Interpretation and Integration: Where ‘education’ may become an obstacle.

The main research question for my PhD was whether or not interpretation delivered the public benefits of heritage as asserted in relevant legislation and policy. A key benefit is mutual understanding/social integration and cohesion, and sometimes also more directly, peace [1].


I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular benefit over recent months. In Germany, integration of refugees has become a primary societal task and shared endeavour. Heritage interpretation can play a role here, but are we philosophically equipped for this? I specifically wondered about this when on the Deutschlandfunk a few days ago a woman made the very important observation that integration classes teaching ‘German values’ must be very careful indeed to avoid both stereotyping the learner (e.g. the ‘misogynist Muslim man’) and overinflating the values themselves (e.g. as uniquely ‘German’ or already ‘achieved’). Both can actually lead to the opposite outcome – that ‘learners’ feel less respectful of these supposed ‘German’ values and more alienated than inspired to embrace them.


For me the delicate balance lies in the understanding of ‘education’. I do not subscribe to a view of interpretation as an ‘educational activity’ [2]. I think this creates a number of very questionable subject positions and assumptions, particularly of an ultimately ignorant visitor in need of knowledge supplied by the interpreter [3]. Interpretation understood as education also necessarily focuses on what must be ‘taught’ [4]: the message, the one thing that visitors will take away with them, the theme [5]. In the example above, that would be the ‘German values’, as evident in German cultural heritage, and immediately the pitfalls that the woman noted loom large.


Once we begin to acknowledge that these German values are not actually uniquely German, and that with some, German society still struggles and has plenty of heated arguments about; once we recognise that the Muslims, Christians, Syrians, Eritreans that come to Germany already share some of these values with us, or a version thereof, and that they will necessarily contribute their own views, it is no longer a matter of providing education about, or communicating, a value (the message), as if they’d never heard about it, nor had any personal claim to, or stake in it. What we’re dealing with here no longer fits the suggested process of selection of what to include, and what to leave out in order to most effectively communicate our message. This needs so much more.


For example, it needs to make room. What I’ve been really impressed by is the many writings in Germany, particularly in cultural policy, that are about active participation by new arrivals, and their contribution to shaping and changing German society and German future. However, interpretation as an educational activity is primarily based on a static view: of the past as something that has already been concluded, and of contemporary society as taking in that past as a (usually scientifically examined) given. Inspiration, renegotiation, questioning, critiquing has no room in this. But it is exactly these processes of reshaping heritage for the inspiration of and use in a shared future by a society that is re-constituting itself that social integration is built on. A concept of integration as a matter of the new arrivals properly understanding the ‘host’ society’s history and values, and uncritically adopting both, is old-fashioned and unworkable, besides presenting a distorted view of the coherence of that history and of those values. An interpretive practice that continues to view integration in this way, and provides interpretation accordingly, will have little, if any positive impact.


So I argue that we need something different, something that is not based on any idea of education, no matter how progressively framed, particularly when it comes to supporting integration. There is need for education, yes, and the teaching of the critical skills that enable people to become full citizens. But that is not the task of interpretation, at least not directly [6]. As visitors come to sites or to museums, or to their virtual counterparts, they do so for an existing reason [7]. It is partly an expression of their identity and their aspirations, and partly they look for further information – all of it, not simply our selection that supports and communicates to them our message. Interpretation must find ways of facilitating the processes of renegotiation, questioning and inspiration, with room for critiques and disagreements, and reinterpretations by a new society that is finding its way. It’ll be interesting to read the evaluations of the programmes run in Germany at the moment and learn from them.




[1] My case studies were two battlefields and these benefits were not reported by visitors, suggesting that they did not realise them. This is insofar of interest as at one site, Varusschlacht in Kalkriese, this European peace message was in the foreground. The short answer regarding peace/integration would therefore have to be that no, it doesn’t look like interpretation encouraged the realisation of these benefits at these two particular sites (and I spend considerable time in my thesis discussing why that might be).

[2] Tilden, F., 1957 (1977), 3rd edition. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, p. 8.

[3] Yes, some writers do acknowledge ‘prior knowledge’, but this is still a far cry from accepting this knowledge in its own right as the distinguishing heritage value. Rather, the approach in interpretation that seeks to understand prior knowledge is usually used to be able to better influence visitors toward the knowledge/attitude/behaviour the interpreter wants them to have.

[4] Even if our literature takes great pains to distinguish this ‘teaching’ from that of the ‘formal classroom’ – a distinction that professional teachers would probably be puzzled by. It suggests their practice is still stuck in the 19th century. Modern teaching is not so much different from what interpretation proclaims as best practice. But I do not therefore think that education is interpretation, either.

[5] Possibly the first book to expand on thematic interpretation (the idea was already in Tilden’s book) was Ham, S., 1992. Environmental Interpretation. Golden: North American Press, p. 33ff. However, thematic interpretation is a core pillar of much contemporary interpretation literature.

[6] Arguably, as visitors will still gain new knowledge and experiences, there is always an element of education in interpretation, or even just in visiting a site that is not interpreted at all. The difference is in the philosophical foundation: I’m advocating that we don’t set out to educate, but to facilitate.

[7] A good starting point on this are the writings of Poria et al, starting with 2001, ‘Clarifying Heritage Tourism’. In: Annals of Tourism Research 28 (4), pp. 1047 – 1049.

2 thoughts on “Interpretation and Integration: Where ‘education’ may become an obstacle.

  1. Hi Nicole
    Good to see your work online. I will be interested to see what your PhD thesis concludes.
    I wonder how you incorporate political realities and the different social norms in place when our ‘heritage’ was laid down in the interpretive narrative?

    There are many inconvenient truths arising from past western imperial activity now intertwined into the public good provided by our social and heritage structures from revered buildings in our city scapes to museums and galleries – not to mention the roots of our underlying national wealth.

    Do you myth bust using historical evidence or try to interpret the political realities of the day. Can you place a 21st century middle class educated person with their pension mainly invested in a multinational oil or mining company in the shoes of an 18th century middle class educated person who happened to invest their savings in 50 slaves in a sugar plantation in British Honduras?

    I think we could usefully use interpretation to help better define and communicate what we mean by public good, public value, common good. Much of the UK heritage – over the past 200 years anyway has been defined by differentials in wealth. Wealth tends to equal power over action and thought.

    It is often said the UK has not had the revolutions and invasions that have defined other nations – perhaps that is why we have issues with immigration.



    1. Thanks for your comment, Duncan! These are some very interesting scenarios that you raise. I have been thinking about the UK and its national narrative a lot lately, particularly in relation to immigration, and there would certainly be some very interesting explorations if only museums were willing to go there.

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