Posts Tagged ‘interpretation’

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.


[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.


[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].


[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.


[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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A few years ago, I visited Stonehenge for the first time. Like many others, I was shocked at the (then) lack of interpretation and facilities, and after circling the stones once (also an oddly disappointing experience), I set off with the dog to go on a hike through the landscape, totally unplanned, merely drifting along the paths that led, un-signposted, from the car park. I had just seen a documentary about Stonehenge in its wider setting, and remembering what I had heard, my walk became the experience. It was a physical encounter, and one slow enough to really get me thinking about the people that built Stonehenge, and why, and what this all meant to me. My fondest memory is following the avenue as it rises up from a dip, and seeing Stonehenge emerge in the distance. I loved it.

With this in mind, I was really curious to see how the new visitor centre improved matters when I visited there earlier this week. I didn’t want to go back to the stones [1], but I did want to see the new exhibition, and repeat my hike through the landscape. Unexpectedly, my visit made me think about visitor management, and the norms we’ve come to accept – possibly to the detriment of visitors’ own discovery of and encounter with a site.

The new development at Stonehenge is everything we have come to expect at a site of this status: there is the large car park, the landscaped walk to the centre, the centre itself with its large café, large shop, obvious toilets [2] and a proper exhibition (inside and outside). The architecture is modern, light, with lots of glass, wood and stone, but no other obvious reference to the site it serves, like many such centres are these days. Access to the stones is by timed ticket and a visitor shuttle bus that takes you there. If you wish, the signs explain, there is a mid-way drop off point so you can walk the rest of the way on your own [3].

If this had been my first visit, I probably would have thought it perfect. Since it wasn’t, I became aware of how externally structured the visit was: there were no options. If you wanted to see the stones, you had to go on the shuttle per your timed ticket, or (as it appeared) walk along the tarmacked road used by the shuttles (presumably to coincide with a timed arrival at the stones). There were no sign-posted paths from the car park into the landscape [4], and no other visit option was discussed [5]. I became so insecure about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do without following the prescribed visit, that in the end I didn’t even ask about walking the landscape.

Stonehenge is not the only site to have approached visitor management in this way. Brú na Bóinne in Ireland, for example, also works on timed tickets and a shuttle bus [6]. We can easily argue that conservation leaves no other choice, but I would challenge that in a context where the landscape is quite vast, and surely has a carrying capacity that is nowhere near being reached. If anything, I imagine it would ease pressure on the main monument itself, especially for repeat visits.

Such rigid visitor management also seems to go against every principle of self-selection that we’ve established in learning theory, psychology and interpretation. More philosophically, I think it raises questions also about controlling heritage, and the ways in which people are allowed to encounter it. I’m not suggesting that unlimited access to the inner circle of the stones should be granted [7]. However, as many ways of exploring and encountering Stonehenge as possible should be actively enabled and facilitated. Tickets for different types of visits, and way-marked paths into the landscape seem an easy and obvious solution. Just as in interpretation and exhibition design we (should) think about giving space to visitors’ own meanings and relationships to the heritage in question, and facilitate many different encounters, this should be a key consideration for wider site developments and visitor management – another argument why one should never be done in isolation from the other, and why different disciplines should work together for the benefit of sites and visitors.

In many ways the new visitor centre at Stonehenge is a marked improvement on what was there before [8], and I would not wish to detract from this. My observations seek to question some of the norms we’ve come to accept about managing visitors, and the ways in which we do this. Every choice is also an exclusion of something else, and we better make that exclusion for very good, thought-through reasons, and never lightly.

[1] Since my first visit, I’ve had the opportunity to go inside the circle of stones during an ICOMOS workshop as well – nothing can top that.

[2] My visit was just after Christmas and I still had to queue at the toilet, so I’m not sure how this was calculated to work during peak time.

[3] I did see people set off along the tarmacked road from the visitor centre, so I assume that’s the only suggested path. Certainly no others were signposted from the centre.

