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A couple of weeks ago, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language) declared ‘post-factual’ as word of the year 2016. As we enter into 2017, the post-factual approach to reality and politics appears set to continue. So I want to consider what this might mean for heritage interpretation.

 

Accepted interpretive philosophy tells us that information is not interpretation [1]. Interpretation is more than a ‘statement of facts’ [2]: it is revelation [3]. These were corner stones of Tilden’s philosophy, and of course what he responded to in 1957 was a visitor environment dominated by subject specialists. So one can vividly imagine Tilden, the exasperated journalist, telling a detail-obsessed specialist that it isn’t enough to simply tell visitors facts. They need more.

 

However, I think interpretation has taken this principle, that information is not interpretation, and the associated denigration of a ‘statement of facts’ a step too far. In current interpretation philosophy, it is not information which is most important, but the purposeful selection of information to succesfully deliver a message. Information has been demoted to a mere ingredient in the realisation of interpretive aims.

 

Putting aside the fact that selection is also manipulation, and that evidence suggests that people do want more or less pure information, albeit skillfully delivered: the instrumentalisation and thus marginalisation of information in contemporary interpretive practice is particularly problematic when faced with the reality and threats of a post-factual world. While mis-information is blatantly used to make a point, the selection of information to make another point neither seems appropriate nor sufficient. We need more.

 

Of course, post-factual attitudes won’t be changed by simply giving more information. Post-factual doesn’t just mean ‘ignoring’ or ‘falsifying’ facts. It also means being motivated by feelings: feelings of helplessness, unrational fears, a hope that may have no other foundation than the sense that it simply can’t be worse than this. It is not enough to scorn people with post-factual tendencies. Like it or not, we need to take them seriously in order to have any hope of collectively working through these feelings and leaving them behind in favour of more factual and rational decision-making [4].

 

Many political commentators have observed how very close mainstream democratic parties have moved towards one another in their policies. But rather than enfold everyone in society, this has created a vacuum around its edges. People no longer feel that their views are represented, and they are turning to parties and organisations who do not share a commitment to pluralist, democratic debate. It’s not just that these ‘populists’ ignore or falsify facts. It’s that they encourage people to no longer engage with anything but their own (post-factual) views, a situation that endangers democracy at its very core. From populist echochambers all critical thinking is purged, and what you get is a post-factual world that takes over whole nations (like the UK, like the US).

 

So what should interpretation do?

 

With the framing of this post so far, I realise that I’m edging toward suggesting that interpretation become political. It’s not a term I’ve used before in relation to interpretation. And if I do use it now, it is in a complex, maybe even contradictory way. Because on one hand, when I say ‘political’ I mean it as a responsibility and response which we must openly acknowledge in light of the developments in the world around us. When I complained about the failure of British museums and the British Museums Association to respond to the vilification of (im)migrants especially during the Brexit campaign, I was really saying that they should make a political statement. To say that ‘this is not okay’ is a political statement. And if that statement comes from a museum, that still carries weight with a lot of people. It matters.

 

But on the other hand, when I say that interpretation should become political I mean it should play a role in our political systems of democracy. Democracy is characterised by a debate on views and opinions, with respect for others. If, in a post-factual world, people no longer engage with the views of others and/or attack them, then interpretation must step up. I come back to agonistic interpretation here: in a post-factual world we must do our best to make visible what people do not see: The differing views. Their validity. The humanity of the ‘other’. And I’m not just talking about making visible the ‘good’ views, the liberal, pluralist, democratic views. I mean a real engagement in all directions, taking seriously also those people that feel ‘the establishment’ has left them behind. Not to educate and change anyone. But to make the whole of this democratic world visible to each participant.

 

This is fundamentally about information. It is about actual facts, and information about how people feel. Not every place will be suited to this. But where we can, we must make a push for it. Because I don’t know about you, but from where I am standing this future looks really scary. We can’t rely on others to fix it while we gaze into the past. Right now is what counts.

 

 

Notes
[1] This is of course first expressed in Tilden’s second principle of interpretation (Tilden, F., 1957(1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. 3rd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.

[2] Tilden, p. 8.

[3] This is also part of Tilden’s second principle.

[4] I write ‘factual’ and ‘rational’ with some misgivings, and only in contrast to ‘post-factual’. Although I do firmly believe in the importance of basing decisions on facts, I also know that half the time facts do not lead you to near self-evident decisions, as if the world were black and white. Mostly what is required is a judgment call, and that is based on a tangled mix of values, beliefs and yes, emotions.

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Professionally speaking, I, like many interpreters, was raised on Freeman Tilden’s second principle of interpretation. It reads:

Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.’ [1]

So when I started my field research, having conversations with visitors at sites in England and Germany [2], I was a bit unsettled when what they were asking for was much more about information than Tilden’s principle ‘allows’. They most definitely wanted information. They wanted facts and markers. They wanted interpretation to state what happened, when, and where, and to physically guide them through these locations. They wanted context and importantly, they wanted balance and transparency through being given all the information available.

