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Posts Tagged ‘interpretation’

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.

Volunteers

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].

Notes

[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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A couple of weeks back I visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Historic Art) in Vienna. Interpretation of art is not my specialism, and I’m always intrigued by what art museums do. You get anything from, well, nothing, to rather tediously specific texts that try to explain every dot of paint on the canvas. Sometimes I’m inspired, and rather more often, I want to pull my hair out.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum did both to me. The Egyptian Gallery was a blast just for the decorations. Firstly, it incorporated actual Egyptian columns into the architecture of the suite of rooms, which let you subtly appreciate what these beautiful things were actually meant to do. Secondly, on the walls were reproductions from wall paintings found in Egyptian tombs, which created a kind of artistic-mock authentic experience that I thought gave more depth to the objects [1].

The gallery with Greek busts was one of the best-lit galleries I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t tell you anything about who created the busts, where exactly they came from, or who they were of – which, in terms of interpretation’s usually proclaimed outcome of learning would suggest the interpretation was very poor indeed [2]. But the drama of the light was spectacular, and combined with the arrangement of the busts on high plinths I felt I was looking at them with much greater attention than anywhere else before.

And then there was room after room of objects in cases. I will say that the cases, which looked like they dated from the 19th century, when the museum was originally built, were actually rather pleasing. But as was wont to happen, I was quickly overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff there was to see. I suppose I craved some guidance, and found it, to some extent, in some interactives that allowed you to zoom into high resolution images of highlight objects. What was a bit frustrating was that once I’d done that, the interpretation didn’t tell me where to go to see the thing for myself.

And finally: the galleries of historic paintings. The display was of the cramped kind, the mother of all multi-hangs reaching all the way up to the already triple-height ceiling. Needless to say, in order to see the paintings on top you had to find just the right spot in the room, and then they were still too far removed to properly view them. The rooms had different interpretive approaches; in some there were railings in front of the walls, which had interpretive text in German and English: about the artist, the motif, and a bit of contextual background. Those were nice; I’m the kind of visitor who needs and likes a bit of info about the story that’s depicted in historic art. But in other rooms there literally was nothing but the dreaded (poshly) laminated sheets of photographs of each wall, that numbered the paintings and then gave you naught but the artist’s name, the title of the painting, and the date. What was even more frustrating was that you had to hunt for the right sheet – after all, there were four walls, four different sheets, lots of people, and lots of pockets where the sheets might be kept. Needless to say, I didn’t find the sheets I was after, nor could I be bothered to look extensively for them.

What was interesting was that I had similar experiences as what has emerged in audience research that for several months now, I’ve been involved in at one of the main art museums in the UK. Visitors criticized multi-hangs, they appeared to want introductory information, and they didn’t make the connection between art and culture – or the insights that art can give into culture. Knowing the art on display also made a difference to their experience, which holds a lot of clues about how art might be promoted, and displayed so visitors can become familiar with it.

At least, that’s what I thought when at Belvedere Palace I walked into a gallery of Gustav Klimt paintings. I’m not a Klimt expert, but I’ve also not lived under a rock: I knew these paintings, and I was excited to be able to properly, up close, look at them. This was the purist approach to a gallery hang, with lots of space between paintings, and I cherished it. And you know what? I bought tons of Klimt postcards just because of that positive experience – and nothing at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Notes

[1] Just for the record (again), I am not convinced we have sufficient justification to rob anyone’s grave of anything and then display it as art. But that’s just by the by.

[2] There were labels, some of which described the obvious: ‘Bust of a young man.’ And nothing else. Others did state who was depicted, where known – but nothing further.

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The ‘Extremism’ speech delivered this week by Britain’s Prime Minister made me ponder again that concept of ‘hard-to-reach’ audiences, especially what we call ‘BAME’ groups, and how the museums sector is using it to shape its practice. To me, what has been happening to Muslims in the UK over the last decade illustrates very eloquently what is wrong (and it is very wrong in my opinion) with this.

