Interpretation: past and future

Elery Hamilton-Smith, Rethink Consulting Pty Ltd


This paper will review the history of cave interpretation in Australia, commencing with 19th century themes of mystery, context, beauty, exploration, science and wonder, rugged reality, spirituality and grand adventure. It will show how industrialisation of caves has led to mass production and trivialisation. Some suggestions will be presented for future directions ; recapturing some themes from the past, diversifying the experiences to be offered and enhancing the quality of all that is done. It will also comment on what might prove to be dead-end roads.


Although heritage interpretation is often seen as a recent innovation, it has been with us at least since Herodotus (c. 400BC), who made many comments upon the guides who informed and mis-informed him on his travels (Casson 1974: 104-106). Some 300 years later, the art of interpretation was sufficiently advanced that Plutarch was able to report:

... The guides went through their standard speech, paying no attention whatsoever to our entreaties to cut the talk short and leave out most of the explanations of the inscriptions and epitaphs. (Casson, 1974: 265)

I have been recently engaged in writing a history of Australian Caves, and this paper draws primarily upon what we know of the Anglo-Celtic interpretation of caves over the last 150 years. I regret that time just will not allow me to do justice to the previous 50,000 years throughout the world, which would have included that of Australia's first people, but that would raise a whole lot of further questions. Even the limited time span I have chosen raises a whole series of questions and issues about the interpretation of our natural and cultural heritage.


We can commence with Augustus Earle in 1826. Throughout his Australian work, Earle showed a great fascination with rock forms, and at the Wellington Caves, he not only portrayed the characteristic morphology of the cave tunnels, but more importantly, he highlighted the importance of mystery and the unknown, and even now, challenges us to confront the unsolved mysteries of our heritage (Hackforth-Jones 1980). It seems to me indeed unfortunate that so much of contemporary interpretation is full of answers, rather than pointing to the unsolved mysteries which demand continuing exploration.

Still at Wellington, Sir Thomas Mitchell and his colleagues showed the importance of relating heritage to its contemporary social and political context. On hearing of the discovery of bones in the Wellington Caves, the ever-ambitious Mitchell rushed to the site at the first opportunity, recognising that these fossil remains might add something to the currently lively debate about the universal deluge. By further investigating this discovery, Mitchell virtually pre-empted the credit for the find, and achieved a considerable fame. His reports described the first excavation of the remains of the extinct megafauna of Australia, and in addition to their original publication in Edinburgh were reprinted in the United States and also translated in at least German and Italian journals (Hamilton-Smith, in prep). A few pages of Australia's first children's book were devoted to the excitement of these discoveries (anon, 1841), and Bennett (1834: 189) was able to report that 'since the valuable discovery of fossil bones in those at Wellington Valley by Major Mitchell and others, limestone caverns have become one of the colonial lions'.

Although Mitchell's talent for self-promotion no doubt contributed to the notice which his discoveries gained, there is no question that his sense of the opportunity offered by one of the great debates of the time played a central role. Today, some interpretation is similarly located within the context of wider and culturally significant questions - but a great deal is not. On the other hand, Mitchell's approach demanded a simple view of the world which could be readily communicated, and so he ignored or remained unaware of the caves themselves as interesting natural phenomena, and concentrated his interest upon their role as a container for megafaunal bones; accounts of his later exploration include occasional visits to caves - but after a brief hunt for bones, he lost all interest.

However, he did give attention to the aesthetic dimensions of both natural and cultural heritage. His sketches and paintings invite us to share the gaze and wonder of his friends, with whom we can identify; this simple artistic trick makes his communication more effective simply because we share the beauty and wonder with those who are right there. Conrad Martens also painted at Wellington, but particularly at Abercrombie Caves (Bonyhady 1985, Jones 1988). His many paintings were deservedly popular, and again demonstrate the importance of the aesthetic dimension. Yet, despite his superior technical skill as an artist, his cave painting lacks the impact of Mitchell's simply because he did not include the viewer in the picture; we look in from outside. So, these two artists both impress upon us the importance of simple beauty, but raise the question of how we might most effectively help other people become more sensitive to the potential beauty of what they view.

