Communicating Messages: Is Interpretation Missing the Point?

In a recent meeting, my PhD supervisors asked me: Is interpretation missing the point by focussing on messages?

That interpretation is about communicating messages is a conventional wisdom in the field.  Distinct messages are inherent in the definition of interpretation as a ‘mission-based communication process’ [1], and they are the basis from which we measure knowledge gain and attitudinal/behavioural change [2].  Expressed as objectives, we consider messages to be the core of any properly planned piece of interpretation.  In another guise, messages are also our interpretive themes, and I’m not even going to start to list the many books and studies that have persuasively argued the case for themes [3].

I establish objectives and themes in every one of my interpretation plans.  I scorn plans that don’t have either, and I have done so for years.  And yet, for years, I have also argued that interpretation is facilitation.  I have stated over and over again that interpretation is not a one-way street of imparting knowledge, or worse yet, educating our visitors. Now I wonder if on some level my practice – despite my best intentions – does actually miss the point I’ve been making.

When visitors tell me during my current research that they want ‘facts’ presented in an accessible way, and facts that equally represent both sides, then what they may try to say is that actually, they want just the opposite of predetermined messages (unless, of course, your message is a simple, ‘here’s the dough, now go and bake your own bread’).  Similarly, any meaningful theme, able to be expressed in a single sentence, may also sail right past visitors’ desire for an overview and orientation, and the ability to find their own space within the event narrative.

So while themes and objectives are without the shadow of a doubt the perfect and most effective way to get across a message, and help us be clear about what it is we want to achieve, I’m beginning to wonder whether they steer us toward focussing on achieving the wrong thing altogether.  Am I, by holding on to SMART objectives (especially of the learning kind) and snazzy themes, in fact hindering the very facilitation that I want interpretation to be?

I’m not sure yet, but the answer is probably a conditional yes.  We’ll probably still need objectives to prevent us from going all over the place, but the objectives are likely to have to be more focussed on the interpretation, rather than any expectation of what our visitors should know/feel/learn. And as for themes?  My instincts tell me that heritage events do have a core, a key characteristic, even if it is as vague as ‘a tragic battle’.  This, however, should probably be treated more as a context and cradle for engagement, and not as a message for visitors to ‘take home’ and remember.

9 thoughts on “Communicating Messages: Is Interpretation Missing the Point?

  1. I was asked by a consultant what simple ‘message’ I wanted visitors to take home with them. I suggested that ‘It’s more complicated than you think (but in a good way)’ would be a good one.

  2. You asked: “Am I, by holding on to SMART objectives (especially of the learning kind) and snazzy themes, in fact hindering the very facilitation that I want interpretation to be?”

    I don’t think so. But you need to envision a theme not as a “message” to be internalized, taken home, and remembered. That is not the purpose of a theme. The purpose of a well-crafted and artfully delivered theme is to serve as a platform for the visitor’s own thinking and meaning making. That is, the theme is not a statement that that we want audiences to remember, but rather it’s an idea that we want them to think about. As I have stressed throughout my book, Interpretation–Making a Difference on Purpose, this view of thematic interpretation is well-supported by contemporary cognitive science, and it is precisely in such a view that the interpreter’s role as “facilitator” rather than “teacher” or “entertaining fact-giver” emerges. Interpretation at its best aims to stimulate (and yes, I prefer Tilden’s verb, “to provoke”) visitors (audiences) to do their own thinking and thereby make their own meanings. And so there really is no disconnect between the “smart” objectives you referred to and the facilitation role of interpreters. They go hand-in-glove.

    One last quick thing: I long ago dropped the old “one-sentence” rule when it comes to crafting a theme. Yes, many or most strong themes can be expressed in a single sentence. But I have time and again over many years watched interpreters struggle with the grammar and punctuation of a perfectly good theme because it contained more nuances than could be expressed in a single sentence. When cramming them all into a single phrase with one subject and one verb results in a run-on sentence, then both the interpreter and probably the audience get lost in the words and what could have been a compelling idea is squandered. I have observed so many times that the key to a strong theme is that it expresses a single thought-provoking idea, even if it takes more than one grammatical unit to articulate it. The power of a theme lies in the idea it expresses, and if capturing that power requires a semi-colon followed by another closely-related sentence, or a full-stop followed by a closely-related sentence, that should be OK. So many so-called “rules” of creative expression make me wonder. This is one of them.

    By the way, I hope by “snazzy,” you mean compelling or thought-provoking and not just clever and “catchy.” The difference truly matters.

    My USD $0.02. Cheers.

    1. Hi Sam,

      As ever, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I can’t comment yet on what you wrote in your new book, as I’ve not been able to read it yet (fieldstudy trips are squeezing the budget). However, I am familier with the arguments that you’ve developed elsewhere on the effectiveness of themes based on cognitive science (namely the 2007 paper at the Vancouver conference on Interpreting World Heritage). In fact, your paper was one of the studies I was thinking of as being rather persuasive, as I wrote in my post. I absolutely agree with you that cognitive science has made the case for the effectiveness of themes. But effectiveness to do what? Achieve behavioural change? Increase knowledge gain? I would question this premise of interpretation altogether. Intuitively (and this is something I’m testing in my doctorate research) I believe that facilitation is not about stimulating or provoking visitors to do their own thinking and make their own meanings. Too me this implies that visitors don’t already have a meaning associated with a site, or a connection, and that just isn’t borne out by my own professional experience, nor does my research so far suggest this to be the case.

