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Over recent months I’ve had numerous discussions about art and interpretation. Many people suggest that art doesn’t need interpretation. As someone who began her university career in the arts before entering the field of interpretation and heritage, I find this stance puzzling [1]. And the more I think about it, the more troubled I am by it, particularly in a museum context.

 

On the one hand, the issue certainly lies with people’s lack of knowledge of interpretation. Interpretation does not exist in Germany as the comprehensive discipline and practice it is in the English-speaking world [2]. And so when I talk about interpretation, the first thing people tend to respond to is the term itself. They think of interpretation in the classic sense, as a single viewpoint or understanding, or as a particular rendition of a creative work. This isn’t a new misunderstanding, of course. Even in English, the language of origin of the discipline of interpretation, the term has caused confusion and debate. Nevertheless, in English we’ve come to an agreement which, as the discipline gained traction, has widely become accepted by others also. The consensus is that interpretation in the museum and heritage contexts means ‘x’. Discussion over. Moving on.

 

I generally try to explain ‘x’ along the lines of ‘giving people a foundation to engage with an exhibition’. I explain that in interpretation, a basic principle is to carefully consider visitors and their needs, in other words, to have a visitor focus, or what in German is termed Besucherorientierung. And this is where people often start to argue.

 

Art, I am told, cannot be ‘about visitors’. To consider visitors within an exhibition, to provide an infrastructure that responds to their needs, is to stifle art. Interpretation, it has been suggested to me, would prevent exciting concepts, leading to art exhibitions that are commonplace and boring. And so interpretation is in fact an insult to visitors, for they do not need it and are visiting to appreciate art undisturbed by such banal intrusions.

 

Interpreters know of course that just the opposite is true. And the experiences with the success of interpretation by whatever term it goes in Germany, as well as the evidence of visitor books and visit numbers tell us another story also. This rejection of interpretation is therefore not based on the evidence. So the question begs what else might be going on here. We can’t know the underlying motivations without further research, so I’m focussing instead on the consequences of such attitudes and this desired act of not providing interpretation.

 

The first consequence is that we’re sending out a subtle message: if you don’t understand art without additional aids, then probably an art museum isn’t the right place for you. It also creates two groups: those who understand art (and therefore don’t need interpretation), and those who don’t. Considering that the claim is that interpretation somehow stifles and diminishes the quality of art, there is also a message of superiority here, of a higher level of understanding and sophistication.

 

Not providing interpretation, in other words, not making visible the underlying (intended) concepts of the artwork or its wider context also means that the breadth and depth of its critical examination is limited to a small number of people (supposedly) ‘in the know’. It’s the ‘Authorizing Discourse’ all over again, self-referential and self-affirming. Non-experts are unlikely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the art they see, either. If you don’t even know what an artwork is meant to address, you can neither form an opinion on the validity of the concept nor on the quality of the execution. Your views can be easily dismissed (because you clearly don’t understand) or they are castrated (because they remain superficial).

 

Superficiality of engagement is the real tragedy for me when it comes to the refusal of interpreting art. Art is not like heritage in that sense. Art can be so abstract, so conceptual that without further explanation people truly will not manage to fully engage and respond to art. To take their reactions of dispproval as real engagement is a betrayal of them. They haven’t engaged. They are frustrated. That is not the same.

 

The result of all of the above is ultimately exclusion. And in a museum context I cannot find any justification for this. No matter what contemporary definition of a museum you use, one of its core elements is always a variation on education and/or engagement. If museums do not make possible either, then they are not fulfilling one of their main purposes.

 

Professional interpretation doesn’t get in the way of art. It doesn’t force itself on visitors, nor does it provide a one-size-fits-all solution. What it does do is widen the reach of art. It provides an infrastructure that makes it possible for more people to engage – dare I say ‘meaningfully’ – with art. If that is not in the interest of art, then the problem in my view is not with interpretation.

 

 

Notes

[1] Here’s a not-so-well known fact about me: I studied Comparative Literature to BA-level (I switched after what was thens till the Intermediate Exam) before I completed a Masters of Art in Creative Arts, with a focus on Interdisciplinary Arts.

