Significance, Significance – Why it’s so important

I’ve just returned from an excellent conference – the National Workshop of the US-American National Association for Interpretation.  I’ve picked up many good ideas that I will certainly blog about, but today I want to reflect on the responses I got to my own paper.

I presented some of the research I’ve recently completed into significance and interpretation.  In a nutshell, my case studies [1] as well as a review of existing interpretive planning models and organisational planning practices suggest strongly that interpreters do not undertake and consider inclusive significance assessments when planning interpretation.  Visitor surveys at the case study sites suggest that the resulting interpretation does not reflect or even shape why visitors think a site is important.  In other words, visitors to the case study sites formed their views about site importance independent of the interpretation although they did receive the intended interpretive messages.  They just didn’t think these messages expressed the site’s significance.

In my opinion that means the interpretation was fundamentally flawed.  What do we interpret if not precisely why the site is important?  How can we justify that our interpretation does not reflect a site’s significance to its stakeholders? [2]

An inclusive significance assessment must be at the core of any interpretation.  It will reveal the different meanings that stakeholders attach to a site.  Interpreting these meanings will avoid alienating stakeholders and it will ensure that those without prior knowledge will gain a true understanding of why the site is protected and important to others.

But what about those sites where two different groups have two conflicting meanings?  What about sites of shame, one delegate asked in my session? What about those heritage beliefs that some find offensive?

These are great questions and underline just how much responsibility interpreters carry.  And I don’t pretend to have an easy answer either beyond what I’ve already stated above: we need to consider all stakeholder meanings and preferably reflect them all, too.

The first step is therefore to determine who the stakeholders are.  In my opinion that goes a long way and it will reveal a certain weighting as well.  Taking Culloden Battlefield as the example from my research, a stakeholder assessment will quickly show that although English soldiers fought on the battlefield as well, the battle really does not occupy an important place in the sense of heritage of today’s English.  Experts on the battle [3] have pointed out that had the battle taken place in England, the site would most likely have long since been lost.  It is the descendants of the Gaelic community and the Scottish Diaspora at large who are the strongest force behind the protection of the site.  Historically accurate or not, to them the site represents a turning point in their culture’s and their family’s histories, and this goes across battle lines, for Gaelic speakers and Scots fought on both sides. [4]

I propose that the interpretive themes should flow from these stakeholder meanings. [5]  Above I mentioned that the stakeholder assessment may provide a certain weighting in terms of significance already.  For Culloden, this may be the overall acknowledgement that the site is a heritage site because of and to the Gaelic community, rather than the Scots-Government or English community of today.  This does not mean, however, that the relevant historical facts need to be hidden.  They just need to be introduced in a way that is respectful of the overall heritage claim of the site.

But what about sites where two meanings well and truly oppose each other with equal strength?  There seems to be a tendency to aim for what I call the ‘historical facts approach’ to interpretation in such cases.  Rather than set foot on what is perceived to be slippery ground, the interpretation presents ‘the historical facts’.  [6] This is what was largely done at Culloden Battlefield, resulting in visitors maintaining or gaining a view of the site’s ‘true’ importance quite independent of the interpretive messages.  In other words, the ‘historical facts approach’ will not reflect significance.  Therefore, I advocate to have the courage to present both sides.  This can still be done in a respectful, neutral tone that will enable the stakeholders in question to retain the site as their own as well as allow visitors to truly understand modern conflicts and make up their own minds.

Of course every site presents its own challenges.  I do not claim that the above is a fool-proof method to interpret significance.  However, if nothing else, it may help make interpreters aware of the far-reaching impact of their decisions early on in the interpretive planning process.  I hope it can help interpreters realise that their efforts may be wasted if they dodge these decisions.  They’re tough but they’re an essential part of our job.

And to all those that have joined my session at the NAI workshop in Las Vegas – thank you for your great comments and thoughtful questions, and the inspiration you have provided me.



[1] My case studies were Bru na Boinne in Ireland, Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, and Stanley Mills, also in Scotland.  However, I only considered Bru na Boinne and Culloden Battlefield since low visitor responses at Stanley Mills made firm conclusions impossible.

[2] And let us not forget here that significance is at the core of heritage protection legislation

[3] such as Archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard and Historian Christopher Duffy.

[4] I don’t want to muddle up things by delving too deeply into a discussion of the history of the ’45 Jacobite Rising.  Suffice it to say that while many have blindly associated all evil that befell the Gaelic and Highland community after Culloden with the Government’s leader, the Duke of Cumberland, the underlying heritage belief is less about the protagonists and more about a sense of loss (of culture and home), injustice (even clans loyal to the Government were punished) and brutality (suffered by many Highlanders in the aftermath of the battle).  Again, this seems to be shared across the ideological divide and therefore transcends the historical facts of civil war.  The latter, however, is one of the main messages of the interpretation in an attempt to provide ‘a balanced picture’.

[5] We will leave out the management messages etc. which will also influence interpretive themes.

[6] Of course in reality, there is no such this as a ‘historical fact’.  History is made up of fragmented records which are themselves coloured by the opinions and understanding of the writer.  On top of that, these records are then – no pun intended – interpreted by individual historians.  See Lowenthal, D. (1998) The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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