Awards for Interpretation: Are We Sending the Right Signal?

The Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI) in the UK has recently announced the re-launch of their awards scheme for interpretation. AHI have yet to publish their rationale and criteria for the awards, so the following are my thoughts on their published information to date.

The Ambition
AHI want their awards to be a ‘prestigious badge for recognition’. That’s a great ambition. Interpretation is in dire need of more visibility as a distinct profession and discipline, and one that deserves its place alongside curators and conservators. Awards can achieve a lot in that regard if they are well respected, within the field, but perhaps more importantly by those outside of it. That requires carefully setting up the awards – from application through to assessment.

AHI write that ‘submissions’ for the awards will open in January 2015. It’s not clear from this who will submit sites. I hope it won’t be a peer submission scheme, as these tend to be based solely on visible interpretation, or in fact personal involvement, and have profile primarily in the field itself. I think submission by sites themselves based on a transparent application process that is linked directly to the standards and criteria works best. This gets managers’ attention and raises the profile of interpretation within organisations and at sites. It also means that organisations at large think about how to embed interpretation in their practice, as the application process (hopefully) will require more than mere assertions of ‘this output is great’.

That’s really the backbone on which the success of this or any awards scheme hinges. In the past, criteria that have been discussed have been focused on outputs: writing style, text length, relevance to visitors, design, or diversity/hierarchy of media, to name but a few of the usually cited ‘best practice principles’. I accept that these will be part of considerations about awards for interpretation, and to some degree rightly so. However, there are two concerns: the first is about the lack of convincing evidence for the universal effectiveness of these practices. Only last week, yet another report was published that discredits methods that to some extent are also upheld in the current canon of ‘best practice’ interpretation. The second concern is that interpretation is not simply outputs, design, and media, and the planning thereof. It is, or should be, first and foremost about the underlying philosophy, and here particularly concepts of heritage and heritage communities. Linked to this, interpretation is as much, and in my opinion more, about audience research and stakeholder engagement than it is about outputs and their evaluation. Award criteria can shape practice, just as the outcomes declared important by the Heritage Lottery Fund have done. Focusing these criteria solely on outputs therefore would suggest that the crucial philosophical and scientific underpinning of interpretation is less important, and thus may be ignored.

The five awards categories (seven if you count the ‘best of show’ and an interpreter’s ‘Lifetime achievement’ award) are firstly by type of attraction, destination, or site:

  • museum or historic properties/sites
  • landscapes/forests/nature reserves/parks and gardens
  • visitor and interpretation centres.

To me, these three categories suggest that interpretation and its best practice is different depending on what type of attraction it is. I’ve worked in all three categories, and I can’t say that my experience upholds this (nor does my reading). A label is a label no matter where you put it. Of course you need to find the best possible solution for that particular site, content and challenge, but this again is an interpretive principle that applies to all attractions. I’d be quite interested to hear why the more obvious categories of types of interpretation were not used. Why isn’t there a category on Live Interpretation, A/V use, Online Interpretation, etc? This could have helped move forward our understanding of what works best regarding these particular methods of interpretation.
The other two categories that AHI have implemented raise even more questions for me. The first is Community Projects, defined as ‘developed and co-managed by community groups’. I assume that AHI wanted to give credit to those pure community-instigated projects that thrive all over the country.  However, in singling them out, the signal this gives is that somehow, communities are separate from, for example, museums, or visitor centres, and the ‘professionals’ that do interpretation there. And that, sadly, is still very, very often the case in interpretation. In reality of course every heritage has a community. And every piece of interpretation should be developed with and co-managed by the community. That should be part of the awards criteria for each and every award category. So while a ‘Community Project’ category may flow with AHI’s choice of categories by attraction type, it sits very uncomfortably with what should actually be the standards for interpretation as far as I’m concerned.
The final category is Interpretation for a target audience. I invite you to read this post about my views on target audiences. Adding this category tackles none of the issues about exclusion, responds to none of the findings about how targeting groups often makes them feel even more isolated and ‘other’, and says nothing at all about the fact that once targeted interventions are over visitor numbers more often than not plunge right back to where they were before. Clearly, there is a real flaw in practices that ‘target’ audiences, and adding this category cements these flaws into what the UK professional association for interpretation considers best practice.

I applaud the AHI for clearly making a push over recent months to give interpretation a greater profile in the UK. I think the sector is ready to set down standards and criteria, and make these the basis for an awards scheme. I will await AHI’s awards criteria with much anticipation. For the time being, however, I am not sure how prestigious, or reflective of ground-breaking thinking, the AHI awards will be, based on what I currently know about them.

2 thoughts on “Awards for Interpretation: Are We Sending the Right Signal?

  1. Hi, As you know so little of the AHI’s awards why be so critical of the things you’re guessing at rather than keeping to what you know about?

    1. I’m not guessing at anything. At no point in the post do I make any conjecture about what AHI ‘might’ do. It’s very clear throughout where I respond to the information published by AHI on their award, and where I’m reflecting on discussions I’ve been part of (outside AHI as it happens), the wider literature, as well as my own research and experience. That information I’m also not ‘guessing’ at; I know it (and you can go through the archive of this blog to see that I’ve reflected on principles, criteria and standards of interpretation for a while now). The post is first and foremost a thought piece, as are most of my posts. It’s also in the blog’s strapline (‘thoughts on…’). As for being critical, that’s what my blog is about. I explain this on the ‘About’ page. I also write there that I welcome (constructive) discussion, so if you would like to respond to my ‘critical’ reflections, please do.

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