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Recently, I strolled through my local woods and came across a carved Irminsul leaning against a tree some way back from the path. Intrigued, I made my way over, to find that the Irminsul had runes carved across the top. Now, my rune reading skills are a little rusty. But after a while I established that two people had been married here and this marker left as a witness.


I was absolutely thrilled at this point, and also a little disturbed. I was thrilled because this was such an unexpected display of heritage. It was the first of May, too, a day which in Germany is full of traditions, from Maypoles to dances. That had already made me think about intangible heritage, and what importance it has in creating not only a sense of identity but also a sense of place. Through the First of May events going on all around me, it really felt like being back in Germany proper. It was, and felt, entirely different from all the other places I had lived in.


The Irminsul of course has further interesting layers. I have come across this symbol before since returning to Germany. I found out at the time that it is meant to represent an actual column of sorts which in the 8th century AD stood in a town in North Rhine-Westphalia. What exactly it represented, or what purpose it served, cannot, as far as I understand, be established through any historical sources.


In other words, for the Irminsul to be used today means a reappropriation and reconstruction, and certainly to a degree a reinvention that fills in the blanks of a past symbol and associated meaning. And in this way, it illustrates a lot of what has been written about heritage as a selection and appropriation of the past for present-day needs. In the case of the Irminsul in the woods, for the couple that placed it there it clearly has a ritualistic meaning, perhaps a religious one, and perhaps one that connects them to the time and people of the historic column.


Here is where my discomfort had its root. For of course, we’re talking about a German context here. And the last time I came across this symbol was in a news item about an Irminsul that had been erected on top of a protected, natural stone formation called Externsteine on New Years Day this year. Unlike the Irminsul in the woods that I found, this one was painted in white, red and black, colours that were used by the German Reich (although in a different order). For this reason, but also because the symbol is used by a neo-nazi organisation in Germany, the Irminsul was seen as a right-wing symbol, and the Staatsschutz,  a special police force dealing with politically motivated crime, went to investigate.


On one hand, one might of course argue that any symbol can be misused by anone. After all, even the Arthurian legend, of generally harmless association in the UK, is shamelessly misused by clearly far-right groups, without the tale itself being tarnished. But the sensitivities and fears are strong in Germany when it comes to anything potentially far right. And so in the news article about the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine, management of the monument put right-wing, reactionary positions in one sentence with all and any interpretation of the site that is not fully scientifically proven, saying that they equally distanced themselves from both [1]. Thus the connection is made: the symbol is intrinsically suspicous, the right-wing interpretation the most likely.


The discursive process that begins its work, then, is a forced framing of a symbol that in itself really has no association whatsoever with right-wing views. Objectively speaking, one must acknowledge that with so little known about the historic Irminsul, one may disagree with the reappropriation, reproduction and reinvention of the symbol and its meanings by some folks, but one cannot reasonably assign to them a far-right attitude by default. And while the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine had other characteristics that do seem to make a far-right intention likely, never mind disrespecting a scheduled monument, the strength of this reframing applied to all uses of the symbol quickly becomes a form of censorship.


I was relieved when I realised the runes on the Irminsul I saw in the woods merely referred to a wedding celebration. I was relieved because actually, in the back of my mind I had applied that censure. And that makes me wonder about the impact of such ever-present pressure on this couple’s practice, assuming, as I have every reason to do, that they are not, in fact, right-wing radicals. It is an impact that also lacks objective justification in and of itself, just as the scientists accuse reconstructions and reappropriations of lacking a scientific basis. As I found out, it clearly puts groups in a position where they feel they must justify themselves (which is of course what many people constantly demand of Muslims today as well).


As a society, and definitely as heritage managers, we should be weary of allowing such processes to run their course without critical examination. A more distinguishing attitude is called for, and I cannot help but feel that this is a task for interpretation: to represent the diverse perspectives without pre-judgment, and to help people gain the skills to be critical for themselves, and to not jump to any conclusions.



[1] I could write here about the Authorized Heritage Discourse asserting itself in this attitude. But that’s not the point of this post.