[4] This actually seems a really odd omission, because the exhibition itself makes much of the landscape and its importance.

[5] In fact, I had to ask the attendant in the exhibition if it was okay to visit the exhibition only, as all the signs merely talked about a timed visit to the stones.

[6] Of course, the timed ticket at Brú na Bóinne includes access to Newgrange’s chamber.

[7] English Heritage as managers of Stonehenge do make it possible to have that experience of the inner circle, and they are working with people to allow access during the solstices – this is all very good. Nevertheless, having been inside the circle, I do wonder whether anything else has any meaning at all. If this just absoluely isn’t possible (and we’ll have to believe the experts here) maybe a real alternative could be created. The 360 degree projections in the new exhibition are not it though.

[8] It’s easy to pick holes in any exhibition, so I’m not going to start this here. However, I was surprised to see two outdoor signs point away from the thing they were talking about – that’s such a basic mistake even in my eyes, and I do no longer subscribe to easy-to-follow guidelines (but this might be one that should be kept). And I would be really interested in hearing why someone felt the need to have a First World War exhibition at Stonehenge – it really added nothing to my understanding of the site. Incidentally, it also nonchalantly mentioned questions that would have been really interesting to explore: like how it could be that this monument was owned by a private landowner and then sold? To whom? What does this say about how the site was valued – or not – by the nation, given its contemproary ‘iconic’ status?

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In the months leading up to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November this year, the German Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde [1], the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam [2] and the populist newspaper Bild together created a Twitter-Account that live-tweeted the events that took place on that day, at that hour 25 years ago (@Mauerfall89).

I really enjoyed that. It had an element of surprise – things suddenly popped up in my Twitter feed that I hadn’t remembered. And because I hadn’t remembered them, they had a similar impact as the real events at the time. The first pictures they tweeted of the Trabbis coming across the border made me well up with tears, and I remembered watching the footage on TV at the time, crying back then also. There was also the stuff that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: hand-scribbled memos from the SED leaders, for example, as they frantically tried to control the situation.

I couldn’t find any rationale or mission statement for the project. Neither of the organisations involved have a mission of ‘educating’ the general public [3]. So they probably didn’t think about interpretation when they put this together, and yet as I followed the tweets I kept wondering whether I considered this interpretation.

It would be easy to dismiss it on the basis of the standard definitions of interpretation [4]. There was certainly no first hand experience involved, neither of the artefacts (photos, documents) nor the places. No effort was made to ‘reveal’ any meaning: this was basically a news feed, with a few archival documents thrown in that weren’t available at the time things happened. It provided no help in making sense of or understanding more about the events, nor was there any communication of significant ideas: what happened is what you got.

But that is also precisely why it (mostly) worked for me. This bare bones approach, ‘live’ and in ‘real time’, gave it the immediacy that surprised me, moved me, and activated my memory. It used the real stuff (the news, photos, documents), but with drama (the ‘breaking news’ of a historical event). I never once thought about the medium, or the 140 characters constraint. This wasn’t artificially trying to make a historical narrative hip by forcing it into the Twitter format. These were news pieces like we get them through our feeds daily – only the news was 25 years old. It worked [5]. And it made room for my own remembering where I was when I first heard these stories, saw these pictures: any secondary commentary would have stood in the way.

Where it slightly fell short for me was the lack of links. It did make me want to find out more, but the tweets offered no second layer. That probably meant that in many cases that first impulse wasn’t followed up: while I might have clicked on a link, I didn’t go out of my way to google the information. But that’s a minor point that could easily have been addressed.

To me, the ‘Heute vor 25 Jahren’ tweets on the fall of the Berlin Wall were a good example of where interpretation becomes brilliant by inspired use of a medium [6]. The content fits the medium naturally and it conveys the same feeling as people had back then. There are plenty of other projects that also use Twitter for interpretation, but in a more traditional sense: intriguing, revealing, provoking. That’s fine, it just doesn’t have that same inspired use of the medium – and thus, for me personally, the same impact. I’m not generally a huge fan of Twitter, but this project made me think that maybe it has a place in interpretive media after all. I shall have to look out for studies of this kind of intervention – if you know of any, as always: please share in the comments.