[2] Interpretation as a comprehensive discipline doesn’t exist in Germany, but that doesn’t mean its basic principles and indeed its practices are entirely unknown. Thankfully, there is a lot of overlap, the difference being, however, that what is covered by Interpretation is split into multiple disciplines in Germany. Which also leads to what I find is a discursive jungle. It makes me appreciate the formation that’s been developed in Interpretation, even if I wish much of it were moving on more quickly than it is.

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Sometimes you read a book and think: this is so centrally relevant to what I have been thinking that I cannot believe I’ve missed this all this time. Chantal Mouffe’s book Agonistics. Thinking the World Politcally (London: Verso 2013) was such a book for me [1].

 

Antagonism

Mouffe in effect argues that negativity and opposing views ‘can never be overcome’ (p. 130). She asserts this in contrast to a liberal tradition, which believes in ‘universal consensus based on reason’ (p. 3). Rather than dismiss passion and conflict as ‘archaic’ (p. 4) and thus inferior, as liberalism does, Mouffe holds antagonism as ‘constitutive’ (p. 130) and central to democracy (e.g. p.7ff). Antagonism means, Mouffe writes, that there exist conflicts without rational solution and a pluralism in which not all views can finally be reconciled (p. 130).

 

Agonism

Enter ‘agonism’. This may be most simply understood as a healthy version of the potentially destructive antagonism. In agonism there are ‘adversaries’, not enemies as in antagonism. Adversaries share democratic principles but otherwise have conflicting views (p. 7). And that’s okay because everyone ultimately recognises the legitimacy of their opponent’s demands (p. 138) even if there can and will never be a full reconciliation. The point is, the concept of agonism embraces plurality. ‘Agonistic’ thus is the adjective that describes the confrontation between adversaries and their different views within a context of mutual respect and acceptance (p. 7).

 

Hegemony

Importantly (and now I’m beginning to inch my way towards interpretation), Mouffe argues that because the many differing views can never be reconciled, any order that emerges is always hegemonic: it is a matter of what has, for the time being, become the dominant view, and therefore any order is contestable, exclusive, and only one of many orders that are possible (p. 17).

 

The Hegemonic Struggle

Mouffe therefore talks about the ongoing hegemonic struggle (p. 14), which is the struggle to unsettle the existing hegemony and build another, and so forth. For this process to work peacefully it is important that structures and opportunities are created that allow the process to be ‘agonistic’, that is, opportunities that make sure that people see each other as adversaries, not enemies, and have a respectful debate about their differing views.

 

Agonistic public spaces

Mouffe contradicts the view that public spaces should be spaces where people arrive at a consensus (p. 92). Rather, Mouffe argues that public spaces should be agonistic: not only should they be spaces where conflicting views are voiced without seeking an (impossible) reconciliation (p. 92), but they should also make ‘visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate, in giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony’ (p. 93).

 

Agonistic Interpretation

And so I arrive at ‘agonistic interpretation’. I have for a while argued that interpretation is not about messages and objectives of whatever kind, which are achieved by, for example, persuasive communication. Rather, I have been suggesting that interpretation is about creating an infrastructure to allow people to continue to create heritage. And I have suggested that interpretation is fundamentally about representation. It should aim at making visible the wider representational dynamics in society and history [2]. I have often called this ‘telling all sides of a story’, which is why Mouffe’s description above about ‘agonistic public spaces’ just enthused me. Agonistic. A concept that recognises the hegemonic order of societies, the pluralism of reality, the impossibility of consensus, and the consequent suppressive nature of the liberal-rational claim [3]. Agonistic is the political, it is an action and a process that has real socio-political consequences. As Mouffe asserts, the disarticulation of a hegemony (read: make visible) is not the end goal, it must be followed by rearticulation (read: facilitate, enable creation): a new order (p. 74). And agonism is at the heart of making this possible.

 

Mouffe’s ideas in this book mirror much of Laurajane Smith’s critique of the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) in Uses of Heritage (London and New York: Routledge 2006), only related to society and politics, not heritage. Smith’s book was another of those books that made me think I had been living in a dark cave for years. But what my engagement with Smith’s ideas hadn’t given me was a proper handle on what to call this interpretation that isn’t communication, education, or thematic, or persuasive. Earlier in the year, at the Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen, I presented my take on interpretation as ‘Critical Heritage Interpretation’, and discursively it undoubtedly is.

 

But agonistic! I think I may have just found the label for the kind of interpretation I think we all should be doing.

