Posts Tagged ‘heritage’

I recently read about someone saying that heritage managers and interpreters were ‘selling’ experiences. I’ve already written in a recent blog post how ‘experience’ seems to have been a popular concept for a while now.  In fact, even I was raving when the National Trust first changed all interpretation and visitor related job titles, along with their philosophy, over to ‘visitor experience’.

I’m a lot more sceptical about this now, and as I’m sorting out why, I thought I’d share my thinking so far.

‘Experience’ seems to express another stage in the development of our understanding of and approach to interpretation, but I’m not entirely clear what lies beneath it.  The early stages of interpretation – promoting preservation and then education – are clearly evidenced in legislation and policies, and go hand-in-hand with the (by now heavily criticized) material approach to heritage value [1].  But then the two seem to move away from each other.  Legislation today talks about benefit to communities and individuals, while interpretation has focussed on ‘experience’.

As the quote above shows (‘selling experiences’), the experience is often presented as a commodity, and something that we, as interpreters and heritage managers, create and package, and subsequently ‘sell’ to our visitors on a ‘leisure’ market.  I wonder therefore whether what lies beneath this understanding of ‘experience’ is related to an understanding of heritage which Hewison in 1987 criticised as The Heritage Industry.  In this understanding, heritage is called upon to replace vanishing economies and produce economic outputs as part of a growing tourism market [2]. In subsequent years, heritage was increasingly analysed within this leisure context [3].

Now add to this mix Pine and Gilmore’s 1999 book, The Experience Economy. In a nutshell, Pine and Gilmore argue that businesses [4] need to sell an ‘added’ value with their product, which is the experience that consumers have through engaging with the company and its product.  Sometimes this experience will be transformational, but that is not necessary – for Pine and Gilmore pleasure is enough to make it an experience.

When interpreters speak of ‘experience’, this seems to be what they mean: the added value of the heritage product traded on a leisure market. For some, the comparison with Disney’s practices thus becomes desirable, in that Disney of course are a giant in the experience leisure economy and hugely successful in providing a competitively memorable experience product.

I suppose this is where I’m getting a bit uncomfortable with the experience concept. If the above is really what lies behind our concept of experience in a heritage context – and it’s certainly all I can find – then I have a few issues with it:

  • To start with, I’m not convinced that visitors really see visiting a heritage site or a museum as simply one possible leisure pursuit among others, even if we allow for a mild ‘educational’ bias. There are varying degrees of heritage attachment to sites, of course, but I would be surprised to find that visitors treat even the most ruinous of English Heritage castles on a par with Disneyland.  I think a lot more research is needed here before we can make such an assumption.
  • Secondly, we know that visitors bring their own agendas to sites, so the notion that we ‘craft’ an experience for them is just not sustainable. They make their own experience, based very much, as my own work leads me to believe, on the heritage belief that motivated them to visit in the first place.
  • Thirdly, while we’re thinking of interpretation as creating an experience for our visitors, we’re neglecting to engage with what they think about their heritage.  This ‘experience-making’ approach to interpretation still suggests a one-way street, albeit a more entertaining one, from interpreter to visitor.  We’re still – apparently – disenfranchising our visitors by assuming that we will create an experience and then sell it to them.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course our facilities will contribute to the ‘experience’ that visitors will have at our sites, whether they will enjoy themselves and create memories, and recommend us to their friends.  Of course our presentation and marketing have an impact.  Of course all of this is important. I just don’t think an approach to interpretation as ‘crafting experiences’ is in step with other developments in heritage management.

Visitors have a fundamental stake in heritage even when they are not on site.  In my mind, our task is not to create heritage for them, because we can’t, heritage exists independent of our efforts.  What we need to do is facilitate visitors’ engagement with their heritage.  Thinking about experience as described above just doesn’t seem to encourage us to adjust our practice accordingly [5].