[1] Its full title translates into the unwieldy ‘Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic’.

[2] A centre for the scientific study of contemporary history.

[3] The ZZF Potsdam does have the objective to share their research, but only with other researchers and related organisations.

[4] These, thankfully, are slowly being reconsidered, for example in the case of NAI’s recent open discussion on their definition. This brought up some really interesting, and progressive views.

[5] I would venture to say that the impact on those that haven’t lived through the actual fall of the Berlin Wall will have been similar, minus of course the memory activation aspects. Everyone in today’s Germany has grown up with the story of the fall of the wall, and German reunification on the back of it. I imagine this gave them a sense of what it was like back then, as the news unfolded.

[6] Yes, I’m going to say this having doubted already that the makers of the project gave interpretation as single thought. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t interpretation that they wanted to create.

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The Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI) in the UK has recently announced the re-launch of their awards scheme for interpretation. AHI have yet to publish their rationale and criteria for the awards, so the following are my thoughts on their published information to date.

The Ambition
AHI want their awards to be a ‘prestigious badge for recognition’. That’s a great ambition. Interpretation is in dire need of more visibility as a distinct profession and discipline, and one that deserves its place alongside curators and conservators. Awards can achieve a lot in that regard if they are well respected, within the field, but perhaps more importantly by those outside of it. That requires carefully setting up the awards – from application through to assessment.

AHI write that ‘submissions’ for the awards will open in January 2015. It’s not clear from this who will submit sites. I hope it won’t be a peer submission scheme, as these tend to be based solely on visible interpretation, or in fact personal involvement, and have profile primarily in the field itself. I think submission by sites themselves based on a transparent application process that is linked directly to the standards and criteria works best. This gets managers’ attention and raises the profile of interpretation within organisations and at sites. It also means that organisations at large think about how to embed interpretation in their practice, as the application process (hopefully) will require more than mere assertions of ‘this output is great’.

That’s really the backbone on which the success of this or any awards scheme hinges. In the past, criteria that have been discussed have been focused on outputs: writing style, text length, relevance to visitors, design, or diversity/hierarchy of media, to name but a few of the usually cited ‘best practice principles’. I accept that these will be part of considerations about awards for interpretation, and to some degree rightly so. However, there are two concerns: the first is about the lack of convincing evidence for the universal effectiveness of these practices. Only last week, yet another report was published that discredits methods that to some extent are also upheld in the current canon of ‘best practice’ interpretation. The second concern is that interpretation is not simply outputs, design, and media, and the planning thereof. It is, or should be, first and foremost about the underlying philosophy, and here particularly concepts of heritage and heritage communities. Linked to this, interpretation is as much, and in my opinion more, about audience research and stakeholder engagement than it is about outputs and their evaluation. Award criteria can shape practice, just as the outcomes declared important by the Heritage Lottery Fund have done. Focusing these criteria solely on outputs therefore would suggest that the crucial philosophical and scientific underpinning of interpretation is less important, and thus may be ignored.

The five awards categories (seven if you count the ‘best of show’ and an interpreter’s ‘Lifetime achievement’ award) are firstly by type of attraction, destination, or site:

  • museum or historic properties/sites
  • landscapes/forests/nature reserves/parks and gardens
  • visitor and interpretation centres.

