Interpretation, facts, and a bit about respect

I spent last week at a thought-provoking seminar on interpreting megalithic sites.  Most of the other participants were archaeologists, charged with unearthing the facts that might tell us what sites are all about. I couldn’t help but be impressed by their attention to detail, and their commitment to objectivity and truth.

The latter is of course not quite as clean cut as we may think.  As we strove to define megalithic sites, and whether there were enough similarities between sites across the globe to merit clustering them under the definition, my colleagues began to argue – not about the facts (usually), but about what these tell us. I found that illustrative of the whole issue of facts, objectivity and truth.  There are facts, yes.  But how we interpret them (in the non-heritage interpretation meaning of the word) is largely dependent on our own perspectives.

And this, incidentally, is what research on learning, evaluative studies on knowledge gain through interpretation, and even general practice books on interpretation tell us over and over again: how people interact with sites, what they take from them, depends on where they started their journey.

However, while we are quick to acknowledge the above in general terms, when it comes to letting go of our control over meaning, somehow we no longer embrace this fully.  We seem to allow people to have a range of views, as long as these are those sanctioned by the experts.  But if people stray outside of these, we’re no longer quite that easy-going.

I think our definitions of interpretation as they currently stand express rather eloquently that we have what is ultimately an autocratic view of meaning.  Interpretation ‘forges connections’, we write, as if people may not already have connections to heritage.  Even more bluntly, some state that interpretation ‘brings meaning’ to a site, again suggesting that the site doesn’t already have meaning for people.

Neither is the case, of course, as we saw for ourselves on our fieldtrips to megalithic sites in Wiltshire, UK [1].  At West Kennet Long Barrow, people had left flowers inside one of the chambers.  At Woodhenge, people had created rather lovely corn stalk circles and left them in the centre of the site, where once a burial had been.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t subscribe to the view either that Stonehenge once served as an alien landing pad.  But while one of my colleagues felt this view should be soundly dismissed, both in the interpretation offered at the new visitor centre and in any further engagement, I feel quite differently.  I have no qualms whatsoever about presenting all views put forward by people, or at least allowing plenty of room for them to express them, and live them, as it were.  What’s the harm?  Of course we should present all the facts as we know them, but clearly these facts don’t subsequently only lead to one neat meaning.

I think what might be happening is that as experts, we get too passionate, and dare I say too precious about our own meanings.  I feel the same way when it comes to interpretation, and I can certainly have heated discussions about it.  But at the centre of my view of interpretation lie the people themselves. I will give them facts, and facilitate their engagement with a site, and I’ll be on hand to offer further input when they seek it.  Beyond that, it’s up to them what they make of all of this.  It’s their site more so than it is mine [2]. I measure success not by whether or not they’ve accepted my meaning, but whether they’ve explored and arrived at their own.

I know there are a lot of issues surrounding sites, especially those where conflicting views exist, and where the desire to use a site clashes with its conservation.  Nevertheless, the seminar has highlighted for me once again how important it is that as interpreters we are honest to ourselves, and reflect on how we relate to visitors.  Do we think we know better than them?  Are we on a mission to ‘educate’?  Do we behave in a way that is disrespectful to their views where we find these unfounded, irrational, and perhaps a bit weird? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I think it’s high time to do some soul-searching.



[1] I’d like to emphasise this: out of all the sites we have, megalithic sites are the ones we know the least about.  And yet they still have meaning for people.  Some may argue that it’s precisely this lack of absolute knowledge that creates, or enables so many different meanings.  That may be the case.  But to me, it illustrates that people more often than not already have a connection to a site, and a site has meaning for them.

[2] And generally quite literally so, because I’ve almost exclusively interpreted sites outside of my own heritage.  I have no personal attachment.

6 thoughts on “Interpretation, facts, and a bit about respect

  1. Nicole, the question you’ve raised about “letting go our control over meanng,” goes a bit deeper into one’s philosophy of interepretation and her/his reason for doing it at all. It’s precisely because of the dilemma you’ve touched on here that I included an entire chapter on this idea in my new book. I call it the “zone of tolerance.”

    An interpreter’s ZOT emanates from her/his aims (or sometimes the interpreter’s organization’s aims). Simply put, what are you really trying to achieve and why is it important to achieve that? I can’t do justice to the many possibilities in this brief space, but while an unrestricted ZOT (such as you have advocated here) will certainly be the ethical choice of a lot of interpreters if you ask them: “are you open to the full range of meanings an audience might take away from your interpretation?”, the interpreter’s actual ZOT is most times at least subtly restricted by a value system. For example, most interpreters of nature would not be very comfortable with audiences taking away meanings that were anti-nature or unappreciative of nature, that sort of thing. And yes there are even times when a narrower ZOT might be justified, despite ethical questions that must be raised about dictating meaning. Just suffice it to say, that the range of possible meanings an interpreter might justifiably judge as “acceptable” or “desirable” can vary more than we always see. I’m not going to abuse your blog space to market my book, which is why I’m not providing any details here on how to get it. Your readers know how to do an online search if they’re interested. But if you already have access to the book, you might give Chapter 8 a look.

