Posts Tagged ‘interpretation’

Since returning to my country of birth last year after nearly 20 years away, I have become acutely aware not only of how I have changed, but also how the country has changed. So now, in addition to catching up with the sites and topics that I am responsible for managing and interpreting, I am also catching up with the country’s thinking about its identity and its heritage while I was gone – both key factors in any work with heritage.


One development that I’ve stumbled across quite quickly has been the formulation of an official Erinnerungskultur, or ‘memory culture’, and so I’ve recently read a book about that [1]. The term was coined during the 1990s, the decade I left Germany. It does not, as you might think, denote a particularly thriving culture based on memories. Rather, it focuses on the memory of the Holocaust as the (negative) foundation myth of modern Germany. In this it is slightly different from the cosmopolitan memory of the Holocaust which is shared between ‘the heirs of the victims, the perpetrators and bystanders’ as a ‘memory of a shared past’ [2]. In the current German Erinnerungskultur, the engagement with the responsibility for the Holocaust is a normative framework for the present and a key factor in defining Germany.


The book I’ve read also examines how Erinnerungskultur is now being challenged due to other developments, such as Germany changing its status to a country of immigration. Critiques ask for example how migrants are expected to treat this Erinnerungskultur: Are they to buy into it and adopt the unique responsibility as perpetrators? But is this not assimilatory, requiring them to leave behind their own identity and heritage? And yet, if we don’t ask them to opt into ‘German responsibility’, are we then not suggesting that there is something ethnic about being German, i.e. the very thing that Erinnerungskultur wants to challenge?


Other critiques focus on the change of generations and globalisation.  Each time a new generation has come into adulthood, it has changed how Germany has related to the Holocaust: must it not change now, too, as younger Germans increasingly identify as Europeans and global citizens? And what place has a special German Erinnerungskultur  in a globally connected world where cultural identities blur? Does Germany not need a more positive foundation now of who it is and who it wants to be, not the least after decades of commitment to, and evidence of a strong German democracy?


The book also cites critiques of the taboos that Erinnerungskultur has created, a type of Political Correctness that deems alternative narratives morally questionable, an approach that some political theorists have suggested may engender the very (narrow-minded) nationalistic mindsets that something like Erinnerungskultur actually tries to dissuade.


As an interpreter and heritage researcher, all of this is of course immensely intriguing. This latter critique is interesting too, because it points to Erinnerungskultur as an authorizing discourse that judges and prunes other memories and the expression of other heritages, much like Laurajane Smith’s Authorized Heritage Discourse [3]. I’m wondering if this may also have something to do with the large number of museums founded and run by civic groups as Heimatmuseen, which may most appropriately be translated as ‘(local) heritage museums’. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an occasional rift between museums and clubs referencing ‘Heimat’ on one hand, and the professionals in the sector on the other, with a suspicion and rejection of the term ‘Heimat’ that Erinnerungskultur may be able to explain.


There is such depth to German heritage, and such complex connections to German identity across groups and generations, which makes interpreting German heritage really interesting. My only concern at the moment is that Erinnerungskultur as an official discourse is (still) so strong as to make it impossible to critically explore and represent all the diverse dimensions of Germans’ heritage values. I’ve never believed in interpretation being a mouthpiece for any singular view, no matter how morally justifiable. I’d rather not be forced to make it so now.




[1] Assmann, A., 2013. Das neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur. Eine Intervention. 2nd ed. (2016). München: C.H.Beck. All of what I’m writing about Erinnerungskultur in this post is based on this book.

[2] Levy, D. and Sznaider, N., 2005. ‘Memory Unbound. The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory.’ European Journal of Social Theory 5(1), pp.87-106, p.103.

[3] Smith, L., 2006. The Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

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There is a tradition within interpretation that identifies having ‘love’ [1] or ‘passion’ [2] for heritage and/or for people as a desirable, if not necessary quality in interpreters. This goes beyond just a lively, engaging delivery. It is to genuinely ‘love the thing you interpret’, as well as the people who visit it [3]. For Tilden, ‘love’ was even the ‘single principle’ [4], which comes before all others.