The greatest pioneer scientist of Australian Caves was the astonishing priest, educator, mystic, musician, writer and scientist, Father Julian Tenison-Woods. He explored the Naracoorte Caves, and in both his book, Geological Observations in South Australia (1862), and various newspaper articles, he endeavoured to share his understandings of the caves. Unlike Mitchell, he did not simplify or trivialise his findings for easier communication; rather, he discussed his difficulty in interpreting what he saw. On one hand, he struggled to remain loyal to the writings of his mentor, Sir Charles Lyell, in his great Principles of Geology, but on the other, tried to remain true to his own observations. In hindsight, we can now see that through his own observations, he came within sight, indeed even closer, to theories about cave genesis in soft limestones which were not again recognised for 100 years, but these were somewhat lost in his attempts to reconcile his own ideas with those of Lyell.

It seems to me that we can see a number of interesting themes being expressed here. Perhaps the most important is that, just as Woods did, we need to share the current struggle for greater understanding of any one phenomenon, rather than to pretend that we have reached understanding. Again, the mystery and the unanswered questions can be more exciting than a neatly packaged set of answers. Secondly, again as Woods did, we need to understand that most phenomena are complex, arise out of a whole series of causative factors, can be explained on a number of levels, and anything like a comprehensive understanding demands that we draw upon a number of perspectives and disciplines. In other words, we need to not only place our interpretation in a social and political context, but also to help construct a truly holistic view of the total phenomenon which are trying to interpret. Thirdly, we should beware of textbooks, and try to help others develop a similar sense of suspicion! Lyell wrote from his experience of caves in very old, hard limestones of Western Europe (principally Yorkshire); wrote as if he had a full understanding of all caves; yet had never experienced caves like those which Woods was struggling to understand. Many of us, if we are honest, have experienced such textbooks; let us continue to use them, but both in our own thinking and in interpretation, recognise their limitations.


Meanwhile, at Chudleigh in Northern Tasmania, visitors were receiving two very different experiences of what seems to have been Australia's first public access cave to be shown to tourists. The first was offered by 'Old Pickett', who was showing that nature is not always user-friendly, but may be savage or at least extremely uncomfortable.

Pickett was a ticket-of-leave man, who on his release became the publican at Chudleigh, where he lived to be a centenarian. But he made a point of ensuring that every Governor (ten of them) who visited the famous Chudleigh Caves was given the pleasure of his own special kind of guiding services. One can only suspect that he rightly perceived the governors as representatives of the power which had sent him to Port Arthur and was determined to have at least some revenge for his own much greater discomfort. Fortunately for us, Anthony Trollope accompanied one of those governors, and reported on the experience in his own inimitable style, so it is worth quoting him at some length:

The Chudleigh Caves are one of the wonders of Tasmania - and indeed, they are very wonderful. We went there in true gubernatorial style with four horses - for it must be understood that throughout the colonies, when it is known that the governor is coming, things are done as they should be. We had a very pleasant day, more than ordinarily so; but the Chudleigh Caves should not be visited by anyone lightly, and I think I may take upon myself to say that they should not be visited by ladies at all.
An old man attached himself to us, who seemed to have the caves under his particular care, and assured us he had shown all the governors over them. He came out upon us from a public house, of which he was the proprietor, and promising us that we should have the benefit of his services, followed us on a wonderful rat-tailed mare, with which he jumped over every obstruction along the road, and made himself very busy, assuring the governor that no governor could see the caves aright without him, and taking command of the whole party with that air of authority that always carries success with it. Stalactite caves are not uncommon in the world. Those at Cheddar in Somersetshire are very well known and are very pretty. But are nothing to the Chudleigh caves in bigness, blackness, water, dirt, and the enforced necessity of crawling, creeping, wading, and knocking ones head about at every turn.
Mr. Pickett lighted the candles then he led the way gallantly, splashing down into the mud, and inviting his Excellency to take heart and fear nothing. His Excellency took heart and went on. Whether he feared anything, I cannot say. I did - when I had broken my head for the third time, and especially when I had crawled through a crevice in which I nearly stuck, and as to which I felt almost certain I should never be able to force my way back again. Pickett was insistent with us to go on to the end. We had not seen half the wonders of the place - which by-the-bye were invisible by reason of the outer darkness. But we were cold to the marrow of our bones, wet through, covered with mud, and assured that, if we did go on, the journey must be made partly on our hands and knees, and partly after the fashion of serpents. At last we rebelled and insisted on being allowed to return. I think that I will never visit another cave. Mr. Pickett told us, as we took our leave of him, that he should not enter the caves again until another governor should come to see them. (Trollope 1873, in Dow 1966: 165-167)