      Even as ‘an idea that we want [visitors] to think about’, as you write, it seems to me that we are guiding the direction(s) that visitors’ thinking is meant to take. We know of course that interpretation is (and perhaps always will be) a selection process, but I think this needs to be analysed further so that we may better understand the impact of this selection process on the ways that visitors can engage with their heritage. Coming back to themes, to me this raises the question of how should employ them. As Lance wrote in his comment, heritage is much more complicated than we think, so that’s really what most themes probably should reflect. You can effectively use a hammer to build a house and to tear one down – it’s not the themes that are the issue, but how we use them.

      Now that I know that you’ve ditched the one-sentence-theme-rule a long time ago, I shall no longer obsess about it either – independent of how I may or may not choose to use themes in the future! You are quite right that ‘rules’ can sometimes be self-defeating, and this, I agree, is one of them. It just needs more of our researchers, like you, to say it out loud.

      Because on the ground, things – at least in Britain – can still look desperately dire. Only last week I was at a workshop where the task was to ‘find the key message’, ‘develop the key theme’ of a proposed interpretation project. Things are still being left out just to create a neat narrative. And more often than not, the themes that we are asked to produce are indeed expected to be ‘catchy’, and easily understood. But this brings me into the whole politics side of heritage interpretation, and that’s another topic altogether.

      Thanks again for getting me to delve even further into what I think!


  3. Nicole:

    Thanks for another thought provoking post. After some serious thought, my answer to your question is a tentative yes, interpretation is missing the point by focussing on messages … if your point is facilitation.

    In my own work, I have started to substitute the term “agenda” for “theme”. I know “agenda” is a loaded word, but I think it more closely describes my ultimate intentions which are, increasingly, to establish a framework for visitor engagement and to empower visitors to participate in that process, rather than communicate any specific idea. Process as opposed to product.

    Much of my work involves the interpretation of oral history and recent memory. These narratives are not yet complete, but are still in the process of being shaped and re-shaped. There’s nothing fixed or definitive we can provide visitors. Instead, we try to give them an entry point, a way in, and the tools they need to interrogate both the sources and their own responses to them. Perhaps that is what visitors are referring to when they tell you they want “the facts presented in an accessible way”?

    For me, the word “agenda” is also a constant reminder of my own role and influence in the interpretive planning process … that good interpretation isn’t a practice, but a praxis.

    1. Hi Jane,

      Thanks for your comment. I would actually go a step further and say that all heritage is a continuous process, and one that is never ‘complete’. As such, I see *all* of the interpretation that I do as an ‘entry point’, which to my ears is another word for ‘facilitation’. And to me, it’s certainly a process, as I wrote here and here.

      I’ll have to meditate on your use of ‘agenda’ a little bit. It is a loaded term, as you say, and I’m not sure it can ever be sufficiently moved away from that. I also generally find that we don’t need a new term everytime we’re repositioning an idea, as I tried to argue here. On the other hand, where a radical break is needed, we may also need new terms. I’ll get back to you on that one :-).


  4. hi Nicole,

    You mention that ‘only last week you were at a workshop to ‘find the key message’ ‘develop a key theme’ – i’m gathering that you felt uncomfortable with this and i’m curious to know why?

    Whether you call interpretation a facilitated experience, a journey through a narrative or a wander down a trail I believe one of the core elements is that it has a focus. And this is where my thinking is along the line of Sam’s in that I believe we provide opportunities for people to think about ideas. That people might already have ideas similar to these … great. That they might be different … great. That they consider it and are provoked to think about it … great. I agree with you in that it would be rare for people not to have a notion of a particular site / attraction / event and would add that to have this either complemented or extended on by our perspectives (themes) is what an interpretive experience is about.

    To me an interpretive experience is no different to listening to a great piece of music with provocative lyrics, or heading off to watch a movie that has me reeling by the time the credits roll around or perhaps sitting back with a good old beer to be stimulated by a comical genius whilst watching a stand up perform.

    As to your question around ‘effectiveness’ and ‘what effectiveness we are aiming for. For me this relates to our purpose and intention – which precedes thinking around themes.

    A good story means we identify the characters and the scenes and the plots and the climax and means by which we will communicate the story. This means somethings are included and others left out. If we choose to develop and facilitate an interpretive experience we are doing the same.

    Enjoy reading your blogs and interested to find out more about your thesis. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas and for facilitating this discussion (which for me is an ‘interpretive’ experience as it integrates many of the elements that have been discussed above)

    Good luck with your research.

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment. I wasn’t actually suggesting that I was uncomfortable with the workshop I attended. Rather, I tried to showcase just how common it is for us to look for themes and messages without further asking ourselves why we are doing so. To me it’s important to constantly check whether what I do is actually supported by the evidence and feedback I get from people. It’s all too easy to fall into dogmas and rehash the same old mantras without actually having any proof that this is the best practice, or that what it does achieve is what we should be aiming to achieve in the first place.

      Big questions and I don’t (yet?) have the answers!

      I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog, and please do keep the comments coming.

      All the best,

  5. thanks Nicole,

    so true mate with what you wrote – if you get a chance there is an awesome story of a lady Fiona Wood who invented spray on skin for burns patients – in reading your reply to my post i was reminded of her story and how she constantly questioned what she was doing, questioned the evidence, pulled back to truths. She always sought to better what she was doing and she says that these questions and ‘habits’ helped her push forward so as to now be able to better treat so many more people suffering severe burns

    all the best

    John P.

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