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THE LANDSCAPE OF INTERPRETATIVE CENTRES

Interpretative centres have certainly been in the news recently. The deferment of further planning of the Burren and Blasket Island parks until October and the pending announcement of the results of the public inquiry into the Boyne Valley archaeological park mean that issues which have been raised over the summer and some of which are the subject of our Soapbox feature will appear again. It is a healthy sign for public interest in our heritage that such issues are now vigorously debated. No longer is it accepted that something is necessarily good because it means that more people will be attracted to an area and jobs possibly created.

One of the spin-offs from the proposed Burren National Park interpretative centre at Mullaghmore is the concept that the existing heritage centre at Kilfenora would concentrate on the human impact on the Burren while the new centre would specifically deal with the Burren natural environment. This is symptomatic of an approach to heritage which neatly separates and packages it into two discrete entities, the human or built and the physical. This is a totally false dichotomy and one of the major thrusts of research in the history of the Burren, for example, has been to study the dynamic interrelationship between people and the landscape from early prehistoric times.

The location of the Burren, the Dunquin and the visitor centre for the Wicklow Mountains National Park have all come under fire for indicating a lack of sensitivity to the impact of presentday activity on pristine areas of environment by the very authorities and professionals who are responsible for the management of the landscape. Just because the purpose of a new facility is a worthy one and it will be a low-key architectural statement, does not justify its construction in a sensitive area, particularly when in each case cited here there are existing nodes of settlement nearby where interpretation services could be built to integrate with the local economy.

It seems to be an inevitable aspect of the interpretative centre approach that the physical plant becomes the focus of expenditure in the project. Somewhere along the line an underlying assumption or decision was made that most of the European Community Structural Fund finance which has been the spur for a lot of the development of national heritage projects would be spent on the buildings which are to house the displays interpretating the surrounding landscape and on associated visitor facilities. The present splurge of development is motivated not just out of a heightened official awareness of the importance of heritage but, more immediately, by the 1992 deadline on the spending of these funds. It does seem paradoxical that what we call heritage spending in fact ends up as adding more modern buildings and carparks to the landscape.

Cover Picture—Carrowmore, Co. Sligo Photograph—Hugh MacConville.

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