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Posts Tagged ‘heritage management’

There is a tradition within interpretation that identifies having ‘love’ [1] or ‘passion’ [2] for heritage and/or for people as a desirable, if not necessary quality in interpreters. This goes beyond just a lively, engaging delivery. It is to genuinely ‘love the thing you interpret’, as well as the people who visit it [3]. For Tilden, ‘love’ was even the ‘single principle’ [4], which comes before all others.

 

Now, here’s my first confession: I don’t generally ‘love’ people. I ‘need’ people as an interpreter, because interpreting anything to the wind is rather pointless. But that merely makes people a necessary element of my job. And in doing my job well, I enjoy the feeling of having supported people in their personal heritage endeavour. Does that mean that I love them, with ‘understanding’ and ‘affection’ for the reasons for their ‘ignorance’ [5]? No. I simply consider it professional as an interpreter to be helpful and respectful toward people, and to not show them when I don’t like them (and yes, that happens too).

 

And here’s another confession: of all the places I’ve interpreted in my career to date, I can honestly say that I only ever ‘loved’ one. ‘Love’ here is my understanding of the term: as feeling deeply connected to and inspired by a place and the heritage associated with it. By ‘love’ I don’t mean Tilden’s premise that ‘love’ is the prerequisite of all possible ‘knowing’ [6] and that love is ‘reverence’ [7] – I would actually question both ideas.

 

Traditionalists may well suggest that I must have been a poor interpreter at all the sites I didn’t ‘love’ [8]. And it is true that for some of them, I did not care at all on a personal level. In fact, with a few I even wondered how on earth they could be heritage for anybody.

 

But. Interpretation is my job. I have respect for other people’s heritage. I care about doing my job well so that they, and others, can continue engaging with heritage, and take inspiration from it and each other to create and re-create heritage (or to discard it, if they so wish). If I’m passionate about anything then it’s that.

 

And to be honest, I actually think there’s an argument for not interpreting the heritage you’re passionate about. For example, I’ve never interpreted my own personal heritage, and I wouldn’t want to – because I know that my passion for it means it’s personal. That’s bound to either influence or hinder another person’s engagement with that heritage. They may feel overwhelmed by my obvious connection with or ‘ownership’ of that heritage, or they may sense that some lines of enquiry are less welcome than others [9].

 

For me, interpretation is definitely not a ‘way of life’ [10]. It’s a job that is governed by professional ways of working, and not by what I consider personal emotions like love and passion.

 

 

Notes

[1] Tilden, F. 1957/1977. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 94

[2] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002. Interpretation for the 21st century. Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd edition. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing, p. 155. See also Association for Heritage Interpretation, nd. What is interpretation? Available online: http://www.ahi.org.uk/www/about/what_is_interpretation/ [Accessed: 28.03.2016]

[3] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 90

[4] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 94

[5] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 91

[6] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 92, quoting Thomas Carlyle

[7] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 93

[8] We actually got similarly high levels of satisfaction and engagement at all the sites – independent of whether I loved them or not. For my practice, therefore, ‘love’ apparently is not a determining factor.

[9] There are arguments too for having people of a certain heritage interpret it, yes. I’ve not quite decided yet where I stand on this, and I’m not aware of comparative research on what works best for ‘visitors’ and other communities associated with that heritage (do send some my way if you do!). From personal experience, I prefer the interpreter to not be a member of one of the heritage communities, although I still think the best (personal) interpretation happens when the interpreter is a non-member facilitating or supporting the exchange between members of the heritage communities and others. A recent issue of Legacy on Interpreting Idigenous Cultures had some really good thoughts and insights around this topic.

[10] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002, p. 158

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A few years ago, I visited Stonehenge for the first time. Like many others, I was shocked at the (then) lack of interpretation and facilities, and after circling the stones once (also an oddly disappointing experience), I set off with the dog to go on a hike through the landscape, totally unplanned, merely drifting along the paths that led, un-signposted, from the car park. I had just seen a documentary about Stonehenge in its wider setting, and remembering what I had heard, my walk became the experience. It was a physical encounter, and one slow enough to really get me thinking about the people that built Stonehenge, and why, and what this all meant to me. My fondest memory is following the avenue as it rises up from a dip, and seeing Stonehenge emerge in the distance. I loved it.

