A Truly Democratic Model for Interpretation

Last week, I had a meeting with our Interpretation Stakeholder Group.  We discussed the interpretive vision for a project to relocate and redevelop one of our museums.  And what an interesting discussion it was!  As always, the most inspiring comments came from people who aren’t interpreters.

The first thing that struck me was just how much desire there is to make sure that our interpretation is not simply interactive, or even participatory.  These stakeholders want to see interpretation that is generated by the community and visitors in an on-going cycle of comment and response.  It is the ultimate democratic interpretation model.  I find that hugely exciting.  I had already put it into our interpretive principles that any interpretation would provide plenty of spaces to enable community and visitor authorship and participation.  However, this is a concept of interpretation that goes far beyond community engagement and participatory elements.  This is interpretation that evolves and changes with the people coming through, it is interpretation by visitors.

I don’t know if this will actually work in practice.  Especially visitor-tourists do come to museums also to learn about a place.  Their ability to comment, or make sense of other visitors’ contributions may be limited if there isn’t further professional intervention.  There is also a potential danger here that we inadvertently go backwards and introduce a specialist, albeit community jargon that is as inaccessible to visitor-tourists as the archaeologist’s, or historian’s etc.  And I don’t see a way around an initial starting point of whatever making, that selects content and presents it in a certain way.  But – and this is the important thing – I want to keep the possibility of such a democratic interpretation model in mind, and push my own boundaries of what I thought interpretation as facilitation can be.

Another comment that I found really interesting was with regard to policies.  I had written that our interpretation would support and deliver several local policies.  At this point, a local coucillor stopped me and asked that we also ensure the interpretation contribute to these policies.  I’m not entirely sure whether in their mind, they primarily thought of interpretation as the document before them, in which case using it to influence other policies is quite possible to do.  But imagine they didn’t.  Imagine they thought of interpretation of the kind described above.  Imagine that such interpretation could – and should – actively impact policy making on an on-going basis.  Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?  Wouldn’t that burst museums and heritage sites right out of their built confinement and into that sphere of social and civic life where we always say heritage belongs?

Again, I don’t know how we would do this. I don’t know whether this can ever be possible, considering all other requirements of interpretation and heritage management.  However, as above, this is an immensely challenging and at the same time inspiring concept.  I for one want to keep it in mind, and see what might come from it for our practice in the future.

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