A balancing act – interpretation between respect and education

Most of us, when doing visitor surveys, will find that visitors arrive at our doorstep with some prior knowledge of the site.  The depth of this knowledge will vary as will its historical accuracy.  Especially where this knowledge is connected with a sense of heritage, however, this may pose a challenge for interpreters.

I have already written about the dichotomy of history and heritage, or as I prefer to call it, historical fact and heritage belief.  I have found through experience and research that heritage beliefs should guide our interpretation of a site, and yet sometimes we cannot avoid introducing facts that are at odds with those beliefs.

But how to go about it?  Here are a few lessons that I’ve learnt:

1) Do you really need to correct the belief?

Be very sure that you’re not planning interpretation of the historical fact merely out of your own missionary zeal.  The urge can be strong, especially if you’ve worked at a site or on a project for considerable time.  The heritage belief can begin to seem silly and uninformed but remember that if it weren’t for that belief, the site may no longer matter to people.  And their zeal to protect their own belief will certainly match yours to dismantle it.

2) Never challenge visitors’ beliefs head-on

Even where beliefs are not deeply emotional, it is always a bad idea to challenge visitors’ beliefs directly.  Avoid telling them, ‘This belief is wrong’ because it can make them feel inferior and defensive.  You will effect a similar reaction if you ask them to justify their beliefs, for example by asking, ‘How do you know that?’ Once you’ve put visitors’ backs up like that, you will probably have lost them for good  [1].

3) Start with respecting visitors’ beliefs

Every myth holds a kennel of truth.  It is the same with heritage beliefs, not the least because historical facts themselves depend on the importance that humans give them from within their own frame of reference.  Although you may consider the historical fact as contradicting the heritage belief, for visitors it may well seem different.  If you respect this and express that respect in your interpretation, visitors will become open because they will feel reassured and reaffirmed [2].

4) Weave the history in with the heritage

Build your interpretation from the heritage up.  In doing so, you start with something that visitors are likely already familiar with.  This will reassure them and allow you to build any new learning on this existing knowledge [3].

5) Introduce the contradictory fact subtly

Using the heritage belief as your starting point, you will still want to avoid knocking visitors over the head with the historical fact that is at odds with the belief.  The best method I’ve found is to simply present the fact nonchalantly in the natural flow of the interpretation.  My evaluations have shown that visitors still learn the fact and will often want to find out more of their own accord.  My theory is that introducing the possibly offending fact subtly allows visitors to take their time processing it without any pressure to decide what to do and how, if at all, to revise their beliefs.

6) Accept that visitors have the right to take from your interpretation whatever they like

Although visitors in general learn and accept the facts that are at odds with their heritage beliefs, I’ve also found that this doesn’t necessarily change the core of their belief.  For an interpreter that may at first glance seem like failed interpretation.  However, it is in line with what studies in learning have found (see the notes below), and more importantly, in my view, it represents that visitors and particularly stakeholders have the strongest claim on heritage sites.  It is their views and the inspiration that they draw from sites that makes them ultimately meaningful.


[1] Part of the issue here is so-called ‘supplantive learning’ where visitors are asked not only to learn new knowledge but to replace existing knowledge.  There is also the ‘cost of learning’ which can involve a felt loss of status and self-confidence (since one is asked to admit that one’s knowledge is wrong).  You can find a good overview here.

[2] Again studies on learning provide good insights here.  The social aspect of learning is especially important in a leisure environment such as heritage sites and museums.  Pressure and a challenging atmosphere are not conducive to learning in museums.  See for example Jarvis, P., Holford, J. and Griffin, C. (2004) The Theory and Practice of Learning. 2nd edition.  London and New York: RoutledgeFalmer

[3] Studies have shown that people mostly learn what they already know.  In connecting new learning with existing knowledge, interpreters have a better chance of enhancing learning.  See for example Silverman, L.H. (1997)  Personalizing the Past: A review of literature with implications for historical interpretation, in: Journal of Interpretation Research, Vol 2, No 1, pp. 1 – 12.


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