With this in mind, I was really curious to see how the new visitor centre improved matters when I visited there earlier this week. I didn’t want to go back to the stones [1], but I did want to see the new exhibition, and repeat my hike through the landscape. Unexpectedly, my visit made me think about visitor management, and the norms we’ve come to accept – possibly to the detriment of visitors’ own discovery of and encounter with a site.

The new development at Stonehenge is everything we have come to expect at a site of this status: there is the large car park, the landscaped walk to the centre, the centre itself with its large café, large shop, obvious toilets [2] and a proper exhibition (inside and outside). The architecture is modern, light, with lots of glass, wood and stone, but no other obvious reference to the site it serves, like many such centres are these days. Access to the stones is by timed ticket and a visitor shuttle bus that takes you there. If you wish, the signs explain, there is a mid-way drop off point so you can walk the rest of the way on your own [3].

If this had been my first visit, I probably would have thought it perfect. Since it wasn’t, I became aware of how externally structured the visit was: there were no options. If you wanted to see the stones, you had to go on the shuttle per your timed ticket, or (as it appeared) walk along the tarmacked road used by the shuttles (presumably to coincide with a timed arrival at the stones). There were no sign-posted paths from the car park into the landscape [4], and no other visit option was discussed [5]. I became so insecure about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do without following the prescribed visit, that in the end I didn’t even ask about walking the landscape.

Stonehenge is not the only site to have approached visitor management in this way. Brú na Bóinne in Ireland, for example, also works on timed tickets and a shuttle bus [6]. We can easily argue that conservation leaves no other choice, but I would challenge that in a context where the landscape is quite vast, and surely has a carrying capacity that is nowhere near being reached. If anything, I imagine it would ease pressure on the main monument itself, especially for repeat visits.

Such rigid visitor management also seems to go against every principle of self-selection that we’ve established in learning theory, psychology and interpretation. More philosophically, I think it raises questions also about controlling heritage, and the ways in which people are allowed to encounter it. I’m not suggesting that unlimited access to the inner circle of the stones should be granted [7]. However, as many ways of exploring and encountering Stonehenge as possible should be actively enabled and facilitated. Tickets for different types of visits, and way-marked paths into the landscape seem an easy and obvious solution. Just as in interpretation and exhibition design we (should) think about giving space to visitors’ own meanings and relationships to the heritage in question, and facilitate many different encounters, this should be a key consideration for wider site developments and visitor management – another argument why one should never be done in isolation from the other, and why different disciplines should work together for the benefit of sites and visitors.

In many ways the new visitor centre at Stonehenge is a marked improvement on what was there before [8], and I would not wish to detract from this. My observations seek to question some of the norms we’ve come to accept about managing visitors, and the ways in which we do this. Every choice is also an exclusion of something else, and we better make that exclusion for very good, thought-through reasons, and never lightly.

Notes
[1] Since my first visit, I’ve had the opportunity to go inside the circle of stones during an ICOMOS workshop as well – nothing can top that.

[2] My visit was just after Christmas and I still had to queue at the toilet, so I’m not sure how this was calculated to work during peak time.

[3] I did see people set off along the tarmacked road from the visitor centre, so I assume that’s the only suggested path. Certainly no others were signposted from the centre.

[4] This actually seems a really odd omission, because the exhibition itself makes much of the landscape and its importance.

[5] In fact, I had to ask the attendant in the exhibition if it was okay to visit the exhibition only, as all the signs merely talked about a timed visit to the stones.

[6] Of course, the timed ticket at Brú na Bóinne includes access to Newgrange’s chamber.

[7] English Heritage as managers of Stonehenge do make it possible to have that experience of the inner circle, and they are working with people to allow access during the solstices – this is all very good. Nevertheless, having been inside the circle, I do wonder whether anything else has any meaning at all. If this just absoluely isn’t possible (and we’ll have to believe the experts here) maybe a real alternative could be created. The 360 degree projections in the new exhibition are not it though.

[8] It’s easy to pick holes in any exhibition, so I’m not going to start this here. However, I was surprised to see two outdoor signs point away from the thing they were talking about – that’s such a basic mistake even in my eyes, and I do no longer subscribe to easy-to-follow guidelines (but this might be one that should be kept). And I would be really interested in hearing why someone felt the need to have a First World War exhibition at Stonehenge – it really added nothing to my understanding of the site. Incidentally, it also nonchalantly mentioned questions that would have been really interesting to explore: like how it could be that this monument was owned by a private landowner and then sold? To whom? What does this say about how the site was valued – or not – by the nation, given its contemproary ‘iconic’ status?

