Archive for the ‘Heritage Management’ Category

I’ve been doing some more reading recently about indigenous communities and heritage management especially in the United States, Canada and Australia.  My own research is about delivering public benefit through heritage management and interpretation using England and Germany as case studies.  However, the writings about management of indigenous heritage are really useful in this.  They have convinced me that what we need in the traditional Western heritage sector are similar practices.  I think we need to consider everyone to be indigenous [1].

Indigenous Management

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 in the United States, for example, quite a few objects and collections have been returned to the tribes to whom they originally (and still) belonged.  This is the ultimate acknowledgement of heritage as part of a people’s life: some tribes use the objects, some tribes destroy them (because that’s what was supposed to happen to them after use), and some tribes create their own version of a museum to allow tribal members access (but not always everyone – some objects, for example, mustn’t be seen by the ‘uninitiated’).  It took many decades, in some cases even a century, for the (post-colonial) heritage decision-makers to come around to this view, and to accept the right of so-called source communities to manage their own heritage.  Today most of us read these case studies and I think we mostly agree that this is the right thing to do.  However, in our own (Western European) circumstances we unashamedly practice the same colonial and hegemonic dominance over (others’) heritage.  Many are the tourism studies that show the negative effect a top-down development had on relationships with host communities, or indeed the very practice that was put on display.  While stakeholder engagement seems to develop into the Western equivalent to indigenous calls for heritage autonomy, the models still largely confine stakeholders to consultative roles during planning stages.  So perhaps if we began to think of our various stakeholder groups as indigenous communities, we may find it easier to loosen our grip on the heritage reigns, and give stakeholders more control over their heritage [2].

Indigenous Access

In some cases I’ve read about, Native tribes felt that the (post-colonial) museum was actually the best place to protect and care for their heritage objects.  And yet, as heritage objects, these still had an actual use in the tribes’ ceremonies.  Consequently, tribes and museums made agreements whereby the tribal leaders could actually come into the museum to perform rituals around these objects, or even be allowed to take the objects out of the museums and return them after the ceremonies had taken place.  Like Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton I think that heritage is a social process, and as such it needs people to continue participating in it for it to remain alive.  The agreement that tribes and museums have found here strikes me as a splendid solution.  Bella Dicks, for example, mentions the case of miners’ flags in Wales that have been taken out of use by placing them in museums.  The relevant parades happen perhaps once or twice a year: wouldn’t it be a sight supremely placed to inspire protection and appreciation if on those occasions the flags were brought back to life by flying them proudly in the parades?  I think so.

Indigenous interpretation

At the NAI National Conference in Las Vegas last year, I was really intrigued by the absolute conviction with which American colleagues asserted the necessity to have Native guides for Native heritage (and I’ve since heard the same about Aboriginal heritage).  In the literature, it becomes clear that Native engagement in interpretation actually goes much further: if the Native community doesn’t plan the interpretation themselves altogether (through labels, panels, guidebooks and any other media) then they are most certainly consulted and involved every step of the way.  Nothing, it seems, goes public at these sites [3] without those whose heritage it is having approved it.  I daresay that even the most radically minded Western conservationist would probably agree that this is a good thing. And yet, interpretive project upon interpretive project is still dominated by expert assessment and input, with stakeholders at best having been used as a convenient mine for local stories and general consultative bodies (are you happy with us doing a film about your heritage?) with little power.

So let’s think of us all as indigenous

I think by treating all heritage as indigenous, and applying the same practices as post-colonial museums and heritage managers have used with regard to ‘traditional’ indigenous heritage, we in the Western heritage sector may actually be able to address some of the concerns that have been popping up in our heritage literature.  For example, we may no longer need to worry about people being disengaged when it comes to heritage, and the consequent loss of heritage as a living, meaningful practice.  Perhaps we no longer need to lose sleep over how to communicate ‘sense of place’ because by letting stakeholders author their own interpretation (with professional guidance) the sense of place may be right there in it anyway.  Either way, I think it’s worth sitting back and giving this some more thought.  Personally, I’m already committed to this.  I’ll let you know how I get on.



[1] I am quite aware of all the injustices that indigenous communities have suffered with regard to their heritage under colonial powers.  In no way do I mean to imply that majority segments of West European countries have made similar experiences.  I am simply proposing that Western heritage management and interpretation could do with more awareness of and respect for the many different stakeholder groups that have a claim to heritage.

[2] I’m not at all proposing that we hand all heritage management over to stakeholders on a volunteer basis – in fact, I’ve already voiced my concerns about this.  Our stakeholders more often than not are far less organised and socially linked than Native American tribes, for example.  But I think you get the gist of what I’m saying.

