I spent this week at the joint Interpret Europe/National Association for Interpretation conference in Sweden. The conference theme was global citizenship, but probably due to my own interests, I ended up hearing mostly papers on stakeholder engagement .
Here are a few impressions and thoughts that I’ve had during the conference – no doubt I’ll come back to blogging later on in detail about some of these things.
Read, Travel, Be Someone!
Ted Cable’s opening keynote reflected on three pieces of advice that writer Barry Lopez gave (as I remember, it was advice about finding your place in the world. Ted Cable applied it to becoming a world citizen, and an interpreter). Firstly, Lopez recommended to read: reading gives depth, especially if you read broadly, and if you read the classics you’ll get exposed to some truly universal themes (as an avid reader of all kinds of literature I couldn’t agree more). Secondly, Lopez said to travel, for travelling helps understanding, gives meaning, and makes us care (true). Lastly, Lopez recommended to become somebody. For Ted Cable this means to become an interpreter with your own beliefs, for otherwise ‘you’re just another source of interpretation’ . One to think about.
The relationship between audiences
The first paper I heard was by consultant Jane Severs of Newfoundland. She and her colleagues had been hired by a town that wanted an ‘interpretation of their heritage’, their story. Jane and her colleagues told them that there really wasn’t that kind of story there (go Jane! It takes courage for a consultant to tell their client the truth and do the right thing). Instead, they spent time exploring the issues: existing inhabitants felt their heritage was getting lost, while new inhabitants felt they were excluded from that heritage story. Jane came up with a project that combined old inhabitants’ knowledge of the landscape with an opportunity for new inhabitants to contribute their own experiences in this place. As a process, I thought this was great, and the resulting concept was good too (changeable panels at different, unlikely locations, including the post office). People could phone in and hear stories as well as leave their own. The only issue I see is that the local museum hadn’t (at the onset) given much thought to how they would include new comments left. These are now somehow displayed at the museum (I can’t remember the details), but there are no plans to actually make them accessible via the phone system – bit of a missed opportunity, I think.
No communication between interpreters’ organisations
John Jameson of ICOMOS made a very good point as he talked about the ICOMOS Ename Charter: that there is an ‘appalling lack of communication’ between the different interpretation/heritage organisations, including a lack of consideration of the Ename Charter. Now, I’m aware of the issues with the charter’s first emergence (interpreters and their organisations weren’t involved), but let’s get over that now. The charter is not perfect, but it’s also not a bad start at all. Perhaps more importantly, however, we should acknowledge that coming from ICOMOS, the charter has clout. As Jameson pointed out, in countries that don’t have their own heritage or interpretation organisations, the guidelines and policies of UNESCO and ICOMOS are important documents, which are regularly referenced. I think existing organisations should make use of this momentum, rather than ignore it. Let’s work with ICOMOS and the Charter, instead of each organisation trying to force their own vision through.
The thing with underrepresented groups and special exhibitions
I’d already heard Stuart Frost speak about the British Museums’ Hajj exhibition at the Encountering Religion Study Day a few months ago. What was interesting in terms of developing audiences was one particular observation he made in Sweden: the Hajj exhibition saw increased numbers in usually under-represented groups (mostly Muslims), but these dropped right back to their usual levels once the exhibition closed. This isn’t unheard of; many museums actually report that special exhibitions or projects attract ‘special’ audiences, which then will disappear again from the museum’s visitor profile. And yet, it’s an observation that isn’t sufficiently discussed when museums talk about audience development: Here, the argument still implies that one-off projects with ‘excluded’ groups can permanently change whatever the underlying issue may be. If this simplistic formula doesn’t work at the British Museum (and their resources with regard to audience research, front-end/formative evaluation and not to mention marketing make me white with jealousy), then it’s unlikely to work anywhere else.
Yay to Denmark
The second day’s keynote speech by Poul Hjlmann Seidler and Mette Aashov Knudsen of Denmark was great for one particular thing: they actually called interpretation facilitation. That’s the first time I’ve heard someone use this definition at a conference, and since I’ve been harping on about this for years, I felt like jumping up and yahooing. I must confess that I knew nothing about the work that’s being done in Denmark on interpretation (mostly nature interpretation, I gather), but this is exciting. Poul later mentioned their interest in doing some more fundamental evaluation research that goes beyond the tools and really looks at impact, which is of course right up my street. I hope they share their progress; I’ll certainly keep an eye on Scandinavia now.
And our actions speak louder than our words, too
One final paper that stood out for me was by Kate Armstrong of the Museum of Australian Democracy. Her key question was whether or not an organisation’s actions actually matched their professed mission. The obvious example was of a nature centre that didn’t offer recycling facilities on site. It’s less obvious when we come to examine our actions as museums of social history, or in Kate’s case, a museum about democracy. I found this really thought provoking: Kate questioned whether her museum’s programmes actually were democratic, and whether their processes and actions mirrored the processes of democracy that they wished to convey. The issue is probably more pressing and challenging for some types of museums than others, but it’s definitely something that I’ve not heard considered before (and this applies to my own practice too).
Overall, I was really pleased to have attended this conference. Sweden was a great host (I’d never been), and it was good to visit such famed sites as Skansen  as part of the excellent choice of study visits . The Scandinavians are clearly interested in digging deeper into the impacts of interpretation, and how the theoretical framing of the discipline relates to practice. Personally, I would have wished for more such critical papers, which don’t merely share practice, but really examine the thinking, the intention, and the outcome. Even as a practitioner, these are the examples I learn from the most, and I fervently hope that one of my fellow presenters will be proven wrong in the not too distant future when he said that theoretical papers (such as his own) just don’t attract that much interest. Well, they should.
 It was so wonderful to see that the interpretive community finally seems to be giving more thought to stakeholders. I’ve been arguing for including stakeholders in interpretation more widely for a long time and to adopt a wider definition of the term also (see for example here), and yet as late as last year I still had interpreters here in the UK question me on whether stakeholders were important at all beyond the (immediate) local community and the decision-makers (especially in planning and landowners).
 Personally, I’m not so sure about this last one –since I believe my job as an interpreter is to facilitate someone else’s engagement with (their) heritage I really don’t think I have much of a place as a private person in this equation (something to explore at a later date). Nevertheless, Ted’s passion for interpretation was, as always, moving.
 On a side note, I was really disappointed with Skansen. A lot of the buildings were closed with neither a sign saying so (one was simply confronted with a locked door – never a good experience), nor an explanation of whether they are ever open (some apparently are, others aren’t – I still don’t know which ones). The quality of the personal interpretation provided by the costumed interpreters was also inconsistent. Even allowing for language issues (although I’m told all interpreters are expected to speak English) or a certain level of self-consciousness when dealing with a bunch of international interpreters with name badges dangling around their necks, this wasn’t very impressive. After all, for people dealing with personal interpretation, Skansen is pretty much the birthplace of the format.
 The Swedish colleagues really did make an effort here. They structured the visits, and they wanted both us as the conference delegates and the host sites to get something out of it. The only qualms that I had: in all this, they didn’t always allow us to be ‘visitors’, which is not only important for our own sakes (after all, I have no idea when I’ll have the chance to go back to Sweden) but is also a prerequisite for anyone giving informed feedback on the interpretation provided. But that’s just a mini-concern. Overall, the Swedes have just shown us how it’s done.