Interpretation and the Public Benefits of Heritage in Policy

When I started working in a local authority heritage context [1], I was struck by how much heritage was specifically expected to deliver rather concrete outcomes: pride, identity, creativity, social cohesion, mutual understanding, to name but a few (yes, a few of the many). This was set out in project plans, and we were also expected to contribute to the aims of other, non-heritage policies relating for example to culture, community development, and young people.

In early 2011, this became the starting point for my doctoral research, and formed my primary research question: Does interpretation deliver the public benefits of heritage as asserted in policy and legislation? [2] Things naturally shifted and changed over the next five years, and other foci emerged, but now that I’ve finished the first draft of the thesis (yay!) I want to share some of my thoughts around these public benefits, and interpretation [3].

The first observation is that policy doesn’t actually use any evidence to justify its claims about these supposed benefits of heritage. That’s a big deal, because when I went out to ask people at my two case study sites why they valued their visit, and what the heritage meant to them, there was some overlap – but also considerable difference from benefits in policy. It’s one thing if this finding is just a matter of a lack of available empirical research (and that research is indeed lacking) when policies were written. However, since policy rightly shapes practice, the danger is that practice subsequently eagerly focuses on truly ‘delivering’, that is making happen these outcomes, thus potentially twisting for its own (and the policies’) ends people’s heritage and the reasons for which they value it. That is a form of both manipulation and disenfranchisement, which, as far as I’m concerned, must be avoided at all cost when we’re dealing with someone’s heritage – even if the benefits sound very positive, like ‘social integration’.

The other issue that arose for me is that while policy asserts all these benefits, it is not at all clear about the processes through which they are realised. Some policies do acknowledge this, and call for further research (and several writers have highlighted this issue as well). However, the reality is that often such research is not sufficiently enabled, meaning that practitioners continue to apply their familiar tools, albeit no doubt with the best of intentions. My last post talked about communal values, and some concerns around our practices, and it is one such example. For at the same time as policies assert the positive, democratic benefits of heritage, other concepts and ideas remain in place that are not easily reconciled with these benefits. What about, for example, the notion of the constantly changing and evolving nature of intangible heritage created by people as part of their identity, and the idea of inscribing it on a managed list, as in UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage? It is all too easy to feel comfortable behind the shield of the positive benefits and outcomes that are asserted, yet fail to radically question the philosophical suitability of our approaches, and examine their effectiveness.

Policies, of course, are working tools: they are debated, tried, adapted, changed, and changed again to, hopefully, respond to new knowledge and changing environments. They also create the strategic context for heritage management practices, including interpretation. I have spent this weekend revisiting European policies on cultural heritage for a strategic review on behalf of Interpret Europe. The policies provide ample opportunity to showcase what interpretation, even as it stands, can contribute, which is an immensely important step in getting interpretation on policy-makers’ radar – its glaring absence from policy as an important discipline is painful. And yet, at the same time, interpretation as a field must participate in the shaping, and examining of policies of the future. For this, it will not be enough to continue to rely on our existing practices and underlying thinking. Based on the findings of my doctoral research, I believe that it would be a step backwards to merely add the public benefits of heritage as asserted in policy and legislation to the list of outcomes that interpretation can ‘deliver’ (and I’m sure it could to some extent), similarly to how our existing discourse argues we promote (or ‘provoke’) learning, and changes in attitude and behaviour, including appreciation of heritage. We need a radically different philosophy of heritage interpretation, to keep up even just with these policies, and make a meaningful contribution to how they will continue to shape the heritage sector.


[1] This was for Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, managing Bedwellty House and Park, a heritage-led regeneration project in one of the UK’s most deprived areas. I blogged about the many lessons I learnt there here.

[2] A quick note to stress that I never proposed nor expected that interpretation ‘deliver’ these outcomes in the sense of ‘provoking’ them, or ‘making them happen’. But it seemed the best phrasing, and most suited to wide exploration. And it was. So bear with me and this (somewhat misleading) choice of word.

[3] I don’t think the blog is the place to share detailed findings – bit boring that (and yes, academically self-defeating), but if you’re interested, keep an eye out on my publications page, as I’m planning to submit articles on aspects of my research to different academic journals over the next few months/year. I’ll also let people know via Twitter, if you don’t already follow me @NicoleDeufel.

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