[3] That is, at those sites which show what’s considered best practice these days.  I’d not want to claim that this is true for all sites.

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I don’t know about you, but I usually prefer heritage sites to museums for a visit.  Partially this may be a result of poor interpretation encountered once too often at museums.   Labels listing cataloguing information do very little for me and, I expect, many other visitors.  Such ‘interpretation’ fails to make that elusive connection, and yet I wonder how much interpretation could achieve in the first place when perhaps the underlying concept –taking objects out of their context and isolate them from their use – is flawed to begin with.

The argument is not new.  ‘Museumification’ springs to mind, which argues that putting an object of daily use into a museum alters its status and, sometimes artificially, turns it into ‘heritage’.  Of course, I am one of those who see heritage as a social process and as such this point doesn’t apply.  What I do believe, however, is that ‘museumification’ renders an object impotent.  Deprived of its application to human life it becomes just that – dead matter.

And yet, the two colleagues with whom I recently unwrapped objects for our own exhibition felt entirely differently.  While I wrinkled my nose at what I proceeded to call quite blasphemously ‘the stench of time’, their eyes lit up in appreciation of the objects’ age and material integrity.  I jumped at the opportunity to find out more about such conservationist enthusiasm.  I thought that perhaps something had been eluding me that provided meaning for them where I only saw materiality.  Was age, authenticity, integrity really all they cared about?

I was astonished to find that their answer was primarily, yes.  They did feel that objects also served as a springboard for people’s memories but they proceeded to defend these objects vehemently against any human use and interference.  When I brought up the practice of many post-colonial museums who are giving back indigenous objects to their source communities, many of whom proceed to destroy them as part of their heritage practice, their views were even more surprising to me.  One of my colleagues argued that they wouldn’t give the objects back because they deserved a priori ‘protection’, while the other denied the claim of ownership altogether.  The crux of the latter argument was that the passage of time gave these objects universal value, which for me placed the criteria of universality in the World Heritage List into a completely, and unsettling new light.

I can’t say whether the many museum curators here and elsewhere share my colleagues’ views.  However, interpretation I encounter in many museums does make me wonder whether similar foci on material age and integrity, as opposed to human use, are responsible for the overwhelming lack of meaningful connections between objects and visitors.  I would never dismiss the benefit of preserving and displaying objects for their age and integrity in museums, however, I still remain firm in my conviction that the actual worth of these objects lies in their use by humans.   If nothing else, museums and the interpretation they provide should aim at making this use as clear as possible, for example by allowing visitors to handle replicas in order to get a feel for the practice that centred on these objects.   I believe that it is in this (mediated) interaction that regular folk like myself will find some appreciation of age and integrity.  I’m reminded of the research that I did at Newgrange, where age and setting were the values that visitors associated with the site after having walked it (not after having read about it in the exhibition!).

Either way, it was very interesting to have this discussion with people who were just on the opposite end from me on this issue.  Perhaps one day someone will do some research on how many curators share my colleagues’ convictions, and more importantly, how many visitors do so.  The results should be enlightening.

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As my current project draws to the end of its development phase, I’ve been thinking a lot about the client-consultant relationship in heritage interpretation.  I’ve been on both sides, and one gains good insights from either viewpoint.  In fact, I have come to believe that in order to be a good client or a good consultant, one needs to have worn both shoes.

Interestingly though, most clients hardly ever seem to think about their impact on the client-consultant relationship and the resulting end-product.  So let’s start with looking at what makes a good client in my opinion.


The good client

  • knows her aim

Even on small projects, clients tend to have a particular aim when they set out on the journey.  The only issue seems to be that clients aren’t always 100% clear on what that aim is.  It is worth spending some time on clarifying that aim before approaching a consultant.  This will mean that once appointed, the good consultant can actually start delivering on that aim straight away, rather than either spend valuable (paid) time on finding the aim, or never quite delivering on it at all.

  • communicates her requirements

It’s always important to be as specific as possible about what you need – or what you are able to cope with, as the matter may be.  Consultants seem to have a tendency to work on the assumption of the ideal scenario, where resources are unlimited and where the client will be able to manage whatever the consultant puts in place.  It is the client’s job to always check every suggestion against its practical implications.  Otherwise, you may be left with a wonderful exhibition that is impossible to staff and maintain.

