I’ve recently read Emma Waterton’s excellent book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. Waterton is not an interpreter, but much of her writing applies directly to interpretation also.
As in her other writings, Waterton raises excellent and critical questions in this book. Some of these are of immediate relevance to interpreters:
1) Are we including people, or are we assimilating them?
In interpretive speak, what Waterton is concerned with here is target audiences: those audiences that are under-represented, and often considered to be ‘excluded’.
In policy terms, this is the concept of social inclusion. After reviewing the introduction of the concept into policy and legislation, Waterton goes on to examine the discourse surrounding social inclusion, and the organisational practices that flow from it.
The conclusion that Waterton reaches should give all heritage managers and interpreters some serious food for thought: rather than ‘to include’, Waterton argues, what these practices are currently doing is to force the dominant culture’s heritage values onto the ‘excluded’.
2) Is there such a group as ‘the excluded’ in museums and at heritage sites?
This may be a hard question to face for many interpreters. Identifying target audiences is still uncritically proclaimed as best practice by many, and yet Waterton argues that perhaps, the ‘excluded’ simply do not care about this particular heritage. It may not represent them, and it may not reflect their own view of what constitutes heritage or how it should be presented and used.
Therefore, Waterton suggests, practices that claim to be motivated by social inclusion, or making heritage accessible to the ‘excluded’ and underrepresented, are actually deeply hegemonic. She writes, ‘…to presume that everyone can or should share in an elite, class-based and white vision of heritage is to take unwarranted liberties with many peoples’ sense of identity, place and belonging.’
3) Is it fundamentally arrogant to presume that we are ‘educating’, and building bridges or creating connections between ‘visitors’ and ‘sites/objects’?
Underlying Waterton’s argument is her assertion of the existence of an Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD). In summary, the AHD is a view of heritage that is based on materiality and dependent on expert definition and care. In Waterton’s opinion, neither is justified. For one, Waterton argues that heritage is a discourse: it is made, shaped and changed by people and their interactions with materiality. Because of the nature of heritage as discourse, however, Waterton writes, heritage is ‘inherently exclusive’.
For interpreters, this immediately raises another challenge. At the core of many definitions of interpretation are images of ‘bridges’ and ‘connections’. In fact, the most frequently cited mantra in interpretation has ‘to relate’ as its focal point . And yet, such an approach to interpretation quite obviously denies the (discursive) participation of ‘visitors’ in making heritage. It seems to me that in interpretation, we therefore still practice what Waterton calls assimilation and hegemony.
4) Do we have a clue what we’re talking about?
Waterton criticises that policy and legislation make a link between heritage and social inclusion without actually understanding this link, or how it works – if it exists at all. Consequently, she calls for further research that provides real evidence for the relationship, or lack thereof. To some extent I suspect that Waterton hopes that such research will also provide the sort of persuasive argument that no theoretical writing or discourse analysis alone can achieve.
The same applies to interpretation. The claims are many: interpretation helps protect sites, it adds value, it helps people connect. But does it? How do we know? And how does interpretation achieve this? There are plenty suggestions of how to go about it, but as far as I am aware the hard summative evidence is lacking.
I think the field of interpretation can take a lot from Waterton’s book and her other writings. From research to discourse analysis, here are all things that will be worth looking at. Some of it I imagine will be painful, but I would hope that rather than resist a good session of healthy self-examination, we apply that most important of interpretive qualities: to be open-minded.
 I am, of course, referring to Freeman Tilden. I’ve already written elsewhere that I think we should give Mr Tilden a well-deserved rest.