects, is a matter of conjecture and debate. It will be claimed, for example, that some objects, the Mona Lisa perhaps or the pyramids at Giza, are so unutterably magnificent, stirring and emotionally affecting that they are exempt from this analysis; but where to draw the line? Can we ignore the "seducing sensibilities" to which reference has already been made, or are such objects simply exceptional? We might recall Dean MacCannell’s assertion that there are few sights in modernity that carry the self-proclaiming powers of the seven wonders of the ancient world, little that is so spectacular in itself that it does not require "massive institutional support" (MacCannell 1999: 43-44) to mark it off as an attraction. They are in essence, therefore, social constructions whereby the "extraordinary" that is required to distinguish them is defined by culturally determined and conventional representational codes (Rojek 1997: 70).

34 We do not suggest that to understand the secret life of heritage objects is to deny their aesthetic qualities or their historical value. Our argument does, however, seek to redirect attention, to decentre the object so as to understand the role it has beyond its inherent qualities. This is because what heritage representations do is to minimize the possibility that objects might be understood beyond their material presence and apparent intrinsic value. If they are interrogated, however, they reveal a matrix of other meanings linking their aesthetic qualities, their display and their touristic importance with their other cultural significance, a metaphorical visuality that is often realized in the vivid and visual culture of tourism. This secret life, as we have termed it, is key to understanding the significance of the past in the present and its role in forming political and nationalistic meanings. It also reveals an essential role of ascribed value in formulating objects that are worthy of display in delivering the relevant cultural meanings to an audience.

35 The question all of this begs, of course, is the nature of the audience and its response to the scopic regimes and cultural meanings to which they are linked in the consumption nexus that is tourism. The representation of heritage is clearly only one element in the process, and for meaning to be made that must also be understood. Detailed ethnographic studies of the meanings attached to heritage displays are few and have developed slowly since Urry (1996) made his observations about the paucity of such research. The failure to problematize and investigate subjectivity in this sphere of cultural activity is a shortcoming that needs to be addressed, and while it is beyond the scope of this paper, it is clearly within the ambit of future research. A point worth bearing in mind, however, is that any such investigation must go beyond the classification of tourists according to notional motivational characteristics that have dogged previous research from Cohen (1979) onward (cf. McKercher 2002; Smith 2003). Of greater importance in this debate are ideas about the dynamics within audiences that have opposed conventional arguments that imply passivity (Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998). Emerging from this are debates in cultural geography (Thrift 2007) about non-representational theory and performativity that emphasize meaning-making. Both Crouch (2010) and Selby (2010) have made milestone contributions to this debate in the context of visual culture and tourism. Bagnall (1996, 2003), in particular, has challenged the view that visitors to heritage attractions are passive and uncritical; rather, she contends, they are involved in a complex and discursive engagement that involves the mapping of their own memories, reminiscences, emotions and feelings of nostalgia onto the heritage representations in museums. Key to this process is a sense in which they are performers of their own consumption, meeting and mediating the messages contained in the representative practices employed by sites.

36 There is a risk that the debate will become mutually and diametrically oppositional and that one enters it with either a representationalist or a performative-subjectivist approach. We hope to establish an early marker here that the debate could avoid a false opposition and productively explore the nature of the engagement itself: the ragged line between what is represented and what is understood or otherwise experienced; what is produced and what is consumed. As Smith (2006: 70) has already noted, such engagements may just as well be self-perceived as leisure activities and the providers of heritage tourism have clearly responded to this in the way they present and market their material assets. Having two schools of thought may therefore be an unnecessary distraction: no one would deny the importance of subjective view points and, at the same time, it seems axiomatic that subjective responses can only exist in relation to an object and its representation in the world: what is consumed must first be produced. The endless relativism of subjectivity also seems distracting and, as has been pointed out in relation to literary criticism, to suggest that "there are as many versions of [Jane Austen’s] Emma as there are readers of it, is relativistic nonsense of the first water" (Grayling 2003: 211).

37 For our purposes, the intention should be to explore from a convergent theoretical viewpoint the engagement of tourists with heritage representations. Smith’s (2006) study of country house visitors provides a benchmark for such research and the questions that emerge from it are central to the future of the debate: where are the boundaries between represented and subjective meaning and what variations exist with subjective meaning-making? Is there an inter-subjective common ground and how does this relate to dominant discourses? How are dissonant undercurrents treated, or are they simply assimilated? To what extent are subaltern readings of an established heritage possible and how might they be expressed in the dominant nexus of representation and meaning-making? The examples presented here are meant to provoke a debate about these questions in the context of heritage studies and heritage tourism, and we hope that in going some way to reveal the secret life of heritage we have at least given impetus to this process.

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Note

1 For a broad discussion of these issues in a range of heritage contexts, see Waterton and Watson (2010).