  • is open to suggestions

Especially on small projects, some clients are overly protective of the project.  It is worth remembering at that point that presumably the client appointed the consultant because she either didn’t have the resources or the expertise to fulfil the task herself.  Nothing is more unproductive and unhelpful than a client who fights the consultant’s expertise every step of the way.  In the worst case scenario for the client, the consultant may eventually give in – providing the client with sub-standard results that the client actually may have achieved more cheaply had they just done it themselves.

  • holds their vision

After the above, this may seem like a contradiction.  However, consultants can also get overzealous, or they can miss the point entirely for many reasons that are not necessarily their fault.  It is the client’s job to keep their own vision and make sure they check any suggestions against it.  Note that the vision does not equal the product – the latter is what the consultant is there for.

  • is respectful

What I mean here is respect on many different levels.  For example, it is a matter of respect to provide necessary documentation on time. It is also respectful to be forthcoming with information, and to do all in your power to enable the consultant to do their job as best as they can.  And finally, it is respectful to treat the consultant as you would a colleague – for the duration of the project that’s what they are.


Now let’s look at what makes a good consultant in my view.


The good consultant

  • is humble

As much as the consultant is charged with delivering a professional product, even where the client doesn’t share any of the relevant expertise, a consultant should remain humble.  What does this mean?  It means first of all that they listen carefully – not just to what the client wants (and you may be surprised how often consultants ignore even that), but also to the client’s intimate knowledge of a site or a subject matter.  A good consultant never assumes that ‘they know best’.

  • sees the client as a collaborator

This is similar to the above but takes it one step forward: a good consultant takes the client’s ideas seriously.  Clients usually really care about a project, and they’re enthusiastic and engaged.  They’ll often come up with great ideas.  These may need tweaking by the consultant’s professional experience, but they may prove to be just the right solution for the task at hand.

  • knows that it’s not about her

I’ll illustrate this with an example from my own experience which you may find difficult to believe.  At one of the projects I worked on, a consultant had come up with a very smart idea – on paper.  On the ground, it was completely invisible to the visitor, rendering the whole idea (and the millions of pounds that had been spent on the capital project) ineffective as far as the visitor experience was concerned.  When I and others from the client team raised this issue, the consultant said (verbatim), ‘But this isn’t about the visitors.  This is about the architect.’

I’ll be blunt: it is never about the architect (or the designer, or the script writer, or the interpreter).  At a heritage site, it is always – always – about the visitor.  In other words, a good consultant will always bear in mind that what she does serves the visitor.   If something makes no difference to the visitor, then it isn’t a good investment for the client.

  • considers the practical implications

This is the consultant’s counterpoint to the good client’s ‘communicates her requirements’.  A good consultant always includes the client’s logistical framework (staff, time, financial) in her considerations.  If something won’t work out in the day-to-day management of the site, then it’s not good.  I’ve had a consultant once tell me that they’ll leave it to me how I will manage the key provision for which I simply did not have the staff.  I came up with a solution, but if I hadn’t, thousands of pounds would have been spent on something that visitors would never have seen.  Needless to say, from a client’s point of view, this is another failed investment.

  • is a facilitator

This works on many levels. For example, it may well be that the client has never and will never again work on a project like this.  It’s the consultant’s job to make sure the client makes the best use of this opportunity.  They may not be clear about what the heritage value is that motivates them, so a good consultant will spend some time helping them clarify it.  The client may also feel intimidated by the perceived expert knowledge of the consultant, so the good consultant makes sure they feel empowered to critically assess any proposal to ensure it works for them.  A good consultant will also never bedazzle clients with jargon, but will try to enable them to fully participate in the discussion.  After all, it is heritage interpretation we are talking about here, and heritage begins with the people whose heritage it is – quite possibly your clients.


So these are my thoughts on what makes a good client and a good consultant.   The lists are not meant to be exhaustive, but I’ve tried to write out the things that have struck me the most from having been both a client and a consultant myself.

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As far as J. Geraint Jenkins is concerned, the Welsh efforts to present the nation’s industrial heritage (!) are mostly doomed.  The reason is that sites, and coalmines in particular, are just not grimy enough.  He also points out that much fabric has been lost, leaving the remaining structures without the all-important context.  In presenting these faint shadow images of what life in Wales was like is to fall prey to romanticism and nostalgia, two demons that Jenkins evokes continually in his book ‘Getting yesterday right.’

I cannot help but detect in his writing that on-going suggestion of ‘heritage’ as an institution and industry.  In between the lines images are conjured of thrifty economists concocting ‘the heritage product’ that they can ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’ desperate for the romance of the past.  I’m a heritage manager myself, and my day-to-day job could not be more different.