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Twice over the past two months I’ve attended workshops that have sought to tackle the basic question of what makes good interpretation [1].  One workshop aimed at developing a best practice document, while the other started a discussion on what might become the criteria for a quality mark for interpretation.  Both approaches have highlighted the same issues for me: first, it’s not as easy a task as it may seem, and second, I wonder if we’re ready for this conversation yet.

I got a bit worried when in one of the workshops a colleague asserted that ‘we know what good interpretation is’, and their argument was the reference to Tilden’s principles [1].  Sam Ham may have found that Tilden’s views on ‘provocation’ and ‘relevance’ happen to match findings from modern psychology studies [2], but then Skibins et al [3] found very little evidence that the best practice principles put forth in many of the interpretation text books, including Tilden’s, actually produce the asserted outcomes of interpretation.  This highlights to me yet again that just because we keep quoting the same principles doesn’t make them any more robust.  We need hard facts.

Here’s another thought that struck me in one of the workshops.  As we talked about the challenges of site conservation and the lack of evidential knowledge, interpretation was conceptualized primarily as a conservation tool, as well as a means for communicating what knowledge we do have.  Best practice consequently became heavily influenced by these considerations, and I pointed out that we needed to bring in visitors and their own desired outcomes more (which we then discussed at length – this was a great workshop).  Looking at best practice from the visitor outcomes point of view completely changes the game, away from tools (word counts, image/text ratios, positioning of panels) to processes, and more subtle facilitation.  But again, what is still lacking here is hard evidence for how impact is actually achieved.

In a short sentence, I suppose one could summarize my argument as: we need more evidence on which to build any criteria and best practice.  However, I think it goes a bit deeper than that: I think as a discipline, we need a radical shift in philosophy and approach, and along with this a change in language.  An easy example would be the oft-referred to ‘calling’ that interpreters supposedly have, their deep ‘caring’ for heritage, natural or cultural, and their ‘desire’ to ‘share’ this with others.  While these are all admirable, and deeply meaningful personal motivations, I’m no longer convinced that this is how we should refer to ourselves.  That we have done it for such a long time may be the reason why an archaeologist colleague recently referred to themselves as ‘a researcher’, while ‘of course’ the interpreters were, well, ‘just interpreters’. Actually, I pointed out, I’m a researcher also – in interpretation.  But of course, every time we refer to Tilden and elaborate on our personal connections to heritage, we’re losing our footing beside those heritage disciplines that are primarily based on evidence.

So does this mean I’m suggesting we should put these conversations about best practice and quality criteria on hold?  No, absolutely not.  I actually think there is enough evidence out there already for us to start formulating both.  But we need to be clear what the evidence actually supports – and what it doesn’t support.  And where evidence is thin or lacking completely, we need to start doing some serious work, alongside changing our language to reflect the fact that creating good interpretation is not merely a matter of referring to what can be seen in front of you.  It takes a great deal more than that.



[1] I’ve already written here about why I think we need to give Tilden a well-deserved rest.
[2] Ham, S., 2009. ‘From Interpretation to Protection: Is There a Theoretical Basis?’ Journal of Interpretation Research 14(2), pp. 49 – 57
[3] Skibins J., Powell R., Stern, M., 2012.  ‘Exploring empirical support for interpretation’s best practices’. Journal of Interpretation Research 17(1), pp.  25 – 44

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Early in December last year, the British Museums Association issued an exciting research brief.  They want to find out what the public think of the present and potential purposes of museums, and their roles in society.

I am really looking forward to this research report, which is due at the end of March.  Crucially, the research isn’t about what professionals think – the MA’s Museums 2020 campaign has already given us plenty of that.  This research finally goes out to the public directly and asks them what they think [1]. The brief asks for a ‘detailed, qualitative exploration’, and it will be interesting to see what methodology the researchers will apply (I understand they haven’t been appointed yet). 

The research questions are really intriguing for museums and heritage professionals:

  • What do the public think are, and should be, the fundamental purposes of publicly funded museum services?
  • Which purposes (if any) would they prioritise in times of limited funding
  • What principles do they believe should underpin public museums services; and
  • What should museums be trying to achieve now, and over the next decade.