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In one of my jobs, emails from our security guards about incidents were a regular occurrence, usually involving large groups of youngsters trespassing and getting drunk. One day, I was feeling rather depressed about this and I told my friend, ‘I feel I need to be a social worker in this job, not a heritage manager.’

The recent Culture and Poverty report by Baroness Kay Andrews reminded me of that day. Decision makers expect a lot of heritage and museums professionals, especially in such challenging and demanding environments as can be found in Wales [1]. However, I’m neither sure that we have the training to meet the particular challenges of these environments, nor that we should be the people (and sector) expected to do so.

Take community engagement for example, which is one of the key foci of the report. It should of course be part of the skills-set of any heritage manager or museum professional. But there is quite a difference between engaging with a community that ‘just’ may not visit your museum, and engaging with a community that struggles to survive. It is one thing showing young people what the museum has to offer them, and quite another discouraging them from burning down a historical structure in the first place (and I mean literally).

I certainly wasn’t prepared for the latter when I first started. My team and I did a lot of the reaching out and networking that the report calls for, but throughout, the above feeling stayed with me. It was exhausting.

So while I fully support the view that heritage, culture and the arts have a lot to contribute to all sorts of social initiatives, I’m not sure we can or should place the core burden on heritage and museums professionals. Yes, they should be open and willing to engage with all kinds of partners, such as Community Safety, Youth Workers and Social Care. And yes, they should certainly actively reach out to them all. But if decision makers expect heritage and museums professionals to deliver these programmes as the lead, then they will need to provide the necessary training and support. They will also need to provide better funding, which doesn’t constantly threaten museums and heritage professionals with losing their jobs, so that skills can not only be gained, but also retained long-term. The same goes for those carefully nurtured relationships not only with partners, but also with (let’s call them) users – one-offs or constantly changing staff undermine and actually damage work that has already been done.

Decision-makers also need to take responsibility for the, well, decisions that they make which affect society at large. Benefit cuts and immigration caps, and the rhetoric that goes with these, probably all have a greater detrimental impact on social exclusion and deprivation than any community engagement efforts by museums and heritage professionals can alleviate. If families can’t afford to travel to our sites, then making them more attractive won’t provide a solution – it’s the government that needs to do something. And so on.

I am not suggesting that the report ignores the above entirely – it doesn’t [2]. But having worked in the South Wales Valleys, and seen the excellent efforts of so many museums, heritage and social work people there, I’m just a little bit worried about recommendations to a government and the cultural sector as a whole that focus so much on what the sector should do and should achieve. I’m beginning to get worried that this is just setting heritage up for failure, by shifting responsibilities and creating unrealistic expectations in a context that is itself becoming increasingly damaging to social inclusion, positive empowerment, and opportunities for all.

 

Notes
[1] The report writes that Wales has the highest rate of child poverty outside London. Wales has some of the most deprived areas in the UK. (p. 12) 24% of the population in Wales live in Communities First clusters. (p.13)

[2] Recommendation 2, for example, at least suggests the creation of a task force to the Welsh Government, which would ‘identify solutions to barriers around transport’ (p. 4), although it doesn’t outright suggest funding be made available.

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Last week I left my job as Audience Development Manager for St Albans Museums Service to join Jura Consultants as a Senior Consultant.  The change has prompted a few reflections, not the least around what it means to me to go from being a site-based member of staff to becoming a consultant.

There are a few things I think I’ll miss from being site-based.  I’ll miss those encounters with visitors who simply appreciated the contribution I made to their visit as a frontline interpreter. My key ring is still one that a visitor to Culloden Battlefield gave me.  For months, I kept a little piece of twig art in my car that a girl on one of our educational programmes made for me at Montgomery Place.

I’ll also miss being witness to people’s emotional responses to a site.  I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog the man who grabbed hold of my arm after a guided tour of Culloden Battlefield to tell me, with tears in his eyes, how glad he was to have made it there before he died.  What a privilege to see that happen!  And it opened my eyes to the fact that heritage is more than a material thing that must be protected.

