St. Nicholas Abbey Barbados

A student exploration of the power play at work in who gets to interpret and speak for historical sites when tourist dollars are at stake by Samantha Z. L. Alleyne

What is twistory? Is it twisted history in inverted comas (“twisted history”) is it the millennial definition of a twitter story or twitter history or is it a term given to the concept of interpretation of historical sites, material culture and textual evidence that is altered to convey a more passive or docile view of past events? What we know is that, whatever way we look at the term, it is an idea that conveys some type of fiction as fact.

Two major themes then are that of authenticity and interpretation. How the past is interpreted by heritage practitioners as well as how that representation of the interpretation (authentic or not) is interpreted by the consumer. Historical re-enactment is one form in which this interpretation can be presented. In Trinidad and Tobago, there is an annual festivity, the re-enactment and celebration of the Canboulay Riots, a pageant that now starts Carnival. These re-enactments are considered as “invented tradition” in order to create links to the past amongst the populace (Funk 2011). What started out as short presentations related to the riots as part of street parades in Laventille for Emancipation Day, soon turned into scripted performances, whose narrative and direction have transformed over time.

“The Canboulay Riots pageant continues to change and evolve every year. Historians may quibble about historical accuracy of the text as it has evolved, and the incorporation of later Carnival traditions, but in a pageant, this matters little” (Funk 2011). We see then that there is not as much concern for the validity of the historical context as there is for making the event popular and entertaining for the locals as well as the Carnival-goers.

Re-enactment is only one of many approaches to conveying interpretation of historical evidence, as heritage is more than just history and its interpretation has ties to the authenticity of the site or object that conveys this historical narrative. Authenticity is a key concept that informs the preservation, curation, management and presentation of the historic environment, and is broadly defined as the quality of being authentic, truthful or genuine (Jones 2009). How then do we convey this authenticity if the interpretation is open-ended and can be seen from multiple viewpoints? Heritage practitioners are then tasked with being objective in their examinations. However, in the case of enlivening a chosen past does it become subjective based on the audience or the preference of the practitioner?

Tourists visiting a site will typically encounter signage, visual displays, information centres or tour guides whose functions are to interpret the heritage values of the place or objects (Ablett 2010). These interpretations are what are absorbed by the public as an authentic representation or explanation of these historic events and places. What then is this interpretation that is reflected to tourists and visitors? Is it the unbiased truth of enslaved Africans or the manicured concept of labourers and servants? Do we “soften the blow”, so that we don’t offend those that are consuming the information? Or do we not want to refer to what is considered “bad”, as it somehow reflective of us in society?  

One example that comes to mind is that of St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados, simply described as a 1658 sugar plantation with a Jacobean mansion and rum distillery. The heritage showcased centres around things such as the architecture and estate as well as the owners’ history and of course the rum distillery. Very little information is conveyed as to enslaved persons that were a day-to-day factor in the very running of the plantation. With the establishment of a miniature railway to take visitors around the estate, it is sure to be a major highlight of heritage tourism, but one may wonder what story will be told on this new journey.

Lowenthal states that we can no more slip back into the past then can we leap forward to the future, save in imaginative reconstruction, the past is barred to us. It is this imaginative reconstruction by heritage practitioners that becomes the narrative regurgitated by tour guides and affixed to signage and visual displays. Lowenthal goes on to state that “if the past is a foreign country, nostalgia has made it ‘the foreign country with the healthiest tourist trade of all’”.

The profitability that is attached to nostalgia is then used to construct the narrative to be displayed and interpreted as nostalgia is usually associated with a good feeling. However, when we leave out certain facts to hone-in on other ones is the story still authentic? If we look at a cultural heritage site we see the contestation in defining concepts of authenticity and integrity, as authenticity has varying meanings in different cultural contexts. We face the question of whose heritage or which time period frames preservation and interpretation (Alberts and Hazen). It is the stakeholder’s goals for the site in the end that is prioritised even if it is not compatible with the aims of those looking to conserve and preserve the authenticity of the site.

Tourists and visitors expect that “authentic” experience when they visit a site or engage with an object which does not always equate with the recorded history displayed. They also expect a level of comfort which may compromise the authenticity of the site in providing these facilities that visitors or tourists expect. The heritage practitioner may see it as more viable and profitable to compromise authenticity for economic gain through public consumption. The question remains who is this heritage really for? Is it for the community that it has originally emerged from or the paying visitor who wants a “nostalgic” experience of the past?


Works Cited

Ablett, Philip G. & Pamela K. Dyer. “Heritage and Hermeneutics: Towards a Broader Interpretation of Interpretation.” Current Issues in Tourism, 12, 2010, pp. 209-233.

Alberts, Heike C. and Helen D. Hazen. “Maintaining Authenticity and Integrity at Cultural World Heritage Sites.” Geographical Review, vol. 100, no. 1, 2010, pp. 56-73.

Funk, Ray. “Rituals of resistance: the Canboulay Riots re-enactment.” Caribbean Beat, MEP limited, March/April 2011, https://www.caribbean-beat.com/issue-108/rituals-resistance#axzz5WVQQyT2c. Accessed November 2018.

Jones, Siân. “Experiencing Authenticity at Heritage Sites: Some Implications for Heritage Management and Conservation.” Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, vol. 11, Issue 2, 2009, pp. 133-147.

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge University Press, 1985.