Where is heritage in heritage interpretation?

As part of my current research I have been reviewing the literature on heritage studies.  My opinions, gained from working at heritage sites, had already been that heritage is immensely personal: made up of different aspects for different individuals.  When I worked at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, I also realised that heritage was contested, and a matter not of fact but of what I came to call, the heritage belief.  Heritage, as I can still see with my own eyes almost daily, is also about passion, and deeply felt emotions, and finally, it is about identity.

Much of this has already been discussed in heritage studies.  Heritage has been cut up into assessable pieces (most famously by the 1974 UNESCO World Heritage Convention), the assessments have been criticised as hegemonic (see for example Laurajane Smith’s The Uses of Heritage), the criteria have finally been reviewed to add a semblance of democracy (recently for example by English Heritage), and much debate is still on-going about the relationship between history and heritage (see almost any writing by David Lowenthal), to name but a few.

In other words, heritage is by far not the absolute concept that it is presented to be in most interpretive writing.  As a matter of fact, a quick glance at the indices of the interpretation books on my shelf reveal that not a single one of them deals with the manifold issues surrounding this term so central to our profession (and the picture is only marginally better when you replace ‘heritage’ with ‘significance’, a term which has been associated with different values slightly longer than heritage has).  We spend a great deal of time discussing themes, and media, and target audiences in our journals and at conferences, but we hardly ever (well, never, as far as I’m aware) reflect on what it actually is that we’re interpreting.  What is heritage?

Please don’t get me wrong:  themes, media, and target audiences are all hugely important aspects of the work we do.  And yet, we need to move beyond that, or rather: we need to go back to understanding what it is that we’re dealing with.   It becomes immediately clear that there is no easy answer to, ‘What is heritage?’  And a concrete answer is not what I am about.  It is rather the awareness that there is something to be thought about at all which I think is necessary before we can begin to talk about interpretive best practice.

Put bluntly, the fact that our literature on interpretation spends next to no time critically reflecting on different heritage values or significance is a clear indication that something is amiss.  If we don’t reflect on the different aspects that make a site significant or ‘heritage’, then how can we expect to meaningfully interpret it to others?  Too often the underlying assumption still seems to be that interpretation is a translation of historical, architectural, archaeological expertise into engaging and bite-sized pieces for a leisure audience (or as some describe it, a ‘bridge’).

However, once you recognise that heritage doesn’t equal heritage, that sites are significant due to different values, one of which may be more significant than the other, and also, that audiences (stakeholders, visitors, users) are intimately involved in this heritage process of a site, constantly changing it, constantly contesting it, then your entire approach to interpretation necessarily has to change.  The issue becomes much less about theme versus topic, or interpretation versus information; rather, it becomes a matter of facilitation, of enabling people to engage in this process of heritage.  It also means that interpretation must become much more democratic.  Stakeholder engagement can no longer be a luxury, it must be at the heart of what we do.

And how exactly do we achieve this?  What should be these new interpretation guidelines that I call for?  Well, that’s something that I’m still working on.  Certainly, I’ve realised that this is my core hypothesis to be examined in my research: that in order to deliver public benefit, interpretation needs to intimately involve stakeholders, and democratically and comprehensively consider and reflect heritage values.

Watch this space.

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