Telling Poland’s turbulent history

Faces
Three faces of Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising of 1944 on display in the Warsaw Rising Museum.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to take a trip to Poland, and to visit two of its flagship museums.  Both located in the country’s capital city, they address some of the major themes in Poland’s traumatic and turbulent history.

The first was POLIN:Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Its subject matter is exactly what one would expect from its title and the scope and scale of its content is vast. It was awarded European Museum of the Year 2016 and it is easy to understand why.  It follows the story of Poland’s Jewish population and explains how Jews have been an integral part of the country for a thousand years.

The challenge facing the designers of this museum was to create a meaningful and engaging place with very few original artefacts.  The harsh reality of Poland’s history is that successive invasions and occupations have taken a toll on its physical history.  It is conservatively estimated that a quarter of a million works of art, a huge proportion of Poland’s cultural heritage, were looted by the occupying forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during the Second World War and few have ever been recovered. However, once inside POLIN it is very clear that this challenge has been met and overcome very effectively,with clever and innovative interpretation filling the gap.

The museum’s core exhibitions are succinctly described on the museum’s website as follows:

The exhibition is made up of eight galleries, spread over an area of 4000 sq.m., presenting the heritage and culture of Polish Jews, which still remains a source of inspiration for Poland and for the world. The galleries portray successive phases of history, beginning with legends of arrival, the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Poland and the development of Jewish culture. We show the social, religious and political diversity of Polish Jews, highlighting dramatic events from the past, the Holocaust, and concluding with contemporary times.

Synagoge Roof
The amazing recreation of the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue at Gwoździec in one of the galleries at POLIN.

Each of these eight galleries has its own style and method of storytelling, and a wide range of techniques are used. From a beautifully animated 3D map of Krakow and Kazimierz in the 16th Century, through a stunning recreation of the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue from Gwoździec, the galleries are a feast for the eyes.  But of course the Jewish story has a much more traumatic side to it, as indeed does that of Poland.  The fourth of the eight galleries reflects on how at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned Poland and how during the next century Poland’s Jews, and for that matter the rest of the Polish population,  were divided to live dispersed under each of the three powers.

Jewish Street
A representation of a Jewish street from the 1920/30s inside POLIN.

This is followed by ‘the Jewish Street’ a reconstruction of a scene from the Jewish district of Warsaw in the 1920/30s and tells the story of the brief post-First World War resurgence of Jewish nationalism in Poland during this period, before the savage repression of the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War.  The museum itself stands in the centre of what was Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, opposite the memorial to the Ghetto Heroes of the 1943 Ghetto Uprising which was erected in 1948.  The museum therefore unsurprisingly covers in detail the impact of the Holocaust.  It chronicles its cruel consequences for Poland’s Jewish population and is told with no ‘punches pulled’. The visual impression of the Holocaust gallery is dark and oppressive as one would expect given that more than three million Polish Jews were eventually murdered during this period. The galleries finish with the opportunity to reflect on the thousand years of Poland’s Jewish history and what that memory means for Polish Jews today.

Ghetto Memorial
The memorial to the Ghetto Heroes of Warsaw is situated opposite the POLIN museum in the centre of what was the Jewish ghetto.  In was raised in 1948 in memory of those who died in the abortive 1943 Ghetto Uprising.

POLIN is a monumental museum in more than one way.  As a pure museum it is enormous in its scope, making it the sort of place one would need to visit time and again to really appreciate the depth of content.  But it is also a memorial to the human spirit and its ability to survive through adversity and emerge, battered and brutalised, despite the most awful of conditions. And it is this human spirit that is also celebrated in the second of the museums I wish to consider.

Uniforms
Uniforms worn by Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising on display in the Warsaw Rising Museum.

The Warsaw Rising Museum, in contrast to POLIN, tells the story of a much shorter, but equally emotive, period of Polish history, the Warsaw Rising of 1 August to 2 October 1944. Housed in a building that formerly served as the power station for the Warsaw tram system, its exterior is imposing, and topped with a modern observation tower affording views over the city.

Rising Museum
The former power station for the Warsaw tram system which now houses the Warsaw Rising Museum.

The Museum was opened on 31 July 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the fighting in the city that marked the start of the Rising. The exhibitions within chart the hardships of everyday life before and during the Rising, and the appalling conditions the people of Warsaw lived under during the occupation.  It is also a tribute and memorial to those who fought and died for a free Poland.  The interpretation is excellent with great use of images and sound, as well as film that was amazingly recorded during the Rising.  At the very heart of the Museum is a steel monument which stretches from bottom to top linking all floors of the building. Inside the memorial one can hear the sound of a heartbeat which symbolises the beating heart of fighting Warsaw in 1944 and is a rather eerie presence throughout the museum.

The collection of artefacts dispersed within the museum includes uniforms worn by the combatants, the weapons they were armed with and, very evocatively, the original named red and white armbands worn by some of the fighters. There are also sections that look at many different and more unusual aspects of the occupation and Rising.  These include the cultural activities that continued despite the fighting and the role of young boys and girls who carried out the very dangerous role of postmen and women for the Field Postal Service by carrying messages around the city.

Armband
This wall displays original armbands worn by the Polish fighters during the Rising. Each is signed with the individual’s name. The letters WP denote Wojsko Polskie – Polish Armed Forces.

Like POLIN the execution of this museum is excellent.  The story is told using a wide range of interpretation methods, the scope of the content is huge, and again a single visit does not do the content justice.  It is also very clear how important to the story of modern Poland the Rising is, and how revered its veterans are held within the country.

