Posts Tagged ‘definition of interpretation’

I spent yesterday at the Battle of Hastings site [1].  They had a big event on to mark the upcoming anniversary of the battle, and at some point during the day, people laid down wreaths at the Harold Stone – the stone marking the place where King Harold is said to have fallen [2].

It made me think again about ‘place’ and interpretation.  We interpreters talk about place a lot in one way or another.  It’s usually about two things: on one hand, we’re concerned about communicating, or creating a sense of place for visitors [3], and on the other, we’re harking back to Tilden and his bit about meeting ‘the Thing Itself’, which we tend to discuss only in terms of siting panels, or getting visitors to look at something.

But place goes far deeper, and is much more complex, than simply being something we need to explain or create, or a visual focal point for an interpretive intervention.  Place is a destination, a pilgrimage, as is obvious for example from roots tourism [4]. It doesn’t even have to be a historically legitimised place in order to become a destination, as war memorials illustrate, or, for a less-obvious study, Mount Rushmore [5].  On the other hand, where historical events are concerned, people do seem to want to know where it happened, as the search for the site of the Varusschlacht in Germany shows [6].  And yet, if there is a strong enough marker at another site, both may continue side by side as a destination – historical authenticity not being all that important to visitors [7]. One reason for this may be that place isn’t so much about place at all as it is about memory and social action, as Byrne has argued [8].

So what does this mean for interpretation?  Well, first of all we need to think about the above a little more when we talk about planning, or ‘doing’ interpretation.  If place is a social action with multiple layers of meaning, then we cannot pretend that interpretation is (just, or maybe even at all?) about explaining to visitors what is special about a place [9].  In other words, we can no longer treat place as the neatly defined physical object of interpretation. It does not do to assume that ‘visitors’ come without meaning, and will not already, for example by their very act of visiting, participate in ‘narrating place’, as Byrne has called it.  For many sites, meaning, and a desire to perform place, will already exist for people – as is the case at the Battle of Hastings [10].  Some interpreters may feel that by considering prior knowledge, existing attitudes, and a whole range of other segmentations, we’re already addressing this.  But I would advise caution here: for as long as the proclaimed objective of interpretation is to ‘explain’ something, to ‘change attitudes’ and to ‘evoke support for conservation’, we’re still falling into the trap of wanting to somehow change visitors – and that, I feel, too often means disenfranchising people, disrespecting their right to their heritage, ignoring their part in creating heritage.

The above makes me think that interpretation is very much about marking place, much more so perhaps than it is about anything else – at least in some places.  If I look at what visitors tell me at Varusschlacht in Germany, for example, that’s what they say: they want interpretation to state this is the place where.  Their favourite interpretation is the recreated Germanenwall, the turf wall from behind which the Germans attacked the Romans.  And some interpreters wouldn’t even call such reconstructions interpretation! Similarly, the Harold Stone at Battle Abbey literally just states the fact: Here is where traditionally Harold is said to have fallen.  But it is arguably the focal point of the entire site.  Is it interpretation? [11]

So finally, and this is contentious even to my mind, I wonder how much interpretation as a marker of place must actually be about stating facts, giving information, and not about explaining (or revealing, as Tilden called it).  Is this where facilitation lies? The giving of facts that visitors in Germany have requested, so that they may make up their own mind?  I don’t know.  I hope as I embark on analysing my visitors interviews over the next months, I’ll get an answer.  Watch this space.