[1] Of course, these practices – promoting preservation and educating – still exist, and they may still have a place at some sites. However, I would argue that there is a progression; if promotion of preservation alone motivates your interpretation I would be worried.

[2] At least as far as the public-facing side of heritage was concerned.  Heritage Designation remained the same.  It should also be said that museums seem to have been unaffected by this thinking until recently, and it is interesting that now we’re beginning to hear the same talk of ‘experience’ here as we have done at heritage sites for a while.

[3] Not, of course, with regard to designation and preservation concerns.  Again, I’m talking about the public face of heritage, as it were.

[4] The book doesn’t deal with heritage or tourism, it’s basically about marketing and service industries.

[5] Of course, as a stage in the development of interpretation, ‘experience’ is perfectly legitimate.  A lot of museums could do with more ‘experience’ and Disneyification, since so many of them still just ‘talk at’ their visitors – or indeed provide no interpretation at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last week, the Heritage Lottery Fund approved a grant for a project I’m planning that involves young people in the heritage of my site, and its interpretation.  I am hugely excited about this.  For one thing, the project is all about interpretation as facilitation, as I explained in a recent post [1].  The other aspect of the project is that the participants will also create a piece of interpretation of their choice.

This is something I’ve always advocated: that as interpreters, we must involve stakeholders and communities.  This goes far beyond simply asking the (local) community for their stories, an approach for which Bella Dicks criticised interpreters.  To involve stakeholders and communities is to acknowledge that heritage is heritage because of the value that they give it.  It is about ensuring that the heritage we seek to interpret and manage (or protect) is not treated as separate from the daily lives of people but instead continues to make a beneficial contribution to our society, nationally and internationally.  In fact, when I wrote my application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for this latest project, this was one of the areas they specifically asked about: what contribution will this project make? What are the benefits it will bring? What is the heritage in this case, and how to will this project enable people to participate in it, and share it?  Who are the people, the stakeholders?

These concepts, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘communities’, and also the ‘benefits’ that heritage and its interpretation are meant to bring to both, by now are central to British (and EU/UNESCO) heritage legislation.  However, I feel that interpretation discourse still needs to go some distance before it catches up with these developments.  For a start, we need to really engage critically with some of these key terms – stakeholder, heritage, community – and reflect on what impact our understanding of them has on our practice.  We also need to gather more hard data on what we do, and how well (or not) we do.  As funders and policy makers increasingly define what they expect of heritage and its interpretation with regard to stakeholders, communities, and people, we need to be able to speak their language, and provide evidence for the impact our practice has – especially in terms of benefits.  And consideration of benefits brings us right back to stakeholders, communities, people.

I can’t wait to start this project at my site.  I’ve done a lot of stakeholder and community-driven and considered interpretation before, but this offers a real chance to try out stakeholder involvement in its purest sense.   And in fact, I feel so strongly about this, that I contacted the UK Association for Heritage Interpretation to see if they would support a conference on this topic.  They said yes, so I am currently organising the conference at my site.  After all, benefits to people, especially pride and self-confidence, are at the heart of the vision for my site. I’ve had many interesting conversations about this topic with fellow interpreters, but also with fellow researchers, heritage managers, funders and policy makers.  What this conference aims to do is bring the above together to examine current practice and share insights into the benefits of involving stakeholders and communities in interpretation.

If you feel that you can contribute to the conference, please see the call for papers.  The deadline for submission is 1st May 2012.  Registration for the conference will open on 15th May 2012.  Watch this space for further info.



[1] By ‘facilitation’ I always mean ‘facilitate the performance of/participation in heritage’.

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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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Last week, I had one of those exciting conversations with a colleague, which reminded me of why I’m doing what I’m doing.  This particular colleague doesn’t have a background in heritage, and I was trying to explain to them what I wanted our interpretation to achieve at our site.  In fact, so removed is their experience from working at a heritage site, that I also explained what made our site different from, say, a recreation ground in my view [1]. Afterward, I felt really fired up and passionate, so I thought I’d share with you what we discussed.