Before I visited Warsaw I had a rudimentary understanding of Polish history and its place, by virtue of its geography, as a ‘buffer nation’ between two much more powerful, and at times aggressive, neighbours.  I knew of its Jewish past and the appalling atrocities inflicted on its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust, and I was aware of the wartime Rising.  What I was not aware of was the detail, in particular the myriad personal stories and tragedies therein. Both these museums help the visitor to access and understand these stories and I came away from my visits much better informed.  I am now also much better able to understand the huge national pride that Poland as a nation and its people display, and the important role these museums are playing in immortalising its turbulent history.

Rising Museum memorial
The towering monument at the centre of the Warsaw Rising museum which records each day of the fighting and within which can be heard, as well as a heartbeat, the sounds of the Rising such as gunfire, radio announcements, prayers and falling bombs.
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Review: Relics of the Reich – The buildings the Nazis left behind

Relics of the Reich

This book recently arrived on my desk to review and, as I am heading to Berlin for a short break this summer, I opened it eagerly.  As I read the following passage from the introduction I was immediately engaged:

“Studying this physical legacy makes for a fascinating journey, not out of some morbid curiosity for a dark period of history, but because a sense of place, wanting to be there, and wanting to tread where history was made are undeniable parts of the human psyche. Focussing on the places where the deadly Nazi story unfolded serves to remind us of the depths to which humanity sank. It can also act as a commemoration of mankind’s deliverance from a dark decade and serve as a renewal of our commitment to ensure history does not repeat itself.”

This was clearly a book written by someone who takes the same view as I do of what history is really all about – that interplay of events, people and places.

The overarching narrative is about the use of construction, structures and buildings as essential elements for creating and sustaining the Nazi Party and its vision for the Third Reich. Organised into eight themed chapters the book looks at a whole range of different examples. Broadly chronological, it starts by looking at those buildings that helped to ‘Establish the Faith’, that is those that were created or adopted as symbols of the Third Reich.  These were places that helped to create and strengthen the Nazi Party’s relationship with the German people.  It includes some examples with which, I suspect, many readers will be familiar such as the Nuremberg Rally Grounds (shown on the cover of the book – see above) and the Munich Hofbräuhaus.  Others are likely to be less well-known.  One of the latter that immediately attracted me was the Wewelsburg Castle, near Paderborn in northern Germany, a place I have visited a few times and know well.  As the author outlines, Himmler had identified this seventeenth century castle to become a centre for SS education and had lavish plans for it to be the ‘centre of the world’. Work did start on this project but was put in abeyance by the War.  Today it is open as a museum which, somewhat unusually for modern Germany, does not shy away from its Nazi history.

Wewelsburg
Wewelsburg Castle today ©KreisMuseum Wewelsburg

The next chapter examines the idea of ‘Strength through Joy’ and considers the buildings constructed to facilitate the Third Reich’s programme of providing organised sporting and leisure facilities for its people. These include the massive Prora-Rügen holiday complex on Germany’s Baltic Sea coastline (a complex that was then used by the East German Army post World War Two) and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, as well as the facilities built for the pleasure and recreation of Nazi leaders such as Goering’s Carinhall and Hitler’s Berchtesgaden.

Subsequent chapters move through structures built to show off the Third Reich to the wider world, in particular the massive investment made to stage the 1936 Olympic Games.  A large section is devoted to the Olympic Stadium (again featuring on the cover of the book  – see above) and the Olympic village in Berlin, but coverage is also given to the, again probably less well-known story, of the Winter Olympic Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen where extensive constructions were also made to host that event. There is a chapter that considers what are referred to as ‘Future Fantasies’ and looks at some of the great plans that never came to fruition.  The greatest of these was probably Germania, the so called Welthauptstadt (World Capital), which would have seen the redesign of Berlin to become a city to exceed London, Paris and Rome, and serve as the capital city of a world dominating Third Reich. Of course Germania and other such fantasies never happened, but it is fascinating to read and explore the plans.

Germania
A model of ‘Germania’, or the re-modelled Berlin, that was planned to serve as the ‘world capital’ of a world dominating Third Reich ©Bundesarchiv, Bild 146III-373 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Further chapters cover some of the darker aspects of Nazi Germany.  The infrastructure put in place to control the Reich, those necessary to fight a world war, and the chilling and clinical constructions that enabled the Holocaust. The final chapter considers the ‘Downfall of the Third Reich’ and examines amongst others, the structures to house and build the V (Vengeance) weapons, the Reich Chancellery and the Führerbunker.  Also in this chapter is a look at Dresden, not because of any structures built by the Nazis but rather to reflect on the destruction of this city and its role as a motif for the futility and pain that the Nazi regime brought on Germany.

This is undoubtedly a fascinating book.  The range of buildings it covers is wide and varied.  It looks at those that existed and were largely destroyed, those that were envisaged and never happened, and those that survived and still exist today.  There are some notable exceptions, for example there is only a passing mention of the Atlantic Wall defences that were built both in France and the Channel Islands, but it is recognised that a book of this length has to be selective. The conclusion, entitled ‘Coming to Terms with the Past’, pulls together the various strands and their legacy.  It considers how some buildings, or parts of them, have been destroyed to eliminate the memory of the Nazis, but how other places, especially military structures, were re-purposed through the Cold War and beyond by the German Military.  And of course other structures, such as the Olympic Stadium, have continued to play a role much as they were planned and built.

To conclude, this is a very well-produced hardback book, copiously illustrated with both modern and contemporary illustrations. It is well-written, engaging and accessible.  It serves equally well as a thesis on the buildings of Nazi Germany, as a practical guide to them.  It doesn’t shy away from the dark, brutal and horrific aspects of the Third Reich, but equally it is pragmatic about how these structures played a variety of roles within it. This will of course appeal to any students of the Nazi regime and its building, but I am sure that it will also attract a wider readership and anyone interested in the Second World War will find this a fascinating read.  In short I thoroughly recommend this book and it will most definitely be in my luggage when I travel to Berlin later this year, and undoubtedly be well-thumbed as I explore that city’s Second World War history.

