Interpretation is…Learning Humility

For the stakeholder engagement conference I’m organising at my current site in September, I invited a member of the community to give the closing presentation.  I was very keen to ensure it isn’t just the ‘professionals’ talking about involving stakeholders and communities in interpretation, and reporting how well – or not – this worked.  I wanted to make sure that we also hear from the communities themselves.

So on Friday, this gentleman came to see me to run his presentation by me.  As I listened to him, I once again had this sense of humility that I often get when I speak to community members.  Let me explain what I mean.

First of all, I’ve never interpreted my own culture. And I think that’s been an asset, both to my practical work and to my thinking about interpretation.  I’ve always been aware that I’m an outsider to what I’m interpreting. And since I’m not a historian either, this meant that I’ve always started out by listening.  In listening to the people whose heritage I was about to interpret [1] I encountered emotions and stories, and existential questions that are so much larger than my own life. They have left me feeling humbled, and immensely grateful that I have the honour to interpret these people’s heritage.

To me, it is people’s sense of their own heritage that is the material for interpretation, not seemingly objective historical (or otherwise) facts.  And this too is something that I’ve come to believe through listening to people, and also because so far I’ve always worked at one site, where I’ve been immediately confronted with people’s reactions to my interpretation. I’ve learnt that if I don’t honour this sense of heritage, I might as well spare myself the effort.  At best, the stakeholders will politely recite my well-thought out interpretive themes and obligingly fulfil my learning objectives.  But then they’ll proceed to navigate around the interpretation as best they can so that they may engage with their heritage at this, their site on their terms.  They’ve shown me that if I can’t do better, then they don’t need me, thank you very much.

This experience may also explain why interpretation to me is facilitation.  It is not about imparting or increasing knowledge, in whatever form.  As one of my site’s stakeholders said, ‘Who does this person think he is to teach me about my own heritage?’  That isn’t to say that they don’t appreciate a professional’s input.  There is a very clear expectation at my current site that the stakeholders have of me.  On one hand, they rely on me to make sure that the site will be attractive to ‘tourists’.  But also they expect me to provide opportunities for them to engage with their heritage in different and meaningful ways. They expect to be involved. And I’ve learnt that letting go of the reins sometimes can actually lead to outcomes that I never would have been able to achieve on my own.  I remember vividly for example a talk that the local heritage forum did to coincide with an exhibition I had organised.  I wasn’t at all sure that the talk would live up to my ‘interpretive’ standards.  But it turned out to provide a perspective on the 1911 riots against Jewish businesses in town that it would have been impossible for me to introduce. And this sparked a lively and critical debate within the audience on the day and afterward that would be any interpreter’s dream.  Yes, I had a hand in it, by organising the exhibition and other talks around it.  But it was through the collaboration with the community that we achieved something we can be proud of.

So I’ve learnt to be humble as an interpreter.  Humble, because heritage communities really don’t need me when it comes down to it, at least not if I don’t pay heed to them.  And humble because they have so much to teach me.  Not the other way around.



[1] For the record, more often than not these people weren’t actually the local community.  This is the reason why I find it so very dangerous to use the term ‘community’ involvement, because most of the interpreters that I speak to and who use the term community involvement mean involving the local community.  But the local community may care the least about what is happening in their midst.  It may be people from very far away to whom this site matters.  To use an obvious example, the people living around Auschwitz are really not the ones for whom the site is preserved and interpreted.

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