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Next week, I will take up a new post and in doing so, I will formally be leaving the heritage and museum sectors that I have worked in over the past years. From now on, I will be working in the further education and socio-cultural sector.

 

I will admit that when I first read the job advert for my new role, I paused to do some soul-searching. What would I be leaving behind? Would this include the very thing that I am passionate about – (cultural) heritage and its interpretation? Would I lose my own professional identity?

 

Somewhat to my surprise, the research into the sector and the institution that I would be joining brought me renewed clarity concerning my values in heritage and interpretation. It also gave me an immense sense of excitement. It started with the organising premise and raison d’être – enshrined in law, no less – of the German Volkshochschulen: to provide access to education for all. Breaking down barriers to access, inclusion, diversity: these are all principles that underpin the work of the sector. And not just on paper either. There are annual statistics, baselines and monitoring on the basis of which the claims are checked and the work is further developed. For example, I was thrilled to see courses offered in Turkish, and the number of collaborations that the Volkshochschule I will join is already doing – and has been doing for quite some time. Even ‘education’, which is a term I am not particularly fond of [1], is explicitly understood and described as the ability to acquire knowledge, to make an informed judgment about information provided, and to participate in and contribute to society. In fact, the overriding aim of the sector, and Volkshochschulen in particular, is to enable everyone’s participation in our democracy, not just understood politically, but culturally and socially as well.

 

All of that is what has been motivating me in my work at cultural heritage sites and in museums. I have never been focused on a site’s material or evidential values, and this goes for museum collections as well. On the contrary, I have spent the better part of my professional career arguing that sites and museums must be more than places for the presentation of expert knowledge, in the sense that it continues to be overwhelmingly defined, which is material or historical knowledge. I have supported the view that such expert knowledge too often not only exerts an undemocratic hegemony over heritage, but also misses the very values that turn something into heritage in the first place. My own focus has consequently always been on supporting (and understanding) people’s heritage work on the basis of my own and other’s research, particularly, but not exclusively from within critical heritage studies.

 

Engaging with the legal framework, strategies and practices for the further education and sociocultural sector in Germany has made me realise – somewhat ironically, considering my long-held stance – that I do not need to be working at a cultural heritage site or in a museum in order to maintain my focus on facilitating and understanding heritage work. Power over the management of the materiality on site is all that I will be losing in changing sectors. I believe I can live with that loss.

 

In fact, after the last three years, I feel a distinct sense of liberation. Particularly in Germany, there is still a long way to go before these values of participation, democratization and inclusion will be widely shared in the museum and heritage sectors. There are initiatives aplenty, but merely looking for example at the heated discussions at conferences about using simpler language in interpretive texts, or the need for the federal association to persuade museums to undertake visitor studies (!!) reveals that the institutional impact of these initiatives often remains rather limited.

 

Like I said, my focus is, always has been and always will be on people. I have never been in this to garner prestige for myself. The fact that some people are now telling me that in leaving a museum post I am losing status and ‘taking a step downwards’ just reassures me: I have made the right decision. Now I can focus on the work that I consider important and right, without having to endlessly defend it.

 

 

[1] The reason is that while even in formal pedagogy, the concept has evolved, in practice I find that there is still a hint of a one-way-street of (expert) instruction in quantifiable knowledge.

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According to my visitor interviews to date [1], the key benefits visitors get from visiting a heritage site are ‘being in the place where history happened’, ‘imagining what it was like’, and ‘[expressing] national or personal identity’[2].

This made me think of the title of David Lowenthal’s book: The Past is a Foreign Country [3]. Ignoring Lowenthal’s own framing for the moment, I started to think about visitors’ visit as a journey to another place, not all that dissimilar to visiting another country. Then I began to wonder about how ‘foreign’ that place was, not the least because I recently re-read Interpretation for the 21st Century [4], in which the authors write that ‘interpretation is to give meaning to a “foreign” landscape or event from the past or present’ (p. 1).

How visitors described the benefits they get, and the way they ‘receive’ these, was very similar to what Paul Basu reports in Highland Homecomings [5]. But while my interviewees are natives of the country in question, Basu’s ‘informants’ were ‘foreigners’, visiting Scotland on a pilgrimage to what they perceived to be their Scottish roots. On the face of it, to them Scotland was indeed a ‘foreign country’, in that most had never been before. And yet, they did not see themselves as ‘tourists’, the quintessential travellers to foreign places. No, they were on a deeply personal journey to a place that was a homeland, a spiritual and emotional marker of origin. They knew something about it already, and sometimes they knew a lot. They certainly had a deep connection with it before they ever set foot on Scottish soil.