Hardback
Pages: 202
Pen & Sword Military
Published: 11 April 2016

An uncertain future for the home of the ‘Secret Listeners’

Trent Park Camp, gefangene deutsche Offiziere
German Senior Officers at Trent Park, November 1944 ©Bundesarchiv

Wars produce innovation and ingenuity in all sorts of shapes and guises. During the Second World War this was particularly so, and as a result we have probably all heard of radar, bouncing bombs and swimming tanks.  Most people these days will also have heard, despite many years of secrecy, of the innovative approaches adopted at Bletchley Park to gather vital signals intelligence from Germany and its allies.  However, I suspect fewer people will be aware of another piece of unusual and innovative intelligence gathering that went on during the War.

Right at the start of the Second World War an organisation was set up that would become known as the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC).  Its purpose was to interrogate enemy prisoners of war.  It was run by an organisation called MI19 and led by a man with extensive experience in intelligence operations, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kendrick.  The organisation was initially located in the Tower of London, but soon moved to Trent Park in Cockfosters in the north-west London suburbs. Initially any prisoner, regardless of rank, who the authorities thought might have useful intelligence was sent to Trent Park.  Whilst incarcerated, unbeknownst to them, they were being listened to via microphones ingeniously concealed about the property.  Encouraged by ruses such as manufactured magazines and newspapers with leading articles, the prisoners were induced to talk to each other whilst all the time being overheard by ‘secret listeners’ based in the cellars of the house.  These listeners were mostly German exiles (many Jewish) who then translated and relayed the content of the conversations.  These conversations in turn provided interesting and useful intelligence.

Trent_Park_House,_London_N14_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1671443
Trent Park today ©Christine Matthews

In 1942 the success of this operation meant that two further facilities were created, one at Wilton Park in Beaconsfield, the other at Latimer in Chesham.  This also brought a refined focus for Trent Park where the population became very high powered with the main inmates being senior officers and generals.  The activities undertaken in all three houses were of great value.  Lulled into a false sense of security by their comfortable surroundings, the prisoners revealed all sorts of intelligence.  But it was probably Trent Park, with its population of senior German officers, that revealed the most.  When they let their guard slip the conversations amongst themselves revealed secrets of invaluable use to the Allies.

secret listener 001
A wartime picture of a ‘secret listener’ at work in Trent Park. ©Helen Fry

They overheard conversations as early as May 1943, that confirmed that Germany was developing the V-2 rocket at Peenemünde and which led to the bombing of this site in August of the same year.  Other conversations gave clear evidence of the atrocities that were being committed against the Jews.  In short these facilities, and especially Trent Park, were a key elements in the complex and highly successful Allied intelligence gathering machinery developed in the Second World War.  And like most of its counterparts, such as Bletchley Park, the full story of what happened at Trent Park was not known until fairly recently. As a result, and again like Bletchley Park, those who occupied the buildings after the War had no idea of the historical importance of the places they were in.

Post-war Trent Park was taken over by the Ministry of Education and initially became a teacher training college, before becoming part of Middlesex Polytechnic (later Middlesex University).  It was then sold to a Malaysia education institution in 2013 which, shortly afterwards, went into liquidation.  Finally it was acquired by a property development company who are working on plans for the site.  These plans currently include an intent to turn over part of the site to a museum telling the story of the Second World War activities conducted at Trent Park, although there is concern that this museum will not do justice to the fascinating story.

This week I had the opportunity to meet with a couple of people, Dr Helen Fry and Councillor Jason Charalambous, who are spearheading the campaign to try to make sure that any museum at Trent Park does indeed fully represent and commemorate the work undertaken there during the Second World War.  Helen is an author and historian who has written about Trent Park (her book The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis in WW2 was published in 2012), whilst Jason is a local resident and councillor.

Trent Park Team
Councillor Jason Charalambous and Dr Helen Fry, standing outside the recently restored Hut 3, on their visit to Bletchley Park.

I met Helen and Jason at Bletchley Park in order to share with them the journey Bletchley Park had gone on in its transformation from a set of largely derelict buildings to the successful heritage attraction it is today.  It was clear that there are parallels between the process that Bletchley Park has gone through and that which they are on at Trent Park.  They updated me on their campaign to Save Trent Park, and they have made an impressive start.  There is a petition organised, a Facebook page and an active Twitter presence @SaveTrentPark.  There is also an ongoing dialogue with the developer to try to shape the plans to meet everyone’s needs.

But I wanted to understand what could be saved and how it could be made accessible and engaging to the public.  The campaign’s online petition states as its first aim:

 ‘…the establishment of a museum across the entire ground floor and relevant rooms of the basement of the mansion house highlighting the crucial role it played in WWII…’

Whilst the developer has indicated that they are prepared to accommodate some form of museum in the main Grade II listed building the current conflict is over how much of the building should be made available to the general public. The campaigners are arguing that the cellars (pictured below) where the ‘secret listeners’ operated should be preserved and interpreted for visitors.  This seems a relatively easy and non-contentious step, and it is not difficult to envisage how some imaginative and engaging audio-visual interpretation and set dressing could turn this area into an atmospheric experience.