To me, these three categories suggest that interpretation and its best practice is different depending on what type of attraction it is. I’ve worked in all three categories, and I can’t say that my experience upholds this (nor does my reading). A label is a label no matter where you put it. Of course you need to find the best possible solution for that particular site, content and challenge, but this again is an interpretive principle that applies to all attractions. I’d be quite interested to hear why the more obvious categories of types of interpretation were not used. Why isn’t there a category on Live Interpretation, A/V use, Online Interpretation, etc? This could have helped move forward our understanding of what works best regarding these particular methods of interpretation.
The other two categories that AHI have implemented raise even more questions for me. The first is Community Projects, defined as ‘developed and co-managed by community groups’. I assume that AHI wanted to give credit to those pure community-instigated projects that thrive all over the country.  However, in singling them out, the signal this gives is that somehow, communities are separate from, for example, museums, or visitor centres, and the ‘professionals’ that do interpretation there. And that, sadly, is still very, very often the case in interpretation. In reality of course every heritage has a community. And every piece of interpretation should be developed with and co-managed by the community. That should be part of the awards criteria for each and every award category. So while a ‘Community Project’ category may flow with AHI’s choice of categories by attraction type, it sits very uncomfortably with what should actually be the standards for interpretation as far as I’m concerned.
The final category is Interpretation for a target audience. I invite you to read this post about my views on target audiences. Adding this category tackles none of the issues about exclusion, responds to none of the findings about how targeting groups often makes them feel even more isolated and ‘other’, and says nothing at all about the fact that once targeted interventions are over visitor numbers more often than not plunge right back to where they were before. Clearly, there is a real flaw in practices that ‘target’ audiences, and adding this category cements these flaws into what the UK professional association for interpretation considers best practice.

I applaud the AHI for clearly making a push over recent months to give interpretation a greater profile in the UK. I think the sector is ready to set down standards and criteria, and make these the basis for an awards scheme. I will await AHI’s awards criteria with much anticipation. For the time being, however, I am not sure how prestigious, or reflective of ground-breaking thinking, the AHI awards will be, based on what I currently know about them.

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A few months ago, I came across the Secret Annex Online on the Anne Frank House website. It has all the ingredients of great interpretation: it tells a story using different media, there is a hierarchy of information that you can access depending on your interests, and you can quite literally choose where to go within the annex. It’s not lifeless either; there is an audio track of background voices, which makes it feel as if you had quite literally stepped into the house, and the audio narration and video options liven up the content further. Most importantly, however, it feels as if someone has really thought this through. The different media hold together, each exploring an aspect of the story according to its own strengths. The interpretation is not simply delivered digitally, it is digital, from the ground up. It gives a real sense of place for those that are not onsite. For some, this may be their only opportunity to explore Anne Frank’s hiding place, and it does the job really well. For others like me, it may make them doubly determined to see the place first hand.

I’d like to see more online interpretation like this: stuff that makes the best use of the medium’s strength and that responds to what off-site visitors may want and need, either before or after a visit, or indeed instead of a visit altogether. Too many projects seem to view ‘online’ as merely a repository of digitised collections, or whole collections management databases. These have a place, of course; participants in recent focus groups we did asked for just that. But these were the (art, in this case) experts. Other people have different needs. And for them, just as with other interpretive audiences, it is not enough to simply provide the raw stuff, the bare-bones catalogue information.

Sometimes, even where interpretation is the intended goal, the online medium seems to get treated as just another 2D platform. The impression is of reproduced panels or worse, of guidebook text that is split into clickable chapters, more or less graphically worked up into separate webpages. Whatever may be the original thematic link immediately disintegrates into separated fragments. The use of images as links becomes almost cliché, and just as meaningless.

Hyperlinks, intended no doubt to take the online visitor from one thematically linked piece to the next, also often do little more than string separate interventions together. Rather than weave a story they are like bubbles floating through the ether: the sum is definitely not greater than its parts.

I am no expert in online interpretation. But it seems to me that just as with any other form of interpretation, the key is to understand the medium and its strengths, and be clear how these can support what it is that you’re trying to facilitate. Online offers a wealth of unique communication opportunities that go far beyond hyperlinked text or the provision of digital images, video, or audio. It’s the intelligent interplay of these that make online exciting. And then, of course, there is the unique context of the visitor. Surveys that I’ve done in my work and my own research bear out other data, for example from the British Household Surveys, that suggests that people do a lot of research online. They appreciate stories that put something into context, while offering access to material that they wouldn’t otherwise see, and which they would not want to engage with while onsite. That’s all important, and I hope that there are studies about this out there that I’m just not familiar with – if you know of them, please drop me a line.

