My issue with ‘provocation’

A few months ago on Twitter, the Stadtmuseum Stuttgart shared this article (titled, in German, ‘Local museums must provoke’) and asked ‘Do they?’ In the ensuing chat, they wrote that ‘Provocation is easy. Relevance is difficult.’ I first surprised myself by writing back that provocation also needs to be relevant, and that it is only easy if it’s done slovenly. And then I came to a point that’s been with me for a very long time: that I don’t like the term provocation.

So I want to think about all of that some more.

Why I don’t like the term ‘provocation’

Perhaps when the person wrote ‘provocation is easy’ they had the same, everyday understanding of provocation in mind as I normally do: the Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as an ‘action or speech that makes someone angry, especially deliberately.’ This type of provocation is an act of aggression. It deliberately targets something about the other person – their behaviour, their attitudes, their opinions, their appearance – in order to make them angry and, as other definitions of provocation add, to evoke a response, usually for the gratification of the provoker.

With this, everyday understanding of provocation engrained in me, I have always felt uncomfortable with the way provocation has been used in interpretion philosophy. Granted, Freeman Tilden, who first introduced provocation as a central principle of interpretation, didn’t suggest that we anger visitors. He did advise that we make interpretation ‘relevant’ to them, by meeting visitors’ ‘chief interest’, which lies in ‘whatever touches his personality, his experience and his ideals’ [1]. He uses ‘provoke’ in relation to provoking the question, ‘Under like conditions what would you have done?’ [2]. In the chapter dedicated to provocation as ‘the chief aim of interpretation’ [3] Tilden writes that the purpose of interpretation (i.e. the provocation) is to ‘stimulate’ someone ‘toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge, and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact’ [4].

I’m still uncomfortable with this use of provocation, because there are too many similarities with the everyday definition of the term – but without the acknowledgement. The governing assumption evident in the quotes, and throughout Tilden’s book, is that people do not already have meanings associated with heritage nor a deep understanding of it – or at least none that interpretation accepts as of equal value [5]. Thus visitors need to be provoked: provoked to think (differently), to view (differently), to expand and understand (differently), and ultimately to act (differently) [6]. I cannot shake the sense that both the underlying expert hegemony, and the intention of affecting a change in visitors are ultimately another form of aggression, albeit one that is much more subtle than the provocations one might see during a drunken brawl [7]. For sure, there are instances when values may need to be asserted over others, and a change is the justified intention. However, this isn’t usually discussed when we talk about ‘provocation’. That is what makes this an ethical issue which to date, at least in my opinion, has not been sufficiently dealt with by far.

Why provocation isn’t easy, and needs to be relevant too

In the article that the Stadtmuseum Stuttgart posted, Henning Meyer, architect with Space4, framed provocation as ‘getting involved in debate and taking a stance’ [8]. It was directly in response to this that I found myself embracing the notion of ‘provocation’. Taking a stance in my eyes means to say, fair enough, there are many opinions, but this is ours. Getting involved in a debate means engaging with existing opinions, it means listening and responding to what others, including visitors, say. And this may indeed prove to be provocation in the Oxford dictionary sense. Some people may not like what we have to say. We may choose to say something precisely in response to opinions, attitutes, and behaviours that we wish to challenge. This requires careful thinking about our own ethics and our values as an institution. I particularly liked what Rebecca Herz raised in her post on considering an ethical museum: the notion of ‘tikkun olam’, which asks, she writes, ‘how can museums help to make the world a better place?’ [9].

But the provocation needs to be relevant: relevant to the communties we serve and of which we are a part. It has to respond to the debates in the community.  It needs to take a stance on issues affecting the community.  And it needs to be governed by an underlying set of values relating to the community.  I am reminded here of the motto that the property manager had at the main office door at Culloden Battlefield: With respect and dignity.  I always felt that to be a very good moral compass.  This should be applied to this type of provocation also: it’s not for the sake of hearing our own voice. It’s entering a debate, and taking a stance in relation to our community.