What we’ve been witnessing, what we are witnessing, is a systematic exclusion of people from society, and a complete misrepresentation of who they are. As this comment on the experiences of Muslims since London’s 7/7 bombings painfully explains, Muslims have been made to feel that they are suspect, ‘other’, and have to constantly prove their ‘Britishness’. In her comment on the PM’s speech, this woman notes how, effectively, she was dragged from being just another regular Brit to being a ‘Muslim’. Her religion has become the focus for society, a focus that has also taken a truly nasty turn: ‘Muslim’, she observes, is equated to ‘terrorist’. And government initiatives meant to tackle ‘extremism’ are targeted almost exclusively at Muslims, and the woman wonders: would she ever even want to participate, given how unpredictable the consequences of such participation are. As she writes, ‘just talking about certain aspects of Islam is now considered extremist’.

One of the government’s targeted measures is the PREVENT programme, and the changes that came into effect at the start of July. It requires all sorts of institutions, including universities to, in short, get better at spotting ‘radicalisation’ of their [Muslim] students. The Conversation UK posted a great analysis of this here, with this sobering quote in response to Islamophobic graffiti at the University of Birmingham:

‘As a Muslim student at the University of Birmingham and a born-and-bred Brummie, am I surprised by these attacks on my community? The short answer: No.’

And yet the measures are targeted at the student, their religion: not at the attacks from the rest of society. In fact, in his speech, the Prime Minister went as far as calling it ‘paranoia’ when people, including Muslims, criticise PREVENT for singling them out. He refuses to engage with the idea that society’s actions may be the bigger problem than people’s [Muslim] religion. And so the questions the woman in her comment asks, about what the government will do to curb the increasingly negative media coverage of Muslims, or the rise in Islamophopbic attacks, will probably remain ignored.

And what has all this led to? The woman writes that she feels ‘isolated’ and ‘scared’ by Islamophobia and ‘double standards’. In The Conversation piece on PREVENT, another student is quoted saying,

‘…it’s that nagging thought in the back of your head that keeps coming back … do I belong here?’

So the journey of exclusion was not one that started with these people’s religion. It is not that which made them, initially, feel isolated, excluded, as if they did not belong. It was a process that was initiated by wider society, through focusing on one attribute about who they are, and denying the validity of all others – as if compared to our being a ‘Brummie’, this attribute in them was somehow less, or different, or overshadowed by being a Muslim. Society then continued with targeted measures, targeted, again, at this one attribute. Society created the exclusion. And society expects them to ‘fix’ it, to ‘integrate’, as the Prime Minister said. The woman commentator noted how she has started to dread and avoid altogether news coverage. Perhaps, she has also started to disengage with other aspects of public life – because she may  not know what to expect. People may be tired of the mainstream narrative that goes unchallenged. They do not want to be singled out again. They just want to be a Brit, a student, a football fan.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know where my argument is going here [1]. For one, museums and their audiences do not live in a bubble. I’ve already seen the well-meaning programmes targeted at Muslims, and they completely and utterly fail to even acknowledge the wider issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with Muslims – they ignore those issues, just like the Prime Minister does. They also perpetuate the exclusion: once again, we’re defining people by their religion, as if the fact that they were ‘born and bred’ here suddenly no longer had the same, or possibly stronger meaning for all of us together. Instead of providing a platform that says, ‘We are all the same’, museums’ targeted programmes reaffirm otherness: for example the ‘otherness’ of Muslims recontextualising ‘our’ local history collections so that ‘we’ can better understand ‘Islam’. Targeted programmes ignore the fact that Muslims, in this example (and you could take immigrants too these days) have been actively excluded and demonized, and they reiterate subtly that this institution too thinks the issue lies with ‘them’. Like the government’s measures, programmes target ‘them’, not the rest of society. We ignore the source of the problem, and target the ‘symptom’ – in our case, under-representation in our audience profiles.