Trent Park basement cellars
The cellars at Trent Park, where the ‘secret listeners’ worked in the Second World War, as they are today. ©Helen Fry

The more controversial element of the campaign is over control of the whole of the ground floor of the mansion house, as I suspect that will also be prime real estate for the developer.  As Helen and Jason very clearly articulated, the ground floor of the Trent Park mansion building also has great historic significance.  In one room Thomas Kendrick had his office, in others the German inmates lived and interacted, and in doing so revealed their secrets.  There are also other elements in the ground floor rooms that would merit saving such as some rare Rex Whistler murals. In short much more of the main building is of historic value than the developers currently appear to be willing to make available for use as a museum.

The passion of the campaigners is clear and the story they wish to tell is one that is well worth telling.  Like other Second World War sites such as the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, Bletchley Park or the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool, what Trent Park has is that sense of place.  That sense that you can stand somewhere and feel the history, and that you can walk in the footprints of the people who made it.  Thus whilst developers need to get a return on their investment, and as a nation we need more housing, it would be nice to think that an accommodation could be brokered at Trent Park. This might then allow important parts of the site to be preserved and interpreted so that generations to come can marvel at the innovation and ingenuity that this nation showed in gathering intelligence during some of its darkest days.

Preservation, restoration or recreation. 

Destruction of Gettysburg Visitor centre
The removal of the old 1920s Gettysburg Visitor Centre in 2009.  This was done as part of the rehabilitation programme at the Gettysburg National Military Park, which is returning the battlefield to how it looked in 1863. (Picture: The blog of the Gettysburg National Military Park)

Much work is undertaken these days to maintain, repair and restore heritage sites, locations and buildings.  Such work often causes debate, in particular related to how much work should be done, to what, and why.  A recent project to renovate London’s Alexandra Palace produced much controversy and discussion about the nature of the proposed work and its purpose. It strikes me that in any work undertaken upon heritage sites and buildings, the key questions should of course focus on what we should do to such places in order to keep them for the future, but also very importantly, on how to make them relevant to today’s users and visitors.

Before I examine some examples, a few definitions.  For the purposes of this blog post I am going to talk about three processes that can be applied to heritage sites – restoration, preservation, and recreation.  There are a range of other terms that are used to cover similar ground, but to keep things simple I am going to use these three.

Restoration is essentially about taking something back to a former condition, such that it has an authentic appearance appropriate to the chosen period.

Preservation is about stopping an object, place, building etc. from deterioration or destruction, and preventing it from being altered or changed. These days this is often linked to the protection of architecture or the built environment. The key difference to restoration is that it is not the final appearance of the object, place or building that governs the process, but rather it is the retention of as much of the original fabric as possible, with minimal changes, that guides the final outcome.

Finally recreation is about replacing previously destroyed or removed objects, perhaps with a replica, or recreating fundamentally altered environments or settings, in order aid understanding.

Let me look at some examples.  The first is the American Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg which has undergone a programme of what has been termed rehabilitation. A look at the programme highlights that it includes elements of all the above categories. Restoration works has seen the removal of lots of 20th century intrusions such as buildings and car parks, as well as non-period vegetation that had encroached on the battlefield since the battle. Recreation sees the replanting of vegetation appropriate to the period, and alongside, preservation work has ensured that those authentic elements of the battlefield remain in place.

The underlying purpose of this project has been to:

‘…restore the Gettysburg Battlefield’s historic integrity, to enhance visitors’ understanding of and appreciation for what happened here, and to help create a sustainable environment by improving wetlands, water quality and wildlife habitat…’.

To guide what was required to make the battlefield more understandable, an analytical process called KOCOA has been used.  This means:

Key Terrain includes those areas that were seized, retained or controlled in battle.

Observation includes signal stations and fields of fire.

Cover and Concealment includes stone walls, woods, ridges and other features offering visual protection.

Obstacles include fences, buildings and field fortifications that affected military movement.

Avenues of Approach are the roads, farm lanes and open fields that led to the enemy.

By identifying these important locations on the battlefield the necessary action could then be taken to ensure the landscape presented to visitors was increasingly returned to, as near as possible, that present during the battle.  This allows the visitor to understand the all important impact of the terrain on the conduct of the battle and to ‘feel’ the battlefield. The images below are just one example of where this work has been completed.

Ohio Memorial Gettysburg (The Evening Sun)
This picture shows the memorial to G and I Companies of the 4th Ohio Infantry on the battlefield at Gettysburg.  On the left with the ‘Home Sweet Home’ motel, a 20th Century intrusion in the background, and on the right with the motel demolished and the terrain closer to resembling how it was at the time of the battle in July 1863. (Picture: The Evening Sun)

Gettysburg is not the only American Civil War battlefield going through this process and very recently similar plans have been implemented at the battlefield of Franklin (30 November 1864).

Another location that has been through a similar process in recent years, and one close to my heart, is Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England.  The location of the Government Code and Cypher School in the Second World War, Bletchley Park produced vital intelligence, the value of which had a profound impact on the conduct of the Second World War.

Hut 6
Bletchley Park’s historically important Hut 6 prior to restoration.

The site has been through a major restoration project during which the wartime huts in which vital codebreaking work was conducted were restored to their wartime appearance, and the landscape around them returned to its 1940s feel. Prior to this project the huts were in an appalling state of repair and close to being lost. The rationale employed by the Bletchley Park Trust in restoring them was firstly to stop them falling down, and by all accounts this was very close to happening. But rather than just preserving crumbling wooden huts, they were restored and made accessible to the public with audio-visual interpretation and set dressing in order to allow visitors to understand and experience the rudimentary conditions under which the difficult cerebral work of Bletchey Park’s wartime codebreakers was conducted.

A similar logic was applied to the landscape of the site which had been encroached upon by modern car parks.  These were removed and the wartime landscape recreated, as can be seen in the pictures below, not only capturing the wartime feel but also providing much better space for visitors to enjoy.