Provocation in this sense does not hide its challenge to visitors’ views. That makes it honest, but also opens the doors wide for visitors to disagree. This is how a debate truly can happen. In contrast, a subtle assumption of authority or the pretense of social and political neutrality makes museums hard to engage with. We know that neither can withstand scrutiny, but there is no place to start for someone just walking in through the door. I would much rather see museums that clearly state their views, and then be outraged and respond as a visitor, than walk through yet another exhibition about some local historical fact that completely ignores the racial and class tensions in the community the museum presumably serves.

I am fully conscious that this raises more questions, about museums, funding, and interpetive philosophy as well. I do not claim to have the answers. But I’ll keep thinking about these, and I’d love to hear your views, too.


[1] Tilden, F., 1957 (1977). Interpreting Our Heritage, 3rd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p.11.

[2] ibid, p. 15.

[3] ibid, p. 32.

[4] ibid, p. 33. Emphasis is mine.

[5] Equal in value to those of the specialists, ‘the historian, the naturalist, the archaologist’. They provide the ‘authoritative decision’, the ‘research [without which] the interpreter cannot start’. Ibid, p. 23.

[6] It is in this chapter that Tilden repeats the famous mantra of interpretation leading to understanding leading to appreciation leading to protection. Ibid, p. 38. Protection for Tilden is ‘the most important end of our interpretation’ (p. 37/8).

[7] Yes, Tilden also wrote that ‘the provocation to the visitor [is] to search out meanings for himself’, ibid, p. 36. He wasn’t suggesting that the meaning is provided as ‘instruction’ to vistiors. Nevertheless, he didn’t tackle – neither philsoophically nor scientifically – this very issue that he throws up repeatedly in the book, of the supremacy of specialist opinion (see quotes above) and a conceptual framing of ‘visitors’ (itself a deeply flawed term that has received ample criticism in other disciplines) as somehow disconnected from ‘heritage’ and in need of interpretive support.

[8] in German, ‘sich in Diskussionen einmischen und Stellung beziehen’.

[9] There are a myriad of concerns that I acknowledge, certainly in the UK – ranging from funding strings to meddling decision makers. However, my view remains unchanged that this is the direction I feel museums and heritage sites need to take, and until we tackle these issues, and consider for example other funding options, such as Regan Forrest suggested in her comment to my last post, we will continue to go in well-meaning, but ultimately and increasingly irrelevant circles.


6 thoughts on “My issue with ‘provocation’

  1. Hi Nicole,

    thank you for this article. I had almost forgotten this chat, but it’s good to remember. And I agree with your definition of provocation in the second part of the article. For me relevance means, that the museum and it’ s exhibition must be relevant for its visitors, and than it can provoke. But if provocation is only used to get attraction, I don’t like it. And this is what I meant with “provocation is easy, relevance is difficult” Making museum means not searching an easy way to get thousands of visitors… It’ s about being relevant for society and being a place for discussion an d forcing discussions.


    1. Hi Markus,
      Indeed, I quite agree: provocation just to get attention and (possibly) more visitors is easy, cheap, and a cop-out. There’s been some debate around whether ‘the public’ want museums to be places of discussion (here in the UK) with one report suggesting they don’t. But I think that is an issue with framing questions about what people think of museums. If they’ve always been about ‘authority’ and ‘education’, then visitors (and non-visitors particularly) will always struggle to feel empowered to engage in a debate with a museum. For Britain certainly that’s the challenge and the change I think is needed. There have been examples from Germany that seem different – very inspiring, that!

  2. It is funny how words come to be understood differently over time — often becoming their own antonyms. Like the verb “cleave”, for example, which formerly meant “join together” but is now often used to mean “split apart”.

