Posts Tagged ‘heritage values’

Next week sees the For Them and By Them: Involving Stakeholders and Communities in Interpretation conference take place, which I initiated.  I am no longer able to be at the conference myself, so I thought I’d share here what I was going to talk about there [1].

It is really quite astonishing to see just how much the focus has shifted over recent years from heritage protection for its own sake, to heritage for the people [2].  This is expressed in what is generally referred to as the (public) benefits of heritage. [3]

In the UK, it is English Heritage who first started to really specify what these benefits are.  This was in 2005, in their strategy ‘Making the past part of our Future’.  The benefits that the document listed ranged from vague ‘social benefits’ to ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘well-being’ [4].  Over the following years, policies and strategies have further defined the public benefits of heritage: English Heritage’s 2008 Conservation Principles add ‘sense of identity’, ‘gives distinctiveness, meaning and quality to places’ and ‘reflection…of diverse communities’.  The National Trust in their 2010 ‘Going Local’ strategy introduce ‘social cohesion’, ‘inspiration’, ‘pride’ and even ‘peace’.  In 2011, the Arts Council England writes that heritage (through museums) can ‘empower people as citizens’, in addition to the benefits already listed above.

The interesting thing is that all these policies also provide a vision for how these benefits can best be delivered.  Access and provision of learning are no longer seen as enough.  It is again English Heritage’s strategy of 2005 that takes the first leap forward: it suggests that heritage managers ‘engage with diverse communities’.  In their 2010 strategy, the National Trust declare that they no longer want to act as proprietors, but as facilitators, which signals their intention to place ‘the visitor’ in the driving seat of their own experience.  Heritage Lottery Fund, the main funder in the UK heritage sector, require projects to demonstrate right from the start how they engage with stakeholders and involve them in creating and shaping the project.  Most radically, however, it is the Arts Council England that express how heritage can realise its benefits for the public: managers need to work with ‘the public as creators’.

In other words, the impulse given by official policies (many from funders) is that by involving stakeholders and even handing control over to them, heritage can deliver a variety of benefits that are important to the welfare of society as a whole.

For those of us working in the field, the challenge is twofold: we need to find meaningful ways of engaging with stakeholders, and we need to provide the evidence that what we do really delivers.

I’ve reported in my last post that according to the Arts Council England, we’re not doing too well on the latter point.  But what about the former? Are we engaging stakeholders in interpretation in meaningful ways?

Very often the approach is to have a series of focus groups at the start of a project, or maybe put out a call to the local community about stories or objects.  While this is better than nothing, it doesn’t go far enough.  In fact, the sector is full of stories (seldom properly analysed) of disillusioned communities who don’t visit their local sites after having been involved in consultations.  The issue is usually around four key factors:

–       expectations aren’t managed properly

–       there is no or only a very poor communication strategy (e.g. keeping participants informed)

–       there is a lack of transparency about the process

–       an authoritarian or patronizing approach by the professionals [5]


What this highlights is that managing stakeholder engagement takes skill.  It is as important to heritage management and interpretation as are the other tools of the trade.

But let’s look beyond consultation.  The Arts Council wants people to be the creators.  I don’t believe that’s a call for volunteer museums, and I’ve written here about the issues associated with those.  I think it’s actually a call for interpreters acting as facilitators [6].  If you think of it this way, then engaging stakeholders in interpretation becomes about two key things:

1) to help stakeholders articulate what they feel is their heritage, and

2) to help them interpret this heritage to a wider public.


A project for and by stakeholders is really exciting, but it’s not free of challenges.  There are a number of issues that emerge:

–       there’s never just one group of stakeholders

–       stakeholders aren’t saints: they will try to dominate the discussion over another group

–       stakeholders aren’t professional interpreters either: whatever took their fancy during their last museum/heritage visit is probably what they’ll focus on in terms of media for their project

–       motivation, motivation, motivation: some stakeholders really aren’t that interested in working with an organisation

At Bedwellty House and Park, where the conference takes place, we tried a number of engagement projects with varying success.  One project was to train up volunteer tour guides, and then work with them on developing new guided tours.  There were representatives from the local heritage forum at the initial training who had very strong views about what period of the history of the house and park we should focus on.  It also quickly became apparent that their estimation of some of the key figures in that history differed quite substantially from that of other stakeholder groups.  My approach was to encourage all groups to substantiate their interpretation of history with relevant references (the most basic interpretive principle).  I also encouraged a discussion among group members, and suggested that perhaps the way forward was to indicate in the guided tours that these different viewpoints existed – without making a judgement about either.  The project was unfinished when I left my post, but before I left, I agreed with the heritage group that we would put on ‘opinion’ tours, whereby they would be able to present their views as passionately as they felt about them.  I would have used the marketing of these tours, and the programming around them to make sure that visitors understand what is contentious about the issue.  Whether or not this would have worked, I will not know until I try it at another site, should the issue arise again.