I’ve learnt so much from visitors and stakeholders about heritage and interpretation. Theory and reports let you get away with words.  On-site practice holds you responsible to stakeholders’ on-the-spot feedback.  It was great doing a module on community engagement at university, but it wasn’t until I worked with the people of Tredegar that I understood why this was so very, very important, and how much further I needed to push my interpretive practice at Bedwellty House and Park to do them justice.  I valued that.

I think I’ll also miss having the ability to be creative and take risks with programmes and activities on site.  At St Albans Museums, our Occupy the Museum event last year was a great way to gauge people’s thoughts about the museum, and what we should bear in mind for an upcoming major redevelopment project.   Our Blood, Lust and Roses historic soap opera about the Wars of the Roses was a process-driven community engagement project that responded to outcomes from Occupy, and was one of the most creative, meaningful and yet unconventional projects I’ve ever been involved in.  It was also great to set out on these journeys of trial and error with an amazing team, and learn together.

Of course, some of this will also be part of my work as a consultant.  With every new project I will meet new, dedicated on-site staff and passionate stakeholders, and encounter visitors and what their heritage means to them. More so than in my work on site, I will be able to do in-depth research and take the time to properly analyse results and decide what this means for practice (there never was enough time to do that properly on site).  I’m thrilled to have joined a company that I’ve regularly come across professionally and as part of my academic work, and frankly, consultancy of the Jura kind has been my goal for a while now.  I am so looking forward to this new chapter in my professional life.

But as I leave St Albans and my work as a site-based member of staff, I realize how much these experiences have meant to me – professionally, and yes, I admit, also personally.  So, not knowing how much of this will be repeated in my new life as a consultant, I’m feeling a bit emotional.  And I’d like to say thank you to all the wonderful visitors I’ve met, to the stakeholders who challenged me to test my theories, and to the members of the various teams I’ve had the honour to work with.  Much of what I can bring to consultancy I owe to you.

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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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Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Drury speak on ‘Sustaining Cultural Heritage Values in Changing Environments’ at University College London.

Paul spent a great deal of time talking about the heritage values that people associate with sites.  These, he argued, should form the basis of any management decision about a site and crucially, any conservation measures.  Heritage values, he pointed out, may not be embodied in the material authenticity of a site: in other words, people may not consider a site important for the fact that its surviving fabric is from a particular period but rather for what the whole embodies.  Paul gave the example of the Anderton Boat Lift where rather than preserve the delapidated lift, missing or unusable parts were replicated to restore the lift’s functionality.  Although some of the lift’s historic fabric is gone, the lift as a whole can once more inspire the wonderment for which it was cherished.  In other words, it’s heritage value was sustained.

The use of ‘to sustain’ rather than ‘to conserve’ was very noticeable in Paul’s lecture, and he explained why: ‘to sustain’ is to nurture and to maintain. In a policy document which Paul and his colleague Anna MacPherson prepared for English Heritage they defined the term further:

To sustain embraces both preservation and enhancement to the extent that the values of a place allow.

‘Enhancement’ or ‘to maintain’ are fairly revolutionary concepts in the realm of conservation.  Not only is conservation moving away from the sole consideration of the fabric of things to include and maybe even give greater importance to people’s (intangible) heritage values.  It is also starting to leave behind the former ‘minimal intervention’ approach.  Instead, Paul pointed out, it is realized that greater intervention can actually ‘reveal and reinforce’ heritage values and thus ensure their survival.  In his lecture, Paul also gave a very strong sense of such ‘revelation and reinforcement’ being a part of the present’s contribution to heritage – another concept which is fairly new.  In English Heritage’s Strategy for 2005-2010, this is expressed as people nurturing their historic environment as an integral part of life today.  Rather than attempt to freeze heritage in a past state, it is now recognized that people today add to heritage and that heritage can also change through this interaction.  This is a natural process that ‘sustains’ the heritage values from the past through the present and into the future.  Consequently, Paul’s definition of conservation is ‘the process of managing change’.

It will be interesting to observe what impact the ‘Conservation Principles’ and also English Heritage’s strategy have had so far.  Where conservators let go of the reigns slightly, interpreters may be able to really facilitate that conversation between people and heritage.  I have for a while now defined interpretation as ‘a living social practice’, fully aware that this is somewhat aspirational and philosophic rather than a description of the current state of affairs.  However, Paul’s lecture and these developments within English Heritage have given me a new boost.  Heritage and interpretation are not static.  They are processes that change and evolve, and most importantly, they are about people, not fabric.