Heritage is about people…

My current site is of high regional (Welsh) architectural importance and of low national (British) historical importance.  But that’s not why the community (local and beyond) value it.  To them, the site is entirely of social value: it represents their own social empowerment over many, many years, and it acts as a focal point for community life.  That is why people care about this site.  That is what gives it its sense of place.  Architecture and history are just a bonus.


…and it is people’s values that we need to interpret

We could put together a stunning interpretive programme on architecture, but if that’s what we focussed on we would entirely miss the point.  Our local stakeholders would rightly question our ability to manage the site, and we would send our visitors from further afield away with no understanding at all of why the site is actually important.  Therefore, our interpretation needs to focus on what the community value about the site – see above.


Heritage is about identity…

The town that surrounds my site is one of the most deprived wards in Wales – and it shows.  However, the site itself is stunningly beautiful, and by its sheer physical presence in the centre of town it goes a long way to illustrating who the people of the town are.  It is not just about one particular moment in (historical) time; rather, it is about the entire experience of life that spans the history of the site. Anytime I talk to stakeholders I feel that this is where their passion for the site comes from: the site tells of prior hardships, and of the town folk’s empowerment.  It is this sense of empowerment, and the pride that flows from it, that folk enact every time that they come to the site.


… and interpretation should facilitate this enactment of identity

I should qualify what I’ve just said: it’s not ‘folk’ per se that have this sense of identity associated with the site.  It is the older generation.  Many youngsters have fond memories of spending time in the park, but few – if any – of them benefit from the positive identity that the older generation enact on site.  So while youngsters appreciate the site as a place to hang out in, without further facilitation the site can’t help them develop their own identity as members of this particular community.  I daresay that they cannot make sense of the dilapidated state of their town, and the existence in its centre of a tranquil, and attractive property – nor can they make sense of what the older people are so very proud of.  So this is what I want our interpretation to achieve: to help all members of the community, young and old, to experience this sense of empowerment that has shaped the site and the town over time, and to participate in it.  And in doing so, I hope that our interpretation will inspire young people to carry this empowerment into the future and to contribute to the town’s revival.


Heritage is about passion…

The majority of our stakeholders are truly passionate about our site.  In our case, their passion is primarily centred on a sense of ownership.  The site is theirs, as they continuously state, and of course they’re right.  The sense of ownership is intimately connected to the empowerment that the site represents; the community have shaped the site for over one hundred years. And in my mind, this passion is what it’s all about.  In managing the site as a heritage site, we need to place this passion at the centre of all we do.


… and our interpretation needs to be passionate

I have always been a firm believer in emotion in interpretation, especially if it is emotion that is at the core of the heritage value in question.  So at my current site, it is definitely this passion, this pride in ownership and empowerment that I want our interpretation to inspire.  I want people – local stakeholders and visitor-stakeholders, young and old – to be moved while they engage with the site through interpretation.  Only then will we have done justice to why the site is important.



[1] Of course, this hypothetical recreation ground may have a heritage value also, but for argument’s sake, we imagined it as having no relevance to people whatsoever.

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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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I don’t know about you, but I usually prefer heritage sites to museums for a visit.  Partially this may be a result of poor interpretation encountered once too often at museums.   Labels listing cataloguing information do very little for me and, I expect, many other visitors.  Such ‘interpretation’ fails to make that elusive connection, and yet I wonder how much interpretation could achieve in the first place when perhaps the underlying concept –taking objects out of their context and isolate them from their use – is flawed to begin with.

The argument is not new.  ‘Museumification’ springs to mind, which argues that putting an object of daily use into a museum alters its status and, sometimes artificially, turns it into ‘heritage’.  Of course, I am one of those who see heritage as a social process and as such this point doesn’t apply.  What I do believe, however, is that ‘museumification’ renders an object impotent.  Deprived of its application to human life it becomes just that – dead matter.