    And so with Tilden’s phrase “Not Instruction But Provocation”, which was really a direct quote from an address delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard Divinity School in 1838. Emerson could trust that his Harvard audience was trained in Latin and Greek, and he used the word “provocation” in its most literal sense, derived from the Latin “provocare” meaning “to call forth”. Provocations “call forth” something from someone. Great figures like Jesus provoke us, Emerson said — “Noble provocations go out from them, inviting me to resist evil” — but they cannot instruct us, we cannot receive from them at “second hand.” “What he announces I must find true in me, or wholly reject” — that was Emerson’s big idea in his speech — that no one can give you truth, no one can instruct you in ultimate matters — you must find truth within yourself to find it at all. The most someone could do is “call forth” the truth already within you. For Emerson this is the greatest good: “That is always best which gives me to myself.”

    In “Interpreting Our Heritage” Tilden calls Emerson “our greatest American philosopher and interpreter”. He is Tilden’s great example of what a great interpreter should be. If you don’t understand Emerson, you can’t understand Tilden, and so the meaning of Tilden’s “provocation” gets turned around into its own opposite, and is misunderstood as an aggressive imposition from the outside instead of a “calling forth” of what is already within.

    Really this idea goes back long before Emerson — recall the epistemological anamnesis Plato attributes to Socrates, where “learning” something genuinely new to you is presented as logically impossible — but you can “remember” new truths you have “forgotten”. Socrates can’t teach you — but he can call forth forgotten truths from within you into your awareness. This is why Tilden repeatedly references Socrates in “Interpreting Our Heritage”. When you have all this mind, the final sentence of the final chapter of Tilden’s “Interpreting Our Heritage” makes perfect sense: “It is the duty of the interpreter to jog our memories.”

    Not to instruct us. Not to teach us. Not to give the visitor something the interpreter has and the visitor doesn’t. No. For Tilden, the duty of the interpreter is to jog our memories, to remind us of what we already know — and have always known, all along.

    Or as Emerson, Tilden’s “greatest American interpreter”, put it:
    “That is always best which gives me to myself.”

    And isn’t that what we’ve always felt, deep down, that interpretation should really be about?

    1. Hi Bryan,
      Thanks for your considered comment. I hope I made it sufficiently clear in my post that I acknowledge that Tilden didn’t use ‘provocation’ in its modern dictionary sense, and certainly not as an intentional, overt aggression.
      Looking into Emerson’s speech is quite illuminating, so thank you for raising that. Emerson here is more open and honest in terms of where he’s coming from, than Tilden, in my opinion. Emerson basically is making a Lutheran critique: of a church that has mis-interpreted Jesus and assumed a position of power over ‘truth’ that denies ‘man’ expression of his own ‘divine nature’. That is the context of the words in your quote (‘I must find true in me, or wholly reject’), and Emerson goes on to criticise the church because ‘..God himself, into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society…’ ‘God’ is in man’s ‘soul’: ‘the gleams which flash across my mind, are not mine, but God’s’, Emerson says.
      This exemplifies the critique that I hoped to make in my post: that there is the continued assertion of a truth (‘God’ for Emerson, ‘the greater truth’ for Tilden) that is assumed to be universal and applicable to all people, and it is this which interpretation must stimulate the visitor to explore (or remember, if we go with your reference to Socrates).
      I have heard many people cite precisely Tilden’s ‘not instruction, but provocation’ as a counter-argument to the kind of critique I’m making here. The suggestion is that because he didn’t want people to be instructed with facts, he allowed all meanings. That is simply not true. As I’ve argued above and in my post, it is ‘God’ or ‘truth’ which we must be provoked to find/explore/remember – something that is already within us, and which, if only we can be provoked to find/explore/remember, in our own way, will lead to the famous NPS mantra: we will protect what ultimately is ‘God’ or ‘truth’. There is no room for anything else. Tilden – and Emerson – assume that we will all come to recognise the same ‘truth’ if only the right frameworks are put in place. Emerson at least acknowledged that the basis for this philosophy was a ‘religious sentiment’.
      Having said all of the above, I personally feel that we’re doing the discipline of interpretation, and Tilden himself, the greatest disservice by our obsession with trying to justify what Tilden wrote nearly 60 years ago. It is not Tilden’s fault that post-modernism has overtaken his positivism, that Critical Heritage has overtaken his views about materiality and the positioning of ‘visitors’ (never mind Husserl, Kant, and Schopenhauer). Tilden wrote at a historic point in time and he ‘pretends to no finality, no limitation’ (p. 8). It is subsequent interpretive literature and thinking that has imposed this finality on him.
      The analysis of that discourse also needs to become more important than what some think Tilden ‘really meant’. Setting aside for the moment that many of these arguments do not actually hold up to scrutiny against the totality of concepts used by Tilden, it is also unhelpful. We may dismiss decades worth of interpretive scholars and writers as having ‘misunderstood’ Tilden, but the fact remains that these misunderstanding (and I do not think they are misunderstanding) have shaped interpretative thinking in the 21st century. So it’s these concepts that are still at work which we need to address. Sadly by now that means dismantling Tilden in a way that I feel is actually unfair to the man.
      Thanks for the chance to write about this some more!

