THE BROADER PICTURE / The vision thing

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The Independent Culture
EXPERIENCE is the word. Not a show, not a display, but an experience. A working substitute for reality, probably an improvement in fact. You can find one almost anywhere.

At Land's End, for instance, there's the Land's End Experience, a multi-media retelling of our island story, in which visions of Excalibur gleam through dry ice, waves crash and - for that extra tang of actuality - visitors are lightly moistened with simulated sea-spray. A curious thing: to go to the sea-side to get wet indoors. But as Paul Reas, who took these photographs, says: 'It's so much of an experience, that having experienced the experience, you don't need to actually experience the real thing.' There is still a real thing called Land's End which can be experienced. But you can't get to it now without buying a ticket for, and passing through, the Land's End Experience.

This is just one of the experiences recorded in Reas's scathing photo-essay on the Heritage Industry, Flogging a Dead Horse (Cornerhouse Publications, pounds 12.95). The range is wide, taking in such established spectacles as Horseguard's Parade and the Tower of London, or trips to Bronte and Hardy country. His eye is particularly on the reconstruction of labour history: old mills and mines, now manned by mannikins, or robots, or human beings, and resurrected into quaintness with neatly kitted-out pit ponies. Reas travelled round these sites - which are of course designed for the visitor's camera - as an anti-tourist, looking for the gaps in these charades with their jarring fantasies of time travel.

At The Way We Were, an experience offered at the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre, you can meet an actor employed to impersonate a Dickensian-style mendicant and beg money from you. At Home Farm Museum in Hampshire you can step into the past and witness the Harvest of a Bygone Age, with a haywain stacked high by volunteer weekend yokels. And at Beamish there's the Great Northern Experience, a collection of authentic buildings, lamp-posts and equipment, removed from their various original sites and collaged together in an abstract of the old industrial north. It has its own pit head - with no shaft underneath. It's staffed by a population of traditional, plain-speaking 'northern' characters.

The pictures dwell on the spectator as much as the spectacle, on the strained juxtapositions of olde and new, of leisure and labour which these occasions produce. Visitors stand before a famous view in Constable Country, in evident perplexity as to what sort of experience they're meant to be having. Meanwhile, at the Big Pit Mining Museum in South Wales, a family tries to participate in the mining experience with helmets, lamps and picks, and a child in a Loadsamoney T-shirt holds up a huge lump of polystyrene coal, its blacking now badly chipped.

It's not only the days of yore that get the revamp/retail treatment. The Big Pit was an operative mine until 1982. Now its miners work as tour-guides. Reas says: 'The scary thing is, the history is getting closer'. Or rather, almost anything can be 'heritaged', and the more recent it is, the more perfect the 'experience' it can become. An industry closes down. It then re-opens, only slightly changed, as a living re-enactment of what it was. If you want to believe the gospel according to Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard, that the world is rapidly turning into a representation of itself, look to the Heritage industry. And if things are going badly for you, why not put up a ticket-booth by your front door. There's probably someone who'd be eager to experience the total, authentic 'you' experience, and pay for it too. Quickly now, before you vanish.-

(Photographs omitted)

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