Now, here’s my first confession: I don’t generally ‘love’ people. I ‘need’ people as an interpreter, because interpreting anything to the wind is rather pointless. But that merely makes people a necessary element of my job. And in doing my job well, I enjoy the feeling of having supported people in their personal heritage endeavour. Does that mean that I love them, with ‘understanding’ and ‘affection’ for the reasons for their ‘ignorance’ [5]? No. I simply consider it professional as an interpreter to be helpful and respectful toward people, and to not show them when I don’t like them (and yes, that happens too).


And here’s another confession: of all the places I’ve interpreted in my career to date, I can honestly say that I only ever ‘loved’ one. ‘Love’ here is my understanding of the term: as feeling deeply connected to and inspired by a place and the heritage associated with it. By ‘love’ I don’t mean Tilden’s premise that ‘love’ is the prerequisite of all possible ‘knowing’ [6] and that love is ‘reverence’ [7] – I would actually question both ideas.


Traditionalists may well suggest that I must have been a poor interpreter at all the sites I didn’t ‘love’ [8]. And it is true that for some of them, I did not care at all on a personal level. In fact, with a few I even wondered how on earth they could be heritage for anybody.


But. Interpretation is my job. I have respect for other people’s heritage. I care about doing my job well so that they, and others, can continue engaging with heritage, and take inspiration from it and each other to create and re-create heritage (or to discard it, if they so wish). If I’m passionate about anything then it’s that.


And to be honest, I actually think there’s an argument for not interpreting the heritage you’re passionate about. For example, I’ve never interpreted my own personal heritage, and I wouldn’t want to – because I know that my passion for it means it’s personal. That’s bound to either influence or hinder another person’s engagement with that heritage. They may feel overwhelmed by my obvious connection with or ‘ownership’ of that heritage, or they may sense that some lines of enquiry are less welcome than others [9].


For me, interpretation is definitely not a ‘way of life’ [10]. It’s a job that is governed by professional ways of working, and not by what I consider personal emotions like love and passion.




[1] Tilden, F. 1957/1977. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 94

[2] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002. Interpretation for the 21st century. Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd edition. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing, p. 155. See also Association for Heritage Interpretation, nd. What is interpretation? Available online: http://www.ahi.org.uk/www/about/what_is_interpretation/ [Accessed: 28.03.2016]

[3] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 90

[4] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 94

[5] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 91

[6] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 92, quoting Thomas Carlyle

[7] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 93

[8] We actually got similarly high levels of satisfaction and engagement at all the sites – independent of whether I loved them or not. For my practice, therefore, ‘love’ apparently is not a determining factor.

[9] There are arguments too for having people of a certain heritage interpret it, yes. I’ve not quite decided yet where I stand on this, and I’m not aware of comparative research on what works best for ‘visitors’ and other communities associated with that heritage (do send some my way if you do!). From personal experience, I prefer the interpreter to not be a member of one of the heritage communities, although I still think the best (personal) interpretation happens when the interpreter is a non-member facilitating or supporting the exchange between members of the heritage communities and others. A recent issue of Legacy on Interpreting Idigenous Cultures had some really good thoughts and insights around this topic.

[10] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002, p. 158

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Recently, I heard Emma Jane Kirby’s piece on the British Museum’s acquisition of The Lampedusa Cross in October 2015. It highlighted some of the frustrations I have with current approaches to museums and their practice, certainly in the UK, and I’d like to ponder that a bit further in this post.


Just a quick background to the cross first: On 3rd October 2013, a boat carrying refugees sank before the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only about 150 of the over 500 refugees onboard could be rescued. A local carpenter met some of the survivors in his church, and feeling helpless in the face of their suffering, he made crosses for them from the wreckage of their boat. He continued to make crosses, and the BM commissioned one of them. He then donated it to the museum.


