Last week I came back from my first trip to Rome. What an amazing place! However, as someone working in heritage, I thought what probably thousands of heritage professionals before me have thought: this interpretation (if you can even call it that) is just terrible . Signs were cluttered, randomly placed and half of the time facing away from the very thing they were meant to explain. Text was disorganised, full of jargon, and so dull that even I, a committed reader of panels, became switched off. There was no narrative, no red thread, and nothing to get me excited about what I was seeing – and that’s quite an achievement given how extraordinary Rome’s historic environment is.
Internally, I found myself collating helpful pieces of advice: Add illustrations! Use headlines! Address the visitor! Avoid jargon! Find comparisons to modern-day life! And for a second there I felt that this was quite acceptable and enough. After all, the responsible Italian colleagues here clearly had no existing concept of interpretation. They were, so to speak, still in a pre-interpretation stage of (heritage management) evolution, and just getting them to apply some simple design and communication principles would vastly improve their interpretive offer to visitors.
And that’s quite true. It would indeed have made a difference if the interpretation provided had been better presented visually, and better written. So the temptation was there to use such an evolutionary model of interpretation, and then focus on its very early stages with ready-made guidance for implementation, with possibly a bit of planning advice thrown in (‘Be clear about your objectives!’). After all, there was nothing more to these ruins I saw before me, right? The history was done and dusted, now it’s all about revealing to me, the hapless tourist from abroad who didn’t do her homework, what happened here. Job done.
Except of course I’ve just spent the last two years doing research with visitors at two sites which may not be as old as Rome, but still a good few years removed from contemporary history (i.e. 2000 years in Germany, and nearly 1000 in the UK). And they had not only a myriad of pre-existing connections to these sites, but also connections that wove right through their identity and perception of their place in the (international) world. They had very clear expectations of interpretation, and while pragmatic considerations of word counts, font sizes, and illustrations were certainly part of that, they by far were not the most important. Add to that the literature I’ve been reading around heritage and tourism, and I realised that my initial recourse to an interpretive discourse about (effectively) implementation was quite worrying.
Here is why. It is true that in many ways interpretation in the UK and the US  is years ahead of interpretation elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean we should suspend what we’ve since learned and thought about successful interpretation when we coach colleagues. There are no evolutionary stages of interpretation that colleagues have to run through in order to catch up with us. It is interpretation as a discipline that has evolved. We’ve broadened our understanding of it. Interpretation, especially when we add ‘heritage’ to the term, has long since ceased to be merely about design and communication. Heritage is so much more complex than that, and interpretation has needed to evolve accordingly. This may not yet have been pinned in our interpretation textbooks. But it’s certainly applied in most projects. In the UK, the Heritage Lottery Fund will not give you money if you don’t properly involve people (and being the largest funder for heritage projects, that means almost every project applies the principle). In the US, they’re even further, by asking uncomfortable questions about covert structural exclusion of people – and we’re not talking a lack of targeted programmes here. So this is where we need to meet our international colleagues in countries that are new to interpretation. Let’s not just give them guidance on design and communication (and education and psychology). That’s just the end-tools. The process of getting there is much, much more important and involved, and far more complex .
 This relates to static, or impersonal interpretation. Two guided tours I went on were quite good. I didn’t get a chance to use audio guides within ancient Rome, because they asked for ID, which I’d left in the hotel for fear of losing it. It made me wonder whether there could be a better solution, especially given the fact that Rome is (in)famous for its pickpockets.
 These are the two places where I’ve personally worked, and which are traditionally listed as the ‘advanced’ countries in terms of interpretation. From my reading, I would add to this Canada and Australia, whose discourses on indigenous heritage and interpretation have been hugely influential on my own research.
 I acknowledge that this is based on the hypothesis that in order to properly provide interpretation it has to be interpreters doing the job of covering the process. More traditionalist interpreters disagree, leaving the identification of ‘content’ to other specialists such as archaeologists and historians. Neither of these disciplines has at their core an engagement with the process required for understanding people’s heritage values (to name but one aspect). Their specialism is something else (a subject within archaeology, a period in history). In contrast, interpretation is the discipline most visible to visitors on site when it comes to content. It is the only discipline charged with actively (as opposed to passively, for example through architecture) engaging visitors with a site. Interpretation therefore appears to me the logical discipline to cover the process through which one arrives at the final content, and thus implementation.