For as long as we insist on talking about ‘hard-to-reach’ and ‘BAME’ groups, and a practice of ‘targeting’ them, we will continue a discourse that emphasises ‘otherness’ and ignores how we as institutions may be part of the problem. It prevents us from developing a different way of thinking, one that is about genuine tackling of barriers that we as institutions and societies create, and of inventing practices that are about honest integration of everyone. As this commentator wrote, ‘Integration is a two-way process’. It really is.

Notes

[1] I’ve thought long about whether I should even post this. I’ve started feeling like a broken record, and yet the discourse of ‘hard-to-reach’ groups continues, as do the practices of targeting audiences. Over recent weeks, the British Association for Heritage Interpretation’s re-launched awards celebrated the practice again, and a client of ours was told by Heritage Lottery Fund to more specifically ‘target’ the ‘hard-to-reach’. There is some merit to some elements of these practices, but by and large, the uncritical way it’s bandished about does more harm than good, in my opinion.

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I really took note of the design of many of the exhibitions I saw when I was recently in Poland [1]. There was change of pace, drama, art, and, from my German point of view, a startling lack of inhibition about using Nazi symbols to create experiences [2]. This was probably most evident at Schindler’s Factory [3].

The first section of the exhibition is all about Kraków in the months leading up to when war broke out. Through photographs and sound bites, you really get a sense of people enjoying themselves, living their lives, while very slowly fears begin to creep in about the possibility of war, and the German advance. Then the Nazis arrive, and the space becomes dark and narrow, and pierced by the staccato sounds of gunfire. I remember watching a video in this section of a woman talking about how they’d initially thought it was the French coming to protect them, until they saw the SS insignia, and ran. This use of personal testimony, together with the manipulation of space and design, really worked for me. I got that desire to flee too, and yet feeling there was nowhere to go.

That feeling became even more oppressive as next, you had to walk through a narrow corridor, weaving between enormous Nazi flags of the kind you never see ‘for real’, only as pictures. And on either side along the walls were the notices that the Nazis started to put up around Kraków . Their messages, and the sheer number of them, issued in short succession, created a real sense of how the city was taken over by a foreign, and hostile force. Then the exhibition opens up into a white space, the floor tiles also displaying swastikas, and the cases full of Nazi stuff. I honestly found it very difficult to be in that space, and yet I felt it was a brave, and very powerful choice to use the symbols (especially the flags). We can often be very subtle in museums, and this was not subtle. It was brutal. It was in your face. Exactly, I imagine, like the Nazis were at the time. You couldn’t get away from it.

But at the same time, it made me think about an older blog post I read not too long ago by Gretchen Jennings on empathy in the museum. Amid numerous, thoughtful observations, Gretchen also shared the comments made by her African-American colleagues about their own and their families’ unease about the display of Klan robes in museums. I wonder what the impact of the use of all these Nazi symbols might be on a Jewish visitor? How would they feel about this? The example of the Klan robe reveals that many African-Americans feel/felt the use of the robes to be ‘highly offensive and disturbing’. I imagine that it might be similar for Jewish visitors seeing Nazi symbols that are not even artifacts (the flags were replicas). Does that mean the flags shouldn’t have been used? I do hope the exhibition designers at Schindler’s Factory discussed this with Jewish groups. All I can say is that I don’t think I personally would have truly got a sense of what happened in Krakow as the Nazis took over without this. Those flags are still with me [4].