Another project, which worked really well for us, was the ‘Memories of Bedwellty’ project.  Before the site opened in July last year, we actively went out into the community and asked people about their memories of Bedwellty.  We put out the call for memories via newspapers, our website and posters and flyers around town.  We also set up shop in several care homes, the local library, a local café and in the local youth café. The responses we got were fantastic.  They ranged from stories of love to youthful adventure to work to the simple joy of being in the park. It did several things:

–       it made people aware of what was happening at the house and park

–       it gave people an opportunity to meet the new management team where there had been none before

–       it let us know what people valued about Bedwellty House and Park

–       it gave us a ton of material and ideas to use for future programming

For a start, we made some of the memories into an exhibition which we put on when the house opened.  In my view, this provided a nice feel of continuation between what the house and park used to be, and what it was going to be now.  Overall, this was a very low-key stakeholder engagement project, but it gave a starting point to do more.  You can see a very basic version of the exhibition online.

The most notable thing about all of the stakeholder engagement projects that I’ve done and that we’re currently setting on their way in my new role, is that the benefits that people gain from heritage aren’t delivered by the outputs of these projects, but by the process.  It is through engaging in the process that people learn new skills, meet other people, challenge prejudices and increase their quality of life through participating in opportunities.

In other words, interpretation makes connections no longer through media, but through engagement.  At least that is what the research seems to suggest.  It is certainly the process that attracts the funding, and not the end product per se.  We do need more proper research into this, for it is already clear that evidence for the public benefit delivery of heritage projects is the next developmental step in public policy.



[1] Some of you may have planned on catching up with me at the conference.  Please feel free to send me a comment via this blog and I’ll be happy to catch up about my research by phone or email.

[2] For the purpose of this post, I’m focussing on the UK.  EU legislation was actually much quicker in putting people at the centre of its heritage legislation, at least in terms of benefit, if not participation. Benefits as we would recognise them now from UK legislation started to emerge in 1975, in the European Charter of the Architectural Heritage.

[3] In the UK, the term ‘benefit’ is actually first used in 1907, in the National Trust Act: the trust protects heritage ‘for the benefit of the nation’.  However, the act didn’t specify wherein this benefit lay.

[4] Wellbeing is an interesting one.  The Office of National Statistics introduced questions about wellbeing into their questionnaire in 2011.  The Happy Museum Project is an initiative that sprang to life from the same thinking.

[5] There is a lot of knowledge about Stakeholder Engagement outside the heritage sector, which is why I am very excited that Participation Cymru will be at next week’s conference.  Click here for the Scottish set of engagement principles.

[6] You still have to be careful, though: facilitation can be manipulative also, just like a survey can be, depending on how you frame your questions.  We need to always take a step back and allow stakeholders to explore their own paths.

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I’ve recently read Emma Waterton’s excellent book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. Waterton is not an interpreter, but much of her writing applies directly to interpretation also.

As in her other writings, Waterton raises excellent and critical questions in this book.  Some of these are of immediate relevance to interpreters:


1) Are we including people, or are we assimilating them?

In interpretive speak, what Waterton is concerned with here is target audiences: those audiences that are under-represented, and often considered to be ‘excluded’.

In policy terms, this is the concept of social inclusion.  After reviewing the introduction of the concept into policy and legislation, Waterton goes on to examine the discourse surrounding social inclusion, and the organisational practices that flow from it.

The conclusion that Waterton reaches should give all heritage managers and interpreters some serious food for thought: rather than ‘to include’, Waterton argues, what these practices are currently doing is to force the dominant culture’s heritage values onto the ‘excluded’.


2) Is there such a group as ‘the excluded’ in museums and at heritage sites?

This may be a hard question to face for many interpreters.  Identifying target audiences is still uncritically proclaimed as best practice by many, and yet Waterton argues that perhaps, the ‘excluded’ simply do not care about this particular heritage.  It may not represent them, and it may not reflect their own view of what constitutes heritage or how it should be presented and used.

Therefore, Waterton suggests, practices that claim to be motivated by social inclusion, or making heritage accessible to the ‘excluded’ and underrepresented, are actually deeply hegemonic.  She writes, ‘…to presume that everyone can or should share in an elite, class-based and white vision of heritage is to take unwarranted liberties with many peoples’ sense of identity, place and belonging.’


3) Is it fundamentally arrogant to presume that we are ‘educating’, and building bridges or creating connections between ‘visitors’ and ‘sites/objects’?

Underlying Waterton’s argument is her assertion of the existence of an Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD).  In summary, the AHD is a view of heritage that is based on materiality and dependent on expert definition and care.  In Waterton’s opinion, neither is justified.  For one, Waterton argues that heritage is a discourse: it is made, shaped and changed by people and their interactions with materiality.  Because of the nature of heritage as discourse, however, Waterton writes, heritage is ‘inherently exclusive’.

For interpreters, this immediately raises another challenge.  At the core of many definitions of interpretation are images of ‘bridges’ and ‘connections’.  In fact, the most frequently cited mantra in interpretation has ‘to relate’ as its focal point [1]. And yet, such an approach to interpretation quite obviously denies the (discursive) participation of ‘visitors’ in making heritage.  It seems to me that in interpretation, we therefore still practice what Waterton calls assimilation and hegemony.


4) Do we have a clue what we’re talking about?