It might be a real eye-opener for the sector to hear what the public think about the purposes, priorities, and principles that we have established for museums (and heritage sites).  My only concern is that these questions are very conceptual.  The brief suggests that these questions are further refined by the researchers, but answers to these questions is what the brief demands.  The brief acknowledges that this will require what it calls ‘deliberation’ on the part of respondents, and it expects that they will be given background information and time to ‘debate’ issues raised in Museums 2020 so far.  However, unless the methodology is radically different from the (traditional) focus groups and interviews anticipated by the brief, this will seriously limit the diversity of respondents and responses. The prospect of having to read through dry, specialist museums and heritage discourse will be intimidating for many, not the least for the underrepresented, hard-to-reach groups that are at the core for example of our social inclusion agendas – social inclusion being of course one of our self-identified ‘purposes’.  The irony is obvious. 

Another worry that I have is that the questions are also very much predetermined by our own professional framings.  The brief specifically requests that responses are sought to the existing professional discourse, including Museums 2020.  The underlying desire is clear.  However, we might limit respondents’ creativity and overwhelm them with our own learned conceptions.  I hope the researchers find a methodology to approach this whereby they truly enable respondents to develop their own discourse and free them from having to use our own thinking as their starting point.  What we don’t want is ‘our usual suspects’ to simply confirm what we think.  This might be comforting, but really wouldn’t be helpful.

The research will focus on publicly funded museums and those run as charities.  The brief consequently makes a distinction between ‘the public’ as visitors, and ‘the public’ as tax-payers and citizen/funders, the latter being the research subject.  Personally, I wish the MA hadn’t made that distinction. It artificially slices the whole person into separate roles, and asking someone a question about purpose on a funding and societal level might produce an entirely different response from one based on personal motivation/benefit [2].  My argument would be that it’s that personal motivation that determines the public view of a museum, practically expressed through visitor numbers and impact, for example.  I would say it is therefore that personal response that will give us the insights that the research seeks: how to make museums ‘more responsive and more sustainable’.  

Finally, it’s notable that when specifying the sample requirements, the brief uses demographic segmentation.  I’ve recently had conversations online and offline about how widespread the implementation of non-demographic audience segmentation is in the (British) museums and heritage sector.  My experience has been that it isn’t widespread at all, and the Museums Association’s brief seems another case in point.  I would be really interested to know why they’ve chosen this demographic approach, for I know that motivation for example is a key category in their current thinking on audience development.  It would seem that when researching the public’s views on the purposes and roles of museums it is particularly important to ensure a sample that is representative of the different motivations that bring visitors to museums, and that make the public care about heritage.  However, in practical terms the challenge is of course that motivation itself is far more difficult to establish as a distinguishing attribute than are demographic categories – you would basically need to do a piece of research first to identify your (potential) sample.

Either way, the research will be interesting when it comes out, both for its methodology and its findings.  I can’t wait.   



[1] Why research doesn’t do this as a matter of course in our sector remains a mystery to me.  Only yesterday I read through a book-length study of the continued relevance – or not – of (heritage) myth and symbolism in society, and the study had not spoken to a single visitor or member of the public.

[2] This is similar to issues around economic valuation, where studies have shown how willingness to pay changes in response to questions framed on a personal and political level.  

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A few weeks before my recent visit to Stonehenge, I chanced to watch ‘The Age of Cosmology’ part 3 of Neil Oliver’s documentary series, ‘A History of Ancient Britain’.  Beside Stonehenge, the documentary also talked about other Stone Age sites, such as the nearby Avebury stone circle and the sites far north in Orkney.

The film did an excellent job in placing each monument into a context.  Especially with Stonehenge, it managed to present the site as part of a connected whole.  Using aerial cinematography and smart editing, it expanded view points to connect and juxtapose sites that are far apart but which we today believe were once linked in the minds of their builders in a wider ritual landscape.

I also really liked how the documentary used the backdrop of modern, busy cityscapes to draw subtle parallels to the views and experiences the ancient people may have had.  It also suggested a continuity from then to now which one doesn’t see too often in such productions.  Neil Oliver was also excellent at bringing to the piece real enthusiasm, as if he himself were excited about every piece of the puzzle he presented.