The exhibition then continued to tell the story of the Jewish Ghetto in Kraków (another dark, desperate space, that was also very hot), of the transports to the concentration camps (complete with recreated gravel floor and wire fence), and finally the liberation of Poland by the Soviet Army. There was a lot going on in this exhibition, and a part of me wondered whether this was ultimately all a bit over-engineered. Now, a couple of weeks later, my answer to that is, no. I think the exhibition was brilliant [5]. It really left me thinking, and I’m still thinking about it now. It moved me emotionally, it got me into a historic space, and it created an experience that it would have been difficult for me to have otherwise. This, finally, was also because of the intelligent and meaningful use of art:

The best, and absolutely most impressive aspect of the exhibition at Schindler’s Factory was the second to last room: a white, circular room, with black words in different languages. When I came through the first time, I only read the words written on the wall, all languages mixed: of people sharing the stories of how they’d been helped, by others, by soldiers. I felt uplifted. Comforted. When I came through the second time, I read the words on the rotating cylinders, each in one language only, situated in niches around the room. But these, I realized, weren’t stories of people helping. These were the confessions of people who had refused to help, who had looked away, out of fear, or out of avoidance. This time I did not come out of the room feeling comforted. I kept asking myself whether I really would have helped if I had I been in their shoes.

Notes

[1] At the truly excellent 2015 conference organized by Interpret Europe on ‘Sensitive heritage – sensitive interpretation’. This is still a fairly new organisation for professional interpreters, and that means there are lots of good discussions happening that people can be part of and shape: I really encourage you to join! I’ve let other memberships lapse, but not this one.

[2] A colleague wondered whether showing the Swastika is also forbidden in the context of German museums – I don’t know – do you?

[3] Where the exhibition isn’t really about the story of the factory and ‘Schindler’s Jews’, but more about Jewish life in general in Kraków . Oddly enough, while I had expected to find out more about the factory and that particular story, as soon as I entered the exhibition I hardly gave that another thought. The staff working there did share with us, however, that some visitors are infuriated about the lack of this story. It is there, but only presented very briefly. And never mind connecting to the building and the site itself – it’s just a (really well used) building.

[4] I find myself struggling for words here. The flags made me feel small, they made me feel scared, they made me feel ashamed, and they made me feel like this was the only way I could ever ‘share’ in the experience that the Polish people might have had. It’s a very complex feeling that I believe centres on the fact that intellectually, I have been taught much about the war, and Germany’s role in it, and I am familiar with Nazi symbolism and propaganda, and how to deconstruct it. But you still never quite experience it from the point of view of those that lived the experience of Nazi German invasion. I saw, and experienced those symbols differently this time. It was less about ‘what has my country done’, and more about, ‘this is what it felt like to those affected’. Therein lay the power for me, and hopefully for others that perhaps traditionally may be viewed as not a natural target of the Nazis (like me).

[5] And this is due to the design, and the use of replicas and original artifacts. There was very little of what we might think of traditionally as ‘interpretation’. There was no other voice (that I noticed) than that of the people who lived, and experienced this horror at the time, and of the Nazis, through their propaganda and notices.

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Ferguson [1] has reminded me of a saying I learnt in the US: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. I think this applies to interpretation, and heritage management more generally, also. Our literature and our conferences are full of suggestions of interpreters’ inherent good will, and the positive outcome this is supposed to almost automatically engender [2]. We freely explore our sense of a mission, and it seems that with all this good, inspirational energy we surely can do no wrong [3].

I want to offer a challenge to this notion. I think what we as interpreters need is to recognize and acknowledge that we are firmly rooted in our own cultural and experiential horizons, and that they may directly contribute to perpetuating exclusion, especially because of the public-facing roles we occupy. This is not about structural exclusion within our institutions [4]. This is about looking at ourselves as individuals.

Which brings me to a German saying: ‘To grab one’s own nose’ [5], to start looking at one’s self before asking others to do the same. So this post is about me grabbing my own nose. I’d like to share a few personal experiences, and how what they show me about myself also show my limitations as an interpreter/heritage professional. I hope they’ll encourage you to do the same. They are limitations only while they go unexamined.

