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Last week, I attended the Foundation Assembly for Interpret Europe – the European Association for Heritage Interpretation.

This was the first time that I was part of a truly historic event and that in itself makes one’s heart beat faster.  But what was more important was that with Interpret Europe interpretation finally receives its deserved voice across Europe.

Interpretation in Europe is still very much in its infancy.  While European conventions such as the Faro Convention of 2005 [1] increasingly invoke the benefits of heritage there is no official reference to how these benefits should be communicated to the public.  In other words, there is no reference to heritage interpretation.

In individual European countries the situation looks even grimmer.  In Germany, for example, relevant heritage legislation such as the Denkmalschutzgesetz (heritage conservation law) of the individual Bundesländer does not even talk about public benefits of archaeological heritage – the focus is firmly on conservation for conservation’s sake.  One is not surprised, therefore, that the discipline of heritage interpretation is virtually unheard of.

Things stand quite differently on the global stage.  UNESCO, for example, can be credited with having formally introduced the concept of significance into heritage protection [2], which begins to hint at conservation for a greater purpose.  In 2008, then, ICOMOS agreed its charter for the interpretation and presentation of cultural heritage sites, thus lifting interpretation out of the personal commitment of those who have been practicing interpretation for the public benefit over the last decades and into the limelight of good practice in cultural heritage management.

In light of this, it is quite depressing to find the discipline of interpretation so neglected in most European countries.  The sad consequence is of course that much of what serves as interpretation falls sadly short of achieving objectives (if any have been considered at all), never mind showing visitors that a site holds many benefits for them (and thus why they should support its conservation).  Again using Germany as an example, the predominant practice is still to recruit specialist experts such as historians or archaeologists to do an interpreter’s job, often as part of their (primary) role as researchers [3].  Patrick Lehnes, a fellow German and the man whose brainchild was Interpret Europe, found that panels along a nature path in the Black Forest region only met a few aspects of what is generally considered to be interpretive best practice.  He also found that these panels were largely left unread [4] (I will refrain at this point to draw attention to the fact that panels still are the dominant form of interpretation on offer in Germany – I have previously voiced my opinion on panels and shall presently hold my peace).

It is to be hoped that the formation of Interpret Europe will not only provide networking opportunities for the lonesome interpreters dotted around the union but will also increase heritage managers’ awareness of the need for professional interpretation.  There has been much discussion in the period leading up to the founding assembly about the differences in legislation and practices in individual European countries, and this will undoubtedly continue to be an issue as the association grows.  However, this is not only a challenge but also an opportunity which I see as a reflection of some of the core values of interpretation: to keep an open mind, to remain flexible and to strive to find the best solution to any given challenge.  I’m happy to be a part of it.

Notes

[1] The Faro convention so far has only been ratified by a handful of countries – not including Germany.

[2] Significance, albeit in the guise of ‘interest’, was first used in US American legislation, namely in the Antiquities Act of 1906.  In the United States, public benefit has been part of all heritage protection since Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872.  It is probably for this reason that the first association for heritage interpretation was formed in the United States, as far as I understand.

[3] A casual glance at the job listings on the German Museums Association website will give you plenty of examples.

[4] Lehnes, P. (2004) The interpreter’s dilemma – and what visitors think of it. in: Regionale Identität, Tourismus und Landschaftsinterpretation: Eine natürliche Symbiose? (ZELTForum – Göttinger Schriften zu Landschaftsinterpretation und Tourismus Bd. 1), p. 41-46

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