Waterton criticises that policy and legislation make a link between heritage and social inclusion without actually understanding this link, or how it works – if it exists at all.  Consequently, she calls for further research that provides real evidence for the relationship, or lack thereof.  To some extent I suspect that Waterton hopes that such research will also provide the sort of persuasive argument that no theoretical writing or discourse analysis alone can achieve.

The same applies to interpretation.  The claims are many: interpretation helps protect sites, it adds value, it helps people connect.  But does it?  How do we know?  And how does interpretation achieve this?  There are plenty suggestions of how to go about it, but as far as I am aware the hard summative evidence is lacking.

I think the field of interpretation can take a lot from Waterton’s book and her other writings.  From research to discourse analysis, here are all things that will be worth looking at.  Some of it I imagine will be painful, but I would hope that rather than resist a good session of healthy self-examination, we apply that most important of interpretive qualities: to be open-minded.



[1] I am, of course, referring to Freeman Tilden.  I’ve already written elsewhere that I think we should give Mr Tilden a well-deserved rest.

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I have just recently submitted an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a project primarily (but not exclusively) aimed at young people at my current site.  Last week, HLF asked me to clarify how creating a young people’s area in our historic park was intended to help young people to understand the heritage of the park, and support the wider project aims [1].  As I wrote my response, it struck me that while the connection was obvious in my mind, it is not what we usually think of when we say ‘interpretation’ (and this is effectively what HLF were asking me about).

For me, this project is a perfect example of interpretation as a facilitated process.  The project has several stages with associated activities, which my team and I will facilitate [2].  This isn’t a one-way street where we impart knowledge about the site to the young people.  Rather, we set the parameters of the activities, and within these, the young people are very much in control. [3]

Creating the young people’s area at the end of the project is actually the ultimate expression of and participation in the heritage of the site.  The reason is this: my site is all about social empowerment and making your mark on the world around you.  It is evident in many structures that are in the historic park, and by adding their own structure, young people will visibly stake their claim to this heritage, add to it, and hopefully carry it into the future.

In other words, through this project young people won’t just learn about the heritage values of the site: they will actively perform them. [4]

I’m hugely excited about this, and I hope HLF will fund the project.  I always try to ensure the interpretation I offer is facilitation, but this is not always possible to the extent that it is with this project.  It will be very interesting to see whether young people truly connect to the heritage of the site, and see it as their own, as a result of this project.

A project like this is of course not feasible for a visitor who can only spend a limited time on site.  However, I think even these visitors will benefit from the project.  In interpretation, we often talk about ‘a sense of place’, and I think the best sense of place I can give other visitors is by facilitating the (heritage) community telling their story to these visitors directly.  That’s one activity in this project (the young people will produce a ‘traditional’ piece of interpretation), and the young people’s area will be another aspect in this.  I believe that although these visitors will not have participated in the interpretive process, the outcomes of this process, such as the young people’s area, will tell a story in themselves.  I think that a word or two about the project (e.g. “In 2012 the young people of the community created this area as their contribution to the community’s heritage of social empowerment.”) will give visitors a stronger sense of place than many other interpretive interventions could do.



[1] In summary, the project aims are about helping younger people understand the heritage values of the park, and what their place is within that heritage.  The project also aims at empowering young people to share that heritage with others.  And there are several project activities aimed at increasing exchange and collaboration between young people and older members of the community.

[2] In summary, the activities are 1) researching the history of the site in collaboration with existing community groups; 2) making a creative response to what they’ve found in the research, and organising an exhibition of this work; 3) speaking to former mayors of the town about what it meant to them to serve the community in the tradition of the many Labour politicians that started their career here; 4) working on a traditional piece of interpretation of their choice for the benefit of other visitors, and 5) creating the young people’s area.  It is envisaged that participants can leave/join the project at every new activity/stage.

[3] This ‘self-guided’ and explorative learning is at the core of not only the new Welsh curriculum, but also the Scottish one – and I daresay every curriculum in the UK and probably even elsewhere.  And it is an important aspect of the HLF funding programme.

[4] That’s my hope, anyway.  Of course, it all depends on whether we get the funding, but if we do, we’ll also do a baseline survey and evaluation throughout to measure the ‘impact’ of the project as much as we can.

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In a recent conversation, an interpretation colleague asked me how I addressed target audiences in my interpretive practice.  They didn’t elaborate; it was quite obvious that they considered target audiences to be such an obvious part of interpretation that no further qualification of the concept was required.

Something about this unquestioned assertion sat uncomfortably with me, however.  I do support the concept – I have target audiences at my site also, in fact, I’m writing an HLF application for a Young People project as we speak – and yet, I wanted to know why I might feel this unease.

So here we go:

First there is heritage, then there may be target audiences

In our quest to ensure that our interpretation is accessible and relevant to wide audiences, I fear we sometimes may lose sight of one of the most fundamental aspects of our work: the heritage we actually deal with.  The concept of target audiences in my mind can smack just a little bit too much of changeability – as if we could adapt the heritage of a site to a specific audience. In my experience, many of the audiences we segment, perhaps artificially so (e.g. locals vs tourists), actually want the same thing from interpretation: they want interpretation to enable them to engage with the essence of the heritage that’s there.