In the radio piece (see also the BM’s press release), the curator notes that the museum ‘ is a reflection of the society around us.’ However, this emerges as a fairly one-dimensional reflection. Again the curator: ‘…refugees and migrants have nothing, they’re kind of invisible in the record.’ The cross, therefore, is first a record, and predominantly of refugees. And what it records is a very narrow aspect of refugees’ experiences. The press release describes the cross as a record of ‘the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees/migrants as they seek to cross from Africa into Europe.’ This then is the main story that the cross can tell, and which is why the museum had to collect it. The curator said, ‘…that is the most important thing about the museum, that we tell stories about all people in all parts of the world’. The interpretation (or ‘curator’s comments’) on the Collection online entry only adds to the above that the cross stands witness to the kindness of the people of the small island of Lampedusa who have done what they can for the refugees and migrants who arrive on their shores’.


I haven’t yet seen how the cross is displayed and interpreted at the BM. Judging from the visitor reactions in the radio piece, it’s along the lines of the above. And the above to me is an example of how museums prune the contemporary relevance of objects and miss an opportunity to actually contribute to what moves and changes today’s world in this very moment. The BM press release in fact suggests that the real purpose of collecting the cross lies in the future. The curator said it’s ‘to make sure in 200 years’ time…our descendents can make an exhibition to show what happens now.


There are a few things here that deeply unsettle me. Firstly, as I live in this present that appears set to tear Europe apart and lead, as far as I can see, most likely to another war, I’m really not that concerned about anyone’s ability to make an exhibition about this period in the future. If that’s really all that museums are about, then they do nothing for our present.


Secondly, the stories that we’re geared up to ‘pass down to future generations’, of tragic refugees and helpful locals, also present a worryingly sanitised picture of what’s going on at the moment. I wonder, in collecting the cross, are we actually trying to make ourselves feel and look better? The curator expressed her hope for how the object would be perceived in the future like this: ‘…the children and grand-children of people caught up in these desperate migrations, and their children and grand-children will know that we did notice what was happening, that we did care, and that we did try to reflect the crisis, the desperation, but also the hope in the collection that we make for the future.’


In this story, we can identify with the helpful people of Lampedusa, and express our sadness for the plight of the victim-refugees. In reality, however, we are all collectively engaged in writing a parallel story right now, one that maybe doesn’t make us look as good: About an Italy unable to maintain the Mare Nostrum rescue operation it launched precisely in response to the Lampedusa disaster, because an unhelpful Europe refused to support it. About Britons’ attitudes toward refugees that are among the least welcoming in Europe. About Germany, where over one million refugees arrived in 2015, now wondering whether she can integrate successfully the old and new arrivals from sometimes very different cultural backgrounds.


Why are these stories not mentioned? Are they not what represents the real depth of the Lampedusa Cross, and its relevance today? Is it good enough for museums today to ignore these issues of the present and defer critical engagement and judgment to the future? Is it good enough for museums to declare that they reflect contemporary society while knowingly excluding other stories that are equally associated with an object, but far less comfortable? Can we hide behind justifications of immediate material connections?


The carpenter that made the Lampedusa Cross appears to have hoped that having it in the British Museum would make a difference in the current crisis. According to the curator he wondered, ‘…is this enough then to break down the wall in the hearts of people who are still indifferent to this crisis?’


The way the cross is viewed and discussed at the moment I would have to say: It’s unlikely.

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I am really intrigued by how German cultural institutions, including museums, appear to be contributing to the efforts of integrating refugees into German civic society.

This announcement of an upcoming exhibition about 14 projects in Berlin notes what seems to be a conscious shift away from narrowly focusing on refugees’ stories toward integrative projects that focus on topics shared by young people instead – whether or not they’re refugees. The objective is to support the Miteinander, the being, living, working together.

This project received an award in 2014, the Mixed Up Preis, for being a great example of using the arts to tackle contemporary socio-political issues. Pupils from a German school and from several refugee organisations came together to use three different art forms – theatre, film and applied arts – to look at ideas of home, identity, and the experience of adjusting both in a new place. You can see the documentary film about the project here (in German). Importantly, this wasn’t just about the refugees; the impact evidently went both ways, not only because the whole project started with the German school pupils visiting their nearby refugee home.

This objective of integrating refugees as quickly as possible is really strong in everything that I read these days from Germany. Die Bundesvereinigung Kulturelle Kinder- und Jugendbildung, short BKJ (roughly translated the Federal Association of Cultural Education for children and young people) issued a statement that noted that young refugees ‘have the same rights as all young people’ – therefore, they should be provided access to the same provision, and for the same strategic reason: ‘It makes possible and requires social and cultural participation’ [1].

