Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not actually going to tell you what makes interpretation effective.  Rather, I would like to propose that we rethink some of the measures we use for determining ‘effectiveness’.

Take for example an article by Henker and Brown that was published in the Journal for Interpretation Research earlier this year [1].  Their study set out to ‘compare the effectiveness of three interpretive formats’ (online and on site podcasts, and personal interpretation).  They used the following measures for effectiveness [2]:

  • Enjoyment,
  • Knowledge gain, and
  • Conservation support (behavioural change).

They didn’t offer an explanation for why they chose these particular measures.  However, from their introduction, it’s quite clear that these measures are directly related to how they define the aims of interpretation:

  • Inspire visitors (although it’s not clear in what respect),
  • Make a connection between visitor and resource, and
  • Elicit support for conservation.

But herein lies the crux of the matter: Henker and Brown don’t spend any time on showing just why we should accept these as the aims of interpretation.  Do they really capture what interpretation is about?  Or could it be that this is interpretation – but only under certain circumstances?  Is there not also a long list of other, hugely important aspects (under certain circumstances) that determine what interpretation is (or should be)?  Why were these left out?

Please don’t get me wrong.  What Henker and Brown have listed are legitimate aims for interpretation.  In fact, I’m sure they are the aims that we would find most often asserted if we were to do a count across interpreters’ discussions and our literature. However, without further explanation, these aims just don’t satisfy me.

Let me elaborate.  In a nature preservation area with endangered flora and fauna, conservation is an obvious aim for interpretation (or is it – see note 3?).  At my site, however, this is much less the case.  For us, the objectives focus on bringing the site back into the heart of community life, and giving a sense of pride to the members of a community that has been thwarted by economic decline for decades.  These, therefore, are our measures for interpretive effectiveness.  Behavioural change or even knowledge gain are really not that important.

Would you argue that therefore, what we do at my site isn’t interpretation?  I know some interpreters that would, but as you can guess, I’m not one of them.  I also don’t think that such a narrow, original definition of interpretation (in terms of the nature conservation origins of interpretation in the US National Park Service) will carry the discipline far.  It’s certainly not what an architect, a teacher, or a marketing professional would be concerned with – and these are the professions that too often are still used within organisations to provide ‘interpretation’.

So to come back to my original question: what makes interpretation effective?  Well, it depends on what your aims and objectives are.  Make sure you can show that these suit your site, and why. Then choose your measures of effectiveness accordingly, and with any luck (and an interpreter’s expertise) you will have provided effective interpretation.

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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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