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Today I attended a conference titled, ‘The Role of Interpretation in Tourism’.  As may be expected, none of the speakers questioned that interpretation was an intrinsic part of any tourism effort.  This is not a given however: at a conference a few months ago, the host country’s Director of Tourism unblushingly claimed that interpretation had nothing to do with tourism.  Even the most conservative of interpreters is likely to disagree with him, and yet many interpreters themselves have a similarly compartmentalised if not downright territorial approach to our own discipline.  I still get into discussions with fellow interpreters who draw a firm line that is not to be crossed between interpretation and marketing for example.  Such a jealously guarded distinction may work in the automobile industry, but in our sector it can quickly deliver the death blow to our joint efforts.

Let me cite an example from one of today’s speakers.  David Anderson, now Director General of the National Museum Wales, reported on a meeting with the Heads of Marketing and Press at the Victoria and Albert Museum while he was Director of Learning and Interpretation there.  Visitor numbers had been low, and the three heads of department compared who they were targeting, and how.  They quickly realised that they did not go for the same audiences nor the same image at all.  The lack of collaboration and communication had resulted in each department failing in their effort to make their museum a success.

Jonathan Jones, Director of Tourism and Marketing at Visit Wales, said that interpretation begins off-site, when visitors make the decision on whether or not they want to come [1].  He highlighted that a big part of what his organisation sells (!) is the interpretation of and at cultural sites.  I can’t make a statement about how successful Visit Wales is in promoting Welsh cultural heritage, but the point I’m making is that Jonathan wasn’t compartmentalising interpretation.  In his very pragmatic view interpretation was part of a larger whole.

That whole is the visitor experience.  In fact, if I read correctly between the lines of the key note speech given by Tony Berry, Director of Visitor Experience at the National Trust, ‘visitor experience’ is the term that the National Trust use, rather than ‘interpretation.’ It encompasses much more than what the traditionalists refer to as ‘interpretation’, and actually Tony proceeded to start his speech with a slide that read, ‘Interpretation is dead’.

Of course this was an intentionally provocative statement (at an interpretation conference!) but at the same time the National Trust did make a very clear decision here to leave behind the term ‘interpretation’.  What they have done is placed greater emphasis on what has  been an admittedly small part of interpretation literature.  The National Trust have cast their net much more widely than simply looking at interpretation as conveying interpretive themes through communication media.  The term ‘visitor experience’ is also representative of a shift in the philosophical approach: the visitor is brought to the centre and the intention is to give them an experience that begins at their first contact with a site until they leave it.

Nothing in that is new.  And in my mind, most of the above is included in the definition of interpretation.  However, once the conceptual development has reached a certain stage, in some areas professionals with a different skills set and training will need to take over, such as the marketing team.  ‘Visitor Experience’, rather than ‘Interpretation’, does away with over-zealous protection of what is considered one’s professional field.  Under this umbrella term, interpretation can neatly blend into tourism promotion and marketing without causing unnecessary headaches over whether this blurring means one or the other becomes superfluous as a discipline: it is all part of creating the ‘visitor experience’.  Using the term ‘visitor experience’ may therefore be better able to integrate different departments and ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymnsheet.

What the National Trust have done so publicly seems to be a trend in the UK. I think other organisations will follow suit and formally define visitor experience  management structures (whether by that name or not) of which interpretation will be a part.  Visitor experience roles will require specialist interpretive skills alongside general supportive skills that allow for a more holistic approach.  Interpretation will continue to require specialist education and research with regard to planning and media.  However, as part of heritage management on site it needs to be better integrated than what we have seen in the past.  ‘Visitor Experience’ may just be the right term for the job.

 

Notes

[1] John Veverka includes this in his section on Visitor Orientation Needs (Veverka, J, 1995.  Interpretive Master Planning. Tustin: Acorn Naturalists).  It’s also the Decision Phase in Lisa Brochu’s Visitor Experience Model (Brochu, L, 2003. Interpretive Planning. The 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects. Fort Collins: The National Association for Interpretation).  Interestingly, I still only rarely hear interpreters talk about these stages when they talk about interpretation.

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