What Makes Good Interpretation, or: Here’s the Crux

Twice over the past two months I’ve attended workshops that have sought to tackle the basic question of what makes good interpretation [1].  One workshop aimed at developing a best practice document, while the other started a discussion on what might become the criteria for a quality mark for interpretation.  Both approaches have highlighted the same issues for me: first, it’s not as easy a task as it may seem, and second, I wonder if we’re ready for this conversation yet.

I got a bit worried when in one of the workshops a colleague asserted that ‘we know what good interpretation is’, and their argument was the reference to Tilden’s principles [1].  Sam Ham may have found that Tilden’s views on ‘provocation’ and ‘relevance’ happen to match findings from modern psychology studies [2], but then Skibins et al [3] found very little evidence that the best practice principles put forth in many of the interpretation text books, including Tilden’s, actually produce the asserted outcomes of interpretation.  This highlights to me yet again that just because we keep quoting the same principles doesn’t make them any more robust.  We need hard facts.

Here’s another thought that struck me in one of the workshops.  As we talked about the challenges of site conservation and the lack of evidential knowledge, interpretation was conceptualized primarily as a conservation tool, as well as a means for communicating what knowledge we do have.  Best practice consequently became heavily influenced by these considerations, and I pointed out that we needed to bring in visitors and their own desired outcomes more (which we then discussed at length – this was a great workshop).  Looking at best practice from the visitor outcomes point of view completely changes the game, away from tools (word counts, image/text ratios, positioning of panels) to processes, and more subtle facilitation.  But again, what is still lacking here is hard evidence for how impact is actually achieved.

In a short sentence, I suppose one could summarize my argument as: we need more evidence on which to build any criteria and best practice.  However, I think it goes a bit deeper than that: I think as a discipline, we need a radical shift in philosophy and approach, and along with this a change in language.  An easy example would be the oft-referred to ‘calling’ that interpreters supposedly have, their deep ‘caring’ for heritage, natural or cultural, and their ‘desire’ to ‘share’ this with others.  While these are all admirable, and deeply meaningful personal motivations, I’m no longer convinced that this is how we should refer to ourselves.  That we have done it for such a long time may be the reason why an archaeologist colleague recently referred to themselves as ‘a researcher’, while ‘of course’ the interpreters were, well, ‘just interpreters’. Actually, I pointed out, I’m a researcher also – in interpretation.  But of course, every time we refer to Tilden and elaborate on our personal connections to heritage, we’re losing our footing beside those heritage disciplines that are primarily based on evidence.

So does this mean I’m suggesting we should put these conversations about best practice and quality criteria on hold?  No, absolutely not.  I actually think there is enough evidence out there already for us to start formulating both.  But we need to be clear what the evidence actually supports – and what it doesn’t support.  And where evidence is thin or lacking completely, we need to start doing some serious work, alongside changing our language to reflect the fact that creating good interpretation is not merely a matter of referring to what can be seen in front of you.  It takes a great deal more than that.



[1] I’ve already written here about why I think we need to give Tilden a well-deserved rest.
[2] Ham, S., 2009. ‘From Interpretation to Protection: Is There a Theoretical Basis?’ Journal of Interpretation Research 14(2), pp. 49 – 57
[3] Skibins J., Powell R., Stern, M., 2012.  ‘Exploring empirical support for interpretation’s best practices’. Journal of Interpretation Research 17(1), pp.  25 – 44

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