Can a TV documentary be interpretation?

A few weeks before my recent visit to Stonehenge, I chanced to watch ‘The Age of Cosmology’ part 3 of Neil Oliver’s documentary series, ‘A History of Ancient Britain’.  Beside Stonehenge, the documentary also talked about other Stone Age sites, such as the nearby Avebury stone circle and the sites far north in Orkney.

The film did an excellent job in placing each monument into a context.  Especially with Stonehenge, it managed to present the site as part of a connected whole.  Using aerial cinematography and smart editing, it expanded view points to connect and juxtapose sites that are far apart but which we today believe were once linked in the minds of their builders in a wider ritual landscape.

I also really liked how the documentary used the backdrop of modern, busy cityscapes to draw subtle parallels to the views and experiences the ancient people may have had.  It also suggested a continuity from then to now which one doesn’t see too often in such productions.  Neil Oliver was also excellent at bringing to the piece real enthusiasm, as if he himself were excited about every piece of the puzzle he presented.

Finally, the documentary did a great job of telling a compelling story of archaeological detective work to paint a lively and colourful image of the ancient people and the vastness of their achievement far beyond any individual site.  In doing so, the documentary created a true sense of place and wonderment.  If you watch the trailer for this episode, you get a feel for what I mean.

Interestingly, what the documentary did well are all things that good interpretation strives to do also.  And yet some interpreters would fervently argue that what Neil Oliver did here was not interpretation at all.

One argument is that interpretation has to be on site, an idea that stems from Freeman Tilden who formally defined interpretation in 1954 [1].  Especially in continental Europe, this criterion is sometimes still used as part of the definition of interpretation [2].  I argue that in insisting on interpretation to be on site in order to be called interpretation, interpreters are falling out of step not only with the technological opportunities that we have gained since Tilden but also with various management demands and social expectations.  As this November’s UNESCO conference on remote interpretation shows, for example, some sites are simply too vulnerable or too inaccessible to be interpreted on site.  Interpretation off-site protects sites and still gives users access.  Similarly, in the age of the internet and mobile television, users expect to engage with a site while they are off-site, some in preparation for their visit, others afterward, and some instead of their visit.

Another argument against the on-site rule is that it actually supports a false understanding of heritage.  The materiality of heritage has been called into question for many years, and increasingly organisational policies in the UK, such as English Heritage’s Conservation Principles or the National Trusts’ Going Local strategy, are shifting their focus away from mere physicality to the processes by which people ‘make’ heritage.  The physical site, it has been recognised, is more often a prop rather than the core of the heritage experience.  That is not to say that in my personal opinion, visitor-users shouldn’t still make an effort to go into a place wherever possible.  However, this is not a defining criterion for interpretation, rather it is a question of participating in heritage processes [3].

Finally, the on-site rule with its associated demand for interpretation to give first hand experience of the thing itself (again Tilden) also can only be applied to sites that are spatially limited and as such conveyable to visitors.  At Stonehenge, for example, that would not be possible [4].  Roads, modern buildings, tree plantings, even the natural contours of the land prevent any first hand experience of the site’s place in the ritual landscape.  Interpreting the site in isolation would ignore what appears to be its actual meaning in the wider landscape.  This leaves nothing but an audio-visual, and I argue that at this point it no longer matters whether visitor-users see the audio/visual on-site or in their own homes.  All that is different is their consequent engagement with the site.

Of course, showing a 60-minute-documentary in a visitor centre will not be manageable, nor will visitors’ expectations allow for it.  However, these same visitor-users may be perfectly prepared to commit that amount of time while they are at home.  In my opinion, therefore, a documentary that applies the best principles of interpretation as Neil Oliver’s documentary has done is a perfect example of interpretation suited to its target audience – visitor-users at home.

As for me, I would have felt desperate had I not seen the documentary before coming to Stonehenge.  There is next to no interpretation available anyway, but as I discussed above, it is unlikely that anything would have given me the same understanding and appreciation of the landscape as the documentary had done.  Thanks to having seen it prior to my visit, I came prepared to go for a hike and get as much of a spatial experience of the site as I could.  I felt bad for the other people there, none of whom seemed to leave the immediate area of the monument (and the majority even listened to the available audio tour which I didn’t do).  They cannot have gained much of the sense of place and wonderment that the connected sites inspire.


[1] I have already expressed elsewhere that in my opinion interpreters need to start moving beyond Tilden – and quickly.

[2] On an organisational level, for example, the Spanish Asociatión para la Interpretación del Patrimonio, defines interpratation partially through being ‘on site’: ‘La interpretación del patrimonio es el ‘arte’ de revelar in situ el significado del legado natural y cultural al público que visita esos lugares en su tiempo libre.’

[3] One may argue that even these processes of ‘making’ heritage won’t in the future be taking place in the physical realm only.  Virtual worlds and social networking online may all become spaces for heritage negotiation and creation.

[4] I will not go into the shocking lack of interpretation and presentation of Stonehenge here, others have already done that.  See for example Golding, F.N., 1989. Stonehenge – past and future. In Cleere, H.F. (ed), 1989. Archaeological Heritage Management in the Modern World. London, Cambridge, North Sydney, Wellington: Unwin Hyman, pp. 256-264

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