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Posts Tagged ‘Interpret Europe’

I would normally consider it my duty and responsibility to attend the Interpret Europe (IE) conference in Scotland taking place from 3 to 6 October [1].  Since I will not be there, I want to explain my decision in this post [2].

 

I disagree with the decision to hold IE’s first annual conference after the  vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom. It is true that Interpret Europe does not define what constitutes ‘Europe’ for its purposes. However, much of IE’s work is focused on the frameworks of the EU and much has been made of recent successes in working with EU institutions and representatives – and rightly so [3].

 

I do not believe in an abstract sense of ‘Europe’. The only European nation there is is the European Union. The only European citizenship there is is citizenship of the EU. And so I support Pulse of Europe in defining ‘Europe’ exclusively as the ‘EU’. I support their fight, which is a fight for the EU, and not any other construct of ‘Europe’. It is now more than ever that we must stand up for this project that is the European Union [4].

 

Going to the UK now sends the wrong signal, as far as I’m concerned. It suggests that when all is said and done, ceasing to be a member of the EU will change nothing – you will still be part of ‘Europe’, which is why Interpret Europe will come to you for a European Conference on Heritage Interpretation.

 

I know that some in IE see going to the UK at this point in time as a symbol of defiance, a gesture of resistance by the cultural sector. It is meant to say, You will not divide what belongs together. But there is a deep irony in this. The cultural sector in Britain was woefully complacent during the EU referendum. To anyone paying attention, it had been clear for months, if not years, that the political climate in the country had changed, and Brexit was a real possibility. From UKIP to the Immigration Act, things had been happening in the UK that went against everything the cultural sector claimed to stand for: promoting understanding, providing inclusion, supporting equality. And yet there was utter silence from all quarters, publicly and privately.

 

When the Brexit vote happened, a shockwave went through the cultural sector. Suddenly, people everywhere were saying that they wanted to stay in the EU and that the whole campaign had been reprehensible. I understand the sentiment – trust me, I do. But at the same time I do lack sympathy. The sector not only had its chance, it had a duty. And it did not come up to scratch. So while I feel for British colleagues who now face losing their European citizenship and all the rights that come with it, my concern is for the EU. I want to do everything in my power to protect and nurture the EU. And I am prepared to put everything else secondary, including reassuring British colleagues that they will not be excluded and to that end taking the Interpret Europe conference to their country despite the decision for Brexit.

 

The matter would be entirely different if the theme of the conference were the social and political responsibility of interpretation in the context of the Brexit vote [5]. We need this kind of critical and uncompromisingly honest self-assessment, because if anything, the Brexit referendum revealed considerable gaps between our ideals of interpretation and our practice. Let’s talk about that. Let’s grapple with what happened, why the cultural sector remained silent, why only a few months before the Brexit vote, British colleagues seemed surprised to hear of my fear and devastation in the face of the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric. Taking a stand is difficult, I know. But there is something seriously and deeply amiss when our vision papers say one thing, and our actions (or lack thereof) something else entirely. For me, the question that will move us forward now is not, ‘How can we stay together?’ It is, ‘How the heck could we let this happen in the first place?’ Because the answers will be important to interpreters everywhere, including in Germany right now.

 

However, I am not sure I would have returned to Scotland for this conference whatever the theme. The reason is that I cannot bear to go back to the place that was my chosen home, and from which I was expelled by a hostile environment. There are real victims to this failure of our sector to respond to the challenge it faced. I don’t know if it could have prevented the vote for Brexit, and thus my leaving. But it sure would have made a difference to me personally.

 

Interpret Europe taking its first conference since the vote for Brexit to the very place that rejected Europe and vilified European citizens, without addressing what happened, feels like a personal and professional betrayal all over.

 

Notes

[1] The reason is that I am IE’s Research Co-Ordinator. Technically, the conference is a joint conference with the British Association of Heritage Interpretation, or AHI. However, it is the only “conference” that IE (co-)hosts this year, and IE’s General Assembly will take place there. The conference’s URL is also the usual http://www.interpreteuropeconference.net/. In other words, it is also IE’s annual conference – there is no other.

[2] I did briefly mention my concern about taking this conference to Inverness in an email to IE in September 2016. However, I was not involved in previous discussions about the conference, which apparently began in November 2015. The final agreement with AHI wasn’t signed until October 2016 – plenty of time, therefore, to take Brexit into account.