BP MANSION
Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England, the home of the Government Code and Cypher School in the Second World War.  The image on the left shows the site’s Mansion house surrounded by car parks before the restoration of the site in 2014, with the image on the right showing the same view post-restoration. 

The two examples I have cited above have been largely about the restoration of buildings and landscape in order to evoke a particular period.  There is of course equally strong merit in just preserving sites and buildings, be it for their architectural value or because the cost of doing anything more would be prohibitive.  Many a ruined castle would fall in this latter category where their reduction to ruins happened so long ago that the cost involved would be enormous. Equally in a ruined castle it is relatively easy to interpret the story and purpose of the building for a visitor, perhaps negating any more intrusive restoration.

Recreating lost buildings and places from scratch also has its place.  Obvious, and timely, examples are the replica trench systems that have been dug in a number of locations in the UK (and abroad) to tie up with the First World War Centenary.  These include the Coltman Trench at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield, and the Digging in project in Glasgow.  In these cases replica trench systems allow students and visitors to experience the physical surroundings of the trenches, which is difficult to do on the actual battlefields where most of the original trenches have long since disappeared.

Debates about the merits of preserving a heritage site versus the more radical approach of restoration, or rehabilitation as undertaken at Gettysburg, will, I have no doubt, continue to occur in many different guises in the future.  And the arguments either way are rarely likely to be clear-cut.  What I have tried to suggest above is that at some heritage sites the careful restoration, and in some cases selected recreation of spaces, places and buildings, can provide a greater insight into the importance of a place. In doing so the aim should always be to engage a visitor, and/or an inquiring mind.  If this can be achieved through careful and sympathetic restoration, then it is probably much better to follow this path than leaving derelict buildings preserved in aspic to attempt to talk for themselves!

 

 

 

Signs, guides and videotape…

Gettysburg Sign
One of the many interpretive signs that adorn American Civil War battlefields.

One of the challenges facing anyone running a heritage site is how to interpret, or explain, the site to visitors. The aim is alway to impart information in a manner that engages, educates and entertains them. I deliberatly use the term heritage site here, as I am primarily envisaging large spaces, usually outdoors, rather than the more controlled environment of an indoor museum, where technology, immersive audio-visual techniques, and traditional graphic panels can be used in large quantities. On such heritage sites the interpretation may have to bring to life a building, some ruins, archaeological remnants or an empty field that was once a bloody battlefield. In this blog post I want to explore some of the methods that can be, and are being, used to do this.

The key to any such interpretation is to present a balanced blend of accurate historical facts, an understanding of the place being interpreted and engaging storytelling. These days there is a range of ways in which this can be done that go well beyond the humble, but still much loved, guidebook.

For many years the tried and trusted interpretive board has been a good start. The image below shows one of a set located on the English Civil War battlefield of Naseby (14 June 1645) in Northamptonshire. This board has all the essentials. A couple of maps to show the course of the battle, some images to show the sort of troops fighting the battle, a narrative and in this case a very useful panoramic photograph to help the viewer relate to the ground they are observing.   Indeed this board, and its compatriots elsewhere on the site, do an extremely good job in providing the visitor with an understanding of the battlefield.  They are also supplemented by some resources on the Naseby website to help orientate the visitor before they arrive.

Naseby Board Image
A good example of an informative and engaging battlefield interpretation board.

The image below is an interpretive board at Bletchley Park that has to do a little less in the way of interpretation than the Naseby one, as it is sited in an already well-interpreted heritage site. But through the use of wartime pictures and quotes from veterans, an empty space within the site can be brought to life for the visitor.

BP Sign
An interpretive sign at Bletchley Park showing what activities happened on the ground in front of the board during the Second World War, using period photographs and quotes from veterans.

Such interpretive panels of course have their limitations. They are inanimate, they can be damaged and they can’t answer questions posed by the visitor!  Therefore for the many people there is probably nothing that beats a human interaction to bring a place to life. Indeed the less physical interpretation there is on a site the more this will tend to be so. A human guide has some obvious advantages over a static board.  She/he can interact with the audience, understand their needs, answer their questions and provide a more bespoke experience. Today human guides are employed in a raft of heritage sites and by numerous organisations.  These range from stately homes and heritage sites that have their own teams, to peripatetic battlefield guides taking groups of visitors on tours to sites around the world.

Guiding Monocacy
The author in full flow conducting a guided tour of the American Civil War battlefield of Monocacy (9 July 1864).

But is all cases the key to delivering high quality guiding is to have a good and effective training or development programme.  Most sites using guides have their own and organisations such as Britain’s ‘Blue Badge Guides‘ provide training programmes for multi-site guides, whilst the International Guild of Battlefield Guides provides a validation process to set a quality standard for battlefield guides.

One of the best guide training programmes I have come across is the Gettyburg Licensed Battlefield Guides training programme. Why is this? Well first of all it has a very demanding four-stage selection process. A Written Examination is followed by a Panel Interview, then a Mandatory Information and Orientation Programme, and finally an Oral Battlefield Examination. Quite a few hoops to jump through before becoming qualified, and the end result is a high quality cadre of well-respected guides.  But to me the most interesting thing about this programme is the underlying philosophy.  Even before entering its selection process candidates are asked to answer a very important question.  Is guiding for you?  In particular they are asked to consider a set of more detailed questions:

Do you love to teach?  Are you a storyteller?  Are you an extemporaneous speaker?  Are you a simplifier?  Do you love people?  Are you comfortable speaking to groups?  Are you flexible? Are you patient? Are you humble?