 

 

Notes

[1] I owe huge thanks to Lena Johansson at the Swedish National Heritage Board, who recommended this book to me after a presentation I gave at this year’s Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen.

[2] For example here and here.

[3] Which is of course also at the root of much of contemporary interpretation philosophy that aims at ‘educating’ people toward certain desired goals: the suggestion is that through rational through, aided by good interpretation, people will arrive at the ‘right’ understanding, and the ‘right’ appreciation. But to elaborate this here would go too far.

 

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A project that I’m working on at the moment had me think again about how we conceptualise ‘heritage’, and how our particular concepts and approaches are fermented by funding processes and dare I say the industry that has evolved around them. The project is what we in the sector in the UK call ‘a Heritage Lottery project’, which indicates not only the main funder (the Heritage Lottery Fund, or short HLF) but also a particular process that their funding programmes set in motion. So for an HLF project you’ll have a team of specialist consultants, including business planners (us, in this case), an architect and their whole support team, an interpretation planner, and an activity planner. It was the activity planner who began to worry that this project didn’t have enough ‘heritage activity’, at least for HLF.

 

The project is a historic pool, claimed to be the oldest of its kind in the UK if not in Europe (we’re talking just over 200 years old). The site is incredibly steep and tight, making space a precious commodity. After one of the most extensive market appraisals that I’ve ever done, we as business planners concluded that there was neither need nor a financially viable basis to create anything other than facilities that support a restored pool operation. We know HLF very well, so we still envisaged interpretation and activties, but both integrated into the wider pool infrastructure with a light touch without building special facilities. We’re satisfied that HLF will be happy. But that’s not actually my point.

 

What made me pause was just how much we’re focused on providing these things – interpretation, activities – when quite possibly they are not needed at all. It’s a pool. It’s an old pool, granted, but it’s still a pool. When I read through comments that stakeholders made previously, I find people’s fond memories of swimming in the pool. Not 200 years ago, but within their lifetime – the 1960s, 70s, before it closed. Quite possibly (they don’t say) there is indeed an awareness of, and a sense of connection to the people that have swum in the pool before them, stretching all the way back to the 19th century. After all, amazingly the infrastructure that’s there has largely remained unchanged –while you swim, you can still imagine it’s the 19th century.

 

But actually, you may not want to. You may just enjoy to be swimming in a really pretty environment.

 

I am convinced that even if we provided not one word of interpretation, and not a single ‘heritage activity’, the pool, once opened, would still be ‘heritage’ to people – and become heritage to others as well. And this may or may not have anything to do with how old the pool is, or the fact that it is considered to be architecturally significant.

 

Here’s the thing: if HLF weren’t involved in this, as long as the building substance is respected (the pool is listed), we probably wouldn’t have this conversation at all. In fact, one of the comparators we looked at (not quite as old, but almost) was restored and redeveloped by a private company. There is no ‘heritage activity’ here, and only the briefest of nods to the site’s history in a few historic and restoration pictures online. And yet it is clear how much people value that pool and what it has become, judging by its popularity.

 

I’m not really making a ‘heritage industry’ critique here, although it pains me to admit that one could. I’m also not suggesting that whatever interpretation and facilitated, non-swimming ‘heritage’ activity is implemented will be anything less than excellent. And it is also true that some of the stakeholders would have built a whole block of buildings just to accommodate a vast historic exhibition and a dedicated education space. So it’s not just ‘us professionals’ that may be adding artificial layers to heritage [1].

 

I think for me this project is really driving home the point about thinking differently about heritage. Heritage is not the building. It’s not what we add on to it to ‘communicate’ it as heritage. It’s also an example of not managing heritage, but managing and providing the infrastructure that allows people to continue to create their heritage: in this case, by swimming in this pool. This was one of the things that really emerged for me from my visitor research: infrastructure was what was important, more so even than any form of what I used to think of and advocate as active facilitation. I’m not sure yet how far one way or the other my thinking will go as I continue to mull this over, but if there were nothing else to this project than the restoration of the pool so people can swim there again, I would feel I’ve done good work as a heritage professional.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] There has been the suggestion that people are so accustomed to the ‘Western’ way of thinking about heritage (experts, need to educate) that they’ve absorbed it too. Not all – there are plenty of case studies from ‘the West’ that show alternative views of heritage.

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