Understanding stakeholders (and their view of significance)

Two weeks ago I presented a paper on stakeholders to the online conference of Interpretation Canada.  I shared with delegates how I go about trying to understand the main stakeholders of a project.

Step 1: Who are the main stakeholders?

My first step is to identify who the main stakeholders are to begin with. I find a broad definition of stakeholder useful: stakeholders can range from casual users to specialist interest groups, from neighbours to tourists, and from those who can trace their actual heritage back to the site to those who claim it on spiritual grounds.  By not merely limiting stakeholders to neighbours and heritage groups, I think we get a better idea of the many meanings a site carries and the needs it fulfills [1].

Step 2: What is their history?

Once I know who the main stakeholders are I spend a great deal of time understanding their history in relation to the site: first, there is of course the actual history of events that have linked the site to this group [2].  But there is also a history beyond those events, and that is the history of what has happened to the group since [3].  It is important to understand what has happened to people since historical events have turned them into stakeholders.

Step 3: What is their present?

Sometimes stakeholders’ history beyond the original event merges into their present, but either way, it is important to be clear about where stakeholders are at now.  Many writers have pointed out that heritage is a fluid concept that changes according to shifting views.  This happens in response to events in the present, and it is why we cannot ignore current developments if we want to really understand stakeholders and what a site means to them [4].

Step 4: How do they use a site?

The next step is to understand how stakeholders use a site. In some cases this is obvious: a mountain bike group will use a park for mountain biking.  At other sites, however, this may be more elusive.  For example, the casual stroll through a park to get from A to B may seem negligible use but to the stakeholders in question it represents a crucial connection.

Step 5: How do they perceive a site?

Finally, I also look at how stakeholders perceive a site.  This is not always applicable, but sometimes stakeholders’ perception of a site is quite different to what it is in reality.  Particularly in conservation cases stakeholders may not be aware of the damage that is being done to a site.  In their minds, the very fact that a site has survived for two thousand years may symbolise its resilience and the reason for why it is meaningful to them.  An unedited conservation message is likely not to come through in this instance.

Steps 1 through 5 give me a fairly accurate understanding of stakeholders.  The questions is: what do you do with it?

Step 6: Stakeholders’ views of significance

I have discussed elsewhere that inclusive assessments of site significance should be at the heart of any interpretation.  In the process described above one of my primary aims is to understand why a site is important to stakeholders.  I use these significances to develop interpretation and also to set management guidelines.

Step 7: Turn stakeholders into audiences

Another important outcome of this process is that I have plenty of information about the stakeholders to allow me to develop interpretation and programmes for them that will be relevant and meaningful.  As I’ve written in the notes below, programmes make audiences.  We want stakeholders not only as sources of information, we also want them as audiences.  Just as interpretation is aimed at facilitating a connection between a site and other visitors, it should also facilitate the engagement of stakeholders with the site.  They may not always need it, but very often they appreciate it nonetheless.

 

 

Notes

[1] Sometimes interpreters speak of these groups as ‘audiences’ before ever identifying them as stakeholders.  In my opinion, that’s going at it the wrong way around.  Programmes make audiences; where there isn’t a programme there isn’t an audience, only people that are interested and who may hold a stake in the site.  That’s why I call them stakeholders, and develop programmes for them to turn them into audiences.

[2] At my current site, Bedwellty House and Park, for example, the main stakeholder group is local casual users.  Their link to the house and park is first, that it was the off-limits residence of the manager of the ironworks that dominated over everyone’s lives.  Then, more than one hundered years ago, the house became a public property, thriving for a few decades before the industry declined dramatically, leaving the community with many worries.

[3] At Bedwellty House and Park, the main story here is that of the steady decline of the industry.  Today, none of it is left in the area.

[4] As an example, stakeholders for Bedwellty House and Park are faced with the challenge of living in one of the most deprived areas of South Wales.

 

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