Finally, the documentary did a great job of telling a compelling story of archaeological detective work to paint a lively and colourful image of the ancient people and the vastness of their achievement far beyond any individual site.  In doing so, the documentary created a true sense of place and wonderment.  If you watch the trailer for this episode, you get a feel for what I mean.

Interestingly, what the documentary did well are all things that good interpretation strives to do also.  And yet some interpreters would fervently argue that what Neil Oliver did here was not interpretation at all.

One argument is that interpretation has to be on site, an idea that stems from Freeman Tilden who formally defined interpretation in 1954 [1].  Especially in continental Europe, this criterion is sometimes still used as part of the definition of interpretation [2].  I argue that in insisting on interpretation to be on site in order to be called interpretation, interpreters are falling out of step not only with the technological opportunities that we have gained since Tilden but also with various management demands and social expectations.  As this November’s UNESCO conference on remote interpretation shows, for example, some sites are simply too vulnerable or too inaccessible to be interpreted on site.  Interpretation off-site protects sites and still gives users access.  Similarly, in the age of the internet and mobile television, users expect to engage with a site while they are off-site, some in preparation for their visit, others afterward, and some instead of their visit.

Another argument against the on-site rule is that it actually supports a false understanding of heritage.  The materiality of heritage has been called into question for many years, and increasingly organisational policies in the UK, such as English Heritage’s Conservation Principles or the National Trusts’ Going Local strategy, are shifting their focus away from mere physicality to the processes by which people ‘make’ heritage.  The physical site, it has been recognised, is more often a prop rather than the core of the heritage experience.  That is not to say that in my personal opinion, visitor-users shouldn’t still make an effort to go into a place wherever possible.  However, this is not a defining criterion for interpretation, rather it is a question of participating in heritage processes [3].

Finally, the on-site rule with its associated demand for interpretation to give first hand experience of the thing itself (again Tilden) also can only be applied to sites that are spatially limited and as such conveyable to visitors.  At Stonehenge, for example, that would not be possible [4].  Roads, modern buildings, tree plantings, even the natural contours of the land prevent any first hand experience of the site’s place in the ritual landscape.  Interpreting the site in isolation would ignore what appears to be its actual meaning in the wider landscape.  This leaves nothing but an audio-visual, and I argue that at this point it no longer matters whether visitor-users see the audio/visual on-site or in their own homes.  All that is different is their consequent engagement with the site.

Of course, showing a 60-minute-documentary in a visitor centre will not be manageable, nor will visitors’ expectations allow for it.  However, these same visitor-users may be perfectly prepared to commit that amount of time while they are at home.  In my opinion, therefore, a documentary that applies the best principles of interpretation as Neil Oliver’s documentary has done is a perfect example of interpretation suited to its target audience – visitor-users at home.

As for me, I would have felt desperate had I not seen the documentary before coming to Stonehenge.  There is next to no interpretation available anyway, but as I discussed above, it is unlikely that anything would have given me the same understanding and appreciation of the landscape as the documentary had done.  Thanks to having seen it prior to my visit, I came prepared to go for a hike and get as much of a spatial experience of the site as I could.  I felt bad for the other people there, none of whom seemed to leave the immediate area of the monument (and the majority even listened to the available audio tour which I didn’t do).  They cannot have gained much of the sense of place and wonderment that the connected sites inspire.


[1] I have already expressed elsewhere that in my opinion interpreters need to start moving beyond Tilden – and quickly.

[2] On an organisational level, for example, the Spanish Asociatión para la Interpretación del Patrimonio, defines interpratation partially through being ‘on site’: ‘La interpretación del patrimonio es el ‘arte’ de revelar in situ el significado del legado natural y cultural al público que visita esos lugares en su tiempo libre.’

[3] One may argue that even these processes of ‘making’ heritage won’t in the future be taking place in the physical realm only.  Virtual worlds and social networking online may all become spaces for heritage negotiation and creation.

[4] I will not go into the shocking lack of interpretation and presentation of Stonehenge here, others have already done that.  See for example Golding, F.N., 1989. Stonehenge – past and future. In Cleere, H.F. (ed), 1989. Archaeological Heritage Management in the Modern World. London, Cambridge, North Sydney, Wellington: Unwin Hyman, pp. 256-264

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