Sister, wife, daughter, granddaughter, teacher, museums lover, environmentalist, radical, traditionalist, protester, tolerant // intolerant …immigrant.
I am all of these things, sometimes aspects of my life come into stronger focus than others but they are all me. Sometimes these things come into conflict with each other but it doesn’t make them any less a part of who I am.
What do others see?
I am not sure.
I can tell you what they comment on – my accent.
So what does this have to do with identity?
Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre gets over 120,000 people visiting each year and over a quarter of a million people come to the site. They come from across the world, speak many different languages and all have their own world view. Our job is to give our visitors an understanding of what happened at Culloden, explore the complexities of conflict and discuss how the Jacobite rising impacted on world history.
These are big asks. The Jacobite story is a complicated one, full of religion, politics and family lineages. The story ranges across the globe, and it doesn’t finish at Culloden; there is a paranoia about Jacobites that lingers long after the rising finishes.
At Culloden we attempt to give a balanced view of this ‘civil’ war – however, people that visit can be focused on the romantic. While we do have visitors who are well versed in eighteenth-century history, many people visit with no concrete notion of what happened, where and why.
In a recent online survey, when questioned about the site, people (both those who have visited and those who have not) equated the story of the battlefield with words such as ‘pride’, ‘heritage’ and ‘honour’. In addition they were looking for an ‘authentic’ experience. We have a significant number of our visitors who come from overseas, as ancestral tourists and at Culloden they find a connection to a real or sometimes imagined past. To put this in context to the idea of identity – visitors can come to the site seeking to validate their conceptions of self.
They are looking for an intangible connection to who they are. Our programming, the histories we tell, and the way we tell them create an environment that is pitched to enable critical thought. This process can be difficult; visitors can be confronted with uncomfortable realities and at times don’t want their version of history to be challenged. I am reminded of a time when a visitor was in tears because the ancestors they assumed fought on the Jacobite side, in reality were members of the Government army.
At Culloden context is key. Unless we have diaries or first-hand accounts, often the only way we can learn about a person or their actions is from what others say about them or what records of their life survive (second or third hand accounts). If we are lucky we may be able to have a sense of who a person was, however we are looking at their actions through our twenty-first-century lens. Working with identities, in the past and in the present is not easy; as practitioners, we don’t know how people conceptualise themselves and it is dangerous to make assumptions.
This is particularly true when it comes to working with school students or those who are from vulnerable groups.
Therefore, our programming is about building and encouraging our visitors and participants to exercise their critical thinking skills, to develop their self-confidence, creativity and the ability to express themselves. This is not about imparting information, rather it is about facilitating discussion.
In many ways I think the concept of teaching identity is false. We explore, discuss and work with identity. You are who you think you are; we create our ideas of self and express that to the world. Our stories are also impacted by the perceptions of others – that is why it is so vital that we remember that, when dealing with identity, we often hear only one part of something that is very complex.
Working in public spaces with the concept of identity both in the present and in the past is challenging, frightening and exciting. We engage in a conversation with people about topics that are meaningful and through our programming make a lasting impact on people’s lives.