[3] The notion of “European values” has also been an important aspect of IE’s recent work, and IE point out that these are shared by the Council of Europe also. The Council of Europe is of course larger than the EU.

[4] I feel so strongly about this that I feel the need to reiterate this point once again: The UK may consider itself to still be a part of Europe after Brexit. That, however, is no Europe that holds any meaning for me. I want the European Union. Not the Council of Europe. The European Union. I want a future for the EU as even closer together, stronger. Not giving up our national identities, but more integrated, a federal union.

[5] The topic of the conference is ‘Making Connections: Re-imagining Landscapes’. There is no reference to Brexit on the conference website. This, to me, is utterly unacceptable. There has also been the suggestion that a prime motivation for holding this conference in Scotland now was to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of AHI’s The Vital Spark conference. If that is indeed the case, then I am, simply put, speechless. To completely ignore one of the most seismic events since the Second World War in Europe for an anniversary just flies in the face of all our profession supposedly stands for.

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After last month’s Interpret Europe conference on the topic, I have been pondering what the role of heritage interpretation is for the Future of Europe. This is not a review of the conference [1]; however, I want to share some of the questions and thoughts I’ve had.

 

What future?

The joke that Prof Dr Mike Robinson of the Ironbridge Institute (UK) made before giving his keynote speech encapsulates the real ‘hot topic’ of the question of heritage intepretation and the future of Europe for me. He joked that here he was, an Englishman, being asked to speak at a conference about the future of Europe. His keynote wasn’t in fact about the future of Europe [2], but in a way I wish it had been. I would have liked to see the question of Brexit being discussed prominently, to explore why people are questioning the idea of Europe, not only in Britain but elsewhere also, and how this criticism compares both to the ideal and the reality of this union of nations. In my view, understanding this has to be the starting point for any involvement of heritage interpretation in creating Europe’s future [3].

 

What role?

At several points throughout the conference, the ideal of Europe (peace, prosperity, common destiny, shared culture) emerged as an unquestionable truth, and its promotion the natural aim of heritage interpretation for the future of Europe. While unsurprisingly I personally agree with this positive view of Europe, treating it as a truth in a management practice such as interpretation ultimately dismisses the opposing viewpoints shared by too many. For that is what we are doing when we are proposing heritage interpretation as a tool in promoting this, our view of what Europe is. Instead, we need to really engage with why so many are questioning Europe, and represent that fully in interpretation. That is not to say that we cannot also state what side we, as management, come down on; just the opposite. I argue that being transparent and clear about our political views is what we urgently need in interpretation, and professional heritage work in general [4].

 

Any role?

I attended a short session on the European Heritage Label, and one of the discussions that emerged in the group was whether this was a bottom-up or top-down approach to deciding which sites get the label [5]. This prompted questions about whether this then imposed a certain interpretive focus, which would in turn force these sites into a narrative of a European history and thus identity. I wondered whether this will actually play a role in supporting that identity, or will it rather put people off and give more fuel to the notion that Europe suppresses national diversity? I don’t have an answer and it would be interesting to read some research around that (suggestions?). It may be a natural step of an ever-closer union, right after bringing down the borders and introducing programmes of exchange and collaboration, all of which definitely have helped create a stronger sense of Europe for me. I would be okay with that. However, I also noted that I felt far closer to the Belgians when I by sheer accident found out about the story of Ambiorix than when we were on the First World War battlefields, which clearly are a ‘shared’ place of European history and which are interpreted as such. Ambiorix, you see, is Belgium’s Arminius, although the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren did not mention that, nor do I think I would have much appreciated if they had. Nevertheless, realising how similar some of our stories are really pleased me. It made me feel that we can understand each other, and that I and my folks can learn from the Belgians’ relationship to these histories, too.

 

Here’s to the future of Europe.

 

 

Notes

[1] Much of my conference, due to the sessions I picked and conversations I had, didn’t actually touch on this question.

[2] You can see the slides from his keynote here. He talked more about the future of thinking about cultural heritage, which was a good keynote to have at an interpretation conference.

[3] And I do not mean so that we can better persuade people of our view.

[4] I’ve spent much of my time since the conference writing another conference paper on just this topic. This is for the Challenging History conference later in the month.

[5] It seems that the answer to the question depends on one hand on the national nomination process, which can be different in each country that has signed up to it. Not all EU members have. On the other hand, there are the criteria which then are used by the EU panel of experts. That process will, I suppose, always be ‘top down’ to an extent, and for an official initiative such as a label I’m not sure I see an alternative.

