Posts Tagged ‘heritage interpretation’

When I reviewed the visitor interviews I did last year for my PhD research, I was amazed at the wide associations visitors made.  They talk about Edward Snowden, the attack on Lee Rigby, the experience of getting chased by a local gamekeeper for collecting nuts in a wood just after the Second World War.  They talk about Iraq, class society, making ends meet, and asylum.

Visitors make these connections in response to events that happened more than 2000 years and nearly 950 years ago, respectively.  More interestingly, the interpretation at both sites does not suggest these connections to them, or any others, for that matter.

This made me think about the ‘relate’ principle that is still the foundation stone of much interpretive practice.  Just to remind you:

Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. [1]

For Tilden this was an active ‘relate’: the interpretation has to do something.  His examples are of directly addressing the visitor and her location, as in, ‘The chances are that [prehistoric mammoths] browsed right where you are standing now’ [2].  Since then, addressing the visitor has been one of the key criteria interpreters discuss when they talk about ‘what makes good interpretation’.  Many interpreters will also propose additional practices, such as comparing something old to something modern, as in,  ‘this old thing here is like this thing in (your) modern life’.

However, at neither of my case study sites does the interpretation really make use of this ‘relate’ principle.  The audio guide at Battle Abbey does not address the visitor beyond telling them where to move next.  And yet, it is the most mentioned interpretive device when visitors talk about what helped them connect with the site [my words], along with touching and lifting the weaponry.  Marking place, as I’ve written elsewhere, indeed emerges as immensely important to visitors when it comes to interpretation, and what’s offered, especially at Battle Abbey, is, apparently, perfect: but it doesn’t say ‘where you stand now’, it just literally says, ‘here’ [3].

Tilden’s principle, in theory, predicts that the interpretation therefore is ‘sterile’, and visitors are not able to make connections.  And yet the opposite seems to be the case in my research.  Not only are visitors making wide associations, at Battle Abbey in particular they also make very strong claims on the heritage and its physical site: this is our heritage, our history, our identity.

Of course, there are other factors that may enable these associations, and these still require further examination.   I will share one thought, though: perhaps Tilden, despite his caution to interpreters, himself underestimated the power of visitors’ ability to make connections for themselves. In addition, it may be altogether more sustainable and more inclusive not to suggest to visitors how they should relate to what they see.  As we are expected to make heritage more widely accessible, it seems rather shortsighted to arbitrarily pick a few connections out of the many that are possible and inscribe them into our (permanent) interpretation.  What may be meaningful in one way to one visitor may be meaningful in a completely different way to another– or indeed it may be entirely irrelevant. What visitors’ comments in my research seem to suggest is that other factors, such as presenting a balanced view and using simple language, are more important in helping them connect to a site and make wide associations, or, in Tilden’s terms, to ‘relate’ [4].

[1] Tilden, F., 1957.  Interpreting Our Heritage.  3rd edition.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, p. 9
[2] ibid, p. 13.  The emphasis is mine after Tilden’s own highlighting of these two terms on the following page.
[3] And then proceeds to do a dramatization of what happened ‘here’, accompanied by a very lively, conversational, yet authoritative and balanced commentary.  What this may suggest is that there are other factors at work that make the interpretation successful if measured by connections made.
[4] And note the shift here in who is active in doing the ‘relating’: the visitor, not the interpretation.  Important point, if you ask me.


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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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About a year ago, I blogged about the sense of place I experienced when visiting a May festival in Germany.  At the time, I identified two ingredients to ‘a sense of place’: a ‘symbol’ and the ‘activity’ around it.  A few months later, I highlighted that in my opinion, an inclusive significance assessment will uncover the core of what makes a place distinctive, in other words, it will reveal the ‘sense of place’ we need to communicate.