And yet, the two colleagues with whom I recently unwrapped objects for our own exhibition felt entirely differently.  While I wrinkled my nose at what I proceeded to call quite blasphemously ‘the stench of time’, their eyes lit up in appreciation of the objects’ age and material integrity.  I jumped at the opportunity to find out more about such conservationist enthusiasm.  I thought that perhaps something had been eluding me that provided meaning for them where I only saw materiality.  Was age, authenticity, integrity really all they cared about?

I was astonished to find that their answer was primarily, yes.  They did feel that objects also served as a springboard for people’s memories but they proceeded to defend these objects vehemently against any human use and interference.  When I brought up the practice of many post-colonial museums who are giving back indigenous objects to their source communities, many of whom proceed to destroy them as part of their heritage practice, their views were even more surprising to me.  One of my colleagues argued that they wouldn’t give the objects back because they deserved a priori ‘protection’, while the other denied the claim of ownership altogether.  The crux of the latter argument was that the passage of time gave these objects universal value, which for me placed the criteria of universality in the World Heritage List into a completely, and unsettling new light.

I can’t say whether the many museum curators here and elsewhere share my colleagues’ views.  However, interpretation I encounter in many museums does make me wonder whether similar foci on material age and integrity, as opposed to human use, are responsible for the overwhelming lack of meaningful connections between objects and visitors.  I would never dismiss the benefit of preserving and displaying objects for their age and integrity in museums, however, I still remain firm in my conviction that the actual worth of these objects lies in their use by humans.   If nothing else, museums and the interpretation they provide should aim at making this use as clear as possible, for example by allowing visitors to handle replicas in order to get a feel for the practice that centred on these objects.   I believe that it is in this (mediated) interaction that regular folk like myself will find some appreciation of age and integrity.  I’m reminded of the research that I did at Newgrange, where age and setting were the values that visitors associated with the site after having walked it (not after having read about it in the exhibition!).

Either way, it was very interesting to have this discussion with people who were just on the opposite end from me on this issue.  Perhaps one day someone will do some research on how many curators share my colleagues’ convictions, and more importantly, how many visitors do so.  The results should be enlightening.

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I get the impression that Bella Dicks wasn’t impressed by the work of the interpreters (and researchers) involved in the Rhondda Heritage Park.  In her book Heritage, Place and Community her criticism effectively boils down to one point: interpreters commodify local knowledge to present a novelty attraction to outside visitors while the needs of the stakeholder community are left unanswered.

Dicks introduces the term memorialism  to denote that local need for authentic details and the often contradictory expressions of a community’s social fabric.  Instead, locals said, what the interpretation at the Rhondda provides is an unnaturally clean version of what was a dirty mine that housed its workers in equally dirty dwellings [1].  To add insult to injury, so Dicks seems to feel, the park’s management and the consultants themselves behaved as if they alone, as professionals, were able to tell the story right.

Dicks presents two main issues when it comes to interpreters [2].  Firstly, in Dicks’ opinion they ‘create’ heritage as a specific way of presentation.  In other words, rather than respond to a sense of heritage held by stakeholders, interpreters take what they think will make a good story to ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’.  This leads into her second point: Dicks has found that interpreters treat stakeholders as a mere resource to be mined for suitable storylines.

If Dicks’ findings truly applied to all interpretive practice, this would be an alarming state indeed.  I don’t believe the situation is quite as dire though.  I have noticed, however, that very often interpretation literature and practitioners do seem to think of ‘visitors’ as ‘tourists’ only: people with little prior knowledge and certainly no ‘stake’ in what they see.  Such practice will run the danger of being at odds with the stakeholder community, perhaps so much so that they may even feel alienated and stop visiting altogether (or rather, stop using the site).

For me it comes down to the underlying concepts that we apply to our practice and which are reflected in the language that we use.  For example, a ‘visitor’, tourist or not, is arguably someone without a claim on the site.  They are invited and tolerated, and maybe even encouraged to interact, but at the end of their visit they are sent home, leaving managers and interpreters in sole charge.