Certainly Jenkins is right that many a valley has tried and is still trying to create a tourism attraction with whatever industrial remains they have left (and who can blame them).  But the issue here does not lie with heritage value per se, but with the tourism industry that may too freely apply the term ‘heritage’ to anything that might prove a tourism asset.  Heritage isn’t a ‘product’, it is an act performed by people.  Tourism managers may call it heritage, but that doesn’t make it so.

The other criticism that Jenkins has is that any interest that is detached from the dirt and noise of the coalmines is romantic and nostalgic.  He doesn’t elaborate on where this view comes from.  However, it does seem to hark back to a historian’s disdain for heritage as something less than history.  Of course, as David Lowenthal has shown in his book ‘The Heritage Crusade’ history and heritage are actually two completely different things altogether.  Other writers have since established the view of heritage as a practice, and like Lowenthal they have highlighted that selection, reworking and reinvention of historical facts are all crucial and necessary aspects of this heritage practice.  And the practice itself is crucial for our identity and meaning-making.

In other words, where Jenkins would like to see a whole valley still stuffed with coalmine dust, and the terraced houses cowering underneath black slag heaps to present what life was really like, the people who once lived that life might actually be mightily glad to see it gone.  A pit wheel and the opportunity to go down Big Pit if they want to, without the dust and danger, may be all they need to remember the true heritage value of the industry: the sense of camaraderie and endurance.  That’s what the miner-guide at Big Pit talked about when I went there; he even explicitly said he would not want to go back to work in the mines except for the bond he had with his colleagues.  That is the heritage of the coalmining industry.  The rest is just historical fact.

But would Jenkins prefer that we tell people’s history and not their heritage?  It does seem so.  And he is absolutely right that in presenting a whole valley as it used to be visitors would get the whole picture as an immersive experience.  I only wonder how many of them would ever want to come back?  And what about the people who live here?  Are we going to force them to live amid the reminders of what was a very hard and difficult life?  Are we going to turn them into museum pieces as well?

In all fairness, Jenkins does acknowledge that this would not be feasible.  He suggests that probably a multi-media piece of interpretation would be better, and I agree.  Only to me, this solution isn’t a regrettable compromise.  It does what good interpretation and heritage management should always do: it enables people to act on and live their heritage values as symbolised in spaces, while it gives them room to build on it, and change it, and use the security of that heritage to move forward and better themselves.  The dust and the noise are not heritage, they are history.  And some history just doesn’t need to be preserved in every grimy detail.

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I love National Trust properties.  I’d forgotten how much until I recently visited Polesden Lacey.  So I promptly signed myself up to become a member (again) and I’ve proceeded to visit a National Trust property every weekend since.

Of course, I’m also reading a lot of academic literature and case studies about heritage, its management and its interpretation these days, so I couldn’t help but analyse each visit afterward.  I beg your indulgence for the random nature of the following reflections that I had and which I hope are of interest:

So that’s what they mean about aesthetic value…

I’ve become increasingly suspicious about the values that are assessed in determining which heritage is worthy of legal protection.  Aesthetic value seemed a particularly obscure and elitist criteria which I was ready to (pen-) attack in full at some point.   I’ve still to analyse what sites have actually been protected and to what degree due to their presumed aesthetic value, and yet as I found myself consciously breathing in the peace and beauty of the rolling landscape that surrounds Polesden Lacey, I thought to myself that it is this aesthetic experience that to me makes protecting and preserving this site worthwhile.  I shouldn’t actually have been that surprised by the realisation, for when I asked visitors to Brú na Bóinne (sometimes falsely referred to as Newgrange) in Ireland why the site was significant and should be protected, 17.6 of responses given related to the setting and atmosphere of the place.  [1]  That’s aesthetic value for you right there.

…and it really speaks for itself

It may be chance, but the properties I’ve seen over the past few weeks effectively had no interpretation worth mentioning [2].  At Polesden Lacey, I truly didn’t mind for the enjoyment of the place was quite enough.  Could this mean that buildings and landscapes of such aesthetic value really do speak for themselves, like some writers imply?  My answer is, no – not in the sense of technical understanding.  After I left the place, I had no clue as to who owned it, who built it and how it relates to whatever aesthetic tradition may have been at work.  But did I need that understanding?  After all, I really did enjoy myself…

Enjoyment leads to understanding leads to valuing leads to caring leads to enjoyment…

…or so the cycle goes English Heritage claimed in their 2005 – 2010 strategy.  I’ve not yet found any case studies that support this claim, and certainly in my case (and in the case of the visitors to Brú na Bóinne) we seem to have skipped a couple of steps (such as understanding or indeed even the thirst for understanding that enjoyment is supposed to inspire) and we showed a complete disregard for other steps in the cycle too.

