The moral obligation of interpretation

In Britain, we’re experiencing interesting social and political times at the moment [1], which raises the question again what role museums, heritage sites and by extension, interpretation should play in response to this [2] – if any.

I’ve argued previously that it is a dangerous myth to think especially of museums as apolitical spaces – and this goes for interpretation and heritage sites as well [3]. By that I mean that we need to acknowledge that everything that happens within museums is in fact a selection done by people who are themselves governed by a variety of experiences and political views. It is the suggestion that museums ‘tell the truth’ or ‘are objective’ by virtue of the professionalization of their staff that has contributed to the exclusion of vast segments of the public from heritage and decision-making about it.   So that’s clearly not the way to go.

At the same time, audience research shows over and over again the faith that visitors have in museums’ integrity and authority. Social and cultural strategies too place high expectations on museums to deliver a ‘good’ for everyone: to bring integration, cohesion, and lots and lots of wider benefits. This suggests that while acknowledging our limitations as human beings, museums and heritage professionals, and interpreters in particular, have what I’m going to call a moral obligation [4].

To me, that obligation lies in a several things. First of all, it lies in holding up a mirror to society. I think it would be great practice for museums to look for example at current debate and put on exhibitions that seek to illustrate either a more balanced or indeed the opposite point of view. So for example, in Britain we would have exhibitions up and down the country right now talking about migration and immigration throughout history: what it has achieved and contributed, what has worked, what hasn’t, who says so etc.

Secondly, the moral obligation is to tell a balanced story: to present both sides with equal care and respect. And I do here mean both sides: even the side that makes us cringe. We must not censor, but we must test and question as much as we can in a respectful way.

Thirdly, we must openly acknowledge that we are not infallible. We do get it wrong and we must constantly look at our own words, actions and practices, even in the little things. So for example, a constant reference to ‘foreigners’, as I’ve experienced in one of my jobs, just doesn’t speak of an inclusive, welcoming culture. We must acknowledge that, and work hard to change where change is needed.

And finally, at least for this list here: I do think that museums and heritage sites are ultimately part of the final line of moral defence not only of our individual societies, but also of humanity at large. At the conference I recently attended, a colleague questioned one of the keynote speakers on where we draw the line: when does tolerance become sanction of the intolerable? I think that’s a fair question. And listening to some of the discourse in Britain at the moment, for example, I think museums are called upon – not to dictate what society should think, but to take a stance based on their purpose and the role that government allegedly wants us to play [5]. This, I believe, can be achieved when done with humility.



[1] Start here to explore the issues. I find it frightening.

[2] For example in this discussion on LinkedIn.

[3] From here on in this post, when I write ‘museums’ I include heritage sites and interpretation as well.

[4] If you prefer, you can substitute ‘moral’ with political or social – either are equally valid.

[5] On a side note, in this I disagree with the BBC’s approach to the coverage of the European elections. According to BBC Radio 4 Feedback, there were 1400 individual complaints about the extensive coverage of UKIP, to which Ric Bailey, the Chief Political Adviser (I think it was) said that the amount of coverage they got just matches how many people support UKIP. Now, I didn’t mind so much that the BBC gave UKIP so much airtime. What I did object to was and is the lack of critical coverage. What I expect of the media here is the same as what I expect of museums, heritage sites and interpretation: balance and proper questioning of ‘the facts’, not something catering to the (supposed) masses.

6 thoughts on “The moral obligation of interpretation

  1. Interesting post. The notion of “balance” is a thorny one, as it implies that there are two sides of comparable merit. But that’s not always the case. Consider climate change, an abstract, difficult-to-evaluate issue if you don’t have the requisite knowledge (ie. most of us). For years, in the interests of “balance”, journalism has aired a debate between the “warmists” and the “sceptics”, creating the impression that these two claims have comparable merit. Arguably, it’s not *reflected* public discourse, it’s actually *shifted* it towards the minority sceptic view. As you say in the BBC / UKIP example, there is an obligation to be critical as well as balanced, but I think a lot of the time the excuse has been taken that “we’ve aired both sides so we’ve done the right thing”. Sometimes there is a case for simply standing up and saying “Look, this is what we think and here’s why”.

    1. Thanks. I would clarify that ‘balanced’ does not mean ‘uncritical’; in fact I made the point that in telling a balanced story we must test and question – but in a respectful way. I’m always weary of any suggestion that one side has less merit than another, especially when this is based on science, which is notoriously changeable. By testing and questioning the ‘facts’ of the climate-sceptic view, for example, I think we have a greater chance in showing where it falls short. Otherwise I think we’re simply making it easier for people to dismiss the ‘other’ view because they perceive us as having an agenda and dismissing where they’re coming from. I do agree that there comes a hypothetical point where museums have an obligation to ‘simply stand up’, as you say. It’s that final line of moral defence I referred to, and I’m conscious that judging when we’ve arrived at that final line is perhaps the greatest challenge of all.

  2. Excellent article, Nicole. You thoughtfully explain our “moral obligation” in planning and delivery of heritage experiences. We have worked with organizations who think they are apolitical but have obviously included some and excluded others whose stories were more uncomfortable to include. Tim Merriman

    1. Thanks, Tim. I think there are a lot of organizations out there like the ones you’ve been working with, who – probably with the best intentions – include some and exclude others. I don’t have the ultimate answer either on how to respond to this challenge, but I think we need to grapple with it more. Good luck to you in your work! Nicole

  3. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Nicole. This kind of discussion is definitely needed. In my work I often experience sites who believe they have to get funding just because they are somehow “important”. Just recently in a workshop I gave one chief of interpretation in a bigger museum suggested that the currently ruling party leader is “no cultural being” because they are opposed to their work. In a way I understood why she complaint so heavily but at the same time there is no attempt from them to explain what they are doing. There are e. g. no such thing as a mission, vision or any other document that explain their role in our society. I hope there will be more of this in the future in our field.

    1. Thanks, Lars. It’s never a good sign when an organization doesn’t have vision and mission statements. I would add that it’s also important for organizations to position themselves within the wider legal and policy framework of their region/country and show clearly how they see themselves contribute and deliver in that context.

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