So sometimes the issue at hand may not actually be about interpreting for different target audiences at all; it may primarily be about reminding ourselves of the fundamental considerations of best practice interpretation, such as simple language, no assumptions about prior knowledge, and ensuring physical accessibility.


Are we hiding our mistakes behind target audiences?

Sometimes I cannot help but feel that perhaps through target audiences we’re trying to address an issue that we as part of the heritage profession have created ourselves.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, interpretation is often still developed as an exclusive one-way-street from interpreter to ‘consumer/visitor’.  Basing interpretation on expert values, interpreters often don’t spend enough (if indeed any) time on establishing the values held by communities and including them in the development of the interpretation of these values.  My suspicion is that this may be why certain segments of the community don’t engage with a site, at least not officially (i.e. through visiting).

In other words, I’d rather see us focus on stakeholder engagement first before we worry too much about target audiences.


If we do identify target audiences, we must make sure we know what they’re for…

At my current site, I inherited an Audience Development Plan that identified, among others, people with health issues as a target audience.  I’ve not had time yet to change this, and in all fairness, the plan doesn’t specifically say that this is supposed to be a target audience for interpretation.  However, I would seriously question the extent to which this category of ‘people with health issues’ could ever be relevant for the content and implementation of any specific piece of interpretation (the best practice of physical accessibility not withstanding).

Of course, if the category was identified with community activities in mind, then it suddenly gains a purpose – not for interpretation, but for events and programmes that we can offer for people to become more physically active.


…and make sure the categories are meaningful to interpretation

Following on from the above, if we embark on the process of identifying target audiences for interpretation, then our categories need to be able to inform interpretive practice in order to make this exercise worthwhile.  Income, for example, is still a measure that pops up in audience development plans for interpretation (I suspect uncritically adopted from tourism surveys), and I continue to wonder how this category is expected to guide interpretation.  It is meaningful to site management, yes – we can decide on admission prices to ensure lower income families, for example, are more likely to visit. But I can’t think of a scenario in which interpretive content nor interpretive design would be impacted by income levels (and it is simply faulty to equate income levels with educational attainment, for example).


So ditch target audiences?

Not quite.  I think going through the process of visitor and non-visitor surveys is a good way of becoming aware of the strengths and weaknesses in our practice.  However, I propose that we first spend time considering carefully what our audience categories are so that they will be meaningful in informing our future practice.  We also need to reflect more critically on what the results tell us (for example, is the issue more systemic than a ‘mere’ matter of outreach work?), and how we will use these to improve practice.

Most importantly, however, I think other concepts need to become more established first in interpretation, such as stakeholder engagement and inclusive significance assessments.  We might just find that target audiences become less of an issue.

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As part of my current research I have been reviewing the literature on heritage studies.  My opinions, gained from working at heritage sites, had already been that heritage is immensely personal: made up of different aspects for different individuals.  When I worked at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, I also realised that heritage was contested, and a matter not of fact but of what I came to call, the heritage belief.  Heritage, as I can still see with my own eyes almost daily, is also about passion, and deeply felt emotions, and finally, it is about identity.

Much of this has already been discussed in heritage studies.  Heritage has been cut up into assessable pieces (most famously by the 1974 UNESCO World Heritage Convention), the assessments have been criticised as hegemonic (see for example Laurajane Smith’s The Uses of Heritage), the criteria have finally been reviewed to add a semblance of democracy (recently for example by English Heritage), and much debate is still on-going about the relationship between history and heritage (see almost any writing by David Lowenthal), to name but a few.

In other words, heritage is by far not the absolute concept that it is presented to be in most interpretive writing.  As a matter of fact, a quick glance at the indices of the interpretation books on my shelf reveal that not a single one of them deals with the manifold issues surrounding this term so central to our profession (and the picture is only marginally better when you replace ‘heritage’ with ‘significance’, a term which has been associated with different values slightly longer than heritage has).  We spend a great deal of time discussing themes, and media, and target audiences in our journals and at conferences, but we hardly ever (well, never, as far as I’m aware) reflect on what it actually is that we’re interpreting.  What is heritage?

Please don’t get me wrong:  themes, media, and target audiences are all hugely important aspects of the work we do.  And yet, we need to move beyond that, or rather: we need to go back to understanding what it is that we’re dealing with.   It becomes immediately clear that there is no easy answer to, ‘What is heritage?’  And a concrete answer is not what I am about.  It is rather the awareness that there is something to be thought about at all which I think is necessary before we can begin to talk about interpretive best practice.

Put bluntly, the fact that our literature on interpretation spends next to no time critically reflecting on different heritage values or significance is a clear indication that something is amiss.  If we don’t reflect on the different aspects that make a site significant or ‘heritage’, then how can we expect to meaningfully interpret it to others?  Too often the underlying assumption still seems to be that interpretation is a translation of historical, architectural, archaeological expertise into engaging and bite-sized pieces for a leisure audience (or as some describe it, a ‘bridge’).

However, once you recognise that heritage doesn’t equal heritage, that sites are significant due to different values, one of which may be more significant than the other, and also, that audiences (stakeholders, visitors, users) are intimately involved in this heritage process of a site, constantly changing it, constantly contesting it, then your entire approach to interpretation necessarily has to change.  The issue becomes much less about theme versus topic, or interpretation versus information; rather, it becomes a matter of facilitation, of enabling people to engage in this process of heritage.  It also means that interpretation must become much more democratic.  Stakeholder engagement can no longer be a luxury, it must be at the heart of what we do.