The question of course is: what was there to understand at Polesden Lacey? And: did it matter?

Significance, significance, significance

My solution to the question of when and where and how a site such as Polesden Lacey should be interpreted is to assess significance.  If audiences (stakeholders, tourists) tell you that what the site means to them is peace and beauty, then it may be better not to burden them with interpretation they really don’t care about.  An events programme that takes full advantage of the setting and provides entertainment for visitors to have a reason to repeatedly enjoy the site is likely the better management choice.  You can still bring the site’s own story to the fore: Polesden Lacey, for example, was a weekend retreat where the owner entertained friends and royalty.  I can think of a whole series of events that range from cooking classes to a 1930s evening garden party that would allow visitors to get a sense of what one of those weekends may have been like, and learn about the story of the place at the same time.

And a word about volunteers

It’s really noticable what weight the National Trust places on volunteering – any visitor-related role seems to also deal with volunteering.  In their strategy it makes perfect sense: volunteering is all about providing communities with an opportunity to become involved [4].  On site,  however, I’m much more ambiguous about this.  Don’t get me wrong: I think volunteers are great, and at every site I’ve visited it was very obvious that the volunteers passionately and sincerely cared about ‘their’ house.  But they are not interpreters.  At Dinefwr Castle, for example, I felt positively harassed by an otherwise charming volunteer who insisted on telling me for ten (!) minutes everything I never wanted to know about the minimal knowledge she had of the restoration work that was going on after a recent flood.  It did nothing to improve my understanding of the site nor my enjoyment of it – on the contrary.  I was so frustrated that I couldn’t even look at the room anymore for fear that the lady would corner me for another ten minutes.  It seems that while the Trust’s emphasis on volunteering is laudable, they now need to remember their visitors and make sure that their enthusiastic volunteers are properly trained to engage with an unsuspecting public.

And what am I planning this weekend?  Well, I have another Trust property lined up to visit…and I’m looking forward to it!


[1] Aesthetic value, when assessed by what usually is a select panel of experts within a statutory body, still seems like a woefully subjective criteria.  I can only embrace it if it is backed by popular consensus.

[2] Dinefwr Castle made an attempt at interpretation, but the mixture of voices and topics and interpretive approaches left me none the wiser about the site’s importance.

[3] For some heritage values this cycle no doubt still holds true.  My guess is that it very much depends on the dominant heritage value and how widely it is shared.

[4] For an organisation that for decades has been seen as an exclusive club whose properties have nothing to do with the surrounding communities, volunteering is also a crucial way of breaking down barriers.

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I get the impression that Bella Dicks wasn’t impressed by the work of the interpreters (and researchers) involved in the Rhondda Heritage Park.  In her book Heritage, Place and Community her criticism effectively boils down to one point: interpreters commodify local knowledge to present a novelty attraction to outside visitors while the needs of the stakeholder community are left unanswered.

Dicks introduces the term memorialism  to denote that local need for authentic details and the often contradictory expressions of a community’s social fabric.  Instead, locals said, what the interpretation at the Rhondda provides is an unnaturally clean version of what was a dirty mine that housed its workers in equally dirty dwellings [1].  To add insult to injury, so Dicks seems to feel, the park’s management and the consultants themselves behaved as if they alone, as professionals, were able to tell the story right.

Dicks presents two main issues when it comes to interpreters [2].  Firstly, in Dicks’ opinion they ‘create’ heritage as a specific way of presentation.  In other words, rather than respond to a sense of heritage held by stakeholders, interpreters take what they think will make a good story to ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’.  This leads into her second point: Dicks has found that interpreters treat stakeholders as a mere resource to be mined for suitable storylines.

If Dicks’ findings truly applied to all interpretive practice, this would be an alarming state indeed.  I don’t believe the situation is quite as dire though.  I have noticed, however, that very often interpretation literature and practitioners do seem to think of ‘visitors’ as ‘tourists’ only: people with little prior knowledge and certainly no ‘stake’ in what they see.  Such practice will run the danger of being at odds with the stakeholder community, perhaps so much so that they may even feel alienated and stop visiting altogether (or rather, stop using the site).

For me it comes down to the underlying concepts that we apply to our practice and which are reflected in the language that we use.  For example, a ‘visitor’, tourist or not, is arguably someone without a claim on the site.  They are invited and tolerated, and maybe even encouraged to interact, but at the end of their visit they are sent home, leaving managers and interpreters in sole charge.