  3. When you say something like:
    “It is not Tilden’s fault that post-modernism has overtaken his positivism”
    I don’t know how to respond. Words mean something very different to you — something is getting lost in translation. Positivism — in my language, as found in the AHD or OED — is the position that all meaningful statements must be either logical inferences or sense descriptions, and metaphysical or theological statements are meaningless, because they cannot be verified empirically or through formal logic.

    Is that what positivism means to you? Or is this another case of word-reversal where you use “positivism” to mean what was its historical opposite, mysticism?

    Tilden, Emerson, and Socrates were not positivists. They were religious mystics, and their focus was on the transcendent unifying principle (variously called God, or Truth, or Beauty, or Love — but they held it was a single principle) that they believed was behind the sensory world. On the very first page of the first chapter of “Interpreting Our Heritage” Tilden makes this clear when he says interpreters are engaged in revealing “something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind what the visitor can with his senses perceive.” Thus the spiritual function is explicit in the very first definition of “Interpretation” Tilden offers.
    How could Tilden be more open and honest about this, than by putting this on his very first page of Chapter 1? Yet you suggest he was not…

    To me Tilden’s language in Chapter 1 evokes Socrates/Plato and the Allegory of the Cave, where what really matters is the Reality that lies “behind” our sensory world. Tilden references Socrates most explicitly at the end of Chapter 7, where he also writes of “what is not factual but of the spirit” and this “Love” is Tilden’s “single principle” that unifies and supersedes all his other principles of Interpretation.

    Positivism is the opposite of this — positivism is exclusively factual, not spiritual, and is the denial of the importance of anything “behind” sensory experience. Positivism denies any value to mystical, non-logical insight. Meanwhile, Emerson highly values “intuition” and Tilden explicitly agrees that “superb” Interpretation comes from “merely following…inspiration”, “aware of no principles”.
    This is mysticism, not positivism.
    At least, it is not positivism as the OED or AHD would define the term.

    Upon reflection, since we seem to be consistently using words in opposite ways, it seems likely to me that behind this language barrier, we agree. How can we express agreement through opposite languages? By disagreeing, of course.

    Behind the words, I don’t think you are a nihilistic post-modern, who believes all claims are equal. You don’t believe systems of peaceful cooperation and systems of racial hatred are all equally valid, and defending one is no better than defending the other. You don’t really think *all* claims are the same. You think some are *right*, not just “right to me”, but right in a bigger way you would like to convince other people of, and not just to assert your will to power over them, but because the real truths, the truths behind our opposite words and thoughts, the real truths are true because they are true to what is already in me and in you and in everyone.

    And I appreciate your reminding me of that.

