Interpretation as a living social practice

A few years ago, when I first started to study heritage interpretation at uni, we were asked to write a paper on ‘The origins, purposes and developments of interpretation.’

For me, the obvious starting point was oral history.  Oral cultures pass on and continue their traditions through the stories and songs they share: in my mind that is the archetypal form of interpretation.

As I reflected on the developments of interpretation from oral history to where we are now, I couldn’t help but try to push our understanding of interpretation just one step beyond ‘meaning-making’.  I felt very strongly then as I do now that interpretation is a living social practice.

I was reminded of that paper when I attended Sue Langdon’s session ‘When Native Voices are Far Away’ at NAI’s National Workshop in Las Vegas last month.  Sue works at the Rocky Mountain National Park. The Native American peoples who historically lived in the area of the park have long since been moved off the land to reservations many hours away from the park.  There is no living memory of the park, but the tribes still have the stories associated with the land and that part of their history.

There were many lessons to be learnt from Sue’s experience of working with the tribes. For one, there are the obvious cultural differences in terms of communication and expectations.  I was also interested in the trips the park organised to enable groups from the tribes to stay in the park for several days.  This was – is – a mutually beneficial scheme: the tribes on one hand get the opportunity to reconnect with the land they once inhabited while the park learns things they otherwise might have missed [1].

But it was one aspect in particular that intrigued me:  Sue said that the tribal elders really appreciated the opportunity to share their stories with their young people during their visits to the park.  Telling their stories was therefore not just for the benefit of the park but also their own tribe.

This was also echoed in the experiences that Dr Jeremy Spoon reported on during the conference’s opening keynote speech.   Dr Spoon works with indigenous peoples in the Great Basin and he stressed the importance of letting tribal elders have young people sit in on any discussion.  Again, it is a means for the tribe to pass on their story, and the team would ensure the tribes got copies of any transcripts that were produced.

Getting back to my original thought from when I was a student – that interpretation is a living social practice –  these examples to me show two things: first, that the process of stakeholder consultation is in itself not a static ‘information-gathering exercise’ where information is extracted from stakeholders on a one-way street. Instead, the process is very much part of the stakeholders’ own oral history, and a way for them to share and thus conserve their stories in a lively, social exchange.  Second, the interpretation that flows from these conversations is itself a contribution to their exchange, as well as a reflection of it (or at least it should be).

Others have argued that heritage is a changing and dynamic social concept [2].  It is not frozen in time nor is it divorced from the present day lives of the people it belongs to.  This means that interpretation also cannot be understood as a permanent expression of heritage.

Interpretation as a living social practice is communication in the truest sense.  It is a two-way process, it flows and changes, and it inspires and transforms.  Interpretation is not just about expression, or media.  It is about the conversations that the stakeholders – those whose heritage it is – have about a place (or object).  The process of gathering stakeholder stories and meanings is as much part of interpretation as a living social practice as is the final interpretive provision for site visitors.  Interpretation that is meaningful will capture and spark stakeholder stories and create a gateway for visitors to enter the conversation.


[1] Apart from the tribes’ stories the park also found out something about some plants.  I’m not a horticulturalist so I’ve already forgotten the name of the plant, but women from the tribe identified it on the slopes of the mountain.  It’s an herb they use in their medicine, and it doesn’t naturally grow at this altitude.  So chances are, their ancestors planted the herbs where they now are.

[2] e.g. Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum;  Tunbridge, J.E. and Ashworth, G.J. (1996) Dissonant Heritage.  The Management of the past as a resource in conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons

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