At the same site, landowner Henry Reed often conducted his own visitors to the caves for a very different kind of experience. Reed was a successful pastoralist, businessman and developer, but also a missioner of high repute, noted and admired for his sympathy, sensitivity and kindness to both the Aboriginals and the convicts of Tasmania. Reed saw the caves as an opportunity for exciting people about the mystery and wonder of the natural world and giving them a chance to appreciate the spiritual dimension of our natural heritage. So, one of his visitors reported:

Three of us ventured within the high-roofed cave. What a change of atmosphere. It was fresh and cool as though we had reached the birthplace of the icebergs; a real refrigerator where sunbeams never wander, and solar light and heat are never known. Armed with candles and matches we penetrate the darkness. A considerable stream runs through the caverns, a winding stream, so that we are forced to cross it many times. We often appreciate our mercies most when we have lost them. Never before did I realise so intensely the advantage of wearing boots, for the rough stones were trying to my bare feet, and the icy chilliness of the stream, with the darkness so intense, made our bootless travelling anything but pleasant work. Still nothing can be done or seen without a certain amount of trouble, the enjoyment often being all the sweeter for the previous toils. How much depended on these lights we carried! They seemed the brighter for the unchanging gloom and lasting night in which we were immersed. We thought of Shakespeare's metaphor,
'How far yon little candle throws its beams,
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.'
and we prayed for grace to 'walk as children of the light.' But there are wonders above us as well as beneath and around. The rocky roof is bright with phosphorescent light. We stretch one hand towards it and find upon our finger a glow-worm, who made it has delight to do his little best to light the gloom; and there are myriads of them, like nature's tapers, shining in her palace underground (Reed 1906: 122-127).

Even though many of us today would not share the same spiritual sense or vocabulary of Reed and his visitors, there is no question that there is a widespread sense of spiritual quest in the community; our interpretive efforts cannot, in my opinion, be comprehensive unless we provide the opportunity for visitors to appreciate the spiritual dimension of any heritage experience.


So, we can learn some interesting things from the first part of the nineteenth century, but at least partly because of the success of cave interpretation during this period, Jenolan Caves became Australia's major single tourist destination by the 1880s, partly because of the excitement associated with travelling to what was at that time a truly remote location (Dunkley 1986, Stanbury 1988, Horne 1994), and partly because of the on-site excitement generated by curator Jeremiah Wilson and his successors. Wilson was a showman and entrepreneur of the first order, and his extravagant personality, fund of anecdotes and sense of showmanship established one ideal for cave interpretation in Australia. He equipped visitors with candles, and whenever they reached a site of special beauty:

Jerry gave the word to 'douse candles' and then, when we were all standing in the dark on the tiptoe of expectation, turned the dazzling light of the magnesium wire on such a wonderful series of fairylike scenes as none can imagine who have not seen them'. Another visitor commented that 'Our guide 'Jerry' who, by the way, is as full of fun as he is deafness, was most indefatigable in his attentions to us all, and especially to the ladies'.

Jeremiah was the first of the 'hero guides', who made much of their own exploits in the discovery of the caves, often embellishing the story appropriately. Wiburd at Jenolan, Moon at Buchan, Reddan at Naracoorte and others all claimed a key place in interpretation. Only the shy and self-effacing Frederick Wilson endeavoured, at both Jenolan and Buchan, to develop a truly sensitive and environmentally-based view of the caves (Hamilton-Smith, in prep).

Jeremiah Wilson, as the first of the entrepreneur-guides, also set the pattern for industrialisation of the cave experience. Visitors were herded into groups and conducted through the cave by a guide, who usually talked of his own, or his hero's, role in exploration, then displayed various scenes, usually described by some fanciful resemblance to other objects, real or imaginary : Lace Curtains, Cathedral Windows, the Bath of Venus, Madonna, the Christmas Tree, or whatever. The caves were trivialised into a series of fanciful pictures. This process was greatly assisted by the development of electric lighting (at Jenolan in 1880 - one of the very early uses of electric lighting, and certainly the first in a cave). Other symbols of industrialisation included coffee-table books, purpose-built accommodation, special transport arrangements, millions of postcards and a multitude of other souvenirs, and the like. Massive advertising campaigns developed and were visible in newspapers, brochures, theatre advertisements, posters and a host of other media. In a way, all of this was, of course, interpretation, even if trivialised. It always amazes me that when a professional sets out to interpret a site, he or she generally acts as if the advertising and souvenir industries did not exist, when they often have the widest and most powerful public exposure; good interpretation should start long before a visitor reaches a site and advertising does just that.