A very quick analysis of this list will reveal that, and it should come as no surprise to any high quality guide, the key attribute needed is to place ones audience at the centre of things. Unfortunately this sort of focus is not always evident in some guides.  Standing in front of an audience and interpreting a place or a battlefield requires self-confidence and a strong element of showmanship, traits that can be at odds with the humility and visitor focus outlined above. Sometimes the ego takes over and the guide becomes the end in itself, rather than a vehicle to interpret the place for the visitor.

Another challenge with human guides is quality control.  The guide has to walk a fine line between being an historian and a storyteller. No one is going to stand for a hour on guided tour if the guide is not engaging and entertaining.  But this should not mean that the guide lets the truth get in the way of telling a good story!  I have been to guided tours in more than one location where myths have been more prevalent than reality.  This therefore requires that the training programme must have a validation or quality control element to it.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti human guides – far from it I’m one myself!  But the limitations and issues highlighted above must be considered when they are used. And there is one other significant limitation to a human guide and that is that they are not always available! But these days technology is on hand to help with this particular problem.

Today, with a smartphone in many pockets, there has been a huge growth in app technology to assist the heritage visitor.  These come in a variety of shapes and guises, but all have some overarching benefits to those trying to understand a price of heritage or those trying to interpret it. These benefits are principally the ability to provide consistent, accurate, high-quality and repeatable content.  As a user you can be delivered hours of quality material on a handheld device which can be explored at ones own pace, both at the site being visited, or at leisure in ones hotel room or at home. For the interpreter, visitors can be provided with a whole raft of content, using a range of media and with a consistent standard of delivery to every visitor, so quality control is never an issue.

Battle App Overview
A screenshot from the Civil War Trust’s Bull Run Battle App® Guide

By way of a very good example of this genre, I would highlight the United States’ Civil War Trust’s Battle Apps® Guides series of guides to some of the key battles of the American Civil War. The screenshot above is taken from the app for the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861).  As can be seen the quality of the mapping is excellent and activating buttons marking stops and places additional content is exposed, as cab be seen in the screenshot below.

Battle App Detail
Another screenshot from the Civil War Trust Bull Run Battle App® Guide showing some of the more detailed content.

As mentioned earlier this technology also allows the embedding of a whole range of static and dynamic media, from contemporary photographs and maps, to sound clips and video.  The example below, taken from the Bull Run app and featuring Civil War Trust’s Director of History and Education Garry Adelmen, demonstrates how a visitor can almost have the best of both worlds.  A human guide recorded talking about a location, with the flexibility of having the information to take away on their own portable device!

This technological approach is of course not without its limitations too.  At the moment it can’t answer a question from a visitor in the way a human guide can.  There are also technical issues in the form of battery life and the need to download some content which might be difficult on a remote site without data connectivity.  But as a mass method of providing interpretation there is much benefit in this approach. In the future I suspect that other technologies will emerge to enhance this form of interpretation.  For example the potential to use wearable technology, such as a Google Glass style device, integrated with interpretation.   There are teething problems to resolve in this area, but the possibilities are very exciting.

To conclude I have looked at a number of different methods of interpreting heritage sites. None should be looked at in isolation and there is great value to the visitor of a heritage site in having a layered approach that uses some or all of the methods highlighted. This gives the visitor choice and variety, and a range of opportunities for them to engage with the site, be educated by it, and have an entertaining day out.

Why maps are essential tools for understanding history 

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A section of John Bachelder’s map of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, 3 July 1863. The map was produced in 1863 from first hand accounts of combatants and Bachelder’s personal visits to the battlefield.

The map above was produced over 150 years ago by John Bachelder to help explain Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of the Battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863).  Even though it was produced all those years ago it still fascinates and engages me.  To me maps are essential tools in interpreting history, yet I still find history books being published that lack adequate, and in some cases any, maps. It is a failing that I find inexcusable and very frustrating. History is all about the relationship between people, events and places.  To fail to provide visual material to support this is to leave the reader without key information and context.  In this blog I wish to explore the important role maps have to play in understanding history, and to highlight a few excellent and useful examples.

One of the most crucial areas of history to require maps is military history.  Without good maps it is impossible to really understand battlefields. The relationship between military operations and the terrain over which they are conducted is inextricable. The International Guild of Battlefield Guides nicely summarises this in its approach to interpreting battlefields. This seeks to examine and understand battlefields from three different but interrelated perspectives. The historical. The topological. The archaeological.

In this triumvirate, history is the story of the battle. This considers who took part and why, the armies, their commanders, the weaponry used, the chronology of the events, the narrative and how they all relate.  But these in themselves make little sense without looking at the topology, or terrain, over which the battle took place and how that ground affected the battle. The terrain could be the macro-terrain such as the impact of an impassable river, rugged mountains or an impenetrable area of forestry.  It could equally be the micro-terrain, the folds in the ground or other small features that influenced the tactical action.

The final element to be considered is the archaeology. That is what has changed since the battle, and what the terrain looked like at the time.  This information is crucial especially where modern life has encroached, be it housing, foliage or any other modern intrusions.  Interestingly enough, on some of the world’s best-preserved battlefields, this is especially so in America, work is often conducted to remove buildings and vegetation that were not on the battlefields at the time in order for modern day visitors to appreciate the terrain as it was.