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Target audiences are meant to do two things: guide our practice as we become more visitor focused, and increase visitor numbers. I’ve come to believe that in both areas, target audiences actually do more harm than good – at least the way we’re currently using them.

In general, audiences are segmented by the following: age, physical ability, mental ability, cultural background, motivation to visit, use of interpretation, experience sought [1]. These segmentations are applied to baseline audience surveys to identify the faithful and those underrepresented, and both are then converted into target audiences.

Of course, many studies have also shown that the ‘soft’ criteria (identity, experience) are not constant at all, but change for each visitor – from visit to visit, and sometimes even during a visit [2]. In practice, however, segments are treated as stable, and their behaviour as predictable.

Another point is that the criteria used to segment audiences aren’t actually mutually exclusive. Someone aged 15 is potentially as much a facilitator as someone aged 65. A Brit is as likely to have a disability as someone from an ethnic minority. Targeting one attribute ties up resources with only limited overall impact. In fact, as I have argued here, it may cause more problems around exclusion.

Another key question that hasn’t been as thoroughly considered is which practice these audience segments are actually meant to guide. Non-personal interpretation? Personal interpretation? Visitor infrastructure? Marketing? The assumed answer in practice seems to be: all of them. This very quickly causes confusion and problems as the needs of target audiences may be in conflict or so varied that no coherent development seems possible.

So what to do? It strikes me that the key thing missing from all our heartache over target audiences is the heritage itself. At the moment, our audience research seeks to channel data into segmentations based on visitor attributes alone. But some heritage tourism research [3], and incidentally my own research too, suggests, however, that we need to build a picture that is site-specific, and allows us to reflect on the particular value the site has for visitors.   Rather than impose generic audience categories, this means specific criteria can emerge that are relevant to the particular site in question, and which are in fact determining factors that cut across other visitor attributes. These factors will be on a spectrum, requiring a multi-tier provision, similar to what in interpretation literature is often described as an information hierarchy. For some sites, the factors may indeed be around knowledge, while for others it may be more about national identity. The point is, whatever categories emerge, they will be meaningful for this particular site and its visitors.

I also think that we need to be clear first what practice we’re using our audience research for. The determining factors above should always play a key role no matter if we’re talking marketing or interpretation. However, I think it helps to approach development by thinking in terms of a flow diagram: is the determining factor the starting point, or something else, such as how much time visitors have? For example, if you’re developing your event programme, the international visitor rushing to her next destination is unlikely to attend our two hour evening lecture, although she may be as passionately connected to our site as a local visitor. It makes sense, therefore, to start the diagram with visitors’ origin, and make the determining factor the second tier – you get the picture.

And finally: I still think that much of what traditional target audiences are meant to achieve is actually primarily a matter of best practice interpretation, taking away barriers, and good public relations.



[1] I’m sure we’ve all come across various segmentation models. In the UK, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre’s Culture Segments have held sway for years (although this model seems to be falling out of favour now), and in the more museums/interpretation-oriented world, Falks’ idea of ‘small identities’ is still talked about widely (2009, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience). The latter three criteria (identity, use of interpretation, experience) have been particularly stressed in visitor studies/tourism/heritage literature over the last ten years or so, and hailed by many as a sign of enlightened audience focus in practice. The former, meanwhile, nevertheless continue to be strong among practitioners, partly due to the emphasis these criteria receive in interpretation/communication literature, partly due to the way in which especially public bodies, including funders, conceptualise those that are meant to benefit from museums or heritage.

[2] A look at various identity studies, for example, shows this – something that Falk also noted. My own visitor observations, incidentally, also showed how visitors’ behaviour can change even while going through one exhibition gallery.

