Posts Tagged ‘ICOMOS Charter for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites’

I spent this week at the joint Interpret Europe/National Association for Interpretation conference in Sweden.  The conference theme was global citizenship, but probably due to my own interests, I ended up hearing mostly papers on stakeholder engagement [1].

Here are a few impressions and thoughts that I’ve had during the conference – no doubt I’ll come back to blogging later on in detail about some of these things.

Read, Travel, Be Someone!
Ted Cable’s opening keynote reflected on three pieces of advice that writer Barry Lopez gave (as I remember, it was advice about finding your place in the world.  Ted Cable applied it to becoming a world citizen, and an interpreter).  Firstly, Lopez recommended to read: reading gives depth, especially if you read broadly, and if you read the classics you’ll get exposed to some truly universal themes (as an avid reader of all kinds of literature I couldn’t agree more).  Secondly, Lopez said to travel, for travelling helps understanding, gives meaning, and makes us care (true).  Lastly, Lopez recommended to become somebody.  For Ted Cable this means to become an interpreter with your own beliefs, for otherwise ‘you’re just another source of interpretation’ [2]. One to think about.

The relationship between audiences
The first paper I heard was by consultant Jane Severs of Newfoundland.  She and her colleagues had been hired by a town that wanted an ‘interpretation of their heritage’, their story.  Jane and her colleagues told them that there really wasn’t that kind of story there (go Jane! It takes courage for a consultant to tell their client the truth and do the right thing).  Instead, they spent time exploring the issues: existing inhabitants felt their heritage was getting lost, while new inhabitants felt they were excluded from that heritage story. Jane came up with a project that combined old inhabitants’ knowledge of the landscape with an opportunity for new inhabitants to contribute their own experiences in this place.  As a process, I thought this was great, and the resulting concept was good too (changeable panels at different, unlikely locations, including the post office).  People could phone in and hear stories as well as leave their own.  The only issue I see is that the local museum hadn’t (at the onset) given much thought to how they would include new comments left.  These are now somehow displayed at the museum (I can’t remember the details), but there are no plans to actually make them accessible via the phone system – bit of a missed opportunity, I think.

No communication between interpreters’ organisations
John Jameson of ICOMOS made a very good point as he talked about the ICOMOS Ename Charter: that there is an ‘appalling lack of communication’ between the different interpretation/heritage organisations, including a lack of consideration of the Ename Charter.  Now, I’m aware of the issues with the charter’s first emergence (interpreters and their organisations weren’t involved), but let’s get over that now.  The charter is not perfect, but it’s also not a bad start at all.  Perhaps more importantly, however, we should acknowledge that coming from ICOMOS, the charter has clout.  As Jameson pointed out, in countries that don’t have their own heritage or interpretation organisations, the guidelines and policies of UNESCO and ICOMOS are important documents, which are regularly referenced.  I think existing organisations should make use of this momentum, rather than ignore it.  Let’s work with ICOMOS and the Charter, instead of each organisation trying to force their own vision through.

The thing with underrepresented groups and special exhibitions
I’d already heard Stuart Frost speak about the British MuseumsHajj exhibition at the Encountering Religion Study Day a few months ago.  What was interesting in terms of developing audiences was one particular observation he made in Sweden: the Hajj exhibition saw increased numbers in usually under-represented groups (mostly Muslims), but these dropped right back to their usual levels once the exhibition closed.  This isn’t unheard of; many museums actually report that special exhibitions or projects attract ‘special’ audiences, which then will disappear again from the museum’s visitor profile.  And yet, it’s an observation that isn’t sufficiently discussed when museums talk about audience development: Here, the argument still implies that one-off projects with ‘excluded’ groups can permanently change whatever the underlying issue may be.  If this simplistic formula doesn’t work at the British Museum (and their resources with regard to audience research, front-end/formative evaluation and not to mention marketing make me white with jealousy), then it’s unlikely to work anywhere else.

Yay to Denmark
The second day’s keynote speech by Poul Hjlmann Seidler and Mette Aashov Knudsen of Denmark was great for one particular thing: they actually called interpretation facilitation.  That’s the first time I’ve heard someone use this definition at a conference, and since I’ve been harping on about this for years, I felt like jumping up and yahooing.  I must confess that I knew nothing about the work that’s being done in Denmark on interpretation (mostly nature interpretation, I gather), but this is exciting.  Poul later mentioned their interest in doing some more fundamental evaluation research that goes beyond the tools and really looks at impact, which is of course right up my street.  I hope they share their progress; I’ll certainly keep an eye on Scandinavia now.

And our actions speak louder than our words, too
One final paper that stood out for me was by Kate Armstrong of the Museum of Australian Democracy.  Her key question was whether or not an organisation’s actions actually matched their professed mission.  The obvious example was of a nature centre that didn’t offer recycling facilities on site.  It’s less obvious when we come to examine our actions as museums of social history, or in Kate’s case, a museum about democracy.  I found this really thought provoking: Kate questioned whether her museum’s programmes actually were democratic, and whether their processes and actions mirrored the processes of democracy that they wished to convey.  The issue is probably more pressing and challenging for some types of museums than others, but it’s definitely something that I’ve not heard considered before (and this applies to my own practice too).

Overall, I was really pleased to have attended this conference.  Sweden was a great host (I’d never been), and it was good to visit such famed sites as Skansen [3] as part of the excellent choice of study visits [4].  The Scandinavians are clearly interested in digging deeper into the impacts of interpretation, and how the theoretical framing of the discipline relates to practice.  Personally, I would have wished for more such critical papers, which don’t merely share practice, but really examine the thinking, the intention, and the outcome.  Even as a practitioner, these are the examples I learn from the most, and I fervently hope that one of my fellow presenters will be proven wrong in the not too distant future when he said that theoretical papers (such as his own) just don’t attract that much interest.  Well, they should.


[1] It was so wonderful to see that the interpretive community finally seems to be giving more thought to stakeholders.  I’ve been arguing for including stakeholders in interpretation more widely for a long time and to adopt a wider definition of the term also (see for example here), and yet as late as last year I still had interpreters here in the UK question me on whether stakeholders were important at all beyond the (immediate) local community and the decision-makers (especially in planning and landowners).

[2] Personally, I’m not so sure about this last one –since I believe my job as an interpreter is to facilitate someone else’s engagement with (their) heritage I really don’t think I have much of a place as a private person in this equation (something to explore at a later date).  Nevertheless, Ted’s passion for interpretation was, as always, moving.

[3] On a side note, I was really disappointed with Skansen.  A lot of the buildings were closed with neither a sign saying so (one was simply confronted with a locked door – never a good experience), nor an explanation of whether they are ever open (some apparently are, others aren’t – I still don’t know which ones).  The quality of the personal interpretation provided by the costumed interpreters was also inconsistent.  Even allowing for language issues (although I’m told all interpreters are expected to speak English) or a certain level of self-consciousness when dealing with a bunch of international interpreters with name badges dangling around their necks, this wasn’t very impressive. After all, for people dealing with personal interpretation, Skansen is pretty much the birthplace of the format.

[4] The Swedish colleagues really did make an effort here.  They structured the visits, and they wanted both us as the conference delegates and the host sites to get something out of it.  The only qualms that I had: in all this, they didn’t always allow us to be ‘visitors’, which is not only important for our own sakes (after all, I have no idea when I’ll have the chance to go back to Sweden) but is also a prerequisite for anyone giving informed feedback on the interpretation provided.  But that’s just a mini-concern.  Overall, the Swedes have just shown us how it’s done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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