Posts Tagged ‘interpretive planning’

I recently heard a short description about an interpretive encounter that made me think again about the construction of heritage, the use of interpretation to represent that particular view of heritage, and the social structures that are expressed and recreated in doing so.


The anecdote concerned a guided tour with a school group [1]. Before I recount it as I was told it, I want to make it clear that the teller did not intend to give an in-depth account of the interpretation, and therefore I do not know the precise context in which the original story was narrated, or indeed how. The facts, however, are as follows: the guide told the school children that in the past, there existed the practice of tossing a biracial boy (in the retelling the term ‘mulatto’ was used) to danger, to see who in the attending group (I have strong reason to believe they were white men) could rescue him first. There was a black boy amid the school group who, upon hearing this, burst into tears. He then was told that this was ‘a long time ago’ and ‘obviously’ this ‘would not happen today’ (I think were the words used in the retelling).


Now, for a start, I’m simply going to assume that no guide would actually use the term ‘mulatto’ in public, in front of a school group, and in front of a black boy.


However, I can well imagine that if the guide did use the term, it was in the context of ‘the past’. For in the past, that’s what they would have called the child. And I can – sadly – imagine that somehow, that seemed to make it okay to use the term today in the retelling of the practice. As if the passing of time had purged the term of the disdain and discrimination it expressed back then: ‘mulatto’ comes from Spanish ‘young mule’. And clearly the people of the past had little more respect for the boy than they did for a mule as they endangered his life for their own amusement and sport [2].


Of course, that may have been the whole point of telling the story: to show up the racism of the past and analyse it unflinchingly so that we may understand the racism that is still happening today and build a better future for tomorrow. However, the fact that the guide apparently told the boy who cried that this happened a long time ago and obviously wouldn’t happen today, just doesn’t make me believe that that’s actually how – and why – the story was related. First of all, such racism obviously does happen today, so that clearly wasn’t part of the conversation. And while I understand why the boy would have cried no matter how the story was told, the fact that the other children as far as I know weren’t affected tells me that he was the only one who understood what was truly going on in this little ‘story’.


And what is this story? If it wasn’t shared to examine the inherent racism of 19th century Britain (as I believe the period concerned was) then why share it at all? I wondered: in what other context would anyone think it appropriate to tell this story? Again, I do not know the precise context of this piece of interpretation and how it came about. However, the fact that it was told in the first place and then subsequently rationalised as ‘a long time ago’, ‘obviously’ and ‘would not happen today’ suggests a view of an ultimately benevolent society that created something good from which we still benefit today [3]. This is the quintessentially sanitised past turned heritage. Only by willfully ignoring the darker aspects of history are we able to represent it as heritage that is universally claim worthy. By declaring that racist actions of the past ‘of course’ would no longer happen today, we deny the pain and hurt of that boy who cried upon hearing the story. We refuse to acknowledge that those very same structures of discrimination and disregard that are evident in the story are being recreated quite literally as we speak: we’re expecting that boy to share in our sense of benign heritage, when quite obviously all he heard was a shocking and frightening action that may have more resemblance to his everyday experience than we may be prepared to face.


Like me, your first reaction upon reading this example of interpretation may have been to pronounce that, ‘This is why you should have professional interpreters.’ And maybe we’re right, maybe the guide wasn’t a professioal – I don’t know. And yet, I think there is every chance that a professional interpreter by our standards may simply have chosen not to tell this story at all. But is this truly better? Is simply leaving out the nasty bits any more responsible or professional? Especially since a ‘professional’ very likely would have understood and represented the heritage overall in the same way: that this site was created by kind people for the benefit of others, and now we are benefitting from it too. The message: the site is worthy of our protection and all of us can (and should) enjoy it. And meanwhile, on our 21st century streets, the racism continues and black people die.