A ‘stakeholder’, however, is someone who lays claim to a heritage value, be that spiritual, social, archaeological or any other value.  Their need for involvement may vary, but up to that point they feel they have as much right to ‘have their say’ as ‘the professionals’ [3]. Practically all the sites I’ve worked at as interpreter have had very passionate stakeholders, and since I was site-based, that meant that all my decisions as interpreter were confronted with immediate response from these same stakeholders.

Maybe that is why in my own practice I tend to think of everyone as a ‘stakeholder’.  After all, the traditional tourist also has a stake in the site, even if that stake is only to have a good time and to learn a little bit about local heritage while they’re at it.  It is a matter of establishing the views and needs of each stakeholder and making sure that these guide interpretation [4].  It is at this stage that I transition stakeholders into audiences in my mind which makes sure that I remember that stakeholders are not merely suppliers of content but also its users [5].

This is of course not what Bella Dicks’ found at Rhondda Heritage Park.  In fact, one criticism both from her and from locals was that the interpretive consultants came from the outside – and then left again, after having extracted local knowledge and white-washed it for easy consumption by other outsiders.

It is an irony, then, that Dicks found the site to have much weaker ‘tourist’ attraction power than originally hoped.  It seems that predominantly ‘visitors’ are from stakeholder communities, either locals or people who have associations with the mining industry.  Their responses to the site’s interpretation are conflicted.  They appreciate the fact that ‘at least’ the professional effort and marketing means the site is looked after and provides an opportunity to visit.  But the interpretation itself isn’t what influences the experience or the meaning they gain.  Rather, it appears, it is the ability to spin memories off the simplified representations of the industry and the miners’ experiences that is important to these stakeholder-visitors.

For Dicks this isn’t satisfying.  There is a strong criticism of interpretation throughout her book which ultimately leads her to speak of the ‘technology of power’ that is interpretation.  Interpretation in Dicks’ view distorts and mis-uses local memorialism to turn it into the commodity called a heritage attraction.  I don’t think that any interpreter sets out to do this, but if this is the result of some of our practice, then we really need to review our good intentions.


[1] The dust from the mines and steelworks in the south Wales Valleys apparently was everywhere, and there was little one could do to keep it at bay.

[2] Her case study is of Rhondda Heritage Park, but from it she makes quite sweeping generalisations.  Most of these are an echo of other literature that criticises ‘heritage’ as an ‘industry’ and a ‘product’, such as Robert Hewison’s 1987 book The Heritage Industry.  Britain in a climate of decline.  London: Methuen

[3] I’m not proposing that all sites should be volunteer run.  I’ve already pointed out the downfalls of such practice here.

[4] This is also about assessing significance and heritage value.  There will be a hierarchy.  For example, to the ‘public’ a site will be more important because of its social associations, even though architecturally, it is also a fine example of a rare Georgian building in an area.

[5] I can see that I will have to revisit this terminology debate at some point.  For the moment, however, I really am not comfortable with the concepts of either ‘recipient’ or ‘consumer’.  I prefer ‘user’ for the time being.

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I am currently researching how we deliver public benefit through heritage management and interpretation in England and Germany.  Reading through the legislation that provides the framework for heritage is quite interesting.  On the national level, people (the public) have been conspicuously absent from official heritage practices for many decades.  The values identified by the legislation were all about physical fabric (archeaological value, architectural value…) and almost nothing was said about how this fabric is of any use to the nation’s people.  What is even more worrying for an interpreter is the fact that presentation of this heritage is also a point only recently considered in legislation, and often in very vague terms.

Interestingly, however, there seems to be a relationship between heritage values, public benefit and presentation as these concepts develop in legislation and policy: as more intangible heritage values are acknowledged, the number of public benfits mentioned increases also.  As the list of public benefits becomes longer, the presentation of heritage receives more consideration.

In fact, it seems that intangible heritage value is actually defined by the public benefit associated with it.  This is quite obvious in the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage where the value is expressed as the benefit derived from it, such as ‘identity’.   Where physical objects are mentioned, it is quite clear that their intangible value lies in the benefit to people.

It is not surprising that along with benefit, presentation also receives more consideration.  Benefit is all about people experiencing something benefitial, and for this, legislation and policy recognises, facilitation is required, or as we call it: interpretation.


Promotion of enjoyment, understanding and support for conservation are the earliest guidelines for interpretation in legislation and policy.  They still persist, but now more concrete guidelines are added such as visitor focus, evaluation, communicating significance, being socially inclusive, and on a media level to be contemporary and interactive.  The National Trust in their ‘Going Local’ strategy want their presentation to be facilitation and they directly link it to benefits such as ‘a sense of belonging’.