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When I started working in a local authority heritage context [1], I was struck by how much heritage was specifically expected to deliver rather concrete outcomes: pride, identity, creativity, social cohesion, mutual understanding, to name but a few (yes, a few of the many). This was set out in project plans, and we were also expected to contribute to the aims of other, non-heritage policies relating for example to culture, community development, and young people.

In early 2011, this became the starting point for my doctoral research, and formed my primary research question: Does interpretation deliver the public benefits of heritage as asserted in policy and legislation? [2] Things naturally shifted and changed over the next five years, and other foci emerged, but now that I’ve finished the first draft of the thesis (yay!) I want to share some of my thoughts around these public benefits, and interpretation [3].

The first observation is that policy doesn’t actually use any evidence to justify its claims about these supposed benefits of heritage. That’s a big deal, because when I went out to ask people at my two case study sites why they valued their visit, and what the heritage meant to them, there was some overlap – but also considerable difference from benefits in policy. It’s one thing if this finding is just a matter of a lack of available empirical research (and that research is indeed lacking) when policies were written. However, since policy rightly shapes practice, the danger is that practice subsequently eagerly focuses on truly ‘delivering’, that is making happen these outcomes, thus potentially twisting for its own (and the policies’) ends people’s heritage and the reasons for which they value it. That is a form of both manipulation and disenfranchisement, which, as far as I’m concerned, must be avoided at all cost when we’re dealing with someone’s heritage – even if the benefits sound very positive, like ‘social integration’.

The other issue that arose for me is that while policy asserts all these benefits, it is not at all clear about the processes through which they are realised. Some policies do acknowledge this, and call for further research (and several writers have highlighted this issue as well). However, the reality is that often such research is not sufficiently enabled, meaning that practitioners continue to apply their familiar tools, albeit no doubt with the best of intentions. My last post talked about communal values, and some concerns around our practices, and it is one such example. For at the same time as policies assert the positive, democratic benefits of heritage, other concepts and ideas remain in place that are not easily reconciled with these benefits. What about, for example, the notion of the constantly changing and evolving nature of intangible heritage created by people as part of their identity, and the idea of inscribing it on a managed list, as in UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage? It is all too easy to feel comfortable behind the shield of the positive benefits and outcomes that are asserted, yet fail to radically question the philosophical suitability of our approaches, and examine their effectiveness.

Policies, of course, are working tools: they are debated, tried, adapted, changed, and changed again to, hopefully, respond to new knowledge and changing environments. They also create the strategic context for heritage management practices, including interpretation. I have spent this weekend revisiting European policies on cultural heritage for a strategic review on behalf of Interpret Europe. The policies provide ample opportunity to showcase what interpretation, even as it stands, can contribute, which is an immensely important step in getting interpretation on policy-makers’ radar – its glaring absence from policy as an important discipline is painful. And yet, at the same time, interpretation as a field must participate in the shaping, and examining of policies of the future. For this, it will not be enough to continue to rely on our existing practices and underlying thinking. Based on the findings of my doctoral research, I believe that it would be a step backwards to merely add the public benefits of heritage as asserted in policy and legislation to the list of outcomes that interpretation can ‘deliver’ (and I’m sure it could to some extent), similarly to how our existing discourse argues we promote (or ‘provoke’) learning, and changes in attitude and behaviour, including appreciation of heritage. We need a radically different philosophy of heritage interpretation, to keep up even just with these policies, and make a meaningful contribution to how they will continue to shape the heritage sector.

Notes

[1] This was for Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, managing Bedwellty House and Park, a heritage-led regeneration project in one of the UK’s most deprived areas. I blogged about the many lessons I learnt there here.

[2] A quick note to stress that I never proposed nor expected that interpretation ‘deliver’ these outcomes in the sense of ‘provoking’ them, or ‘making them happen’. But it seemed the best phrasing, and most suited to wide exploration. And it was. So bear with me and this (somewhat misleading) choice of word.

[3] I don’t think the blog is the place to share detailed findings – bit boring that (and yes, academically self-defeating), but if you’re interested, keep an eye out on my publications page, as I’m planning to submit articles on aspects of my research to different academic journals over the next few months/year. I’ll also let people know via Twitter, if you don’t already follow me @NicoleDeufel.