Participation, Teilhabe, is a key word these days in German cultural policy, I’ve noticed. It’s very much used, at least on the policy level, to suggest an active contribution that also changes society. As the Berlin exhibition announcement states, the projects presented show how refugees can be supported in shaping the future together with those that have lived here longer [2]. Note that it’s not ‘their future’; it’s ‘future’. Shared. Together.

I’m really excited about this. Not just because it reflects a more global vision of diverse people living and shaping the future together, but because it shows cultural institutions actively responding to the challenges faced by the society they’re part of as they happen, without ‘targeting’ and framing ‘the other’. This is relevant. This truly does contribute. It makes a difference. It changes lives.

It also takes a stand. The BKJ is clear in their statement that they demand of their society the acknowledgement of the human right to asylum. They do not want Germany, and Europe, to isolate themselves. They want widespread acceptance of the fact that Germany is a country of immigration. They want to support an intercultural society through practical measures. They want to make a positive impact through their work as cultural institutions.

Maybe that’s easily said and done when broadly speaking, the society your institution is part of shares your values. Perhaps. But for now, I feel reinvigorated by what’s happening in Germany. Maybe museums as cultural organisations and players in society need not be irrelevant after all [3].


[1] The sentence in German reads: ‘Dies ermöglicht und erfordert gesellschaftliche und kulturelle Teilhabe.’

[2] In German: ‘…wie Kinder und Jugendliche mit Fluchthintergrund unterstützt werden können… gemeinsam mit den bereits länger hier Lebenden Zukunft zu gestalten.’

[3] As ever, my caveat with the project examples is that I don’t know what their actual, long-term impact is.  Hopefully the German colleagues will do proper evaluation and analysis, and we’ll find out. I’m just excited at this point that they do more than be silent, and that they don’t appear to still perpetuate the myth of target audiences being about inclusion.

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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].


[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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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.


[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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Yesterday, John Jameson [1] and I hosted a roundtable discussion at the conference of the European Association of Archaeologists. We wanted to explore with participants what the challenges are of moving away from expert values and expert management, toward a recognition of individual and community values. Community engagement and community archaeology have been around for a while, but the questions remain about the effectiveness of existing practices. The fact is that most formal management structures still favour experts and their values, from designation decisions to site management. Legislation and policy may for a decade now have placed greater emphasis on community and intangible values, and the desire to involve ‘the public’ and ‘communities’ in all areas of heritage management. But are we really making room for this? Or are we still primarily concerned with our own objectives, be they management or conservation? In this post, I summarize a few key points from the discussion.


Opportunities for people to volunteer were raised as ways of engaging people, and sharing power. The key is to make sure that opportunities are truly open. So for example, there is a difference between looking for volunteer ‘scientists’ or ‘researchers’ – the former is likely to unnecessarily exclude people again right from the start, whereas many more may feel able to be ‘researchers’ when given the necessary support.

Volunteer projects were also noted as having potential for true power-sharing, although we accepted that the set-up of such projects should be bottom-up to avoid being stage-managed by professional managers. That in itself can pose challenges: it requires that volunteers step forward with ideas. Alternatively, some ideas may be suggested by the ‘experts’ to be further developed by volunteers. One colleague shared an example of a volunteer-shaped project (after they had been invited to do any project of their liking), and noted that while they did indeed make all the decisions they lacked some key knowledge and experience, which meant that the final product was not able to reach its intended audience (in this case, international visitors, to whom the group had wanted to present their site – they hadn’t really known how to think about the needs of those visitors).

Which brings us to the next topic the group discussed:

The interplay between experts and non-experts

The example above led to a discussion of whether there is a place for expert support for volunteers and communities. With a little input from an audience and interpretation specialist, the group might have been able to finetune their project. The danger is of course that experts take over. And some things we think we ‘know’ may not actually be all that crucial. A colleague from Italy shared a very successful example of an entirely volunteer-led project, that included guided tours which flaunted many a best practice principle. And yet, with local enthusiasm and a true love for both the site and the local community, they appeared to capture and share with their groups a real sense of place. Our discussion ended on the feeling that experts should be only one voice among many.