I am a part of this whether I want to or not

In the early 1990s, I went on my first ever trip to the US with a male, white friend. We were both students from a German liberal tradition. I arrived in the US effectively thinking that I would single-handedly change race discrimination. I was not going to be part of it. Then we came to St Louis, Missouri. At a bus stop, a young black man told my friend that he was a ‘f*ng white man’. I can’t remember the rest. I remember the man’s anger (although he was not overtly aggressive), I remember my friend’s set jaw (he said nothing), and I remember standing aside from them both, mortified. I also remember feeling an incredible sense of relief when we arrived downtown, where everything was back to how I expected it: white people, black people, and no one challenged our assumptions and intentions. The truth? I did not know how to respond to the man. This was so much bigger than I. I was shocked to be classed as ‘white’, when I had arrived determined not to use any such categories. I did not know why that had happened, or how to handle it. I did not understand what ‘white’ meant, just like I did not understand what ‘black’ meant in that man’s life experience. 20 years later, and Ferguson has given me a glimpse of what his life might have been like. And you know what? I’m still not sure how to respond. I am really uneasy about this whole terrible mess and injustice, it challenges everything about me and what I believe and where I fit in. The best I can hope for is to be an ally, and I need to be guided by others in that [6].

I only notice what is in my lifeworld

A couple of years ago, a colleague and I were driving along the road, when I noticed someone throw rubbish out of their car. I am from a country where you do not throw rubbish anywhere. Germans recycle religiously. I’m an environmentalist. I commented, outraged, how much I detested people throwing rubbish around like that. Says my colleague, quietly, “I think they threw it at the girl.” Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a black girl walking along whom I hadn’t even noticed. I felt awful. Why did my colleague notice what might actually have been going on, while I was completely and utterly on the wrong track? Who cares about the environmental issues with throwing rubbish around when in reality this might have been an act of racism? I felt that by not even noticing, I was somehow complicit. What is worse is that Ferguson has made me wonder whether I too am ‘colourblind’ [7], and whether this incident was the lamentable result of that attitude. This example is specific to someone’s colour of skin, but I do wonder what other aspects of people’s lives I don’t notice just because they are not part of how I normally perceive the world based on my own experience, and what I therefore pay attention to.

I have judgments coming out of my ears

A few months ago, I was zapping through the channels when I stumbled upon the World Music Awards. This guy had just come on, and I continued watching because I thought, how dare he? Arrive at a clearly high profile show like this and he’s drunk! People need to show more respect, and besides, getting drunk and then in public, that’s just disgusting. Drunkenness is one of the things that for personal reasons I have a really strong, emotional reaction to – except, I never realized just how much this reaction was also a condemnation of the other person who is completely unknown to me. I only continued watching the show because the man actually had a really great voice and I thought, wow, how does he manage that when he’s this drunk? Then I started listening to the lyrics and it dawned on me that probably, he wasn’t drunk at all. It was Stromae with ‘Formidable’, and when I investigated I found out that in a master stroke he’d filmed the video for the song equally pretending to stumble drunkenly through a city, releasing clips before the video officially came out [8]. And I felt so ashamed, not because I would have cared a dot about whether or not some famous person is drunk in public, but because watching the video, I couldn’t help but wonder what disgusted looks I give people, all the while feeling completely justified by the very real experiences of my own life. [9]

Here is my point with all of the above: I am a good person. I have good intentions. I am as convinced of the right of my opinions and actions as the next person. But despite all of that, I get it wrong. And that’s not because I’m thoughtless, or because somehow I haven’t discovered ‘focus groups’ or working with ‘target audiences’ yet (trust me, I spend much of my professional life with those). It’s because I am as culturally and socially programmed as everyone else. And that’s okay. But because of the job I have, I, and everyone else in the field, need to be more aware of our positioning. We need to grab our own noses, ask uncomfortable questions, face unhappy truths, and stop talking as if our profession somehow made us and our work inherently ‘good’ or ‘right’. How to deal with these challenges of our own personal horizons needs to become part of interpretation literature and training. We cannot continue to skirt around these ethical questions of how, at the moment, our interpretive practices and philosophy favour certain views and experiences, which mostly fit our own.  That, to me, is our main responsibility.