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As I continue to plough my way through transcribing the visitor interviews that I’ve done at Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany I am struck by one observation: a lot of visitors refer to ‘the presentation’.  They came because they wanted to see how the story was ‘presented’.  They liked ‘the presentation’.  ‘The presentation’ was excellent.

Contrast this to the relative silence when I probe them about what they take away from their visit, and I wonder if there is something going on here. If ‘the presentation’ is that good, then why does it appear to have left them completely cold?

Of course, this could simply be a wider cultural issue.  Germans may just turn out to be much more reserved when it comes to history.  Or, they may simply be reserved when it comes to the history of this particular site [1].  I am planning to do visitor interviews at a related, but less regimented site next year to test this.

However, I am reminded of what I learnt during my studies in art: If the audience thinks about the medium, then you’ve lost them.  If they think about how you’ve cut your film or created your scene, then they’re no longer in the story, and your film has failed.  It’s that simple.

Is the same true for interpretation?  If all visitors can think of when you ask them about their visit is how you’ve told the story, does that mean that they’ve actually not connected to the story at all?  This could be a matter of medium: it may be clunky, and draw attention to itself.

Or, and this is what I think may be going on in Kalkriese, it may be that your medium is indeed excellent, but what you’re telling is just not the whole story, or it isn’t what has meaning to visitors.  There have been several occasions where visitors almost seemed to censor themselves, and tell me what I think they believe they are expected to feel, or have learnt, or say.  The way in which the interpretation at Kalkriese was put together was marked by what seems an overwhelming fear that the site will be misused and misappropriated by nationalists.  Consequently, the tone in the exhibition is constantly tempered by relativism, caution, and an almost obsessive focus on material evidence [2].  The result is an exhibition that does not, ultimately, disinterestedly present facts, but one which is oddly misbalanced and focussing on the side which was defeated in the battle [3].  I cannot help but feel that this must have an impact on the way visitors respond to my questions.

If that is indeed the case, then interpretation has a few things to think about.  The first and most obvious point is that it is not enough to ask visitors whether or not they ‘liked’ the interpretation.  Clearly at Kalkriese they did, or at least as far as they feel at liberty to tell me.  It also means that ‘good’ interpretation cannot be marked off by material criteria alone.  In other words, we can’t develop a tick list of observable qualities to determine whether a piece of interpretation is ‘good’ [4] – heritage just doesn’t work that way.

It’s an exciting journey, and I’m really interested in seeing how visitors at the other site respond.  As ever: Watch this space.

Notes
[1] German nobleman raised in Rome turns against the Empire, (temporarily) unites the many German tribes and defeats three legions.  You can read more about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest here.
[2] I’ve written here about another side product of this focus on finds.
[3] In German, the site is called ‘Varusschlacht’, the Battle of Varus, Varus being the Roman commander that was defeated in the event. There are historic reasons for this also, but ultimately it was a choice.  The symbol of the site, reproduced on all signage and marketing as well as in an oversized replica greeting visitors as they enter the exhibition, is a Roman mask that they found early on in the excavations.
[4] It’s a bit ironic that I should write this today, when I received an invitation to propose ‘quality criteria’ for interpretation to Interpret Europe.  Some of the original criteria that were proposed and discussed at a workshop during the last IE conference were exactly limited to these observable, Tilden-based qualities, and I heatedly argued against this.  They’ve now agreed to include process criteria, which I think are better placed to fit the bill.

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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.

Notes

[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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Next month I’ll be presenting a paper at the NAI/IE joint conference entitled ‘Interpretation can make us citizens of the world’ in Sweden. I’m really looking forward to what people will say about this topic.  As I’ve reported in my last blog post, only one couple out of the 100+ people I’ve interviewed so far have made a reference to something approaching world citizenship: they called it mutual understanding.

 

I’m interested in how this mutual understanding was generated.  The conference title suggests that interpretation has a role to play here.  I’m sure it does, but I wonder if that role is as active and targeted as the title implies.  My interviewees touched on ‘mutual understanding’ when they spoke about their own visits to foreign countries.  And ‘mutual understanding’ here wasn’t confined to heritage either.  It also arose from people on the street responding to the gifts they had bought for their grandchildren back home.  Arguably, there was no interpretation involved here – in fact, there was a language barrier, which seemed to have been overcome by the time-honoured means of waving arms.

