Interpretation in a Post-Factual World

A couple of weeks ago, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language) declared ‘post-factual’ as word of the year 2016. As we enter into 2017, the post-factual approach to reality and politics appears set to continue. So I want to consider what this might mean for heritage interpretation.


Accepted interpretive philosophy tells us that information is not interpretation [1]. Interpretation is more than a ‘statement of facts’ [2]: it is revelation [3]. These were corner stones of Tilden’s philosophy, and of course what he responded to in 1957 was a visitor environment dominated by subject specialists. So one can vividly imagine Tilden, the exasperated journalist, telling a detail-obsessed specialist that it isn’t enough to simply tell visitors facts. They need more.


However, I think interpretation has taken this principle, that information is not interpretation, and the associated denigration of a ‘statement of facts’ a step too far. In current interpretation philosophy, it is not information which is most important, but the purposeful selection of information to succesfully deliver a message. Information has been demoted to a mere ingredient in the realisation of interpretive aims.


Putting aside the fact that selection is also manipulation, and that evidence suggests that people do want more or less pure information, albeit skillfully delivered: the instrumentalisation and thus marginalisation of information in contemporary interpretive practice is particularly problematic when faced with the reality and threats of a post-factual world. While mis-information is blatantly used to make a point, the selection of information to make another point neither seems appropriate nor sufficient. We need more.


Of course, post-factual attitudes won’t be changed by simply giving more information. Post-factual doesn’t just mean ‘ignoring’ or ‘falsifying’ facts. It also means being motivated by feelings: feelings of helplessness, unrational fears, a hope that may have no other foundation than the sense that it simply can’t be worse than this. It is not enough to scorn people with post-factual tendencies. Like it or not, we need to take them seriously in order to have any hope of collectively working through these feelings and leaving them behind in favour of more factual and rational decision-making [4].


Many political commentators have observed how very close mainstream democratic parties have moved towards one another in their policies. But rather than enfold everyone in society, this has created a vacuum around its edges. People no longer feel that their views are represented, and they are turning to parties and organisations who do not share a commitment to pluralist, democratic debate. It’s not just that these ‘populists’ ignore or falsify facts. It’s that they encourage people to no longer engage with anything but their own (post-factual) views, a situation that endangers democracy at its very core. From populist echochambers all critical thinking is purged, and what you get is a post-factual world that takes over whole nations (like the UK, like the US).


So what should interpretation do?


With the framing of this post so far, I realise that I’m edging toward suggesting that interpretation become political. It’s not a term I’ve used before in relation to interpretation. And if I do use it now, it is in a complex, maybe even contradictory way. Because on one hand, when I say ‘political’ I mean it as a responsibility and response which we must openly acknowledge in light of the developments in the world around us. When I complained about the failure of British museums and the British Museums Association to respond to the vilification of (im)migrants especially during the Brexit campaign, I was really saying that they should make a political statement. To say that ‘this is not okay’ is a political statement. And if that statement comes from a museum, that still carries weight with a lot of people. It matters.


But on the other hand, when I say that interpretation should become political I mean it should play a role in our political systems of democracy. Democracy is characterised by a debate on views and opinions, with respect for others. If, in a post-factual world, people no longer engage with the views of others and/or attack them, then interpretation must step up. I come back to agonistic interpretation here: in a post-factual world we must do our best to make visible what people do not see: The differing views. Their validity. The humanity of the ‘other’. And I’m not just talking about making visible the ‘good’ views, the liberal, pluralist, democratic views. I mean a real engagement in all directions, taking seriously also those people that feel ‘the establishment’ has left them behind. Not to educate and change anyone. But to make the whole of this democratic world visible to each participant.


This is fundamentally about information. It is about actual facts, and information about how people feel. Not every place will be suited to this. But where we can, we must make a push for it. Because I don’t know about you, but from where I am standing this future looks really scary. We can’t rely on others to fix it while we gaze into the past. Right now is what counts.



[1] This is of course first expressed in Tilden’s second principle of interpretation (Tilden, F., 1957(1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. 3rd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.

[2] Tilden, p. 8.

[3] This is also part of Tilden’s second principle.

[4] I write ‘factual’ and ‘rational’ with some misgivings, and only in contrast to ‘post-factual’. Although I do firmly believe in the importance of basing decisions on facts, I also know that half the time facts do not lead you to near self-evident decisions, as if the world were black and white. Mostly what is required is a judgment call, and that is based on a tangled mix of values, beliefs and yes, emotions.

2 thoughts on “Interpretation in a Post-Factual World

  1. Nicole, excellent start. Now, we need to go much further. Of course, interpretation needs to become more engaged in the societal debates of the time. And, interpretation should be a source of information that not only reveals and inspires, but that counters (even if indirectly) the propaganda swirling about the “cloud.” Post-facts, fake news, and disinformation are all nice ways of saying propaganda. And, propaganda works. Just look at the most recent election here in the U.S. for a blatant example.

    I cannot think of a profession less prepared for the fight ahead than interpretation. In the U.S., many of our most important heritage stories are told by interpreters employed by the federal government (USFWS, NPS, etc.). With the new administration, just how free will they be to broadly interpret this heritage, including the bad or ugly?

    Equally important are the media we use to communicate our interpretive messages. We install static interpretive signs while our president-elect uses Twitter. Breitbart and others have mastered the use of social media to communicate their misleading and distorted messages, but that is the form in which the public prefers. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the medium is the message.”

    To say that interpretation needs to become politicized is an understatement, and perhaps too shallow or narrow a description for the change that is needed. We need to continue to protect the ethical foundation that underpins our work. Yet, we also need to adopt the media and techniques that are being used effectively to reach the broader public.

    One of our problems is reaching the common man. We are more than willing to engage with that self-selected public that visits our parks or museums, but what about that vast majority that are more likely to be found at Wal-Mart. If we are going to chip away at this Weltanschauung that now envelops many in our country, we will need to engage them in situ.

    In any case, thanks for sharing your views. I certainly support what you are saying.

    1. Hi Ted,
      You are right to highlight the constraints of interpretation in an organisational context. Will there be undue influence? Probably. And I know from my own experience that it is really difficult to stand up to that. But we must. Even if we fail a lot (and we will) we must keep arguing against being pushed into becoming propagandists ourselves.
      As for media, that really depends. Interpretation can happen via Twitter and other Social Media, and some people have used it to great effect. I think the issue has been that most interpretation, however, has had a very narrow focus for a long time. Some organisations also do not provide sufficient resources to fully use Social Media. So that is certainly one fundamental change that needs to happen now in interpretation and heritage organisations.
      What do you mean by the ‘ethical foundation that underpins our work’? I’ve just had another really interesting talk today about how it is just as populist to adopt some form of moral high ground from which we judge and dismiss others. I find that moral high ground in a lot of interpretive writing, and I don’t think that’s as automatically a good thing as we seem to think. It clouds our understanding of the world, and our ability to engage in a properly functioning democracy. But that may not be what you mean.
      And yes! We do need interpretation at Wal-Mart, we need to come out of our museums and sites. Heritage doesn’t just happen there. It happens everywhere.

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