And how exactly do we achieve this?  What should be these new interpretation guidelines that I call for?  Well, that’s something that I’m still working on.  Certainly, I’ve realised that this is my core hypothesis to be examined in my research: that in order to deliver public benefit, interpretation needs to intimately involve stakeholders, and democratically and comprehensively consider and reflect heritage values.

Watch this space.

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Today I guided a workshop at the first international conference of Interpret Europe in Freiburg, Germany.  I built on a paper I presented last November at NAI’s National Workshop in Las Vegas.  I was really keen to explore further with other professionals what to do about diverse, and particularly conflicting heritage values. The conversation we had during the workshop emphasized and crystallized a few things for me, which I’d like to share here:


1) There are many different values (and they aren’t all about heritage)

Legislation has identified many different values for which sites are protected and managed.  These include archaeological, architectural and historical value, and more recently social or communal value have been added.  English Heritage summarize these under the heading, ‘heritage values’, but this is a terminology that I take exception to.  I think ‘heritage value’ should represent its own category, which focuses on the claim that the ‘heritage community’ in question makes on a site.  To date, and especially in recent years, the literature on heritage has more or less established a view of heritage as a process of identity and memory-making, and it is here that I would situate ‘heritage value’.


2) You can still be historically accurate while interpreting a heritage belief

A heritage belief is what I call a strong conviction in a heritage community that may not be wholly historically accurate.  Nevertheless, the belief forms a core part of the community’s identity or memory.

One participant in my workshop today raised the suggestion (as happened before) that to interpret the heritage belief means to base interpretation on misleading or inaccurate fact.  The first thing to realize about this is that any heritage belief is usually based on a historical fact.  The issue lies with the subsequent interpretation or weighting of that fact by the community in question.  It is that experience of the historical fact that is important.  If I take the example from my research at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, one important heritage belief is that Culloden marks the beginning of the Scottish diaspora.  This belief can be explained through the historical fact of the forced changes to the clan system, which arguably paved the way for the subsequent Highland Clearances.  In other words, in interpreting the heritage belief we can highlight the historical fact that consequently became an experience for the heritage community.  It is also worth remembering that history is not an objective science, nor will a seemingly unemotional recital of various historical facts capture people’s experience of these events.  Something becomes heritage because it acquired meaning in people’s experience of identity and in their memory.


3) You’ll know a heritage site when you see one

Academics and heritage professionals still argue passionately about what ‘heritage’ is.  Heritage communities themselves are much less self-conscious about the concept.  I’ve shared before my favourite anecdote from a public consultation, where a gentleman questioned whether the story to be told would be that of his history or his heritage.  Today I’ve heard a report of a visitor comment in Malta, where a woman stated, ‘The site tells the story of the past, but it doesn’t communicate Maltese identity.’  This is not to suggest that we should stop examining ‘heritage’ critically as a concept; rather, I would caution against professional stage fright.  It may be difficult to define heritage neatly, but we should not therefore pretend that ‘anything’ can be heritage, or that ‘anything’ can be turned into heritage. It will also not do to dismiss heritage, as has happened especially in the 1990s, as ‘nostalgia’ or ‘manipulation’, simply because it does not have a scientific evidence base.


4) There is such a thing as an interpreter’s professional ethics

I’ve argued before that I strongly believe stakeholders’ values should form the basis of all interpretation.  A delegate from Asia argued, however, that an interpreter did not have the right nor the freedom to question an organisation’s objective for a piece of interpretation.  In other words, the delegate felt it was the (client) organisation that predetermined what would be interpreted.

Two things are true about this assertion: Organisations do have a framework within which they act, and this will set some parameters for interpretation.  It is also true that sites and history can be manipulated in an attempt to turn them into heritage (whether this is authentic or sustainable is a different question).  However, as a true interpreter, I absolutely see it as our professional duty to point out to organisations that what they are asking us to do is not, in fact, interpretation, and certainly not good practice interpretation.  We may be able to use interpretive methods to achieve organisational goals, but in terms of true interpretation that aspires to a professional standard, stakeholders must be at the core of thematic planning.


5) Showing the darker side is a chance to facilitate understanding and reconciliation

After my workshop I spoke to an English colleague who has been working on a potato famine site in Ireland. They reported about the site manager’s qualms about interpreting the actions of the English at the time, which contributed to the disaster.  In the manager’s opinion, leaving this aspect of history out enabled English visitors to come to the site and have a positive experience.  However, in conversation it became apparent that English visitors did not actually walk away from the site with any understanding of what had happened.  It was also apparent that they did not have a prior connection with the site, good or bad.  We can take this to mean that they perceived the site as history, but not as a part of their heritage.  They were perfectly capable of confronting their nation’s historic behaviour because they did not personally identify with this.  Rather than offend them, such interpretation may in fact have the power to help people empathize and understand the source of contemporary feelings.

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I am indebted to the Association for Heritage Interpretation (UK) for publishing a news item that highlighted the National Trust’s ‘Bench mate’ scheme and a commentary on it in a national newspaper.