    Nicole, thanks for posting another interesting discussion. I believe that discussions like this one (which extend to the very ethical core of what interpretation can or should be) are too rare among some of us. And you do all of us a service by bringing them to the forefront. For whatever it’s worth…

    Cheers, Sam

    1. Dear Sam,

      I like your concept of the ‘zone of tolerance’, and you’re quite right that very often – if not always – there are other factors that influence our decisions on what meanings to interpret beyond a pure ethical choice made by interpreters.

      When I wrote the post, I was very conscious of a whole range of possible situations where certain alternative readings of a site may not be welcome by most. Given my personal cultural background, Neo-Nazi hijackings of certain buildings from Third Reich Germany spring to mind.

      And yet, if nothing else, I think as interpreters we must be very aware of the meanings we exclude, either directly by not reflecting them in the interpretation provided, or indirectly, by dismissing them through our stance and management decisions. For me, the starting point for all interpretation (and heritage management as a whole) must always be one of inclusion, and I think it is the job of interpreters to argue the case also within their organisations. We may not always be successful, but we must be the voice for all meanings (we’ve just had a good example at one of our own museums where we gave in to pressure and effectively censored a visitor contribution, albeit temporarily).

      Thanks for the comment, Sam. I look forward to reading your book soon.


  2. Nicole:

    Great post. I agree completely that the role of interpretation is evolving away from communicating a pre-determined meaning and towards providing a framework that encourages visitors and gives them the tools they need to formulate and assess their own meanings. I don’t think this view of interpretation necessarily negates the role of the expert (although it can … but that’s another discussion altogether!)

    Spurred on by discussions at Interpret Europe’s recent conference in Sweden, I’ve completed a re-reading of Tilden (apologies for bringing him into this 😉 It’s clear that Tilden believed that meaning was inherent in a resource and it was the job of the interpreter to bring it forth and communicate it to others. However, in today’s post-post-modern world, most historians, anthropologists, folklorists, etc. operate from the perspective that meaning is NOT inherent but applied, and is therefore subject to the biases and experiences of whomever is doing the applying. Using this model, recognizing bias, developing the skills we need to properly interrogate sources of information, and using these skills to formulate our own opinions, are much, much more important than any single interpretation of a resource.

    But that opens a whole can of worms: Are we willing to share interpretive authority with our visitors? Are we willing to accept ambiguity?

    1. Dear Jane,

      Thanks for the comment, and thankyouthankyou for pointing out that Tilden did indeed view meaning as inherent in the resource. We’ve moved far beyond that, and it is indeed necessary today for an interpreter to have the skills to facilitate and enable visitors’ own ‘meaning-making’, rather than simply work with a toolkit of word counts and graphics.

      You’re right about the can of worms, and I think what’s happening at the moment in the museums sector (at least in the UK) around co-creation is a really good case study for all interpreters to learn from. I’m all for handing over interpretive authority, and I have no issue whatsoever with ambiguity. Life is ambiguous, and if we don’t heed this truth we run the danger of forcing the wonderful diversity of people’s experiences into an artificially narrow narrative. The challenge for interpretation is to do these experiences justice and still provide good interpretation. I’m excited about this challenge.


  3. Nicole:

    I agree with Sam’s comment that your post “goes a bit deeper into one’s philosophy for doing interpretation and his or her reason for doing it at all”. However, I personally think an interpretive philosophy begins not with the meanings/perspectives I am or am not willing to accommodate, but with what I see as the intended goal of interpretation. Is it to effectively communicate a curated message, or is it to facilitate an informed and open discussion? If it’s the latter, then whether I personally believe that any of the proposed meanings are “acceptable” or “desirable” is irrelevant.

    1. Hi Jane,

      I say it’s always the latter: facilitating an informed and open discussion. And I agree that it’s of no consequence what my personal opinions are. I can see a lot of instances where especially an organisation would be less than happy to be indirectly associated with an attached meaning that is seen as unwelcome, by facilitating this group’s engagement with the site. It’s the whole debate around contested heritage, and sometimes some views are almost offensive (again, I’m thinking sites of terror, for example). And yet, even so, I think the integrity of the organisation (and interpreter in question) should be enough to avoid any misunderstandings. Again, for me professionally, I don’t mind whatever the meanings are, and so far, I’ve not had any issues.


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