Back to Basics: Interpretation 101

Yesterday was my first time visiting the Castle at Ellwangen and its small museum. As far as I can gather, the castle itself is in the care of the State of Baden-Württemberg, at least it’s listed on their website and some of the signs make mention of the agency. The museum, which occupies but a small part of the castle, is run by volunteers (kudos to them).

Either way, taking the experience as a whole prompts me to want to write a sort of Interpretation 101 post. After all, it’s always good to remind ourselves of the basics.

1. Maslov. Or just being a good host.

I chose to walk up to the castle from the town centre, having been told that there were many lovely paths connecting the two. This may well be true, but none of those hypothetical paths were sign-posted from where I bought my coffee in the market square. Luckily, I am blessed with a pretty good sense of direction, so I first followed the road (not that nice) until on the last stretch I came upon a pleasant enough footpath leading up to the castle wall. Having finally conquered the hill, I was kept guessing. Where was I supposed to go? Left? Right? Or rattle at the door in front of me? Apparently, no-one had considered that people may actually come up on foot, or they just couldn’t be bothered to then bid them welcome by letting them know where to go. So:

Sign-posting starts as soon as you can reasonably be expected to have officially become the host to your visitor. At the very latest, that starts when they stand right in front of your building. Say hello. Point them in the right direction. Make them feel welcome and reassured that they’re exactly where they want to be.

2. Small talk is a good thing.

Left to my own devices, I ended up circling back toward the road (might as well have taken the car at this point). Sadly, there was nothing to distract me from this frustration. As far as I was concerned, my visit had already begun; the castle wall, after all, was right there! And yet, no-one had anything to say as I followed the path, neither about the castle nor its relationship to the surrounding area which it dominates. It felt a bit like having accepted an invitation only to be met by stony silence from my host. So:

Small talk establishes rapport in bite-sized amounts. In non-personal interpretation, that means showing up for visitors as soon as they make contact with your site. There is always something to chat about: where they are, what they are about to see. Tell them. Show them. It will make them feel reassured and taken care of, while also guiding them along and engaging them already with what this site is.

3. Open with a bang. Or at least a decent Welcome.

I finally arrived at what I (rightly) assumed was the main gate into the castle. Unfortunately, there still was no sign telling me, ‘Well done! You have arrived. Welcome.’ The only sign facing me was about the network of cycle and hiking paths in the surrounding area. Totally not what I was there for at that moment. Here was this beautiful gate and a truly intriguing tower beyond, but instead of greeting me with a sense of arrival at a great destination, it felt as if someone was actually declaring this a non-place, not really worth visiting at all. So:

Let your visitors know that they have arrived. Make it obvious. Make it a celebration of their effort and your site. Now, at the absolute latest, the story must begin. What is this site about? How can people connect with it? Why is it important? This is never about everything that ever was to be known about the site, but about the core reason why you are excited to share it with others.

4. No guessing game, please.

Once I’d made my way through the gate, finally there were signs aplenty. As is my custom, I pounced on every one of them, eager to finally find out more about this place. Unfortunately, half the time it was not clear to me what architectural element or even space the signs were referring to. Perhaps the numerous references to cardinal points were intended to make this clear, but standing inside a building, this was of no help to me. Similarly, once inside the museum the first room explained the beginnings of the castle some time before the 12th century fairly well, only to then send me into a room full of porcelain. It took me ages of puzzled wanderings past case after case before I found the sign that made reference to the bishop resident in the castle in the 18th century granting permission to a manufacture. So:

Signs are there to tell a story, or at the very least to explain what visitors can see. Signs therefore should be positioned in such a way that visitors can read them at the same time as look at the items they refer to. Even then, an illustration or clear description should accompany the text, to make it easy for visitors to know what it is you’re writing about. And do let them know why you’re telling them this: why is it important?  

5. Why are you teasing me?  

Perhaps my favourite sign was the one that mentioned a 17th-century drawing of one of the buildings. This drawing apparently shows the building looking exactly the same as it does today. Not only was this one of the instances where I could only guess at which building they were referring to, but to not show me the drawing! Well, that was just a tease. It would have helped me recognise the building, and I probably would have shared in the excitement that the passing of time has left it unchanged. So:

Do use historical drawings or photographs to illustrate changes (or lack thereof) over time and let visitors discover this for themselves. If there is an interesting object that you cannot share, however, it is sometimes better not to mention it at all.

6. We all love a story.

When I finished my visit and sat outside in one of the pretty corners of the site, I reflected that I had not actually learnt anything new. The story of the church lords ruling over the town and region, along with their rapid decline in power, is local myth. You absorb it over time as you live here. And while that story did pop up throughout the museum, I didn’t feel that I had connected with it on any deeper or more experiential level by having been to the castle itself. This is probably also because the interpretation never referred to the rooms we were in and which had been the rulers’ apartment. For me, this comes back to how the story was, in fact, not told. As is the case so often, there were plenty of objects, and plenty of individual bits of information, if not exactly stories. They just didn’t come together as a whole. I felt really sorry about that. Sorry because the volunteers of the museum clearly care deeply about this place, and sorry because I know enough people from Ellwangen who have shared their pride of the castle with me. So:

People love stories. Tell your story to them, and why you and others of your heritage community care so deeply about this site. We will all appreciate it and most likely share in your enthusiasm.

Good interpretation is not a form of dumbing-down. It’s an expression of being a museum and heritage professional who understands heritage values and visitors’ needs.

I’m sharing some video observations I made on-site – in German – via my Instagram account, if you’re interested.

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