Next month I’ll be presenting a paper at the NAI/IE joint conference entitled ‘Interpretation can make us citizens of the world’ in Sweden. I’m really looking forward to what people will say about this topic. As I’ve reported in my last blog post, only one couple out of the 100+ people I’ve interviewed so far have made a reference to something approaching world citizenship: they called it mutual understanding.
I’m interested in how this mutual understanding was generated. The conference title suggests that interpretation has a role to play here. I’m sure it does, but I wonder if that role is as active and targeted as the title implies. My interviewees touched on ‘mutual understanding’ when they spoke about their own visits to foreign countries. And ‘mutual understanding’ here wasn’t confined to heritage either. It also arose from people on the street responding to the gifts they had bought for their grandchildren back home. Arguably, there was no interpretation involved here – in fact, there was a language barrier, which seemed to have been overcome by the time-honoured means of waving arms.
But they did also specifically mention going to heritage sites as a way of connecting to the people abroad, and finding out more about them. They found similar stories: of poor versus rich, power struggles and passions, and the hardships of survival in times gone by. They didn’t talk about royal connections, or the many ways in which European histories crisscross back and forth. My impression was that the interpretation provided paid no heed to them as a ‘special’ audience (i.e. foreign): it simply told the story of the place. And my interviewees found simple human stories through which they connected to the people: in seeing that their personal struggles past and present were similar to their own they did away with the unfamiliar, and recognized ‘the other’ as similar to themselves.
To me this does raise an important question that I’ve found myself asking throughout this research process so far: what does interpretation need to do (actively, purposefully) to deliver certain benefits? Is there a limit to this activism, and the desire to prompt a certain outcome? Because listening to these visitors and many of the others, I was really struck once again by their informed approach, and their clear desire to create their own narratives, and not be dictated to . They didn’t need the interpretation to tell them that x is similar to z, and really, the two hark back to a shared origin that makes us all the same. They didn’t want an integrated story of European history, but embraced the uniqueness of the foreign heritage: that’s what they had come for.
I wonder if there is a danger for interpretation to go overboard. I think there is a fine line between keeping your eye on the heritage in front of you and trying to (actively) create and deliver overarching outcomes that are, let’s face it, so often politically motivated. For me, a stabilising factor lies in engaging with stakeholders, which is what my own paper at the conference will focus on. But whether this is the ultimate answer, or indeed what the many complexities of these questions in general are, is something I suspect I’ll be contemplating for a while yet.
 That’s also what I suspect lay behind ‘the public’s rejection of the idea of the museum as a place for debate in the Museums 2020 research: they probably thought that the museum would take a side and try to brainwash them.