I still uphold all of the above.  And yet as I am working to communicate my own (Welsh) site’s ‘sense of place’, I’ve thought some more about what makes ‘a sense of place’, and what this means for interpretation.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

– the place [1]

I know this sounds obvious, but hear me out.  With regard to nature interpretation (which is not my main focus) it has been noted that ‘less is more’.  If you’ve been reading this blog you will know that in my opinion, interpretation isn’t just about media, it is also about visitor management.  Where a site has a strong sense of place, the best interpretation guides visitors naturally to the best places, without disrupting their experience with media.  Interpretation here may be best compared to landscape architecture.

For me, the Highlands of Scotland are a great example of a place with natural ‘sense of place’.  When I visited there for the first time and without any prior knowledge, it was the (uninterpreted) wildness of the landscape, its unforgiving harshness and soul-aching beauty that struck me with its ‘sense of place’.  Through a flute-playing tour guide traditional Scottish music became a part of that sense of place, and it is interesting that Visit Scotland nowadays use these very same incredients in their adverts.


– the place [2]

It’s easy to see how a place of natural beauty can have a strong ‘sense of place’ but the same is actually true for buildings and built environments.  I’m not just talking about historic town centres such as that of Stein am Rhein.  I’m also talking about places like the Open Air Museum at Detmold in Northern Germany.  At least for someone from the South like me, the sense of place was created by the spaces in these relocated houses and villages.  This was enhanced by recognising similar architectural styles in the surrounding areas of today.  However, unlike with the natural places of strong sense of place, I think the man-made spaces want a little support from interpretation to highlight the human stories hidden underneath the architectural spaces.  At Detmold, for example, interpretation is practically non-existent, and people are conspicuously absent.  So while the fabric of the site has considerable sense of place, the fact that its raison d’etre – people and their lives – is not visible leaves the sense of place somewhat hollow.


– an emotion

Remember what I wrote about significance assessments helping you to reveal the core of a site?  Sometimes that core is encapsulated in an emotion, and the entire ‘sense of place’ flows from that emotion or human experience.  It’s similar to a novel: the novels we tend to remember the most are those with universal human emotions.  The example of a heritage site that derives its sense of place from such an emotion is Montgomery Place along the Hudson River in New York State.  I worked there as a tour guide, and on the proch of the house, facing the river Hudson, we told visitors of Janet Montgomery who fainted on that spot when after decades the body of her husband, General Richard Montgomery, was brought down the river from Canada to be reburied in New York.  Richard was the first general that fell during the American Revolution, and Janet, dedicated to his memory, had never remarried.  That human experience, told at the very spot where it happened, expressed everything the site was about: sacrifice, and commitment, and one woman’s strength.  Many times over it is what visitors commented on after the tour.  All we did in the interpretation was tell the story in three sentences – the rest was left to visitors’ imagination, and their experience of the ‘authentic’ site which otherwise would have been merely a pretty viewpoint.


– a story

We’ve now properly entered the human realm of ‘sense of place’, widening it out from an isolated emotion.  Here, sense of place comes entirely from a story.  A good example is the story of the Gainsboro sit-ins, the start of the sit-ins during the American Civil Rights Movement, where students demanded service for non-whites by sitting at lunch counters.  A section of the Gainsboro counter is now at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History, and regular participatory performances allow visitors to hear the story of the sit-ins and share in some of the experiences that the students at the time had.  For me, the ‘sense of place’ doesn’t come from the counter – it’s authenticity is a nice addition, but the real ‘sense of what this is about’ lies in the story of courageous young people who had a vision.  The performance does a great job at conveying that ‘sense of place’.

So in summary, as we move further away from the fabric of a place, interpretation becomes more important.  It may also be helpful to remind ourselves that the ‘place’ in ‘sense of place’ is literally about a distinctive experience whereever you happen to be and of whatever it is you’re interpreting.  Sometimes the location is pre-determined – as with the Highlands of Scotland – sometimes it isn’t – as with the museum.  Sometimes no interpretation is required, sometimes you do need interpretation to convey the ‘sense of place’.  At the end of the day, however, what it all comes down to is having a good understanding of why a place or topic you wish to interpret is significant.

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