First person interpretation – Use At Your Own Risk

I am regularly amazed at how many heritage managers and learning officers speak of first person interpretation as if it were the only form of personal interpretation.  Only recently I was witness to yet another suggestion that ‘to really bring the story to life’ there should be ‘a person from the past’ [1].

Have you ever been to a site where a first person interpreter was bending over backwards to keep up the pretence that he doesn’t know what a car is?  And that is just one of the limitations of first person interpretation.  Magelssen [2] lists a few others:

  • Programmes may need modern props such as microphones: out goes the attempt at authenticity as programmes become anachronistic.
  • Necessarily there will be gaps in historical information which will prevent role-players to have the same confidence on certain matters.  I would personally add that they won’t be able to draw visitors’ attention to this knowledge gap either since that would mean breaking character. In doing so, however, a false certainty is conveyed.
  • Only one selected narrative is communicated to visitors without making them aware of this selection – after all, the supposed character themselves wouldn’t be aware of it either.  Again I would underline this and highlight that in this point alone, first person interpretation presents a seriously limited opportunity for visitors, misleading them into a false belief in the comprehensive representation of history.
  • First person interpretation, if done consistently, also means interpreters cannot assist visitors with their practical needs, for they really should not acknowledge the existence of a cafe or gift shop, or indeed the nearest exit to the car park.

In general, there seem to be two assumptions which are most often called upon to justify the use of first person interpretation (interactive or monologue).  The first I have hinted at above: the assumption that first person interpretation alone is capable of allowing the visitor to ‘touch the past’.  I think primarily this is based on an equation between first person interpretation and costumed interpretation [3], and the assumption that a costume automatically creates an experience of the past.  While studies have indeed shown that costumes do enhance visitors’ experience at historic sites [4], commentators and researchers who focussed on visitors’ learning were dubious about the effectiveness of costumed interpretation per se [5].  Of course, third person interpretation can also be delivered in costume and incidentally it has considerably fewer inherent limitations than first person interpretation as discussed above.

A second assumption seems to be that only first person interpretation is capable of conveying emotion.  This particularly applies to the theatrical monologue, and the belief appears to be that only a character telling her own story will be able to draw visitors in.  Of course, any storyteller will be able to prove otherwise.  Most storytellers use a third person format, and very successfully so.  It also allows to draw on different experiences since one character alone will only provide a small window into what is often a wide and emotionally complex history.  At Culloden Battlefield, for example, I used a very successful third-person storytelling format to communicate to visitors the soul-shattering experiences of people of all backgrounds in the aftermath of the battle.  More often than not visitors were moved to tears – my own personal proof of the emotional potential of third person interpretation if used to that effect.

So do I think that first person interpretation should be banned once and for all?  Well, not exactly.  As with any interpretive means there has to be a good reason why we use first person interpretation.  We must ask ourselves if first person interpretation is truly the best solution to our interpretive needs.  Is it the most likely means to achieve our objectives?  Does it convey the themes to the best possible effect?  If the answer to these questions is yes, then by all means, use first person interpretation.  However, considering the disadvantages of first person interpretation, I have yet to come across a scenario when this was the case.  But if ever I do use it, I will blog about it – promise!



[1] Along with this very often comes the assumption that personal interpretation is always costumed interpretation.  I could, and probably will at some point, write a whole diatribe about why this is not so.  For the moment suffice it to say that a costume, like any other interpretive device, needs to prove that it serves a purpose, otherwise it’s superfluous.  A supposed added ‘fun element’ for visitors is not a purpose, however, it is just poor interpretation.

[2] Magelssen, S (2004) ‘Performance Practices of [Living] Open-Air Museums (And a New look at ‘Skansen’ in American living Museum Discourse)’.  Theatre History Studies (24), 125 – 149, p. 137ff

[3] In reality, one has nothing to do with the other.  The costume has no causal relationship with the mode of delivery.

[3] see for example Malcolm-Davies, J (2004) ‘Borrowed Robes: The Educational Value of Costumed Interpretation at Historic Sites. International Journal of Heritage Studies 10 (3), pp. 277 – 293

[4] see for example Magelssen 2004 and Malcolm-Davies 2004.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s