Are you an interpretive tyrant?

Interpreters tend to be passionate folk.  In fact, the first time I heard someone say ‘I’ve turned my passion into my profession’ was at an interpreters’ conference.  Interpreters are not the only ones involved in heritage who are passionate about a site or an object, of course, but their passion goes beyond the resource – they also want to share their passion with others.

On the surface that is the best starting point for interpretation.  It is, after all, the activity often described as ‘making a connection’ between a resource and visitors [1].  And hardly anyone would dispute the fact that a passionate interpreter enhances any live programme.

But beware.  Interpreting a site carries a lot of responsibility and gives much power to the interpreter.  ‘(…) heritage is created by interpretation,’ Tunbridge and Ashworth wrote more than ten years ago [2] but the current writing on interpretation as well as informal discussions still tend to centre on media and practice, or indeed the question whether interpretation is an art or a science.

We would do well to have a glance at what has been written about significance since Tunbridge and Ashworth highlighted the power of interpretation in 1996.  Significance, as you may remember, has been important in protecting and designating sites since the early 20th century [3].  UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972 gave significance international recognition.  However, the criteria both for inclusion in the World Heritage List and many national lists were overwhelmingly archaeological or historical.  In other words, they represented only the views of experts.

Many writers have pointed out the dangers of having only a select few assess the significance of heritage on the grounds of their specialist criteria.  Waterton, for example, wrote that such a practice ‘will continue to impose a process of management that will fail to fulfil one of its central tenets – that we conserve cultural heritage because it is valued’ [4].  A conference in London in 2006 was dedicated entirely to the importance of the public value of heritage.  In their paper, Blaug, Horner and Lekhi argued that organisations needed to find out what the public valued because ‘it is the public that must ‘authorise’ the value to be pursued’ [5].

For significance assessments this means that many views need to be captured and reflected.  Not only experts should be invited to input but also community stakeholders.  The Australian Heritage Commission summarised the reasons for this perfectly: ‘Different people have different perspectives on the significance of places, and the relative importance of places to people will change over time. It is therefore important to be as inclusive as possible…’ [6]

And what does this have to do with interpretation?  By necessity interpreters make a choice about the stories that visitors will encounter. Usually these immediately obscure the other possibilities, as Howard pointed out [7] and as many case studies have shown also [8].  There are many reasons for this, and this article is not the place to discuss this.  However, interpreters need to be aware of the power they wield.  Their passion both for the resource and for instilling in others their own enthusiasm must not cloud the awareness that theirs is only one view among many – and I don’t just mean in terms of avoiding giving more details than what visitors are interested in.  In selecting the stories we will share, interpreters must go to great lengths to review and reflect other possible values.  What we need is great humility and the courage to show contrasts even where they defy a neat interpretive story.   Research that I completed earlier this year shows that there is indeed a relationship between significance and interpretation.  If we wish our interpretation to really matter to visitors then we must be as inclusive as significance assessments progressively strive to be – for good reason [9].


[1] One such example is the definition of interpretation given by the National Association for Interpretation (USA).

[2] Tunbridge, J.E. and Ashworth, G.J. (1996) Dissonant Heritage.  The Management of the past as a resource in conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, p. 27

[3] In its early guises, significance tended to be called ‘interest’, for example in the 1906 US American Antiquities Act, the first of its kind, to my knowledge.  Britain followed in 1907.

[4] Waterton, E. (2005) ‘Whose Sense of Place? Reconciling Archaeological perspectives with Community Values: Cultural Landscapes in England.’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 11, (4) 309 – 325, p. 319

[5] Blaug, R.; Horner, L.; Lekhi, R. (2006) ‘Heritage, democracy and public value. In Clark, K. (ed) The Proceedings of the London Conference, ‘Capturing the Public Value of Heritage’.  Held 25 – 26 January 2006 in London.  Swindon: English Heritage on behalf of the conference sponsors: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Trust.

[6] Australian Heritage Commission (2000) Protecting Local Heritage Places: a guide for communities [online] Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission.  Available from >> [14. 02. 2009], p. 33

[7] Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum, p. 247

[8] see for example Tunbridge and Ashworth’s (1996) discussion of the interpretation of Buchenwald during the times of the German Democratic Republic.

[9] I’ll talk more about this research during my session at the NAI National Workshop in Las Vegas in November this year.  The session will present findings that go some way in answering the question, ‘Is significance important to visitors?’  Hope to see you there!


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