I spent the start of this week in Pisa at the annual Interpret Europe Conference. Possibly the greatest inspiration that I took from it was the forming of a group of like-minded professionals with an interest in ‘closing the gap’. Talking to each other, we found that there is a discrepancy between how interpretation is currently presented from within the field, and what many of us are asked to do in our professional roles.
Like myself, many of these colleagues are having to use their interpretive skills for projects that go far beyond interpretive planning and implementing an exhibition or trail. As one Australian consultant reported of a recent project, the client didn’t just want an interpretive plan. They wanted public outcomes, processes, and engagement. In Scotland, the Centre for Interpretation Studies encounters similar demands, especially from Local Authorities. Here, heritage is seen as a means to deliver policy outcomes such as increasing community capacity or providing routes into learning for young people.
All of these activities fall outside the traditional view of interpretation. Interpretation is no longer asked to merely provide an explanation in the form of a media solution. Traditional interpretive outputs such as panels become much rarer in what is required by clients.
And yet, our discourse doesn’t reflect this. In many ways, the conference, while truly enjoyable, provided a good example for this. The opening keynote speech argued in favour of interpretation as an end in itself based on Freeman Tilden . While it included an interesting discussion of the discipline’s philosophical connection to Humanism and the enlightenment, the sheer fact that we still open interpretation conferences by quoting a writer of more than fifty years ago shows a worrying degree of orientation to the past. It also shows an obsession with defining what interpretation is, based on parameters that are no longer relevant for present circumstances.
This in particular seems something of an issue with many practitioners. When in one presentation the suggestion was made that interpretation is also marketing I felt a noticeable unease sweep through the audience. But why? Why are we so precious about not wanting to associate interpretation with marketing, for example? I suspect the closing keynote of the conference contained some clues to this conundrum. The speech was filled with immensely inspiring and motivational quotes about what interpretation and interpreters do: we care, we share passion, we protect what cannot be replaced. Don’t get me wrong: I subscribe to all of these. And yet, is it this moral definition of our work that makes us look with disdain onto more practical effects, such as marketing?
It seems to me that as a discipline we cannot afford such ivory-tower thinking. In practice, what interpreters are asked to do, and what we want to do more of, is to provide a comprehensive ‘product’ that unlocks the practical potential of heritage. I don’t think that in order to achieve this we should ditch the term interpretation (I wrote a little about this here). But what we need to do is to widen its application. Only then will we be able to present the picture of a strong, responsive and more importantly, relevant discipline that is crucial to delivering outcomes from heritage.
Alas, it is this discourse that this new informal group wishes to move forward. I can’t wait to see the discussions start.
 I’ve already explained here why I think we need to move beyond Tilden.