I think this expectation for interpretation to deliver public benefit will become stronger over the next few years.  The National Association of Interpretation in the United States, with its definition of interpretation as ‘a mission-based communication process’, has already recognised that interpretation has a clear purpose to fulfill, in this case for an organisation.  At least in Germany and the UK this purpose is likely to become the delivery of public benefit.  Some aspects of how interpretation may achieve that goal are already stipulated in the literature and indeed in legislation: inclusive significance assessments, interpretation that respects all heritage values, interpretation that is based on evaluation.  I suspect that in detail, we will begin to see research and evaluative studies that go beyond testing unspecified enjoyment and achievement of learning or behavioural objectives.  We need to test interpretation against the public benefits or intangible values that people associate with a site.  Interpretation will likely become much less about ‘revealing a hidden truth’ as Freeman Tilden wrote and which in my estimation is still, in practice, a form of conveying facts.  Interpretation will instead become much more about facilitating an experience that realises the benefit  for which people value a site or object.

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Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Drury speak on ‘Sustaining Cultural Heritage Values in Changing Environments’ at University College London.

Paul spent a great deal of time talking about the heritage values that people associate with sites.  These, he argued, should form the basis of any management decision about a site and crucially, any conservation measures.  Heritage values, he pointed out, may not be embodied in the material authenticity of a site: in other words, people may not consider a site important for the fact that its surviving fabric is from a particular period but rather for what the whole embodies.  Paul gave the example of the Anderton Boat Lift where rather than preserve the delapidated lift, missing or unusable parts were replicated to restore the lift’s functionality.  Although some of the lift’s historic fabric is gone, the lift as a whole can once more inspire the wonderment for which it was cherished.  In other words, it’s heritage value was sustained.

The use of ‘to sustain’ rather than ‘to conserve’ was very noticeable in Paul’s lecture, and he explained why: ‘to sustain’ is to nurture and to maintain. In a policy document which Paul and his colleague Anna MacPherson prepared for English Heritage they defined the term further:

To sustain embraces both preservation and enhancement to the extent that the values of a place allow.

‘Enhancement’ or ‘to maintain’ are fairly revolutionary concepts in the realm of conservation.  Not only is conservation moving away from the sole consideration of the fabric of things to include and maybe even give greater importance to people’s (intangible) heritage values.  It is also starting to leave behind the former ‘minimal intervention’ approach.  Instead, Paul pointed out, it is realized that greater intervention can actually ‘reveal and reinforce’ heritage values and thus ensure their survival.  In his lecture, Paul also gave a very strong sense of such ‘revelation and reinforcement’ being a part of the present’s contribution to heritage – another concept which is fairly new.  In English Heritage’s Strategy for 2005-2010, this is expressed as people nurturing their historic environment as an integral part of life today.  Rather than attempt to freeze heritage in a past state, it is now recognized that people today add to heritage and that heritage can also change through this interaction.  This is a natural process that ‘sustains’ the heritage values from the past through the present and into the future.  Consequently, Paul’s definition of conservation is ‘the process of managing change’.

It will be interesting to observe what impact the ‘Conservation Principles’ and also English Heritage’s strategy have had so far.  Where conservators let go of the reigns slightly, interpreters may be able to really facilitate that conversation between people and heritage.  I have for a while now defined interpretation as ‘a living social practice’, fully aware that this is somewhat aspirational and philosophic rather than a description of the current state of affairs.  However, Paul’s lecture and these developments within English Heritage have given me a new boost.  Heritage and interpretation are not static.  They are processes that change and evolve, and most importantly, they are about people, not fabric.

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Recently, Britain’s Prime Minister once again tried to enthuse people for his ‘Big Society’ idea.  In the words of the Big Society Network:

‘The Big Society is a society in which individual citizens feel big: big in terms of being supported and enabled; having real and regular influence; being capable of creating change in their neighbourhood.’

Or to put it simply, Mr Cameron wants people to volunteer.  His vision is indeed big: volunteers should run post offices, even transport services, and… museums.

Of course, at the same time as volunteers are called upon to take over what used to be the state’s responsibility, the British Government has introduced the most severe budget cuts in decades.  Especially museums, always vulnerable to decreasing funding streams, soon will no longer have a choice but replace paid staff with volunteers.  In the eyes of the Government, that seems to be a good thing.

But is it?  Are museums really best run by volunteers?  Is our heritage best looked after by volunteers?