A ‘stakeholder’, however, is someone who lays claim to a heritage value, be that spiritual, social, archaeological or any other value.  Their need for involvement may vary, but up to that point they feel they have as much right to ‘have their say’ as ‘the professionals’ [3]. Practically all the sites I’ve worked at as interpreter have had very passionate stakeholders, and since I was site-based, that meant that all my decisions as interpreter were confronted with immediate response from these same stakeholders.

Maybe that is why in my own practice I tend to think of everyone as a ‘stakeholder’.  After all, the traditional tourist also has a stake in the site, even if that stake is only to have a good time and to learn a little bit about local heritage while they’re at it.  It is a matter of establishing the views and needs of each stakeholder and making sure that these guide interpretation [4].  It is at this stage that I transition stakeholders into audiences in my mind which makes sure that I remember that stakeholders are not merely suppliers of content but also its users [5].

This is of course not what Bella Dicks’ found at Rhondda Heritage Park.  In fact, one criticism both from her and from locals was that the interpretive consultants came from the outside – and then left again, after having extracted local knowledge and white-washed it for easy consumption by other outsiders.

It is an irony, then, that Dicks found the site to have much weaker ‘tourist’ attraction power than originally hoped.  It seems that predominantly ‘visitors’ are from stakeholder communities, either locals or people who have associations with the mining industry.  Their responses to the site’s interpretation are conflicted.  They appreciate the fact that ‘at least’ the professional effort and marketing means the site is looked after and provides an opportunity to visit.  But the interpretation itself isn’t what influences the experience or the meaning they gain.  Rather, it appears, it is the ability to spin memories off the simplified representations of the industry and the miners’ experiences that is important to these stakeholder-visitors.

For Dicks this isn’t satisfying.  There is a strong criticism of interpretation throughout her book which ultimately leads her to speak of the ‘technology of power’ that is interpretation.  Interpretation in Dicks’ view distorts and mis-uses local memorialism to turn it into the commodity called a heritage attraction.  I don’t think that any interpreter sets out to do this, but if this is the result of some of our practice, then we really need to review our good intentions.


[1] The dust from the mines and steelworks in the south Wales Valleys apparently was everywhere, and there was little one could do to keep it at bay.

[2] Her case study is of Rhondda Heritage Park, but from it she makes quite sweeping generalisations.  Most of these are an echo of other literature that criticises ‘heritage’ as an ‘industry’ and a ‘product’, such as Robert Hewison’s 1987 book The Heritage Industry.  Britain in a climate of decline.  London: Methuen

[3] I’m not proposing that all sites should be volunteer run.  I’ve already pointed out the downfalls of such practice here.

[4] This is also about assessing significance and heritage value.  There will be a hierarchy.  For example, to the ‘public’ a site will be more important because of its social associations, even though architecturally, it is also a fine example of a rare Georgian building in an area.

[5] I can see that I will have to revisit this terminology debate at some point.  For the moment, however, I really am not comfortable with the concepts of either ‘recipient’ or ‘consumer’.  I prefer ‘user’ for the time being.

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A few weeks before my recent visit to Stonehenge, I chanced to watch ‘The Age of Cosmology’ part 3 of Neil Oliver’s documentary series, ‘A History of Ancient Britain’.  Beside Stonehenge, the documentary also talked about other Stone Age sites, such as the nearby Avebury stone circle and the sites far north in Orkney.

The film did an excellent job in placing each monument into a context.  Especially with Stonehenge, it managed to present the site as part of a connected whole.  Using aerial cinematography and smart editing, it expanded view points to connect and juxtapose sites that are far apart but which we today believe were once linked in the minds of their builders in a wider ritual landscape.

