As I continue to plough my way through transcribing the visitor interviews that I’ve done at Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany I am struck by one observation: a lot of visitors refer to ‘the presentation’. They came because they wanted to see how the story was ‘presented’. They liked ‘the presentation’. ‘The presentation’ was excellent.
Contrast this to the relative silence when I probe them about what they take away from their visit, and I wonder if there is something going on here. If ‘the presentation’ is that good, then why does it appear to have left them completely cold?
Of course, this could simply be a wider cultural issue. Germans may just turn out to be much more reserved when it comes to history. Or, they may simply be reserved when it comes to the history of this particular site . I am planning to do visitor interviews at a related, but less regimented site next year to test this.
However, I am reminded of what I learnt during my studies in art: If the audience thinks about the medium, then you’ve lost them. If they think about how you’ve cut your film or created your scene, then they’re no longer in the story, and your film has failed. It’s that simple.
Is the same true for interpretation? If all visitors can think of when you ask them about their visit is how you’ve told the story, does that mean that they’ve actually not connected to the story at all? This could be a matter of medium: it may be clunky, and draw attention to itself.
Or, and this is what I think may be going on in Kalkriese, it may be that your medium is indeed excellent, but what you’re telling is just not the whole story, or it isn’t what has meaning to visitors. There have been several occasions where visitors almost seemed to censor themselves, and tell me what I think they believe they are expected to feel, or have learnt, or say. The way in which the interpretation at Kalkriese was put together was marked by what seems an overwhelming fear that the site will be misused and misappropriated by nationalists. Consequently, the tone in the exhibition is constantly tempered by relativism, caution, and an almost obsessive focus on material evidence . The result is an exhibition that does not, ultimately, disinterestedly present facts, but one which is oddly misbalanced and focussing on the side which was defeated in the battle . I cannot help but feel that this must have an impact on the way visitors respond to my questions.
If that is indeed the case, then interpretation has a few things to think about. The first and most obvious point is that it is not enough to ask visitors whether or not they ‘liked’ the interpretation. Clearly at Kalkriese they did, or at least as far as they feel at liberty to tell me. It also means that ‘good’ interpretation cannot be marked off by material criteria alone. In other words, we can’t develop a tick list of observable qualities to determine whether a piece of interpretation is ‘good’  – heritage just doesn’t work that way.
It’s an exciting journey, and I’m really interested in seeing how visitors at the other site respond. As ever: Watch this space.
 German nobleman raised in Rome turns against the Empire, (temporarily) unites the many German tribes and defeats three legions. You can read more about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest here.
 I’ve written here about another side product of this focus on finds.
 In German, the site is called ‘Varusschlacht’, the Battle of Varus, Varus being the Roman commander that was defeated in the event. There are historic reasons for this also, but ultimately it was a choice. The symbol of the site, reproduced on all signage and marketing as well as in an oversized replica greeting visitors as they enter the exhibition, is a Roman mask that they found early on in the excavations.
 It’s a bit ironic that I should write this today, when I received an invitation to propose ‘quality criteria’ for interpretation to Interpret Europe. Some of the original criteria that were proposed and discussed at a workshop during the last IE conference were exactly limited to these observable, Tilden-based qualities, and I heatedly argued against this. They’ve now agreed to include process criteria, which I think are better placed to fit the bill.