[3] See for example studies by Yaniv Poria et al.

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Last week the media and Twitter were full of news about the impending centenary of the start of the First World War – including images of exhibits and, yes, ‘reenactors’. When I saw what I believed to be ‘yet another WWI image’ I was just about to switch off mentally, when with a start I realised that this was actually an image from a current conflict.


That I suppose will be one danger of the four year commemorative programme planned across the UK [1] – that people will become inundated with and subsequently inured to images of WWI and other conflicts, that they will dismiss what is happening now due to a flood of information about what happened 100 years ago.


I am not suggesting that we should let this centenary pass without notice. I like the idea of Lights Out, for example – although I would prefer it to be an international intitiative. Nalini Malani’s visual arts project In Search Of Vanished Blood, to take place in Edinburgh on 4 August, also sounds promisingly powerful and thought-provoking.


But to some degree I share the apprehension expressed last week by this commentator in The Guardian over ‘the story we are about to be told’, and for the very same reasons. Not unexpectedly, as a native German I am uncomfortable with the British undertones of heroes and sacrifice, and a war that ‘brought freedom’ – particularly in a modern world that now more than ever in my lifetime feels ripped apart by conflict and suffering. I am deeply concerned by the political pressures brought to bear on our interpretive practice, with a Prime Minister making the commemorations a ‘personal priority’ and declaring them a ‘matter of the heart’ [2]. At what point are we crossing the line to that oft-criticised (mis-)use of heritage for political ends?


A few weeks ago I blogged about the moral obligation of interpretation, and this comes to mind again now. Interpretation of the First World War cannot simply be about ‘relating’ the experiences of people of the time, civil or military. This should not be about ‘understanding’ the First World War, and especially not just about understanding Britain in the First World War – a suggestion that seems untenable anyway with regard to an event as complex and traumatic as a conflict that burnt a path of destruction around the globe and through our societies.


In some ways, I think I am worried about the narrowly historical focus of the initiatives that I’ve come across – see the examples of projects that can get funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘First World War – then and now’ grants programme. It has always seemed to me that treated in isolation, history can often do more harm than good – certainly when talking about war. History can trap us in circuitous debates about who was wrong and who was right, and what the ultimate outcome was. Most importantly, it can bury our awareness of what matters now under piles of facts that were true then, and distort how we relate to others in the present [3].


I am hoping for initiatives that don’t simply respond to the call for researching the ‘local angle’ of the First World War. I hope we’ll see more than restored war memorials and carefully reconstructed lives of those listed on them. I hope we’ll see exhibitions and events that show all the stories, from all sides, including those that challenge the popular, established national narrative. I hope we’ll see exhibitions that look at the suffering in war globally, then and now, and the inevitable injustice of it, and that raise the questions we ask ourselves of the conflicts of our own times. I hope that opportunities will be created that facilitate us experiencing, and contributing to the joy of humanity in its diversity and its capacity for peace. If all we’ll get is a review of what happened during the First World War, I feel this will have been a missed opportunity to transcend the wrongs of the past, and to really do something that has a positive impact on our present.



[1] The UK Government made over £50 Mio available for various projects and funding streams, including HLF’s. Last week, the new WWI galleries at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London opened, and already across the country, local research initiatives and exhibitions are taking place. This is set to continue over the next four years. You can get more information about the Government’s plans here.

[2] For my non-British readers these articles on Jon Snow’s recurring confrontation about his not wearing a poppy might be illuminating of just how emotional this is in Britain: in 2006 and 2010.

[3] I would also question here the validity of suggestions that we can ‘show’ how the First World War is relevant to our lives today – this assumes that history is a direct and somehow predetermined sequence of events from then to now. Many changes that took place after WWI might have taken places anyway; many other changes have long since been overtaken by more changes that have nothing to do with the war. More importantly perhaps, there are far more relevant events that have taken place recently, or that are in fact taking place right this minute.  We need to pay attention to those.

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