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Posts Tagged ‘interpretive media’

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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In a few weeks I will start in a new role.  This time around, my job title will be Audience Development Manager.

Oddly enough, although my past, current and future responsibilities are largely the same (interpretation), I’ve never had the same job title twice.  What troubles me about this is that even within our profession we’re undermining that well-established term, interpretation.

Now, when I say ‘well established’, I don’t mean well established in the vocabulary of non-interpreters.  This is an oft-repeated argument in favour of ditching the term: others don’t know what it is and therefore we should no longer use it.  But do you know what Nephrology is? Probably not. And yet, when there is something wrong with your kidneys you’ll soon find out, or someone will explain it to you.  I see nothing wrong with interpretation professionals doing the same.

I’m also a little bit worried about the implications of some of the suggestions that have been put forward by interpreters themselves.  ‘Visitor Experience Specialist’ seems to be a favourite these days.  People often argue that it is good because it expresses more than ‘leaflets and panels’.  However, if anyone thinks 21st century interpretation is only about leaflets and panels, then the issue doesn’t lie with the term ‘interpretation’ but with their knowledge of it.

I think the temptation here lies in the word ‘experience’.  Yes, 21st century interpretation should provide an experience.  But to speak of the outcomes of interpretation as the visitor experience is quite naïve, I’m afraid.  And it also sabotages our profession.

Let me explain.  I find it naïve because visitors’ experiences with and of a site do not begin and end with interpretation.  I won’t repeat here what you will be well aware of – let’s just say, remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Any site manager will tell you that the whole, rather than the interpretive part, creates the visitor experience, and this doesn’t start at the site’s gates either.  Do I think that interpreters should have an input in marketing and the development of the catering menu?  Absolutely.  At my site, I actively encourage the whole team, from gardener to cleaner to cook, to contribute to everything that happens on site.  That to me is visitor experience management.  So if this title is due to anyone, it is due to site managers: those that keep track of the whole.

Of course, if interpreters themselves seek to claim the title of ‘Visitor Experience Specialist’ then we’re basically saying that in reality, we’re not specialists at all, but generalists doing all of the above.  In a way, this understanding of interpretation is what underpins my current job description.  And consequently, I have found my time divided between many different things, only a fraction of which is actually interpretation.  To be perfectly honest, I think the overall visitor experience has suffered for it – because I’ve not had enough time to actually fully develop the interpretation of the site.  And this is why I think promoting the Visitor Experience terminology above ‘Interpretation’ is sabotaging our profession.  It tells organisations that they don’t actually need someone dedicated to and trained specifically in interpretation.

There’s something else that troubles me about suggesting we call interpretation ‘visitor experience’.  In my mind, 21st century interpretation is no longer just about ‘visitors’, or tourists.  As I’ve written elsewhere, to me this focus on visitors is expressive of a lack of critical engagement with the concept of heritage.  Interpretation is very much about engaging with stakeholders, local and further away, and heritage communities.  To exclude these stakeholders is to demote interpretation to a mere tourism tool.

The visitor focus is also connected to another idea that is still at large in our discussions, and that is that of target audiences.  Which finally leads me to my new job title.

The focus on target audiences sits uncomfortably with me, and I’ve explained why here. I understand why an organisation may identify audiences, or rather the lack of diverse audiences, as the issue that needs to be addressed. However, when we as interpreters propose audience development over interpretation as the term to be used, I wonder whether we’re not putting the cart before the horse.  Surely our modern, professional principles of interpretation endeavour to offer various ways of engaging with heritage as a matter of course.  Thinking about the different needs of our possible, or desired audiences is at the heart of this.  So in my opinion, good interpretation already considers what some call audience development.

So if I could have it my way, I would opt to be simply called, Interpretation Manager.  Because that’s what I have been in my past and current roles, and that’s what I will be in my new role.  A role, by the way, that I am hugely excited to fill, and which I have no doubt will bring many experiences to share on this blog.

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