The latter is particularly refreshing as the voice of someone whose profession is not interpretation.  The commentator, a comedian, I’m told, makes a really good point when he describes the image he formed in his mind of the house’s lady by looking at the books in her library.  When he is told that the supposed ‘broadminded reader’ may in reality never have read these books at all since the Trust dresses (some) rooms with furniture and objects that may not be original to the house, the commentator felt willfully misled.

This may account for the underlying accusation in his piece that he levies against the Trust’s presentation.  Fabricated smells seem just that – a fabrication – and they represent a choice that favors the nostalgic while ignoring what are ugly truths.

The two issues raised here – authenticity and selectivity – are valid concerns about any interpretation.  Interpreters should always be mindful of both, and yet, I’m not convinced that every Trust property would gain from presenting, as the commentator writes, ‘the smell of soiled undergarments … in the cupboard below stairs, where the lord had forced himself upon the serving wench.’  I doubt that such historical accuracy is what motivates people to visit Trust properties, nor do I believe that they need to be told that such sad things did indeed occur – they already know.

Incidentally, the commentator himself makes a similar point.  He complains that the ‘bench mate’ scheme with its audio commentaries by national celebrities implies that visitors cannot be trusted to have their own thoughts.  Interpretation is accused of being patronizing, and often I would have to agree that yes, it can be – especially in those instances where interpreters haven’t spent the time to find out what the value of a site is to people (and this value may not be a heritage value at all).

The commentator of course raised his criticism in response to the audio commentaries.  Unfortunately I know nothing of the Trust’s process in arriving at these but I, too, was slightly disappointed.  First off, the introduction on the page reads that the commentaries are meant to ‘bring the National Trust’s special places to life’ [1].  Second, we’re promised ‘fond memories’ that these celebrities will share with us.  The two clips I listened to did neither of these things.  They may be the odd ones out, but if they are indicative of the other ‘bench mates’ then these are more marketing leaflet than memory.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love the idea of sitting down on a bench and listening to someone reminisce about the place.  At Dinefwr Park, however, the commentary goes on and on about the wildlife you can watch in Dinefwr Park, and its biodiversity.  This seems quite unnecessary: the visitor sitting on the bench is already there.  Why not take the opportunity to really draw their attention to something special that can be seen from this particular spot?  If the celebrity doesn’t have a memory they could still talk about their own response to this particular view [2].  Instead, Iolo Williams doesn’t even tell me what the kingfisher I’m supposed to be lucky enough to see looks like (and I wouldn’t know a kingfisher if I saw one), and so his enthusiastic delivery does very little to enhance my experience of the place.

At Calke Abbey, David Gower’s audio clip is a recital of the historical facts about the site.  He then jumps quite unexpectedly into musings about open spaces in general and the opportunities they offer for sports, and I’m sure that had I listened to this at Calke Abbey instead of at my desk here at home, I would have been even more puzzled about its relevance (or lack thereof) to my experience of sitting on this particular bench, in this particular spot.

Do I think that the benches are an example of the National Trust not trusting their visitors to have their own thoughts, like the commentator wrote?  Not at all.  I actually think the Trust had a really good idea – they just didn’t quite pull it off.  What I admire about the National Trust these days is that they are clearly committed to reaching out to wider audiences and breaking that image of the ‘gilded acorn’.  The organisational restructuring is brilliant, and what they envisage for the visitor experience is quite inspiring.  Now it’s simply a matter of implementing it to the best advantage.  I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.


[1] This is actually turning into a meaningless phrase and I think interpreters should be banned from using it.  What does it mean, to ‘bring a place to life’?  Is it dead without our intervention?  If so, why do we bother preserving it?  In reality, most places are important to people because they inspire them and speak to them in some form.  An interpreter’s job is merely to facilitate and enable that inspiration and engagement for every single visitor.  You don’t ‘bring it to life’, visitors do, every single one in their own way.

[2] At my current site we’ve just completed and curated a memory project and exhibition about features – still existing and those already vanished – in our historic park.  It was a great way for us to learn about what people valued about the park, and it meant we could really engage with the community.  It also seemed that people felt reassured – the park has a brandnew management structure – and they realised that we valued their claim on the park and their input.  While practicality didn’t allow us to mount the exhibition outdoors as originally envisaged, I am looking into creating a trail leaflet from it.  However, even with having the exhibition indoors, it is clear that it sparks conversations among other visitors and inspires their own memories.  In my mind, that’s what interpretation is all about.

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As far as J. Geraint Jenkins is concerned, the Welsh efforts to present the nation’s industrial heritage (!) are mostly doomed.  The reason is that sites, and coalmines in particular, are just not grimy enough.  He also points out that much fabric has been lost, leaving the remaining structures without the all-important context.  In presenting these faint shadow images of what life in Wales was like is to fall prey to romanticism and nostalgia, two demons that Jenkins evokes continually in his book ‘Getting yesterday right.’

I cannot help but detect in his writing that on-going suggestion of ‘heritage’ as an institution and industry.  In between the lines images are conjured of thrifty economists concocting ‘the heritage product’ that they can ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’ desperate for the romance of the past.  I’m a heritage manager myself, and my day-to-day job could not be more different.