In other words, Scotland wasn’t really a foreign country to them at all. And for the respondents in my study, the places they visit are of course not foreign either – they are located in the country they live in. But neither are the events that took place there foreign to them. They have an awareness of these events that is woven into the fabric of who they are. What they visit is somehow a part of themselves and thus, similarly to the roots ‘tourists’, a source of origin (which incidentally is exactly how one respondent described it to me). So when they say they want to imagine what it was like, it’s not that they don’t have an idea already: they do. It’s rather a case of being in the thrust of it, placing themselves at the heart of the goings-on and the physical space, in order to experience it and connect with it with all their senses, rather than just intellectually, and remotely-emotionally.

So what does that mean for interpretation? I’m not entirely sure yet. It certainly does suggest that heritage sites aren’t all that foreign to people. We may need to be careful about approaches that place too much emphasis on messages, organisational mission statements, or education. At the moment, I’m even wondering about approaches centred on meaning-making, collaboratively constructive or otherwise, and even more generally a view of interpretation as a communication process. I’m just not sure that either of these do justice to the strength of heritage connection that especially tourism studies show ‘visitors’ to have over and over again. In fact, in my interviews, visitors have made me think that interpretation is actually much more fundamentally about information than what we’ve allowed ourselves to acknowledge. At the same time, my professional practice has required of me much more community engagement and facilitation knowledge than knowledge of communication, as what was important wasn’t content but facilitation. So that’s the spot I find myself in at the moment: what does facilitiation around information mean in a context in which heritage is heritage because visitors have made it so?

 

Notes

[1] As part of my doctoral research in Germany and England.

[2] Swapped around a bit between Germany and England, but intriguingly, the top four benefits are the same in both countries.

[3] I think, but can’t remember, that Lowenthal got it from the first line of L.P.Hartley’s book The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’

[4] Beck, L. and Cable, T., 2002. Interpretation for the 21st Century. Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd edition. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing

[5] Basu, P., 2007. Highland Homecomings. Oxon: Routledge

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The Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) is well established across Britain.  In the words of Ofqual, the body that administers the framework, it aims to provide ‘a simple yet flexible’ qualifications system that is ‘inclusive, responsive, accessible [and] non-bureaucratic’.

What does it have to do with interpretation, you wonder? That’s simple: it’s another way of engaging audiences…deliver public benefits….use heritage more widely and more effectively.  And yes, make a bit of money too.

These are all matters of huge importance to most heritage organisations these days, and definitely the publicly funded ones.  At my site – a true regeneration heritage project run by a Local Authority – they’re practically written down as performance indicators.

The QCF offers real opportunities for us here.  In idealistic terms it seeks to recognise practical learning and give it accreditation in the form of awards, certificates and diplomas.  Put more realistically, it seeks to provide routes of learning better suited to those that don’t thrive in the more formal education system.  Schools in particular are really interest in QCF for this very reason, but it also works for organisations supporting people to get (back) into work.

It is at this point that QCF is perfect for programmes at heritage sites and museums.  We don’t actually have to change anything about our approach: Practical, flexible and accessible learning may just as well be terms gleaned from a 21st century book on interpretation.  The interpretive mantra of using the resources (read: practices, remains, objects) that are there to facilitate people’s engagement with heritage values is basically the radical rethinking of learning that the QCF wants to promote.

There is an element of rigour in this, however, that might be unnatural to some interpreters.  In order to get accreditation for your programme, you have to think about creating evidence of the learning that participants have achieved.  I don’t mind this at all.  When I put together our first QCF programme recently, I felt that it’s quite similar to writing objectives into a more traditional interpretive medium (and I’m a firm believer in establishing objectives).  So in a way, a QCF programme simply has the evaluation built in from the start – perfect!

But, you may say, is this not education, rather than interpretation? I’ve actually blogged about this over a year ago here, and I’d like to highlight an example I gave in that post.  The example is also a great argument for why it should be interpreters doing this (at heritage sites) rather than teachers (who would be the more natural choice if this were in fact ‘education’): the Learning Officer that worked with me at the time was by profession a primary school teacher.  The ‘programmes’ they developed for schools were soundly rejected by teachers. The teachers said that they could do this themselves in the classroom – there was no reason why they should bring their students to us.

My colleague had not applied (how could they?) any interpretive principles that would have made the programmes relevant to their target audience of teachers, their students, and their particular (learning) needs.  The teachers wanted to bring the children on site to interact with the environment and engage in a more active, practical way of learning than what they could provide in the classroom.

Interpreters can do that.  They can create precisely the types of flexible, accessible and engaging programmes that QCF is looking for. QCF is not about education – it’s an alternative to education.  Perhaps ‘learning’ is the right term for this, and in fact, QCF calls participants ‘learners’. It is a tiny step from a live interpretive programme to a QCF course.  But it places interpretation right at the centre of current organisational and policy objectives.  I say, let’s embrace that.  Let’s claim that key role and communicate to our line managers and funders: we can do this because we’re professional interpreters.  It’s an interpreter you need for the job.

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