I also really liked how the documentary used the backdrop of modern, busy cityscapes to draw subtle parallels to the views and experiences the ancient people may have had.  It also suggested a continuity from then to now which one doesn’t see too often in such productions.  Neil Oliver was also excellent at bringing to the piece real enthusiasm, as if he himself were excited about every piece of the puzzle he presented.

Finally, the documentary did a great job of telling a compelling story of archaeological detective work to paint a lively and colourful image of the ancient people and the vastness of their achievement far beyond any individual site.  In doing so, the documentary created a true sense of place and wonderment.  If you watch the trailer for this episode, you get a feel for what I mean.

Interestingly, what the documentary did well are all things that good interpretation strives to do also.  And yet some interpreters would fervently argue that what Neil Oliver did here was not interpretation at all.

One argument is that interpretation has to be on site, an idea that stems from Freeman Tilden who formally defined interpretation in 1954 [1].  Especially in continental Europe, this criterion is sometimes still used as part of the definition of interpretation [2].  I argue that in insisting on interpretation to be on site in order to be called interpretation, interpreters are falling out of step not only with the technological opportunities that we have gained since Tilden but also with various management demands and social expectations.  As this November’s UNESCO conference on remote interpretation shows, for example, some sites are simply too vulnerable or too inaccessible to be interpreted on site.  Interpretation off-site protects sites and still gives users access.  Similarly, in the age of the internet and mobile television, users expect to engage with a site while they are off-site, some in preparation for their visit, others afterward, and some instead of their visit.

Another argument against the on-site rule is that it actually supports a false understanding of heritage.  The materiality of heritage has been called into question for many years, and increasingly organisational policies in the UK, such as English Heritage’s Conservation Principles or the National Trusts’ Going Local strategy, are shifting their focus away from mere physicality to the processes by which people ‘make’ heritage.  The physical site, it has been recognised, is more often a prop rather than the core of the heritage experience.  That is not to say that in my personal opinion, visitor-users shouldn’t still make an effort to go into a place wherever possible.  However, this is not a defining criterion for interpretation, rather it is a question of participating in heritage processes [3].

Finally, the on-site rule with its associated demand for interpretation to give first hand experience of the thing itself (again Tilden) also can only be applied to sites that are spatially limited and as such conveyable to visitors.  At Stonehenge, for example, that would not be possible [4].  Roads, modern buildings, tree plantings, even the natural contours of the land prevent any first hand experience of the site’s place in the ritual landscape.  Interpreting the site in isolation would ignore what appears to be its actual meaning in the wider landscape.  This leaves nothing but an audio-visual, and I argue that at this point it no longer matters whether visitor-users see the audio/visual on-site or in their own homes.  All that is different is their consequent engagement with the site.

Of course, showing a 60-minute-documentary in a visitor centre will not be manageable, nor will visitors’ expectations allow for it.  However, these same visitor-users may be perfectly prepared to commit that amount of time while they are at home.  In my opinion, therefore, a documentary that applies the best principles of interpretation as Neil Oliver’s documentary has done is a perfect example of interpretation suited to its target audience – visitor-users at home.

As for me, I would have felt desperate had I not seen the documentary before coming to Stonehenge.  There is next to no interpretation available anyway, but as I discussed above, it is unlikely that anything would have given me the same understanding and appreciation of the landscape as the documentary had done.  Thanks to having seen it prior to my visit, I came prepared to go for a hike and get as much of a spatial experience of the site as I could.  I felt bad for the other people there, none of whom seemed to leave the immediate area of the monument (and the majority even listened to the available audio tour which I didn’t do).  They cannot have gained much of the sense of place and wonderment that the connected sites inspire.


[1] I have already expressed elsewhere that in my opinion interpreters need to start moving beyond Tilden – and quickly.

[2] On an organisational level, for example, the Spanish Asociatión para la Interpretación del Patrimonio, defines interpratation partially through being ‘on site’: ‘La interpretación del patrimonio es el ‘arte’ de revelar in situ el significado del legado natural y cultural al público que visita esos lugares en su tiempo libre.’