Many museums already rely on volunteers to deliver their services.  The volunteers they get, of course, tend to be predominantly retired, professional white women, with the occasional retired, professional white man put into the mix – and this is after dedicated paid staff spent considerable time on recruiting volunteers.

The issue with this is obvious.  Unless these volunteers have the necessary training in interpretation, museum management and audience development, to name but a few, they are unlikely to present programmes that are relevant to other sectors of the community, or to attract other volunteers from different backgrounds.

This highlights the next point: getting volunteers with the right skills set can be a challenge.  Most museums are happy to train their volunteers, usually – because of budget constraints – through on the job training provided by paid staff who have years of knowledge and experience.  Imagine the kinds of highly skilled roles volunteers will be asked to fulfill if they have to run a museum or heritage site on their own: conservation, commercial management, interpretation… Mostly these are specialist roles that require specialist education.  The people that have these skills will want to get paid, not volunteer for the job they were trained for.

And then of course there is the challenge of retaining volunteers.  The above described average volunteer will not be around forever, and younger volunteers tend to move on as their lives change (for example by finding a paid job).  Commitment is also an issue, for the more crucial volunteers are to the running of a museum, the more time will be required of them.  People who work, and especially younger people who tend to have young families, are not able to give the amount of time needed for long-term planning and managing for success.

So where does this leave us?  Personally, I don’t think that volunteers are the best people to take on the responsibility for our heritage.  Our heritage is too precious – it requires people who know what they’re doing, people who have the education and the experience to ensure our heritage is protected and kept relevant to the widest possible audience.

We mustn’t confuse volunteering with best practice community and stakeholder engagement.  We, as heritage professionals and especially as interpreters, must absolutely do all in our power to work with communities.  Volunteering is just one way in which to do that, but it is us who need to manage the volunteers, for example, to enable them to contribute in a meaningful way.  By taking away the professional, paid staff, the Government takes away the enabling structure.  No one in their right mind would ever suggest that we replace Mr Cameron with a volunteer, who runs the country in their spare time after, say, having worked in a garage.  It’s just not possible.  The responsibility is too great, as are the consequences of failure.

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The latest issue of the UK Museums Journal gives plenty of evidence of the impact budget cuts have on the museums and heritage sector.  English Heritage is about to shut down its entire (!) outreach department, the Victoria and Albert Museum has downgraded its post of Director of Learning and Interpretation to Head of Education (the sheer terminology of which representing a step backward), and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, whose functions are soon to be taken over by the Arts Council England, has served several museum development officers with risk of redundancy notices, thus jeopardising the forward development of many museums who might benefit from their support.

Of course, the fabric of the heritage, be it objects in museums or Britain’s famed castles, will still be preserved.  But without interpretation, without outreach and ongoing support for visitor programmes, who will care?

These cuts in the heritage sector go against everything that heritage legislation and recent policies have stipulated and recognised.  Even if we put aside that heritage is supposed to enhance our sense of identity (1990 ICOMOS Lausanne Charter) and help us lead balanced and complete lives (1975 European Charter of the Architectural Heritage), ensuring that people understand the importance of protecting our heritage is also called upon as an intrinsic part of gaining people’s support.

If the sector is no longer able to help people make a connection to their heritage, who will care about a museum stuffed full of objects?  Who will care about the pile of old stones on top of the hill?  Heritage is not in the fabric of things, it is in the hearts and minds of people.  And with these cuts, we are just about to wipe that heritage out.

I do know that every sector is worthy of support, and I know that the government and local councils are having to make tough decisions.  But to jeopardise our sense of heritage in my opinion is the worst that can happen.  We may not yet have enough hard evidence to prove what every interpreter and heritage manager knows in their hearts to be true but that doesn’t change my conviction: heritage does provide us with a sense of orientation, as the American legislation that created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 says.  Heritage does tell us about our own roots and that of humanity as a whole, and it provides us with inspiration and aspiration.  If we’re cut off from that, what could possibly replace it?  Not the sheer presence of stones on a hill, I’m sure.

We need people to interact with people.  We need people who understand stakeholders and visitors and who have the know-how to connect them with a site’s many meanings.  Conserving and preserving isn’t enough.  Just imagine how quickly we throw things out when clearing out our house.  It’s when we hold that book in our hands and remember where we bought it and how a loved one read it out to us in the store that the book turns from mere object to a part of who we are.  Without interpretation and programming and outreach we deny people to learn about that part of themselves.  And in turn, they may just no longer agree that any money should be spent at all on what looks just like any other old object.  Who cares?

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