Notes

[1] In a recent blog post, Gretchen Jennings wrote, ‘The word “Ferguson” has come to stand not so much for a place or incident as for a cluster of events and ideas.  The shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black men by white policemen, the regularity and impunity with which this happens, and the light this sheds on race relations more broadly in the US—Ferguson has come to mean all of this.’

[2] Tilden takes apart one interpreters’ presentation, only to absolve him in the end because the interpreter ‘loved passionately’ what he was talking about. Tilden, F., 1957 (1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 39.

[3] Emma Waterton’s book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain (2010, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan) makes for a really good read in this context, talking about the specific topic of ‘social inclusion’.

[4] Which abounds, as discussions such as #museumsrespondtoferguson are beginning to show. One is linked to the other, structures are linked to the individuals holding power within them. What I hope this post does is encourage those of us in power to start thinking critically about how we might be part of the problem, without wanting to be.

[5] sich an der eigenen Nase fassen.

[6] Just to make one thing very, very clear: from my hardly-ever-challenged life experience point of view it seems to me that the man could have found a better way of expressing his anger and frustration. But I get why he couldn’t. I’ve had one English person tell me to go back to my own country and I have had to watch how I think about English people ever since. Imagine me getting this Every.Single.Day.Of.My.Life. As long as I keep my mouth shut, no one will ever know I’m not British. Now imagine the colour of my skin were responsible for the racism. I’d be the first to get really angry.

[7] I say this deliberately. It’s a white notion not to see colour, and it’s thanks to many bloggers since Ferguson that I’ve become aware of that. I don’t see colour, that’s true (I think). But that’s just to say that I don’t want to, I want to believe the world doesn’t need to be aware of the colour of people’s skin, more than the colour of their eyes. For the time being, sadly, I need to start seeing colour though. Because it’s the colour of our skin that in some places determines our experience and place in this world. Which is just awful.

[8] I don’t know, but I’d like to imagine the whole world going into a frenzy over how he’s exposed himself thus – apparently the images ‘went viral‘.

[9] On a different note, I wonder what interpretation could learn from this approach? How awesome would it be to grab visitors with such a narrative device long before they enter a museum, and take them on a journey almost of deception that turns into self-discovery? I keep talking about museums needing to hold up a mirror to society – can you imagine a concept like the one behind this music clip applied to a museum initiative about the negative ways in which immigration has been portrayed? Exposing the hypocrisy that this blogger experienced (see the end of the post)? Now that would truly change lives. Much more so than another exhibition of ancient objects.

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Last week I came back from my first trip to Rome. What an amazing place! However, as someone working in heritage, I thought what probably thousands of heritage professionals before me have thought: this interpretation (if you can even call it that) is just terrible [1]. Signs were cluttered, randomly placed and half of the time facing away from the very thing they were meant to explain. Text was disorganised, full of jargon, and so dull that even I, a committed reader of panels, became switched off. There was no narrative, no red thread, and nothing to get me excited about what I was seeing – and that’s quite an achievement given how extraordinary Rome’s historic environment is.

Internally, I found myself collating helpful pieces of advice: Add illustrations! Use headlines! Address the visitor! Avoid jargon! Find comparisons to modern-day life! And for a second there I felt that this was quite acceptable and enough. After all, the responsible Italian colleagues here clearly had no existing concept of interpretation. They were, so to speak, still in a pre-interpretation stage of (heritage management) evolution, and just getting them to apply some simple design and communication principles would vastly improve their interpretive offer to visitors.

And that’s quite true. It would indeed have made a difference if the interpretation provided had been better presented visually, and better written. So the temptation was there to use such an evolutionary model of interpretation, and then focus on its very early stages with ready-made guidance for implementation, with possibly a bit of planning advice thrown in (‘Be clear about your objectives!’). After all, there was nothing more to these ruins I saw before me, right? The history was done and dusted, now it’s all about revealing to me, the hapless tourist from abroad who didn’t do her homework, what happened here. Job done.

