What is the future of interpretation?

Someone recently asked me what the future of interpretation was in my opinion.  This seemed an appropriate question to ponder as the calendar year draws to a close.

So here are my thoughts on the future of interpretation (and also: the interpretation of the future):

1) The interpretation of the (immediate) future will be resource-aware

Whether we like it or not, the immediate future of interpretation will

be shaped by the harsh reality of diminishing heritage budgets across the board.  It’s no use dreaming up all-singing, all-dancing interpretative solutions when we can hardly even afford to reprint our site leaflets today.

Therefore, resource-aware interpretation will necessarily take us back to basics.  On site level, this is about looking at what’s visible, and how we can use that as-is to achieve our objectives.  For example, a smart visitor flow that builds up a story through guiding visitors strategically past visible traces can eliminate many a panel that is intended to help the visitor ‘imagine what it was like’.

On the level of interpretative media, resource-awareness will force interpretation to go back to the essential questions of why a site (or object) is important, and to whom.  Now it is necessary to get to these answers as quickly and with as little intervention as possible.  Layering of media will still be desirable, however, a mere duplication of content will no longer be enough.  Every word (picture/sound) must count for every visitor.

Resource aware interpretation will also need to reach out to the communities whose heritage we seek to interpret [1].  Under our professional facilitation these communities may provide us with most of what we need for good interpretation: research, editorial advice, artefacts, artistic expression, materials, and most importantly: their time and energy.

2) The future of interpretation will be benefit-driven

It is becoming more and more obvious in national and international legislation that heritage, and with it heritage interpretation, are expected to actually deliver benefits.

These benefits go far beyond the learning and behavioural objectives that current interpretive planning models call for [2].  They centre on concepts such as identity, social cohesion, and democracy.  Consequently, the interpretation of the future will need to show that it delivers these benefits.  This, I suspect, will dramatically change our practice as we learn more about how we can achieve this aim of benefit delivery [3].  It will no longer be enough to measure knowledge gain or attitudinal change about a topic of our choice.

3) The future of interpretation will lie in the hands of heritage communities

I’ve already touched upon this above.  However, including heritage communities is more than just a budgetary necessity.  Just as legislation and policy are changing to focus on benefits for the people, there is also a philosophical change that understands heritage as more than just fabric.  It is people’s use of objects and their performance of traditions that make heritage.  In fact, the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage quite clearly states that it is a groups’ own estimation of something being ‘heritage’ that makes it so.  The underlying aim of the convention is therefore not to freeze the practice, but to enable communities to continue practicing heritage.  For the interpretation of the future, that means acting as facilitator for these heritage communities where they exist. We must go much deeper than simply asking heritage communities for content.  Now, we must enable them to interpret their own heritage [4].

4) The interpretation of the future will be based on sound research

We’ve come some way over recent years with regard to gathering scientific data on aspects of interpretation, but the studies are still very few and far in between.  Interpretative writing has been examined, and so has visitor learning in museum contexts [5].  We also have two good studies on costumed personal interpretation [6], and there are several studies on attitudinal change in nature interpretation.  However, as departments fight for a slice of the budget cake, it will be even more important than ever to produce sound data as proof that what we do makes a meaningful difference.  However, that’s just one side of the coin.  If we are serious about interpretation as a valid discipline, then we need to improve our understanding of its practice.  I’ve expressed elsewhere that woolly claims of the benefits of interpretation are no longer enough.  We need to substantiate these claims through scientific research.  And then we need to base our practice on that research to have some sense of objective assurance that what we do is right.

This leads me to my final point.

5) The interpreter of the future will be educated as an interpreter

A survey that we did on the German-language business networking site Xing showed that the majority of interpreters did not have any formal education in interpretation.  I daresay that a survey in the UK would show the same result.  This will no longer be acceptable in the future.  Just as organisations will want to see proof for the contribution that interpretation can make to their efforts, they will want to be assured that the interpreter knows how to achieve the desired results.  As interpretation becomes truly grounded in research, it will no longer be enough for interpreters to have a creative talent, or to be enthusiastic about heritage.  They need to be educated in the specific theories, research, and methodologies that form the basis for interpretation.  They need to be trained in assessing their own practices scientifically and to contribute to the on-going development of the discipline.  To be an interpreter of the future requires a unique set of skills which can only be acquired through appropriate education.


What do you think is the future of interpretation?


Happy new year!




[1] I’m speaking here of ‘heritage communities’ and not merely the physical neighbourhood community surrounding a site.

[2] These objectives are primarily driven by what Laurajane Smith called the ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’ which is focused on the physical expressions of heritage and their conservation.

[3] This is why I decided to make benefit delivery through heritage interpretation the focus of my doctoral research.  I’ll be sure to share what I find!  Watch this space.

[4] This is something that has become really obvious to me at my current site as a necessity for interpretation of the future.  I always include the community in creating interpretation, to the point where sometimes they determine what should be interpreted. That’s often a challenge, but I’ve learnt a great deal on how to assist the community with my professional experience, and work with them to tell the story they want to tell but in a way that satisfies my professional ‘best practice’.

[5] see for example Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (2000) Learning from Museums.  Visitor Experiences and the making of meaning. Lanham: Altamira Press and British Galleries (1999) Ekarved text layout.  Prototyping Research Report 5. [Available online].

[6] Jackson, A and Kidd, J (2008) Performance, Learning and Heritage.  Centre for Applied Theatre Research: Manchester, and Malcolm-Davies, J (2004) ‘Borrowed Robes: The Educational Value of Costumed Interpretation at Historic Sites. International Journal of Heritage Studies 10 (3), pp. 277 – 293.

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