That came through quite strongly in Germany, where the interpretation very obviously favours one view. One respondent very angrily pointed out that the interpretation left out facts (and questions) that radically would alter the story that was presented. Others seconded this, albeit less eloquently and with less passion.

And that’s where my real issues with Tilden’s principle began. If interpretation is defined by only partly being information, then what is the other part made up of? Tilden says, of ‘revelation’. He assumes that there is a ‘complete and perfect knowledge that is concealed beyond the horizon of the perception of the senses’ [Staiff 2014, p. 37, see note 3], and interpretation ‘reveals’ this knowledge. I agree with Staiff that this assumption cannot be maintained, for one because ‘reality does not need to be conceptualized as a binary, the visible and the invisible, with the latter somehow more important in the scheme of things’ [ibid]. There is no one, ‘larger truth’, as Tilden (1977, p. 9) suggests, which interpretation can ‘reveal’. There are many truths, and they change over time.

‘Revelation based upon information’ is therefore fundamentally also about the omission of information: interpretation selects facts that will present ‘a whole’ (Tilden 1977, p.40) – we now call this ‘thematic interpretation’. And that’s exactly the practice that respondents in Germany criticised: what they were presented with was one interpretation, and they found this unsatisfactory, and in conflict with why the site was heritage to them.

And then there is of course this idea that visitors do not have, and cannot on their own make sense of information, facts, or material reality. They are seen to need the interpreter to ‘reveal’ the knowledge, supported by ‘specialists’ (Tilden 1977, p. 23). This notion of the ‘ignorance’ of visitors, as Staiff (2014, p. 37) called it, also cannot be reconciled with many findings, including my own. Most of the visitors I spoke to in my study already knew a great deal about the event and the site they were visiting, and they often engaged me in remarkable debates that ranged from the conclusiveness of archaeological evidence to the processes of identity creation [4]. They were far from ignorant [5].

So in light of the above, I want to give information much more credit [6]. In fact, I want to suggest that interpretation is precisely about information [7] – or at least, it should be. It must give the facts – all the facts, not just our selection of them. Interpretation as information acknowledges people’s heritage values, their competence, and their existing connections. It levels the playing field between visitors and interpreters and it reminds us to constantly, and critically, check our own positioning. Interpretation as information provides the balance and transparency that respondents in my study were asking for [8]. To think of interpretation as information requires a different conceptual approach, as shown above, but one that I think is urgently needed [9].

Notes

[1] Tilden, F, 1977 (3rd ed). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of Caroline Press, p. 9.

[2] In England, my case study site was 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey, and in Germany, Varusschlacht – Museum und Park Kalkriese.

[3] Staiff, R., 2014. Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation. Enchanting the Past-Future. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited

[4] As it were, I don’t think visitors need to have neither this kind of historical/scientific knowledge, nor the ability to talk as eloquently about it as many of those did with whom I spoke. But it makes the point that if that is the criteria, as it appears to often be the case in interpretation discourse, then there is plenty of evidence of visitors’ knowledge and ability.

[5] Just to point out too that this is not a question of assessing ‘prior knowledge’, and pitching interpretation accordingly. It is also not about giving visitors credit for not being stupid. The way in which we use both notions is still in support of communicating our messages. What I’m talking about here is a fundamental acknowledgement of people’s existing connections to sites, and their sovereign right to that heritage.

[6] In another interesting twist on the critique of Tilden’s principle, Staiff pointed out that, ‘information is interpretation’ (p. 39), and ‘facts…are themselves an interpretation’ (p. 38). He’s absolutely right. And not just in Tilden’s sense that ‘all interpretation includes information’. As Staiff writes, ‘To name is to interpret’ (ibid).

[7] Yes, that information has to be presented in an accessible way (as Staiff also pointed out, p. 38). But communication isn’t – or at least should not be – the distinguishing foundation of interpretation as a heritage practice. Lots of disciplines are based in communication: presenting information and messages in an accessible or persuasive way – like marketing, or journalism (it’s no surprise Tilden was a journalist). This focus on communication as the conceptual foundation for interpretation leaves out a lot of things that to me seem much more important to interpretive practice. I’m sure I’ll come back to this on this blog at some point.

[8] More research is needed to test whether my findings will be replicated at other sites.

[9] Of course, there is a lot more to this: how do we go about capturing ‘all the information’? How about the conflicts between information? And what about the differences in sites? What about those visitors whose heritage it is not, and who have no other connection to the site than having read about it in their guidebook (or worse, just having stumbled across it)? What about foreign visitors, or people that are not even on site? What does ‘information’ do to the power balance – can it really fix it? I do have some thoughts on all these questions and will surely blog about them at some point too. But I’m conscious this is a blog, not an academic monograph.

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