Target audiences in interpretation

In a recent conversation, an interpretation colleague asked me how I addressed target audiences in my interpretive practice.  They didn’t elaborate; it was quite obvious that they considered target audiences to be such an obvious part of interpretation that no further qualification of the concept was required.

Something about this unquestioned assertion sat uncomfortably with me, however.  I do support the concept – I have target audiences at my site also, in fact, I’m writing an HLF application for a Young People project as we speak – and yet, I wanted to know why I might feel this unease.

So here we go:

First there is heritage, then there may be target audiences

In our quest to ensure that our interpretation is accessible and relevant to wide audiences, I fear we sometimes may lose sight of one of the most fundamental aspects of our work: the heritage we actually deal with.  The concept of target audiences in my mind can smack just a little bit too much of changeability – as if we could adapt the heritage of a site to a specific audience. In my experience, many of the audiences we segment, perhaps artificially so (e.g. locals vs tourists), actually want the same thing from interpretation: they want interpretation to enable them to engage with the essence of the heritage that’s there.

So sometimes the issue at hand may not actually be about interpreting for different target audiences at all; it may primarily be about reminding ourselves of the fundamental considerations of best practice interpretation, such as simple language, no assumptions about prior knowledge, and ensuring physical accessibility.


Are we hiding our mistakes behind target audiences?

Sometimes I cannot help but feel that perhaps through target audiences we’re trying to address an issue that we as part of the heritage profession have created ourselves.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, interpretation is often still developed as an exclusive one-way-street from interpreter to ‘consumer/visitor’.  Basing interpretation on expert values, interpreters often don’t spend enough (if indeed any) time on establishing the values held by communities and including them in the development of the interpretation of these values.  My suspicion is that this may be why certain segments of the community don’t engage with a site, at least not officially (i.e. through visiting).

In other words, I’d rather see us focus on stakeholder engagement first before we worry too much about target audiences.


If we do identify target audiences, we must make sure we know what they’re for…

At my current site, I inherited an Audience Development Plan that identified, among others, people with health issues as a target audience.  I’ve not had time yet to change this, and in all fairness, the plan doesn’t specifically say that this is supposed to be a target audience for interpretation.  However, I would seriously question the extent to which this category of ‘people with health issues’ could ever be relevant for the content and implementation of any specific piece of interpretation (the best practice of physical accessibility not withstanding).

Of course, if the category was identified with community activities in mind, then it suddenly gains a purpose – not for interpretation, but for events and programmes that we can offer for people to become more physically active.


…and make sure the categories are meaningful to interpretation

Following on from the above, if we embark on the process of identifying target audiences for interpretation, then our categories need to be able to inform interpretive practice in order to make this exercise worthwhile.  Income, for example, is still a measure that pops up in audience development plans for interpretation (I suspect uncritically adopted from tourism surveys), and I continue to wonder how this category is expected to guide interpretation.  It is meaningful to site management, yes – we can decide on admission prices to ensure lower income families, for example, are more likely to visit. But I can’t think of a scenario in which interpretive content nor interpretive design would be impacted by income levels (and it is simply faulty to equate income levels with educational attainment, for example).


So ditch target audiences?

Not quite.  I think going through the process of visitor and non-visitor surveys is a good way of becoming aware of the strengths and weaknesses in our practice.  However, I propose that we first spend time considering carefully what our audience categories are so that they will be meaningful in informing our future practice.  We also need to reflect more critically on what the results tell us (for example, is the issue more systemic than a ‘mere’ matter of outreach work?), and how we will use these to improve practice.

Most importantly, however, I think other concepts need to become more established first in interpretation, such as stakeholder engagement and inclusive significance assessments.  We might just find that target audiences become less of an issue.

2 thoughts on “Target audiences in interpretation

  1. It would be ideal to have personal interpretation. But mostly it can not be personal. So we have to find ways to engage larger audiences as if they are one person. So we have to describe larger groups as one person. That’s a target group imo. But describe them as a caracter and not as what he earns, fysicaly can do or votes. It’s a pity we can’t be personal but a good description of a target group is the second best thing.

    1. Hi Oebele,

      Thanks for your comment. Your definition of target audience is not quite how we define it over here in the UK, or indeed how I’ve encountered it used in the US. It’s literally ‘the group you focus on’, and in general it’s an aspect of audience development, i.e. you focus on those segments of society that aren’t represented among your existing audience. However, I wouldn’t say that personal interpretation over other interpretive media comes into play here either. I agree that personal interpretation is in general preferable (but not necessarily feasible) and also more flexible to respond to (different) audiences. However, if not properly planned with these audiences in mind it is unlikely to have the desired impact, especially not in the context of audience development, as I described. If audiences aren’t already coming through our doors they won’t benefit from interpretation, personal or otherwise.

      Incidentally, over the weekend I read another good example of target audiences being used to patch up past mistakes, and this is predominantly where my unease with an uncritical use of the concept of target audiences stems from. In his case study of Monticello, the plantation once owned by Thomas Jefferson, Gable 2009 [1] reports how the character of a slave was introduced to bring in the African-American audiences that were missing from the visitor mix. Gable highlights a few issues with this: firstly, the idea that all that was required was something for African-Americans to ‘identify’ with; secondly, that this identification would naturally be via race (as opposed to, for example, class, achievement, aspiration, etc.). In other words, the main narrative of the site remained unchanged (white visitors naturally would identify with Thomas Jefferson and all the interpretation made him out to be). Finally, Gable points out that the interpretation at the site ignored the true depth of the story of Thomas Jefferson’s success. It did not engage with the suffering of his labourers, nor the deeply unsettling view of racial inferiority.

      So to come back to my unease about target audiences, and how I argued that other matters should be considered first: if the interpretive planners and managers at Monticello had actually spent time to wholly capture all heritage values represented in the site, including those of African-Americans, then perhaps they would not have needed to think about additional (rather than core) programmes to reach these audiences.

      To put it simply, I think we absolutely need to do audience studies to identify barriers that explain why some segments of society don’t come to us. Then let’s work on taking down those barriers. In my mind, that’s a healthier concept of ‘target audience’.

      Sorry! Long reply.

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