Except of course I’ve just spent the last two years doing research with visitors at two sites which may not be as old as Rome, but still a good few years removed from contemporary history (i.e. 2000 years in Germany, and nearly 1000 in the UK). And they had not only a myriad of pre-existing connections to these sites, but also connections that wove right through their identity and perception of their place in the (international) world. They had very clear expectations of interpretation, and while pragmatic considerations of word counts, font sizes, and illustrations were certainly part of that, they by far were not the most important. Add to that the literature I’ve been reading around heritage and tourism, and I realised that my initial recourse to an interpretive discourse about (effectively) implementation was quite worrying.

Here is why. It is true that in many ways interpretation in the UK and the US [2] is years ahead of interpretation elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean we should suspend what we’ve since learned and thought about successful interpretation when we coach colleagues. There are no evolutionary stages of interpretation that colleagues have to run through in order to catch up with us. It is interpretation as a discipline that has evolved. We’ve broadened our understanding of it. Interpretation, especially when we add ‘heritage’ to the term, has long since ceased to be merely about design and communication. Heritage is so much more complex than that, and interpretation has needed to evolve accordingly. This may not yet have been pinned in our interpretation textbooks. But it’s certainly applied in most projects. In the UK, the Heritage Lottery Fund will not give you money if you don’t properly involve people (and being the largest funder for heritage projects, that means almost every project applies the principle). In the US, they’re even further, by asking uncomfortable questions about covert structural exclusion of people – and we’re not talking a lack of targeted programmes here. So this is where we need to meet our international colleagues in countries that are new to interpretation. Let’s not just give them guidance on design and communication (and education and psychology). That’s just the end-tools. The process of getting there is much, much more important and involved, and far more complex [3].

Notes

[1] This relates to static, or impersonal interpretation. Two guided tours I went on were quite good. I didn’t get a chance to use audio guides within ancient Rome, because they asked for ID, which I’d left in the hotel for fear of losing it. It made me wonder whether there could be a better solution, especially given the fact that Rome is (in)famous for its pickpockets.

[2] These are the two places where I’ve personally worked, and which are traditionally listed as the ‘advanced’ countries in terms of interpretation. From my reading, I would add to this Canada and Australia, whose discourses on indigenous heritage and interpretation have been hugely influential on my own research.

[3] I acknowledge that this is based on the hypothesis that in order to properly provide interpretation it has to be interpreters doing the job of covering the process. More traditionalist interpreters disagree, leaving the identification of ‘content’ to other specialists such as archaeologists and historians. Neither of these disciplines has at their core an engagement with the process required for understanding people’s heritage values (to name but one aspect). Their specialism is something else (a subject within archaeology, a period in history). In contrast, interpretation is the discipline most visible to visitors on site when it comes to content. It is the only discipline charged with actively (as opposed to passively, for example through architecture) engaging visitors with a site. Interpretation therefore appears to me the logical discipline to cover the process through which one arrives at the final content, and thus implementation.

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A couple of weeks ago, the German Museums Association (Deutscher Museumsbund) published recommendations for museums on how to include and represent migration and cultural diversity in their work.

I was really impressed by two key concepts that frame the entire document:

Migration is the Norm

This is a fact that is evident when we burst open a fear-infused discourse about migration. The recommendations make brief reference to the history of migration through the ages, and conclude early on: ‘Migration is thus the norm in history’ [1]. There appears to be an acute awareness and acknowledgement of fears of migration too. The document takes a clear position: ‘To recognize this diversity as the norm is a task that we must perform daily and long-term in our society.’ [2]

The recommendations also highlight that there are various forms of migration: migration can be within one country, it can be temporary or long-term, it can be motivated by the economy or a desire to experience new cultures, it can be voluntary or forced. In other words, no two migrants are the same, and that’s not just because they may come from two different countries of origin.