 

But they did also specifically mention going to heritage sites as a way of connecting to the people abroad, and finding out more about them.  They found similar stories: of poor versus rich, power struggles and passions, and the hardships of survival in times gone by.  They didn’t talk about royal connections, or the many ways in which European histories crisscross back and forth. My impression was that the interpretation provided paid no heed to them as a ‘special’ audience (i.e. foreign): it simply told the story of the place.  And my interviewees found simple human stories through which they connected to the people: in seeing that their personal struggles past and present were similar to their own they did away with the unfamiliar, and recognized ‘the other’ as similar to themselves.

 

To me this does raise an important question that I’ve found myself asking throughout this research process so far: what does interpretation need to do (actively, purposefully) to deliver certain benefits?  Is there a limit to this activism, and the desire to prompt a certain outcome? Because listening to these visitors and many of the others, I was really struck once again by their informed approach, and their clear desire to create their own narratives, and not be dictated to [1].  They didn’t need the interpretation to tell them that x is similar to z, and really, the two hark back to a shared origin that makes us all the same.  They didn’t want an integrated story of European history, but embraced the uniqueness of the foreign heritage: that’s what they had come for.

 

I wonder if there is a danger for interpretation to go overboard.  I think there is a fine line between keeping your eye on the heritage in front of you and trying to (actively) create and deliver overarching outcomes that are, let’s face it, so often politically motivated.  For me, a stabilising factor lies in engaging with stakeholders, which is what my own paper at the conference will focus on.  But whether this is the ultimate answer, or indeed what the many complexities of these questions in general are, is something I suspect I’ll be contemplating for a while yet.

 

 

 

Notes

[1] That’s also what I suspect lay behind ‘the public’s rejection of the idea of the museum as a place for debate in the Museums 2020 research: they probably thought that the museum would take a side and try to brainwash them.

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I spent the start of this week in Pisa at the annual Interpret Europe Conference.  Possibly the greatest inspiration that I took from it was the forming of a group of like-minded professionals with an interest in ‘closing the gap’.  Talking to each other, we found that there is a discrepancy between how interpretation is currently presented from within the field, and what many of us are asked to do in our professional roles.

Like myself, many of these colleagues are having to use their interpretive skills for projects that go far beyond interpretive planning and implementing an exhibition or trail.  As one Australian consultant reported of a recent project, the client didn’t just want an interpretive plan.  They wanted public outcomes, processes, and engagement.  In Scotland, the Centre for Interpretation Studies encounters similar demands, especially from Local Authorities.  Here, heritage is seen as a means to deliver policy outcomes such as increasing community capacity or providing routes into learning for young people.

All of these activities fall outside the traditional view of interpretation.  Interpretation is no longer asked to merely provide an explanation in the form of a media solution.  Traditional interpretive outputs such as panels become much rarer in what is required by clients.

And yet, our discourse doesn’t reflect this.  In many ways, the conference, while truly enjoyable, provided a good example for this.  The opening keynote speech argued in favour of interpretation as an end in itself based on Freeman Tilden [1].  While it included an interesting discussion of the discipline’s philosophical connection to Humanism and the enlightenment, the sheer fact that we still open interpretation conferences by quoting a writer of more than fifty years ago shows a worrying degree of orientation to the past.  It also shows an obsession with defining what interpretation is, based on parameters that are no longer relevant for present circumstances.

This in particular seems something of an issue with many practitioners.  When in one presentation the suggestion was made that interpretation is also marketing I felt a noticeable unease sweep through the audience.  But why?  Why are we so precious about not wanting to associate interpretation with marketing, for example? I suspect the closing keynote of the conference contained some clues to this conundrum.  The speech was filled with immensely inspiring and motivational quotes about what interpretation and interpreters do: we care, we share passion, we protect what cannot be replaced.  Don’t get me wrong: I subscribe to all of these.  And yet, is it this moral definition of our work that makes us look with disdain onto more practical effects, such as marketing?

It seems to me that as a discipline we cannot afford such ivory-tower thinking.  In practice, what interpreters are asked to do, and what we want to do more of, is to provide a comprehensive ‘product’ that unlocks the practical potential of heritage.  I don’t think that in order to achieve this we should ditch the term interpretation (I wrote a little about this here).  But what we need to do is to widen its application.  Only then will we be able to present the picture of a strong, responsive and more importantly, relevant discipline that is crucial to delivering outcomes from heritage.

Alas, it is this discourse that this new informal group wishes to move forward. I can’t wait to see the discussions start.

Notes

[1] I’ve already explained here why I think we need to move beyond Tilden.

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