Tomorrow I will start in my new job and I thought that’s a good time to reflect on what I learnt in my last role. So here we go, in no particular order:
It’s key to understand the heritage values
I started with a deeply felt commitment to inclusive significance assessments. What this job did was remind me of why. There was no single dominant heritage value represented in this site. To many people it was about the history of the labour movement. To many others, it was about the Industrial Revolution and the Ironmasters that drove it in this particular region. To a substantial group of others, it wasn’t about either of these things, but about their use of a much-loved green space. What is more, all of these values were visible and lived all around the site. For our management and interpretation of the site this meant there was no single story we could focus on. This is a major concern that I have about almost every single interpretive planning model currently out there: they do not acknowledge that more often than not, this is the case at sites, nor do they offer a methodology on how to manage the situation. I blame this for the many sites whose interpretation freezes them in time and falsely portrays a story to visitors that has been simplified beyond recognition.
Interpretation is facilitation, e.g. through events and projects
Especially because this site was in daily use by the community, and because they engaged in its history through various groups, more than any other role this job confirmed my belief that interpretation is about facilitation. By facilitation I mean opportunities for stakeholders (community members, visitors, etc.) to actively live, experience and contribute to the heritage values of the site. Events and projects are a perfect way of doing this, and they require the same degree of interpretive planning as your more traditional exhibition needs if they are to be meaningful. A look at the current job listings will also show you that events and projects are considered to be part of interpretation by many employers, especially in the public sector. A one-off intervention to put up panels or lay out a trail is no longer enough.
Stakeholders are your partners
The beautiful thing about this site was that the local stakeholders were so involved in it. They had been more or less the ones who ‘managed’ the site before, and their rightful expectation was that they would continue to be a contributing part to how the site was managed, presented and used. Again, I’d always believed in engaging with stakeholders, and this site offered plenty of opportunities, as well as learning in that area. Mind, stakeholder engagement isn’t simply asking the local community about what they’d like to see, what stories they think are important, or what their local knowledge is. The consultants that were responsible for the permanent interpretation at the site had done plenty of that, and then proceeded to do their own thing – most of which later proved meaningless in the on-going interpretation of the site and became a subject for criticism by stakeholders. No, stakeholder engagement to me is about working with stakeholders as your partner. So we did lecture series in collaboration with a local heritage group, we involved the community in creating our local history exhibitions, we created a project that we co-delivered with local stakeholders and through which young people will eventually interpret the site, and of course we had a community management board that gave direction to our efforts.
Interpretation is just a part of a larger whole
In many ways this harks back to the discussion about what interpretation encompasses. And yet, in practice there are many limitations to what an interpreter – by virtue of the powers of their role – can do. For example, I knew that the lack of tourism signage was a major issue for the site, but the power to change this didn’t lie with me, but with the Highways Department, together with the Tourism Officer (and funding, of course). All of these departments and roles need to come together to make a heritage site work. I will say, though, that they should probably recognise the expertise of the interpreter, and take their advice. Which leads me to the final point.
It takes heritage professionals to support a heritage site
Unbelievable as it may seem, I was the only person working on site with a background in heritage. This caused major issues. I spent many hours trying to explain to team members why what they had done in a leisure centre (!) didn’t work as an approach to a heritage site. In one instance I even had to explain what heritage meant, and why it was important that in our engagement efforts we focused on the heritage values of our site, rather than offer predominantly generic programmes such as willow weaving. The consequence of this team make-up was that we didn’t achieve as much as we might have done otherwise in the time given. While I would expect to have to do a certain amount of persuasion in bringing a new team up behind a particular vision, this took us back to such basics that I do feel the site was held back by it.