[3] One may argue that even these processes of ‘making’ heritage won’t in the future be taking place in the physical realm only.  Virtual worlds and social networking online may all become spaces for heritage negotiation and creation.

[4] I will not go into the shocking lack of interpretation and presentation of Stonehenge here, others have already done that.  See for example Golding, F.N., 1989. Stonehenge – past and future. In Cleere, H.F. (ed), 1989. Archaeological Heritage Management in the Modern World. London, Cambridge, North Sydney, Wellington: Unwin Hyman, pp. 256-264

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In the UK the impact of budget cuts is starting to become evident all around us.  The latest issue of the Museums Journal abounds with news of museum closures, staff reductions or reduced opening hours. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is about to become usurped by the Arts Council in England and funding programmes are slimmed down.

People are complaining, some quietly, some less so.  What’s missing in the response from the museums and heritage sector, however, is a solid, clear argument for why the cuts should not be directed at us.

Of course, it’s still a hotly debated issue, that of the value of culture and heritage.  Especially in the past reference to an ‘intrinsic value’ seems to have been enough.  For years, however, even that ‘intrinsic value’ has been called into question.  Some writers have argued that it doesn’t even exist: every value is a social construct, and it can change over time [1].  This also highlights the issue of who defines and upholds any given ‘intrinsic’ value.  Many specialists will fiercely defend an object that is relevant to their field due to its age or rarity.  But if this object doesn’t hold any value for anyone else, can we really justify spending valuable resources on it?

This is really the key dilemma.  I’m not arguing the case for the government, but in principle, any funding and policy decisions have to be transparent.  Such transparency relies on objective criteria, and these are mostly measured in monetary terms.  A cost-benefit analysis is generally the norm, and it is here that the ‘intrinsic value’ argument falls short in its persuasive power.  The obvious answer, therefore, is that we need to give culture and heritage an economic value: it needs a price attached that can be compared.  This is not ideal.  Any valuation method to arrive at such a price is flawed and subject to many factors [2].  However, even the sceptics acknowledge that such economic valuation is likely to get close to the intrinsic values, or those which will be difficult to express in monetary terms [3].  No doubt cultural institutions, including museums, will be increasingly asked to undertake such valuation of their services.

I think that’s a good thing. It can only improve practice and strengthen the sector’s position.  And I hope interpreters will learn from this too.  I still hear myself say over and over again that in interpretation we need more hard data and proof that we’re actually making a difference.  Too often, even at conferences, interpreters still contend themselves with mere claims of the benefits of interpretation in general and specific interventions in particular.  We must begin to be more critical.  We must strive to produce data, scientifically gathered, that backs us up.  We all can do it, even if it’s just on a small scale.  Clear objectives and learning outcomes that are consequently tested in evaluations and visitor surveys may not provide an economic valuation but they are a first step toward providing proof that what we do works (or doesn’t?).  This should be built into every interpreter’s daily practice anyway.  This cannot replace the in-depth research that we need to understand underlying factors.  But as more universities begin to offer courses in interpretation, such research will surely follow and thus will give further substance and credit to interpreters.  After all, I have no doubt that as museums and heritage sites are assessed with regard their economic value to society, interpretation will become part of that valuation.

So let’s not sell ourselves short.  Let’s prove what we’re worth.



[1] See for example Tunbridge, J.E. and Ashworth, G.J. (1996) Dissonant Heritage.  The Management of the past as a resource in conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons and Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum.

[2] For a review of economic valuation see Provins, A et al (2008) ‘Valuation of the historic environment: The scope for using economic valuation evidence in the appraisal of heritage-related projects’. Progress in Planning 69, 131-175

[3] see for example Throsby, D (2006) ‘The value of cultural heritage: Whatcan economics tell us?’ in Clark, K (ed) (2006) Capturing the Public Value of Heritage: The Proceedings of the London Conference 25-26 January 2006. London: English Heritage pp 40 – 44


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