    1. I think we’re both experiencing the same puzzlement with each other’s responses – although I would not therefore suggest that your arguments are getting ‘lost in translation’.

      Yes, my understanding of positivism is the same as yours. It rejects the metaphysical. It places the emphasis on that which can be measured and observed. It seeks fact. (Empirical) science is the way to arrive at facts. There are of course further nuances, but this should suffice to establish that indeed our definitions of positivism are the same.

      Here is why I spoke of Tilden’s positivism, based on his treatment of science and facts:

      ‘Since Interpretation is a growth whose effectiveness depends upon a regular nourishment by well-directed and discriminating research…’ (Tilden 1957 (1977),p. 5)

      Quoting Edward P. Alexander: ‘Both historical authenticity and proper interpretation demand facts. Research is the way to obtain these facts. There is no substitute for it…’ (ibid, p. 5)

      ‘Certainly the raw material of interpretation is information.’ (ibid, p. 22)

      ‘The interpreter begins where the decision has finally been made: “This is what we think proper to call the facts.”‘ (ibid, p. 23)

      ‘The work of the specialist, the historian, the naturalist, the archaeologist, is fundamental, then. Without their research the interpreter cannot start.’ (ibex, p. 23)

      I’m sure I could find further quotes, but I think I’ve made my point. What Tilden does here is establish the primacy of facts, and the specialist that researches them. That is positivism.

      You might also be interested in Russell Staiff’s critique of Tilden on this, and other points (2014, Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation, Chapter 2, and here especially pp. 36-39).

      I suggested that Tilden – in comparison to Emerson in his speech at Divinity College, let’s remind ourselves of the context in which I wrote this – is less honest and open with regards to where he is coming from for the following reasons: Emerson positions himself clearly in the context of a current (to his time) debate, responds to existing arguments, and builds his own case. He makes has a ‘religious sentiment’. There is no question that he thinks there is one God, who is knowledge, and represented in each of us.

      Tilden does not do this when he asserts the existence of a ‘larger truth’ (ibid, p. 8). I agree with Staiff who notes the ‘religious connotation of revelation’ (2014, p. 37) in Tilden, and Tilden repeatedly makes reference to Jesus (1957(1977), p. 5) and the bible (ibid, p. 40). But Tilden does not position himself in that way. He does not introduce his ‘larger truth’ or the ‘spiritual meaning’ in your quote through a well-made argument, as Emerson did. He does not respond to other views which may contradict him. He does not state clearly that his is one truth, and one that is influenced (as is appears) by religion. In that, I find him less honest and open in comparison to Emerson. I did not say that he didn’t make statements that allow us to infer where he’s coming from.

      Finally, and again, I will end this reply to you with the reference to what I actually find important: to consider the impact that Tilden’s concepts continue to have on current interpretive discourse and practice, even if one might believe these concepts to be fuelled by a misunderstanding of Tilden (since they are persuasively consistent I don’t think this is a sustainable argument – it’s late now, but I’ll happily elaborate on this further if you’re interested), and to consider what recent concepts and discourses from other disciplines mean for interpretation.

      As for your final question: am I nihilistic post-modern? No. But as a heritage professional and interpreter my primary commitment is to people’s heritage values, no matter how varied and how different they may be from my own. I fully acknowledge the ethical dilemma this may cause in some circumstances, such as the drastic and extreme opposites you cite of ‘peaceful cooperation’ and ‘racial hatred’. This is what I seek to explore alongside other interpreters and heritage professionals – we’re all grappling with questions of museum ethics, inclusivity, democracy, social and moral obligations of museums and heritage sites within wider society and our communities. Where this means taking a stance, as I write in my post, I advocate doing so in a considered and honest way, making it clear that this is an opinion open for debate, which will respect and value those that disagree. But this does not start from a belief in a ‘real truth’ of which I need to ‘convince’ other people. The two represent two very different philosophies, which, needless to say, lead to completely different relationships with heritage ‘visitors’ and communities.

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