Now I have digressed a little from my title, but I think that by highlighting how these three perspectives are linked, helps signpost how a map can bring history to life.  A simple but well crafted map can show all these elements in great clarity.  It can depict the terrain, its undulations, its habitation, its vegetation, its rivers, in fact any physical feature, as they are today and/or at the time of a battle or historical event.  Very importantly a map can give an idea of scale, which is very difficult to do in any other way.  The history can then be overplayed on this for a rich informative picture. There are many excellent examples of maps being produced today that do just this.  Some of the best I have seen are those prepared by Steven Stanley for the Civil War Preservation Trust in America, who now have a series of battlefield maps for all the key sites of the American Civil War.  The map below is an excellent example of this series.  The painstaking attention to detail employed in depicting the terrain, the troop deployments and movement, and the difference between the modern landscape and the historic, allow the viewer to understand the battle in detail.

Antietam
One of the Civil War Preservation Trust’s extensive range of maps of America Civil War battlefields.

Now the same logic I have outlined so far can be applied, with varying degrees of modification, to other environments and types of history equally well. To me it would be inconceivable to write the history of a city without a map to show how it had developed over time.  Or to write a history of railways, or a railway line, without a map illustrating the route or the network.

Thus far  I have really only looked at modern maps designed and produced specifically to explain a battle or place.  But there is of course huge value in using primary source maps, contemporaneous to the events.  A good example, and a source I use regularly on battlefield tours, are the trench maps produced in the First World War to aid the troops in the front lines.  These are now readily available to modern day historians from a variety of sources, and provide an invaluable resource to help envisage and understand battlefields on which the trenches and fortifications of the War have, by and large, been removed and the landscape returned to farming.

Thiepval Trench Map
A typical First World War trench map. This one produced by the British Army shows German trenches (in red) in and around the village of Thiepval in 1916.

Historic maps come in all shapes and guises.  A set I also particularly like were produced by Charles Booth (1840–1916) an English social researcher and reformer.  A example of Booth’s maps is seen below and is taken from a multi-volume work called ‘Life and Labour of the People in London’ which surveyed the lives and occupations of the working classes of London in the late Nineteenth century. The maps were colour coded by social group. The red areas were classified as ‘middle class, well-to-do’, purple as ‘Mixed, some comfortable, others poor’, the pink areas ‘fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings’, the light blue areas as ‘poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family’, the dark blue areas are ‘very poor, casual, chronic want’, and black areas are the ‘lowest class vicious, semi-criminals’.  The resulting maps give an illuminating insight into the social construct of the city at that time, in particular the juxtaposition of a range of social groups sometimes in quite small geographic areas. Very importantly this sort of insight and impact is very difficult to convey in just words, with the maps providing a crucial spatial dimension.

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One of Charles Booth’s maps of the social composition of the population within Bethnal Green, London during the late Nineteenth Century.

Maps can also go beyond the basic and familiar format. One of my favourites, because it so graphically illustrates the subject matter it is portraying, is Charles Minard’s map of the Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated expedition to Russia in 1812-1813.   (See images below.) Produced in 1869 it was described as a figurative map and illustrated very dramatically the devastating losses incurred by Napoleon’s army as it first invaded and then retreated from Russia. To my mind no words can sum up as well, nor have as much impact, as this map does in displaying the destruction of this huge army.

Minard French
Charles Minard’s figurative map of the cumulative manpower losses of the French Army during the Russian campaign 1812-1813. The light brown line illustrates the size of Napoleon’s army on the way to Moscow, the black line during the retreat. (en.wikipedia.org) [Click image to see larger version.]
Minard_map_of_napoleon
A English translation of Charles Minard’s figurative map. (en.wikipedia.org ) [Click image to see larger version.]
Modern technology and interpretive techniques, now makes all this sort of information even more accessible, useable and much easier to portray on a map.  A great example is the Bomb Sight project which is, as stated on their website:

‘…mapping the London WW2 bomb census between 7/10/1940 and 06/06/1941. Previously available only by viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.

The project has scanned original 1940s bomb census maps, geo-referenced the maps and digitally captured the geographical locations of all the falling bombs recorded on the original map.

The image below illustrates how the information is overlaid very simply onto a modern base map.  This allows someone with the map on a mobile device, to explore the streets of London and understand the impact of the ‘Blitz’ on its streets and buildings.

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A snapshot of the Bomb Sight Blitz map of London available online.

Modern graphic techniques are also now being used to build on the sort of work originally undertaken by the likes of Charles Minard, and combine mapping, strong imagery and rich information into ‘infographics’. These perhaps push at the boundaries of what I have been discussing and are probably not considered to be a map by the purist.  However, as the example below demonstrates very well, this genre can create an engaging and interesting visual which clearly links locations with actions or events,and the historical story, thus providing the viewer with a great deal of useful information in an easily digestible form.

Pearl Harbour Infographic
A very good infographic that combines mapping and information to provide a rich visual source of information. (Image from The Orange County Register)

So to return to my title, why are maps essential to understanding history?  I hope I have begun to show that the interrelation between people, events, activities and places is at the heart of history.  A good map is able to take all these elements, place them on a two-dimensional space, and bring these interactions to life.  To produce good maps requires accurate content, meticulously researched and cross-referenced.  It also requires high quality presentation of this information to engage the viewer and entice them to explore the detail.  Properly executed, whether a map is a modern one designed to explain a specific battle or event, or an historic map created for a particular purpose at the time, the way a good map can relay factual information far exceeds the ability of words to do so.  Indeed to paraphrase an old saying, it is very much a case of ‘… a map paints a thousand words…’.

The power of ‘place’ in history and heritage

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The view west from Little Round Top in the Gettysburg National Military Park.

One of the most powerful forces in heritage is the ability of a place to evoke and inspire visitors.  To stand at the spot where ‘it happened’ is an awe-inspiring feeling.  The ‘it’ could be one of a number of events, in one of any number of places, but bringing them together can create a spine tingling effect.  I want to highlight some examples of such places that particularly resonate with me and explain why.

