Do we interpret heritage because we’re disconnected from it?

During my readings I have come across this interesting quote by West and McKellar [1]:

‘By definition, interpretation as a heritage practice is a western discourse that has become necessary because official heritage has become disconnected from everyday understandings.’

It is a statement worth thinking about in greater depth.  Most interpreters would readily agree that the primary purpose of their work is to help people ‘understand’ a site.  It is such a worthy cause that I have never actually heard or read it questioned at interpretation conferences, in interpretation books or in interpretation articles.  Indeed, more often than not, when pressed for a definition of interpretation, practitioners still quote Freeman Tilden’s famous principles: to interpret is to ‘reveal’ the meaning of a site to visitors and to ‘relate’ it to their own lives.  The former assumes that people don’t recognise the true importance of a site without assistance, while the latter believes that the site has nothing to do with people’s lives to begin with.

If it’s heritage interpretation we’re talking about, one question immediately jumps out at me: if it’s their heritage, why should people need interpretation to understand it and relate to it?  Isn’t heritage heritage precisely because it means something to people and it is an intrinsic part of their lives? [2]

The next issue arising from Tilden is one of hegemonic meaning: are we really suggesting that there is only one meaning to a site, and we alone have it ready to be imparted to those not in the know?

What lies underneath Tilden’s definition of interpretation shares many characteristics with what West and McKellar criticise as ‘official heritage’ in the above quote.  ‘Official heritage’ is heritage prescribed by experts.  It is categorized, labelled, protected and managed, denying anyone else’s ability to appropriately understand and care for it.  In this theoretical framework interpretation indeed becomes necessary to educate the masses.

Of course, like West and McKellar, other writers have also criticised the expert claim to heritage for some time [3].  In short, they want to see a community’s heritage values placed back at the core of heritage assessments and management.  Heritage begins and ends with the communities whose heritage it is.  Heritage can change, it is in constant flux, and everyone can participate in it.

Once heritage is seen in this light, interpretation can also no longer be taken as ensuring people gain the right understanding.  Indeed, I have argued for some time that interpretation itself is part of a social process.  We know that visitors bring all sorts of experiences and knowledge to a site which shape what they take from it [4].  Interpretation is only part of that engagement.  As a practice it should serve as facilitator: not conveying the truth, but enabling everyone at a site to find their own truth and establish their own relationship with it.

Notes:

[1] West, S. and McKellar, E., 2010.  Interpretation of heritage. In: West, S (ed), 2010. Understanding heritage in practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 166 – 204, here: p. 198

[2] see for example Millar, S. (1999) ‘An Overview of the Sector.’ In Heritage Visitor Attractions.  An Operations Management Perspective. Ed by Leask, A., Yeoman, J. London: Cassel

[3] for example Waterton, E. (2005) ‘Whose Sense of Place? Reconciling Archaeological perspectives with Community Values: Cultural Landscapes in England.’ International Jounral of Heritage Studies 11, (4) 309 – 325

[4] for example Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (2000) Learning from Museums.  Visitor Experiences and the making of meaning. Lanham: Altamira Press

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