Interpretation is… benefit-driven

I am currently researching how we deliver public benefit through heritage management and interpretation in England and Germany.  Reading through the legislation that provides the framework for heritage is quite interesting.  On the national level, people (the public) have been conspicuously absent from official heritage practices for many decades.  The values identified by the legislation were all about physical fabric (archeaological value, architectural value…) and almost nothing was said about how this fabric is of any use to the nation’s people.  What is even more worrying for an interpreter is the fact that presentation of this heritage is also a point only recently considered in legislation, and often in very vague terms.

Interestingly, however, there seems to be a relationship between heritage values, public benefit and presentation as these concepts develop in legislation and policy: as more intangible heritage values are acknowledged, the number of public benfits mentioned increases also.  As the list of public benefits becomes longer, the presentation of heritage receives more consideration.

In fact, it seems that intangible heritage value is actually defined by the public benefit associated with it.  This is quite obvious in the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage where the value is expressed as the benefit derived from it, such as ‘identity’.   Where physical objects are mentioned, it is quite clear that their intangible value lies in the benefit to people.

It is not surprising that along with benefit, presentation also receives more consideration.  Benefit is all about people experiencing something benefitial, and for this, legislation and policy recognises, facilitation is required, or as we call it: interpretation.


Promotion of enjoyment, understanding and support for conservation are the earliest guidelines for interpretation in legislation and policy.  They still persist, but now more concrete guidelines are added such as visitor focus, evaluation, communicating significance, being socially inclusive, and on a media level to be contemporary and interactive.  The National Trust in their ‘Going Local’ strategy want their presentation to be facilitation and they directly link it to benefits such as ‘a sense of belonging’.

I think this expectation for interpretation to deliver public benefit will become stronger over the next few years.  The National Association of Interpretation in the United States, with its definition of interpretation as ‘a mission-based communication process’, has already recognised that interpretation has a clear purpose to fulfill, in this case for an organisation.  At least in Germany and the UK this purpose is likely to become the delivery of public benefit.  Some aspects of how interpretation may achieve that goal are already stipulated in the literature and indeed in legislation: inclusive significance assessments, interpretation that respects all heritage values, interpretation that is based on evaluation.  I suspect that in detail, we will begin to see research and evaluative studies that go beyond testing unspecified enjoyment and achievement of learning or behavioural objectives.  We need to test interpretation against the public benefits or intangible values that people associate with a site.  Interpretation will likely become much less about ‘revealing a hidden truth’ as Freeman Tilden wrote and which in my estimation is still, in practice, a form of conveying facts.  Interpretation will instead become much more about facilitating an experience that realises the benefit  for which people value a site or object.

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