Closing the gap – A new initiative started at the Interpret Europe conference

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 [1].  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.


[1] I’ve already explained here why I think we need to move beyond Tilden.

4 thoughts on “Closing the gap – A new initiative started at the Interpret Europe conference

  1. Nicole I wholeheartedly agree. As someone who has moved between the straight conservation world and the more commercial tourism world I have consistently been challenged with how to justify to clients how really good communication about heritage can make a difference. For some the difference they wish to make is about getting others to share a conservation ethos, for others it is about increasing spend, and all points in between. One group will not necessarily understand the motivations of the other and some of the first actively reject from the second. But this variety exists in our profession where some are driven by saving stuff and others by saving communities/economies

    We have singularly failed to provide the evidence that demonstrates that getting the communication process right actually works. Sure there are studies out there about changing people’s behaviour, but these are addressing one end of the spectrum – the conservation, land management end. As many now argue we are in the business of creating visitor experiences and this very much chimes with what we are being asked to do. All of us are about making connections between an audience and something of value. That connection maybe transient or it may be profound but it is about delivering something that we increasingly need to prove, particularly in the current climate.

    I spend most of my time at the interface between tourism and heritage and increasingly I am seeing rural tourism being identified as a means of sustaining rural communities and securing heritage. We run the risk of going down the well worn road of the UK of developing a new generation of ‘heritage’ centres in a wide number of European countries. Within these we will see the full spectrum of communication delivery from the awful to the very occasional excellent. This links back to some separate discussion in Interpret Europe about quality standards and awards. We DO need as a profession to be able to point to excellence but also to be able to say WHY is it excellent and WHAT difference this excellence has made. At the moment we cannot do this.

    As a group of like minded professionals we have not been good at selling our collective skills and making the case for thoughtful planning of communication that strives to deliver an identifiable range of outcomes

  2. I think Nicole makes some important points here. In NPS, we have in some ways “moved away from Tilden” in that we are developing methods for modem needs and audiences. I would like to be a part of this new informal group, if possible.

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