Certainly Jenkins is right that many a valley has tried and is still trying to create a tourism attraction with whatever industrial remains they have left (and who can blame them).  But the issue here does not lie with heritage value per se, but with the tourism industry that may too freely apply the term ‘heritage’ to anything that might prove a tourism asset.  Heritage isn’t a ‘product’, it is an act performed by people.  Tourism managers may call it heritage, but that doesn’t make it so.

The other criticism that Jenkins has is that any interest that is detached from the dirt and noise of the coalmines is romantic and nostalgic.  He doesn’t elaborate on where this view comes from.  However, it does seem to hark back to a historian’s disdain for heritage as something less than history.  Of course, as David Lowenthal has shown in his book ‘The Heritage Crusade’ history and heritage are actually two completely different things altogether.  Other writers have since established the view of heritage as a practice, and like Lowenthal they have highlighted that selection, reworking and reinvention of historical facts are all crucial and necessary aspects of this heritage practice.  And the practice itself is crucial for our identity and meaning-making.

In other words, where Jenkins would like to see a whole valley still stuffed with coalmine dust, and the terraced houses cowering underneath black slag heaps to present what life was really like, the people who once lived that life might actually be mightily glad to see it gone.  A pit wheel and the opportunity to go down Big Pit if they want to, without the dust and danger, may be all they need to remember the true heritage value of the industry: the sense of camaraderie and endurance.  That’s what the miner-guide at Big Pit talked about when I went there; he even explicitly said he would not want to go back to work in the mines except for the bond he had with his colleagues.  That is the heritage of the coalmining industry.  The rest is just historical fact.

But would Jenkins prefer that we tell people’s history and not their heritage?  It does seem so.  And he is absolutely right that in presenting a whole valley as it used to be visitors would get the whole picture as an immersive experience.  I only wonder how many of them would ever want to come back?  And what about the people who live here?  Are we going to force them to live amid the reminders of what was a very hard and difficult life?  Are we going to turn them into museum pieces as well?

In all fairness, Jenkins does acknowledge that this would not be feasible.  He suggests that probably a multi-media piece of interpretation would be better, and I agree.  Only to me, this solution isn’t a regrettable compromise.  It does what good interpretation and heritage management should always do: it enables people to act on and live their heritage values as symbolised in spaces, while it gives them room to build on it, and change it, and use the security of that heritage to move forward and better themselves.  The dust and the noise are not heritage, they are history.  And some history just doesn’t need to be preserved in every grimy detail.

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During my readings I have come across this interesting quote by West and McKellar [1]:

‘By definition, interpretation as a heritage practice is a western discourse that has become necessary because official heritage has become disconnected from everyday understandings.’

It is a statement worth thinking about in greater depth.  Most interpreters would readily agree that the primary purpose of their work is to help people ‘understand’ a site.  It is such a worthy cause that I have never actually heard or read it questioned at interpretation conferences, in interpretation books or in interpretation articles.  Indeed, more often than not, when pressed for a definition of interpretation, practitioners still quote Freeman Tilden’s famous principles: to interpret is to ‘reveal’ the meaning of a site to visitors and to ‘relate’ it to their own lives.  The former assumes that people don’t recognise the true importance of a site without assistance, while the latter believes that the site has nothing to do with people’s lives to begin with.

If it’s heritage interpretation we’re talking about, one question immediately jumps out at me: if it’s their heritage, why should people need interpretation to understand it and relate to it?  Isn’t heritage heritage precisely because it means something to people and it is an intrinsic part of their lives? [2]

The next issue arising from Tilden is one of hegemonic meaning: are we really suggesting that there is only one meaning to a site, and we alone have it ready to be imparted to those not in the know?

What lies underneath Tilden’s definition of interpretation shares many characteristics with what West and McKellar criticise as ‘official heritage’ in the above quote.  ‘Official heritage’ is heritage prescribed by experts.  It is categorized, labelled, protected and managed, denying anyone else’s ability to appropriately understand and care for it.  In this theoretical framework interpretation indeed becomes necessary to educate the masses.

Of course, like West and McKellar, other writers have also criticised the expert claim to heritage for some time [3].  In short, they want to see a community’s heritage values placed back at the core of heritage assessments and management.  Heritage begins and ends with the communities whose heritage it is.  Heritage can change, it is in constant flux, and everyone can participate in it.

Once heritage is seen in this light, interpretation can also no longer be taken as ensuring people gain the right understanding.  Indeed, I have argued for some time that interpretation itself is part of a social process.  We know that visitors bring all sorts of experiences and knowledge to a site which shape what they take from it [4].  Interpretation is only part of that engagement.  As a practice it should serve as facilitator: not conveying the truth, but enabling everyone at a site to find their own truth and establish their own relationship with it.


