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The churches of Venice: sacred places or museum spaces?

A New Interpretive Pedagogy

Many of the churches in Venice have become a popular destination for tourists with different cultural and travel backgrounds. As a result, various interpretation and representation methods have been employed to satisfy the demand of mass tourism: admission fees, leaflets, spotlights on artwork, audio tours, and other didactic materials have all been developed. However, the parallel use of the churches as secular and sacred place has created a number of management difficulties, including keeping the spiritual values, in addition to their historical, aesthetic, and cultural significance.

Empirical research is essential in order to develop appropriate planning and effective approaches towards the practice, benefits, and significance of applying interpretation methods to religious sites. The aim of this research was to investigate the role of the current on-site interpretations in the Venetian churches in relation to visitors' perceptions and experiences. The study relied on qualitative methods such as case studies, visitors' surveys, site observations, and interviews. The findings were analyzed through Piaget's theory of cognitive development and constructivist-learning theory, which affirms that people create their own meanings based on previous knowledge.

There is an ample body of literature on the effective role and benefits of heritage interpretation for conveying the social and cultural value of the site, enhancing the visitor understanding and appreciation of the place. However, there is a significant gap in the existing literature about the use and benefits of interpretation methods specifically to religious sites. (1) In 2005, the participants of the ICOMOS-US International Symposium identified that there is urgent need of establishing acceptable methods and boundaries, as well as better guidance of interpreting religious and sacred sites. If religious sites are commercialized and presented for easy tourist consumption, it will create conflict with the visitor expectations and the site will lose its authenticity. (2)

In order to understand what is the motivation and expectation of the site managers, in-depth interviews were conducted with two religious authorities: Don Gianmatteo Caputo, director of the Pastoral Tourism and Cultural Heritage in Venice, and Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of the Archdiocese of Florence. Both authorities agreed that the artwork in the churches should be presented first for their original function and religious meaning and only secondly in terms of artistic value. However, currently the church managers are not trained or equipped with the proper way of educating the visitors of the significance and meaning of the sites. Municipal offices and other local organizations, which often have different goals, currently maintain the churches of Venice. One of those organizations is Chorus, which has established an entrance fee to fifteen churches, a practice not favored by the majority of the religious authorities in Venice.

The conclusion from the interviews demonstrated that there is a clear disagreement in the use of interpretation methods in the churches due to different management entities. Therefore, the problem has created dissonance between the operations of the churches and their main purpose.

The study used four case studies to investigate the current state of interpretive methods employed by four churches in Venice: Saint Mark's Basilica and Frari, with large numbers of visitors, were compared to two smaller churches, San Zaccaria and San Lio. The sites were chosen for their diverse choices of interpretation methods. The findings revealed that when the first two sites are not used for religious services, their role has been alternated. There are visible modifications of the interior space of Saint Mark's Basilica and Frari: ropes separate religious from secular space; text panels are installed next to artwork, highlighted with spotlights; leaflets and guidebooks are available to use. Furthermore, the entrance to Frari and to some specific areas in the churches, with the exception of San Lio, required an entrance fee. The interpretive methods in Frari relate mainly to the artistic significance of the sites. The visitors are provided with information on the historical and artistic significance, rather the spiritual intention of the site. With fewer visitors, San Zaccaria and San Lio did not use any interpretive methods.

Visitor surveys were conducted to investigate the role and effectiveness of the interpretation in the churches and the experience of the religious sites. The sample population for the research was collected over a ten-day period. A total of 100 surveys were completed, but only 83 were used due to some questionnaires with incomplete or missing sections. In addition, visitor observations were also conducted, allowing a comparison between visitor responses and actual behavior. The survey results showed that the main negative impact on the visitor experience in the churches of Venice comes mainly from the request for an entrance fee. Eighty-six percent of those surveyed did not know what the fee is intended and 78% disagreed with the practice. In addition, 81% of the visitors no longer felt the spirituality of the place, however, 65% still responded emotionally to the sites. Although many of the churches provide some form of interpretive materials and leaflets, 67% of the visitors used their own source for information and only 18% used the materials on site.

The meaning of the religious sites comes from their use and the practices associated with them. Yet, the spiritual practice cannot be described with words or interpretive signs. According to Jean Piaget, information cannot be just "given" to the people. Instead, they must build their knowledge through experience to enable them to create understanding. (3) Similarly, the constructivist learning theory suggests that both knowledge and the way it is obtained are dependent on the mind of the learner. (4) The survey response suggests that when visitors are asked to pay a fee they become confused because they associate the site with the atmosphere and spiritual experience rather than with a product they have to purchase. Since the common visitor is not aware of the maintenance aspects of sacred and religious sites, the request for fee gives assimilation to other venues where the consumer receives a product for the payment. The wait in long lines to enter a church (primarily for San Marco), the excessive noise and overcrowding, the use of labels and spotlights in front of artwork--all these factors present the visitors with a new experience that is not usually associated with religious sites.

According to visitors' comments describing their visit to Frari and Saint Mark's Basilica, they assimilated the sites to "museum," "tourist attraction," and "place with magnificent aesthetic value," rather than a spiritual place. They perceive the church as a place for "tourist consumption." These new assimilations clearly interfere with the original purpose of the religious site and construct a new scheme for the visitors.

Although limited in scope, the findings from this research reveal that the current interpretive methods used in some of the churches of Venice have affected the visitor experience and perception of the sites' spiritual function. The alteration in the churches and the current interpretive elements has created conflict with the existing schemas of the visitors. The sites have shaped a new sense--as places maintained for tourist consumption rather than spiritual practices. Using museological and interpretive elements should not reduce the identity of the churches, but assist in emphasizing both their artistic and spiritual significance. The proper understanding of tangible and intangible values of the Venetian churches from everyone who chooses to enter their space demands further research of the effective use of interpretive methods in religious sites.

Venelina Dali Saunders

University of Leicester


End Notes

(1) Di Michael Giovine. The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage, and Tourism. (Lexington: Lexington Books, 2008), 287.

(2) Daniel Levi, Sara Kocher. "Understanding Tourism at Heritage Religious Sites." Focus VI (2009): 18.

(3) Clay, Kodi R. Jeffrey. "Constructivism in Museums: How Museums Create Meaningful Learning Environments." The Journal of Museum Education 23(1) (1998): 3.

(4) Hein, George E. "The Constructivist Museum." In The Educational Role of the Museum, by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, (New York: Routledge, 1999), 75.
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Title Annotation:IN SHORT
Author:Saunders, Venelina Dali
Publication:Journal of Interpretation Research
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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