Dealing with diversity of values

Colleagues from Historic England shared experiences on presenting the new interpretation at Stonehenge. Contemporary view points were heard, through the long-going monthly ‘Pagan Roundtable’. This also highlighted some challenges of working with communities: while we tend to think of them as a homogenous group, the Pagan groups for example are far from that. There are many different viewpoints and practices, which share little more than a label (‘Pagan’[2]) and an interest in the site. The challenge therefore becomes how to reconcile the different views, and in fact, professional facilitators were used at some stages. That, indeed, struck us as a key aspect of working with a diversity of heritage values.

What is important to people

The Historic England colleagues also shared that feedback from general audiences at Stonehenge suggested that what they wanted was to have enough information about the latest thinking, even where it is contradictory, to ‘make up their own minds’. For me, that was very interesting to hear, as it mirrors what my own research especially in Germany has found. At Stonehenge as at my study site, it seems to be information, uncensored, both based in accepted science and other viewpoints, that visitors want in order to form their own picture. This, we thought, may also be an approach then to deal with diverse heritage values, since in representing all of the different perspectives we are not priviledging one (and particularly not the expert ones).

What professionals do matters

Our discussion also touched on the symbolism that our actions as professionals take on – and how people react. This came up as we discussed bilingual signs in Scotland, but also Wales and Ireland. One question was whether the use of the ‘native’, non-English language had any relation to the sites in question. The general (British) feeling was that it wasn’t about the sites: it was about the wider culture, and its recognition and support for it by the organisation in charge. Ignoring the native language therefore could by many (even non-visitors) be seen as an affront – even if the site has nothing whatsoever to do with the culture that spoke the language [3]. Again, Historic England colleagues shared that for years, the organisation’s name was not used in Cornwall alongside the logo, for the pure reason that people kept scratching it out (after all, it’s not ‘English’ heritage over there, it’s ‘Cornish’). Now, the organisation will use Cornish alongside their logo, and we wondered whether that would have an impact on how people felt about the sites, and Cornwall, and their language [4].

And the conclusion?

We noted two key things that were important in beginning to truly shake up an over-emphasis on experts in heritage management. One colleague pointed out that what is required is negotiation and faciitation, which needs to become part of the heritage professional’s skills set. John also made the very good point that all approaches should be team approaches, which include communities. I would, after a chat with a colleague following the roundtable, add that giving a human face to an organisation is also important: getting to know communities, both geographical and dispersed, and having an on-going dialogue, much like Historic England have done for years with the Pagan Roundtable. It’s harder to ignore one another’s views when you’ve worked with each other for a while [5].


[1] John recently retired from the U.S. National Park Service and is now an assistant editor of the Journal of Community Heritage and Archaeology. He is also currently helping to lead efforts in South Carolina to create, manage, and interpret a city-owned archaeological park.

[2] This label actually sparked an interesting discussion itself.  John, as an American, felt that using the term ‘Pagan’ would not be acceptable over there, while over here, that is the term that, well, Pagans themselves choose.  It raised that question though of how we ‘frame’ communities. That framing can say a lot about us to those communities. Similarly, the label used by the communities themselves may give rise to all sorts of views in ‘us’.  What did you think when you heard ‘Pagan’ and ‘Roundtable’?

[3] I’ve worked in both Scotland and Wales, and with the requirement of using Gaelic and Welsh in interpretation. I’ve always felt that this use was almost a reclaiming of those histories that were imposed on the ‘native’ culture by others, mostly England. Nothing more powerful than having Welsh interpretation at one of King Edwards’ (the Englishman’s) castles all over Wales.

[4] Cornish would be a ‘revived’ language; apparently there are very few speakers left, none of whom were raised in the language.

[5] I’m fully aware of the difficulties in this. So many heritage projects are funded for only a couple of years, for example, and I know from my own experience that staff turn-over can be very high, particularly in smaller organisations. Building and maintaining relationships is tough in these circumstances.

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