[1] West, S. and McKellar, E., 2010.  Interpretation of heritage. In: West, S (ed), 2010. Understanding heritage in practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 166 – 204, here: p. 198

[2] see for example Millar, S. (1999) ‘An Overview of the Sector.’ In Heritage Visitor Attractions.  An Operations Management Perspective. Ed by Leask, A., Yeoman, J. London: Cassel

[3] for example Waterton, E. (2005) ‘Whose Sense of Place? Reconciling Archaeological perspectives with Community Values: Cultural Landscapes in England.’ International Jounral of Heritage Studies 11, (4) 309 – 325

[4] for example Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (2000) Learning from Museums.  Visitor Experiences and the making of meaning. Lanham: Altamira Press

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I love National Trust properties.  I’d forgotten how much until I recently visited Polesden Lacey.  So I promptly signed myself up to become a member (again) and I’ve proceeded to visit a National Trust property every weekend since.

Of course, I’m also reading a lot of academic literature and case studies about heritage, its management and its interpretation these days, so I couldn’t help but analyse each visit afterward.  I beg your indulgence for the random nature of the following reflections that I had and which I hope are of interest:

So that’s what they mean about aesthetic value…

I’ve become increasingly suspicious about the values that are assessed in determining which heritage is worthy of legal protection.  Aesthetic value seemed a particularly obscure and elitist criteria which I was ready to (pen-) attack in full at some point.   I’ve still to analyse what sites have actually been protected and to what degree due to their presumed aesthetic value, and yet as I found myself consciously breathing in the peace and beauty of the rolling landscape that surrounds Polesden Lacey, I thought to myself that it is this aesthetic experience that to me makes protecting and preserving this site worthwhile.  I shouldn’t actually have been that surprised by the realisation, for when I asked visitors to Brú na Bóinne (sometimes falsely referred to as Newgrange) in Ireland why the site was significant and should be protected, 17.6 of responses given related to the setting and atmosphere of the place.  [1]  That’s aesthetic value for you right there.

…and it really speaks for itself

It may be chance, but the properties I’ve seen over the past few weeks effectively had no interpretation worth mentioning [2].  At Polesden Lacey, I truly didn’t mind for the enjoyment of the place was quite enough.  Could this mean that buildings and landscapes of such aesthetic value really do speak for themselves, like some writers imply?  My answer is, no – not in the sense of technical understanding.  After I left the place, I had no clue as to who owned it, who built it and how it relates to whatever aesthetic tradition may have been at work.  But did I need that understanding?  After all, I really did enjoy myself…

Enjoyment leads to understanding leads to valuing leads to caring leads to enjoyment…

…or so the cycle goes English Heritage claimed in their 2005 – 2010 strategy.  I’ve not yet found any case studies that support this claim, and certainly in my case (and in the case of the visitors to Brú na Bóinne) we seem to have skipped a couple of steps (such as understanding or indeed even the thirst for understanding that enjoyment is supposed to inspire) and we showed a complete disregard for other steps in the cycle too.

The question of course is: what was there to understand at Polesden Lacey? And: did it matter?

Significance, significance, significance

My solution to the question of when and where and how a site such as Polesden Lacey should be interpreted is to assess significance.  If audiences (stakeholders, tourists) tell you that what the site means to them is peace and beauty, then it may be better not to burden them with interpretation they really don’t care about.  An events programme that takes full advantage of the setting and provides entertainment for visitors to have a reason to repeatedly enjoy the site is likely the better management choice.  You can still bring the site’s own story to the fore: Polesden Lacey, for example, was a weekend retreat where the owner entertained friends and royalty.  I can think of a whole series of events that range from cooking classes to a 1930s evening garden party that would allow visitors to get a sense of what one of those weekends may have been like, and learn about the story of the place at the same time.

And a word about volunteers

It’s really noticable what weight the National Trust places on volunteering – any visitor-related role seems to also deal with volunteering.  In their strategy it makes perfect sense: volunteering is all about providing communities with an opportunity to become involved [4].  On site,  however, I’m much more ambiguous about this.  Don’t get me wrong: I think volunteers are great, and at every site I’ve visited it was very obvious that the volunteers passionately and sincerely cared about ‘their’ house.  But they are not interpreters.  At Dinefwr Castle, for example, I felt positively harassed by an otherwise charming volunteer who insisted on telling me for ten (!) minutes everything I never wanted to know about the minimal knowledge she had of the restoration work that was going on after a recent flood.  It did nothing to improve my understanding of the site nor my enjoyment of it – on the contrary.  I was so frustrated that I couldn’t even look at the room anymore for fear that the lady would corner me for another ten minutes.  It seems that while the Trust’s emphasis on volunteering is laudable, they now need to remember their visitors and make sure that their enthusiastic volunteers are properly trained to engage with an unsuspecting public.

And what am I planning this weekend?  Well, I have another Trust property lined up to visit…and I’m looking forward to it!


[1] Aesthetic value, when assessed by what usually is a select panel of experts within a statutory body, still seems like a woefully subjective criteria.  I can only embrace it if it is backed by popular consensus.

[2] Dinefwr Castle made an attempt at interpretation, but the mixture of voices and topics and interpretive approaches left me none the wiser about the site’s importance.

[3] For some heritage values this cycle no doubt still holds true.  My guess is that it very much depends on the dominant heritage value and how widely it is shared.

[4] For an organisation that for decades has been seen as an exclusive club whose properties have nothing to do with the surrounding communities, volunteering is also a crucial way of breaking down barriers.

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