[1] 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey is one of my research sites for my doctorate research.
[2] This wasn’t a ‘scheduled’ laying down of wreaths, so unfortunately I missed the act itself.  The notes that went with the wreaths suggest that they were put down by the re-enactment societies involved in the event.  I actually think someone should do a proper study on re-enactment societies and what they do for the people involved.  There is a scheduled wreath-laying ceremony on Monday, 14 October, the actual date of the anniversary.
[3] That is in a nutshell what the interpretive handbook ‘A Sense of Place’ sets out to do. Here, as with other definitions of interpretation, the objective is, in my own words, to foster appreciation of place so that visitors may support its conservation.  Hello Tilden again.
[4] Paul Basu’s book Highland Homecomings (Routledge, 2007) is a good read on this topic.
[5] see Pretes, M. (2003). ‘Tourism and Nationalism’ In: Annals of Tourism Research 30(1), pp. 125-142.
[6] see for example Henige, D. (2007). ‘”This is the place”: putting the past on the map.’ In: Journal of Historical Geography 33, pp. 237-253
[7] see for example Hoffman, D. (1994). ‘Der Teutoburger Wald und andere Orte der Erinnerung.’ In: Fansa, M. (1994). Varusschlacht und Germanenmythus: eine Vortragsreihe anlaesllich der Sonderausstellung Kalkriese – Roemer im Osnabruecker Land in Oldenburg. Oldenburg: Staatliches Museum fuer Naturkunde und Vorgeschichte Oldenburg, pp. 87-107
[8] Byrne, D. (2008). ‘Heritage as Social Action’. In: Fairclough, G. (2008). The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 149-173
[9] This being the definition used in the above cited ‘A Sense of Place’ handbook.  Variations of this definition can be found in all definitions by our professional organisations, and the classic interpretation literature.
[10] There is a discussion to be had about where that meaning comes from.  School education is certainly one aspect, which comes through very strongly at the Battle of Hastings.  But there’s also something else, for at Culloden Battlefield, and indeed at Varusschlacht, there is a public association with the site that is in direct opposition to what has been taught at school.  This is interesting, but outside of my study, so for the moment I’m not aware of any studies that have been done on this.  I expect it’s something around public memory.
[11] Before you say it: yes, the rest of the provision, from the sheer tourist sign along the motorway to the café and finally the exhibition, also play a role.  What kind of role I haven’t established yet, and may not be able to either in my research, the focus being on something else.

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For the stakeholder engagement conference I’m organising at my current site in September, I invited a member of the community to give the closing presentation.  I was very keen to ensure it isn’t just the ‘professionals’ talking about involving stakeholders and communities in interpretation, and reporting how well – or not – this worked.  I wanted to make sure that we also hear from the communities themselves.

So on Friday, this gentleman came to see me to run his presentation by me.  As I listened to him, I once again had this sense of humility that I often get when I speak to community members.  Let me explain what I mean.

First of all, I’ve never interpreted my own culture. And I think that’s been an asset, both to my practical work and to my thinking about interpretation.  I’ve always been aware that I’m an outsider to what I’m interpreting. And since I’m not a historian either, this meant that I’ve always started out by listening.  In listening to the people whose heritage I was about to interpret [1] I encountered emotions and stories, and existential questions that are so much larger than my own life. They have left me feeling humbled, and immensely grateful that I have the honour to interpret these people’s heritage.

To me, it is people’s sense of their own heritage that is the material for interpretation, not seemingly objective historical (or otherwise) facts.  And this too is something that I’ve come to believe through listening to people, and also because so far I’ve always worked at one site, where I’ve been immediately confronted with people’s reactions to my interpretation. I’ve learnt that if I don’t honour this sense of heritage, I might as well spare myself the effort.  At best, the stakeholders will politely recite my well-thought out interpretive themes and obligingly fulfil my learning objectives.  But then they’ll proceed to navigate around the interpretation as best they can so that they may engage with their heritage at this, their site on their terms.  They’ve shown me that if I can’t do better, then they don’t need me, thank you very much.

This experience may also explain why interpretation to me is facilitation.  It is not about imparting or increasing knowledge, in whatever form.  As one of my site’s stakeholders said, ‘Who does this person think he is to teach me about my own heritage?’  That isn’t to say that they don’t appreciate a professional’s input.  There is a very clear expectation at my current site that the stakeholders have of me.  On one hand, they rely on me to make sure that the site will be attractive to ‘tourists’.  But also they expect me to provide opportunities for them to engage with their heritage in different and meaningful ways. They expect to be involved. And I’ve learnt that letting go of the reins sometimes can actually lead to outcomes that I never would have been able to achieve on my own.  I remember vividly for example a talk that the local heritage forum did to coincide with an exhibition I had organised.  I wasn’t at all sure that the talk would live up to my ‘interpretive’ standards.  But it turned out to provide a perspective on the 1911 riots against Jewish businesses in town that it would have been impossible for me to introduce. And this sparked a lively and critical debate within the audience on the day and afterward that would be any interpreter’s dream.  Yes, I had a hand in it, by organising the exhibition and other talks around it.  But it was through the collaboration with the community that we achieved something we can be proud of.

So I’ve learnt to be humble as an interpreter.  Humble, because heritage communities really don’t need me when it comes down to it, at least not if I don’t pay heed to them.  And humble because they have so much to teach me.  Not the other way around.



[1] For the record, more often than not these people weren’t actually the local community.  This is the reason why I find it so very dangerous to use the term ‘community’ involvement, because most of the interpreters that I speak to and who use the term community involvement mean involving the local community.  But the local community may care the least about what is happening in their midst.  It may be people from very far away to whom this site matters.  To use an obvious example, the people living around Auschwitz are really not the ones for whom the site is preserved and interpreted.

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