As an active and avid battlefield guide for many years, I am often moved as I stand on a battlefield knowing that at some point previously a momentous, and invariably tragic, event had taken place there.

One of my favourite battlefields is Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg is one of the most written about in history and was a pivotal moment in the American Civil War.   This epic struggle took place between the 1st and 3rd of July 1863 and was the culmination of an invasion of the north by a Confederate Army under the command of General Robert E Lee. After three days of battle Lee had failed to gain a victory and was forced to retreat southwards.  It is often referred to as the ‘High Tide of the Confederacy’ because following the battle, the Confederate forces were never again in a position to seriously threaten the Union on its own territory.

One particular location on the Gettysburg battlefield embodies for me how a place can capture the essence of such an enormous event.  This is Little Round Top, a small hill on the southern end of the battlefield.  On the 2nd of July it was the left flank of a defensive position held by the Union Army.  Its southerly slopes were occupied by the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, and formed the extreme left flank of the Union Army.  During that day the Confederates launched a major attack against this flank, which was ultimately repelled by the Union forces. The crucial turning point in this part of the battle is usually attributed to the actions of the 20th Maine, who charged down the hill at bayonet point, routing the Confederates and holding the line.  This action is brilliantly evoked in Don Troiani’s picture below.

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‘Bayonet’ by Don Troiani. The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment charge the Confederates on Little Round Top on 2 July 1863, with Colonel Joshua Chamberlain leading the action.

The crucial actions of the 20th Maine that day stopped the Confederate advance and stabilised the line.  This contributed to the Union victory at Gettysburg, that helped to pave the way for the Union triumph in the war, and ultimately helped to shape the United States as it is today. To stand in the positions occupied by the 20th Maine on that day, to see the ground they fought on, and to understand the terrain over which they charged, is to sense the importance of this ‘place’ in history.

Move forward from Gettysburg just over fifty years, and a very different location; Verdun in the Meuse department of the French Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine region.  Between February and December 1916 this area saw French and German forces slug it out in one of the bloodiest and most infamous battles of the First World War.  The casualties endured in the battle are still argued over today, but a conservative estimate puts French losses at 162,000 killed or missing and 216,000 wounded, with the German figures being 142,000 and 187,000 respectively. At the end of the First World War the landscape of this area had been destroyed. Nine villages that had been vacated were not rebuilt.  The ground was so badly polluted by chemicals from high-explosive shells and the bodies of the hundreds of thousands of dead, that it was unfit for cultivation.  Instead the battlefield was designated a ‘red zone’, conifers planted and the area turned into forest.  Today the battlefield is another location with a huge sense of place.

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Aerial views of Fort Douaumont at the centre of the Verdun battlefield. The upper picture show the fort at the start of the battle, the lower picture at the end.

Exploring the battlefield of Verdun one is struck by a dichotomy. The tranquillity of the landscape today and the great horror of a hundred years ago that left the land so scarred.   But as one stands on the battlefield having seen pictures and photographs of the fighting, and read recollections of the battle, it is hard not to be struck by the atmosphere of the place. The great military historian and battlefield guide, Professor Richard Holmes, once described the battlefield of Verdun as the “…saddest place he knew…”  It is certainly a quiet and melancholy place, but for me it also conjures up the intensity of the battle and the sacrifice that took place.  To stand in its now empty forts, or walk through the quiet forest, one can almost sense the ghosts of the thousands of dead walking beside you.

Sometimes it is not the event itself that is momentous, rather the eventual consequences.  One particular spot that captures this for me is Commander Alastair Denniston’s office in the Mansion at Bletchley Park.  It was from this office that, from September 1939 until his move on in early 1942, Denniston lead the Government Code and Cypher School, the organisation that operated Bletchley Park.  Here he grew, developed and directed its codebreaking and intelligence production activities.  To stand in his office is to appreciate a sense of place. But for me there is an event, very small at the time, but which led to something much bigger, that amplifies this feeling even more.

Denniston Office
The office in Bletchley Park’s Mansion, of Commander Alastair Denniston, the first Head of the Government Code and Cypher School (the forerunner of today’s GCHQ).

On 8 February 1941, some ten months before the United States of America entered the Second World War, a small group of Americans arrived at Bletchley Park to begin a process of sharing the separate strands of signals intelligence work each nation was undertaking.  They arrived after an eventful journey by sea and a long drive into the depths of the English countryside.  On arrival Denniston and his team greeted them and offered a peculiarly British welcome – a glass of sherry.  The Americans brought with them details of their success in breaking Japanese ciphers, whilst the British shared their work on breaking into the German Enigma cipher.  This sharing led to closer cooperation when America entered the Second World War, with over two hundred American personnel eventually forming part of the team at Bletchley Park.

Now I have to declare an interest here as I work at Bletchley Park and have the privilege of being able to visit this spot every day if I wish.  But standing in Denniston’s office one can picture that cold February night in 1941 and the arrival of the American team.  This was a huge leap of faith by both sides at such a crucial point in the War.  The legacy of this event, the anniversary of which has been commemorated this week, still endures today as from these small beginnings grew the UKUSA Agreement which now underpins the ongoing cooperation between GCHQ and its US equivalent the NSA.  The power of place is impressed on you when you realise that events in this office seventy-five years ago, led to such an important outcome.

The examples of historic locations and events I have cited above, to me, embody the idea of place. And it is often this sense of place that attracts visitors to come to such sites.  To stand in the footprints of our forebears, to feel their ghosts looking over our shoulders and to understand the importance of the events that occurred in these locations is a compelling reason to visit heritage sites. There is nothing more likely to help a visitor appreciate and connect with history than to stand in a place and to know that ‘it happened here’.