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I spent today and yesterday at the ‘I Know Where I’m Going’ Conference in Edinburgh. The conference was about remote access, with a focus on World Heritage Sites (it was part-organised by UK UNESCO). That may sound like the conference was all about technology, and we did indeed hear a great deal about the many fantastic solutions that are out there to help support remote access.

However, the conference also highlighted the complexity surrounding the issue of remote access.  While one speaker from England asked, When would you not want to offer remote access? the traditional owners of Uluru in Australia pointed out that pictures and video recordings of their sacred site (as remote access media) weren’t something that their culture easily embraced.  Uluru of course is a very good example of a site that is physically remote and under physical (and cultural) pressure from tourists.  Remote access seems like the ideal solution, and yet, beside the owners’ cultural unease with mechanical representation, they also felt that remote access wasn’t enough to give people a true understanding of the importance of the site, and an appreciation of their culture.

This brings us back to the question of whether interpretation has to happen in view of the thing itself.  From the point of view of interpretation, my answer remains, no.  You can absolutely interpret a site hundreds of miles away from it.  In fact, an excellent example that I heard during the conference was that of laser scanning.  CyArk use this technique as the basis for follow-on presentations, such as 3D environments that a web user can explore.  And this is just a (fairly traditional) example of what can be done (CyArk had many more examples, and many of them brilliantly creative and interactive).

However, like the traditional owners of Uluru argued, I think for those truly committed to and respectful toward heritage, nothing can beat the experience of being in the place.  And yet, how many tourists are truly that committed?  At Uluru, they still climb the rock despite being asked not to.  What (good, really good) remote access interpretation might achieve here is two things: one, it might be able to begin prepping tourists for their visit as they begin to plan it.  They could be exposed not only to the rock that they are primarily drawn to, but also introduced to the surrounding cultural importance the place holds for the local guardians.  I don’t think we’ve tried this enough yet to dismiss the hope for such pre-visit behavioural change, as it were.

The second possible outcome of (good, really good) remote access may be that it gives those less-committed tourists enough of an experience so that they may not feel the need to come in person.  That’s not just a perfectly acceptable outcome of interpretation in my mind, it sometimes is a matter of survival for the site.  St Kilda is one such example, where you can just image the damage that would be done to the fragile bird habitats on the island by commercial tour operators arriving there on an hourly schedule (luckily, it seems, the stormy sea prevents this anyway).

In other words, remote access can become another layer in the interpretive offer, and at this point it might be good to briefly remind ourselves that remote access doesn’t have to be just fancy technology.  Storytelling, as one speaker pointed out, can be another form of remote access to heritage, as are travel accounts, and photographs.  My only hesitation about these media with regard to good, really good remote access would be that they aren’t quite powerful enough to fulfil their (remote) purpose.

Why?  These more traditional access media are still very one-dimensional and especially, one-directional: from interpreter to audience.  With many of the remote access technologies that were discussed at the conference, however, what struck me was their interactivity.  It became the most obvious in a talk given by a Nokia representative.  He started off by talking about ICE – Inspiring, Connecting, Exploring.  That sounded so much like Tilden’s interpretive principles that I was just about to switch off, when he explained that by ‘connect’ he didn’t mean ‘connect with a site’ – he meant, ‘connect with peers’ (of course, Nokia’s strapline is ‘Connecting people’).  Equally, by explore he specifically didn’t mean just telling people to ‘look at this’.  He meant to provide content that people could interact with, and preferably add to.  That is quite a refreshing way for interpreters to look at interpretation.  The strength of such remote access isn’t just with regard to providing access when people, for whatever reason, are not able to or are not allowed to come to a site.  This kind of remote access can also extend the experience, and can finally help to consolidate what we as interpreters so desperately try to achieve during the brief time visitors are on site: to ge visitors to understand the site, to care for it, and to engage with it further.  Again, remote access here is simply another layer of interpretation.

The key is to ensure that remote access is of high quality. If we think of remote access as actual, off-site access to a site, then it becomes clear that simply providing the same content and interpretation that we offer on site isn’t enough.  We need to really go that step further, and offer an experience of the site.  Just as on site, you don’t want to get in the way of people’s first-hand interaction with the site itself by forcing them to look at a screen for a long time, off-site you don’t want them to feel the absence of the physical experience with every click of the mouse (or whatever it is).  Remote access becomes a different way of thinking about interpretation away from the site.  Only once we stop treating it as the ‘second best thing’ will we be able to fully take advantage of what remote access can offer – a way of supporting conservation and an opportunity to enhance the visitor experience.

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