Last week, I received the membership renewal notice from one of the interpreters’ associations that I belong to. As the economic tide has rudely swept into my household budget as well, I found myself doing a quick cost/benefit analysis. What do I get out of being a member of this organisation? Should I rather join a different organisation instead?
As I spent some time contemplating these matters, I reflected on a few comments made to me during my recent research visit to Germany. Germany also has an interpreters’ association, although they call interpretation by a different name . When I asked the director of the Museum in Kalkriese whether the association had any influence, the answer she had gave me a lot to think about.
In her opinion, the association isn’t taken very seriously at all. Interpreters, to call our German colleagues by that name, are crippled by an inferiority complex, she felt. This is partly due to the fact that one cannot really study the subject in Germany . Consequently, interpreters cannot offer scientific arguments that can stand up to the museum establishment of archaeologists, art historians and the like, most of them with PhDs. To her ears, interpreters tend to sound ‘hysteric’. She went on to say that the interpreters’ association in Germany is a club for interpreters with no impact outside their ‘clan’. When it comes to representing heritage and museums to the wider world, it is the German Museums Association whose voice is heard.
Phew. So what about our interpreters’ associations in the English-speaking world? Do policy-makers come to us when they are thinking about museums and heritage sites? Do we have self-confidence that matches that of archaeologists and historians?
In the UK, we have less than a handful of interpretation-specific degree courses. Like the Director at Kalkriese said, there are many unqualified (in the true sense of the word and with no disrespect intended) people working in the field. We have a slightly better leg to stand on in many organisations in the UK and the USA, and yet I wonder whether it is a sign of our own insecurity when we engage in on-going discussions about whether we should call ourselves interpreters, or perhaps better visitor experience managers, or perhaps something else entirely ? Can you imagine an archaeologist ever having this conversation?
And perhaps even that leg we think we stand on so firmly isn’t that firm after all. Many employers change our role titles and with it our job descriptions around with worrisome ease, as if they too felt that there wasn’t that much substance to what is interpretation (not that that is what I think). Again, I don’t see them call the county archaeologist by a different name.
So what might it take to give interpreters’ associations more credibility and oomph in the public eye? The director in Kalkriese referred to a very eloquent lady who had a PhD (not in interpretation, mind, but in art history) who once was the director of the German interpreters’ association. With her at the head, she said, the organisation temporarily stepped ‘out of the shadows’. So is that what we need? High profile leaders with academic credentials?
Personally, I think our whole discipline needs to become more scientifically based, as I’ve argued many times before. I want to see more publications like the Journal of Interpretation Research, where we can read original, critical, and well-researched studies that give foundation to our discipline and take it forward. It is not enough to fill our magazines with feel-good stories of projects members have worked on, or our own personal opinions. We need hard facts and self-analysis, even where it is painful.
We also need to look beyond our own circles and take note of what happens in other, often more established disciplines that affect the museum and heritage sector. We cannot regurgitate the same old literature such as Freeman Tilden’s principles of sixty years ago if we hope to be taken seriously. I want us to have conferences that engage critically with new thinking and developments, and that provide analyses and data on work that responds to new challenges. And I want these conferences to be flagged as interpretation conferences.
There is such a lot of great work being done by interpreters in the UK and elsewhere. Now let’s show the rest of the sector that we are a crucial part of what makes it a success.
So will I renew my membership with the interpreters’ association, or will I join the non-interpretation organisation? Well, the jury is still out, I’m afraid.
 This is the Bundesverband für Museumspädagogik. Their definition of Museumspädagogik would easily be recognizable to us as ‘interpretation’. Many practitioners are still confined to delivering personal interpretation in the form of guided tours, and a few workshops primarily aimed at children and young people, in addition to delivering educational programmes for schools. However, despite all that, the ‘profession’ is certainly pushing to be more widely involved in what in the UK and the USA is readily accepted as an interpreters’ game (or so we’d like to think). Before I started my research, I was fully prepared to dismiss German ‘interpreters’ and the wider ‘interpretive’ practice as decades behind that in the UK and the United States, and in many ways they are. This blog post is not the place for me to make a comparative analysis, but suffice it to say that my research in the UK is beginning to show that interpretive practice and the acceptance of interpretation is by far not as rosy as many interpreters, myself included, seem to have believed.
 This isn’t quite the case. There are what we might call postgraduate diplomas that one can pursue after one’s primary degree. However, it is true that there is no comprehensive course in interpretation that is equivalent to, say, a postgraduate degree in archaeology (at least not that I am aware of).
 I too have once engaged in that discussion. I have completely changed my opinion, and it’s probably time I wrote about it on this blog. I promise I will – soon!