Migrants and Non-Migrants are Alike

The recommendations place centre-stage an audience segmentation model that I had never heard of, but which seems eminently adopt-worthy after an admittedly casual read: the Sinus-Milieumodel (or Model of Milieus) [3]. The model identifies milieus on the basis of similarities in values, lifestyle/taste, and socioeconomic circumstances. According to the Museumsbund document, subsequent studies have shown that milieus are not determined by people’s migrant status. Rather, they cut across populations (i.e. migrant and non-migrant) which seems self-evident, but now we also (apparently) have empirical proof. And thus the recommendations state, ‘”People with migration background” do not exist as a homogenous target audience…They are represented in all social milieus.’ [4] They further make it clear that any orientation toward a target audience should therefore not be based on migration (p. 23).

I have previously questioned the usefulness of the concept of target audiences. It’s not something that I find discussed often in the UK, so this unambiguous statement regarding migrant groups (part of the British BAME concept [5]) is very refreshing.

The remainder of the document contains practical suggestions on how to start introducing migration as a ‘norm’ into a museum’s work. Some will be familiar to those of us in the UK and the US, around participation and community engagement. And where there might be the danger of slipping into tokenism, the document includes further really good points: For example, when reviewing collections, ‘collecting practices should be reconstructed and deconstructed’ [6], in other words, not just inviting source communities to comment (although this is recommended too), but to contextualize how collections came about in the first place, and what this says about historical (West/Not-West) world views – something that isn’t as often talked about over here in the UK. The aim is to cease the ‘dichotomy of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’’ (p. 14), which is a really important point to highlight.

From a British/US perspective, some underlying structures may seem slightly odd in the document [7] but overall, this is a really helpful guide that gets museums thinking about migration and how to reflect it in their practices. Now that I’ve come to identify myself as a migrant in Britain, I really appreciate the integrative approach this document reflects. This is not about ‘targeting the other’: the document makes clear that integration is a reciprocal process [8]. And that’s so true.

Notes

[1] Migration ist also der Normalfall in der Geschichte. (p.8)

[2] ‘Diese Diversitaet als Normalitaet zu erkennen, ist eine Aufgabe, die sich im gesellschaftlichen Miteinander taeglich und langfristig stellt.’ (p. 7)

[3] You can read the study that first introduced this model here (in German). It was developed through a narrative enquiry/hermeneutic exploration of lifeworlds methodology, so there were no preemptive categorizations that jumped out at me – but again, I’ve not thoroughly analysed it yet.

[4] ‘”Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” gibt es nicht al seine homogene Zielgruppe… Sie sind in allen sozialen Milieus vertreten. (p. 11)

[5] For non-British readers, the acronym stands for Black Asian Minority Ethnic, and generally covers colour, nationality, and ethnic/national origin. In theory, it would be split before it is used to define a target audience, but in practice it generally serves as a catch-all for a variety of museum offers. The issue is obvious: the concept and general application clouds the diversity of the groups clustered under the term, and thus hampers the way we discuss each group, their needs/interests/barriers, and the offer we put together to engage (with) them.

[6] ‘…die urspruenglichen Sammlungskontexte zu rekonstruieren und zu dekonstruieren…’ (p.13)

[7] For example, it too suffers – in my opinion – from the lack of the integrative power of interpretation as the discipline of (loosely defined) facilitating engagement, be that through exhibitions or public programmes. The continued split between ‘exhibitions’ (Ausstellungen) and ‘presentation’ (Vermittlung) is hindering, but at least there are signs that it’s starting to get addressed.

[8] p. 7. I’ve been thinking about how integration goes both ways quite a bit over recent months. I used to feel firmly integrated into British society and culture. This was my home, I knew more about Britain than I knew about my native Germany (which I left nearly 20 years ago). Since I’ve been cast as ‘the migrant’ in British media and public discourse, with comments permeating even into my personal and professional life, I can honestly say that I no longer feel integrated. I’m daily retreating further into my European-ness (first) and German-ness (second), and while other migrants may feel inclined to fight this negative discourse, I find myself wondering more and more whether I have a future here. That’s not just a sad thing to have happened to me as a person, but also, in my opinion, to Britain.

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