One could spend a long time analysing the 20th century experience of cave interpretation; but I will simply confine myself to a few illustrations. From a fanciful interpretation, it was only one step to enhancement of the natural cavescape; sometimes this might be justified in terms of improving upon nature, such as Reddan's 'Mirror' in the Alexandra Cave at Naracoorte or the Twelve Apostles (originally three) in the Royal Cave at Buchan. But it is hard to maintain enthusiasm for Lane's 'Tantanoola Tiger' - supposedly illustrating a bit of local fakelore at Tantanoola, or even the calcite mosaic decorating Silver Stocking Cabaret Cave in Western Australia, even though the latter is now really of heritage value in itself as Australia's only Art Deco cave.

There was also some memorable humour, like the Jenolan guide who used to tell visitors that the Exhibition Chamber at Jenolan had three-quarters of an acre of roof - "all of it held up by that broken column over there" Regrettably, most attempts at humour were much less successful


The good news is that over the last twenty years, cave managers have increasingly moved to environmental interpretation, and we know that this had an impact upon public understanding and values. Today, managers are experimenting with a range of less industrialised approaches to cave tourism, and to the development of a new and wider range of interpretive models, some of which builds upon the almost forgotten lessons of the 19th century. The potential role of visual arts and music, the creative use of silence, and the remarkable possibilities in infra-red imagery and other technologically-based possibilities are all being explored. The bad news is that some guides are still parroting old stories; some managers are demonstrating a tragic lack of imagination; some so-called environmental interpretation amounts to nothing more than a poor-quality and totally boring science lesson; and there seems to be no systematic approach to the development of a comprehensive interpretation program in any one area.

Basically an adequate program would assume that interpretation is absolutely central to the task of management. Bill Carter (1980) argued at the 3rd Cave Management Conference that interpretation should be the basis upon which other management decisions depended; I have yet to see any real evidence that this has been recognised in Australia or New Zealand. As the most basic example, managers build paths in caves, then work out how to interpret the visitor experience, rather than working out what features of a cave offer most to the visitor and then planning how to organise access to these features. A sound interpretive program would also assume that interpretation commences with publicity and advertising long before visitors reach the caves. It would then, of course, ensure that visitors receive, in one way or another, what they have been promised.

Again at the 3rd Conference, I made the point, in describing the Plitvice National Park of Croatia, that well-planned interpretation is a very effective way of 'managing' visitor behaviour and reducing vandalism or other depreciative behaviours (Hamilton-Smith 1980). In other words, interpretation is potentially a very powerful management tool, and it is in the best interests of managers to ensure that it is properly directed and effectively implemented.

The next important principle is to recognise that we are seeing a gradually widening diversity of visitor expectations. Some people expect or even actively seek out the traditional industrialised tour and some even want an upgraded high-speed version of this - a sort of MacDonald's Super-special Tour! Some want humour or fun ; some are seeking environmental education; some want the kids entertained for an hour; some want adventure; some seek the experience of beauty and so on. Or if you follow the early section of this paper, some want mystery and a sense of the unknown; some seek conceptual insights into contemporary scientific problem-solving; some would welcome a spiritually inspiring tour; and so on. Accordingly, I believe the tour program should offer a menu of options - defined and explained just as in a good restaurant menu.

Finally, one thing that history demonstrates is that good interpretation grows out of a personal and vigorous enthusiasm (Hamilton-Smith 1985). We will only attain this if we give guides the responsibility for each developing their own personal menu of offerings. The standardised industrial tour might still be offered by some guides, but hopefully it will eventually become redundant as much higher quality grows out of the imagination and sensitivity of guides. This in turn demands that guide 'training' needs to take a leap forward. Certainly, issues such as effective marshalling, public safety, first aid and clear enunciation are all essential and must be maintained, but interpretation must grow out of a guide-centred approach to training in which each and every guide is taught not what to do, but rather how to make their own personal decisions about what to do, how to build their own program and how to continually review and improve it.


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