The People’s Charter for Interpretation

One of the unexpected outcomes of my current research into heritage interpretation and public benefit is that visitors actually tell me what they expect of interpretation.  I didn’t start out with this in mind; perhaps in my own version of researcher’s arrogance it didn’t even occur to me that they would be able to articulate this expectation.


But boy, do they know what they want.  And the fact that I didn’t set out to ask this question of them (‘Now, do tell me what you want from interpretation’) actually meant that their answers emerged naturally, and unencumbered by my own assumptions [1]. I’m not finished with my interviews yet, and there’s still the proper analysis to do, but already I’m getting a sense of something that I shall henceforth call ‘The People’s Charter for Interpretation’.  And here are just some of its articles:


1) Interpretation must provide guidance

Visitors want us to tell them where to look.  They want us to help them navigate what can be quite an overwhelming flood of stimuli: a massive stone tower over here, an open field over there, and a museum full of artefacts in the middle.  Guidance doesn’t hinder their own exploration.  It just gives them a good starting point.


2) Interpretation must give context.

Many of the visitors I’ve spoken to aren’t only interested in this one event, or this one building in front of them.  They want the context, the background, the whole fabric of before and after that explains why this event took place, or why this building is here.


3) Interpretation must enable you to make up your own mind

This came out especially in Germany, where people expect interpretation to provide all the (relevant!) facts, so that visitors can decide for themselves what ‘the truth’ is.  In this, visitors once again come across as much more informed and considered than what we often give them credit for.  They can handle controversy.  They just want it presented in a fair way [2].


4) Interpretation must provide room for emotion

Further analysis may make me change the phrasing of this one.  At the moment, I feel that visitors aren’t asking for ‘emotional interpretation’.  What they want is interpretation that doesn’t shy away from the realisation that the subject at hand, the ‘fact’, the event, the story may have an emotional resonance in people.  I have the motto in mind that we had a Culloden Battlefield: to treat the events and people ‘with respect and dignity’.  That wasn’t emotional, but it allowed people to be emotional (and they were).


5) Interpretation must hurt

This is my favourite, and it’s how one gentleman in Germany expressed it.  He did actually give the example of times gone by, when a little boy would be slapped at the site of a border stone, so that he may remember its location in the future.  It turned out that he didn’t actually propose that we slap visitors as they come through the door. What he meant was the physical encounter with an event or site.  He felt that interpretation should help visitors to physically work at understanding the site, by moving around purposefully, doing activities that are physically interpretive.


These are just some of the things visitors have told me so far.  Some of it is different from what we as interpreters tend to talk about, and some of it isn’t.  What’s amazing to me, as always, is just how many insights visitors actually have.  We would do well to start all our professional debates with a good old chat with them.



[1] That’s another thing that’s becoming more and more obvious to me: Researchers can really sabotage their own quest for knowledge by plonking their own concepts onto an unsuspecting public.  They don’t speak our language, and they really may not be much interested in what we’re trying to get at, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to say or contribute.  I find people mostly enjoy talking about their experiences, and it’s in sitting back and listening that the best insights turn up.

[2] I was tempted to say ‘in a factual way’, but in interpreter speak that would throw us back to a false belief in ‘facts’ and potentially boring texts that recite these.

4 thoughts on “The People’s Charter for Interpretation

  1. Thank you, Nicole. That was really helpful. Looking forward for the final results of the interviews 🙂

  2. I definitely agree with you.

    As an archaeologist making projects for exhibitions (in the past), I’ve found quite difficult to put myself into visitor’s shoes. People like to connect random things together into one context (even if for archaeologist or historian it is not a way to connect them), so talking about XIII century crusades would be a good idea to mention year 1253 when Henry III meets with English nobles and church leaders to reaffirm the validity of the Magna Carta or that in one year later Marco Polo was born – the same guy who described cannibals in Indonesia.

    It’s all about memory, and to get there is through all senses: touch, smell, colour, sound and taste. 🙂

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