I am a firm believer in people choosing and creating their heritage, and this, I am well aware, sanctions the choice to ignore the racism and establish a rosy view of times (and practices) gone by. But I also believe that heritage can be exclusive and dissonant, with inherent representations and views that shape and influence our present and future, and not always in a constructive manner for all. I also believe that heritage is fluid – as we contest and debate it, it changes. And that is truly where I feel professionalism enters the equation. In professional interpretation we must be aware of these representational dynamics and do all we can to make them visible. This isn’t about preaching to a heritage community to change their views. It’s about opening doors for all to enter into heritage making in our shared world. I honestly believe that the particular site in the example can become great heritage for the young boy who was reduced to tears – but not on the basis on which we’re currently trying to goad him into buying into our story of kindly benefactors. Acknowledging and sharing that the past was wrong means we can reclaim the site on a different basis that works for all of us, not just those with the power to tell the story. Heritage, after all, is not set in stone.


[1] I want to point out here that the incident was shared with the express recognition that something had gone wrong and that advice should be sought on how to do things differently in the future. So that’s an all-round good thing.

[2] Just for the record, I make no distinction between the worth of the life of a mule and that of a human being. But I daresay those chaps did.

[3] I know I’m being vague here, but unfortunately any more details may identify the site in question, and that’s not the point of this post. It’s not a critique of a specific site, but an underlying approach that applies to many other sites also.

Read Full Post »

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


What future?

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


What role?

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


Any role?

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


Here’s to the future of Europe.




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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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

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

[3] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 90

[4] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 94

[5] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 91

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

[7] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 93

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

The main research question for my PhD was whether or not interpretation delivered the public benefits of heritage as asserted in relevant legislation and policy. A key benefit is mutual understanding/social integration and cohesion, and sometimes also more directly, peace [1].


I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular benefit over recent months. In Germany, integration of refugees has become a primary societal task and shared endeavour. Heritage interpretation can play a role here, but are we philosophically equipped for this? I specifically wondered about this when on the Deutschlandfunk a few days ago a woman made the very important observation that integration classes teaching ‘German values’ must be very careful indeed to avoid both stereotyping the learner (e.g. the ‘misogynist Muslim man’) and overinflating the values themselves (e.g. as uniquely ‘German’ or already ‘achieved’). Both can actually lead to the opposite outcome – that ‘learners’ feel less respectful of these supposed ‘German’ values and more alienated than inspired to embrace them.


For me the delicate balance lies in the understanding of ‘education’. I do not subscribe to a view of interpretation as an ‘educational activity’ [2]. I think this creates a number of very questionable subject positions and assumptions, particularly of an ultimately ignorant visitor in need of knowledge supplied by the interpreter [3]. Interpretation understood as education also necessarily focuses on what must be ‘taught’ [4]: the message, the one thing that visitors will take away with them, the theme [5]. In the example above, that would be the ‘German values’, as evident in German cultural heritage, and immediately the pitfalls that the woman noted loom large.


Once we begin to acknowledge that these German values are not actually uniquely German, and that with some, German society still struggles and has plenty of heated arguments about; once we recognise that the Muslims, Christians, Syrians, Eritreans that come to Germany already share some of these values with us, or a version thereof, and that they will necessarily contribute their own views, it is no longer a matter of providing education about, or communicating, a value (the message), as if they’d never heard about it, nor had any personal claim to, or stake in it. What we’re dealing with here no longer fits the suggested process of selection of what to include, and what to leave out in order to most effectively communicate our message. This needs so much more.


For example, it needs to make room. What I’ve been really impressed by is the many writings in Germany, particularly in cultural policy, that are about active participation by new arrivals, and their contribution to shaping and changing German society and German future. However, interpretation as an educational activity is primarily based on a static view: of the past as something that has already been concluded, and of contemporary society as taking in that past as a (usually scientifically examined) given. Inspiration, renegotiation, questioning, critiquing has no room in this. But it is exactly these processes of reshaping heritage for the inspiration of and use in a shared future by a society that is re-constituting itself that social integration is built on. A concept of integration as a matter of the new arrivals properly understanding the ‘host’ society’s history and values, and uncritically adopting both, is old-fashioned and unworkable, besides presenting a distorted view of the coherence of that history and of those values. An interpretive practice that continues to view integration in this way, and provides interpretation accordingly, will have little, if any positive impact.


So I argue that we need something different, something that is not based on any idea of education, no matter how progressively framed, particularly when it comes to supporting integration. There is need for education, yes, and the teaching of the critical skills that enable people to become full citizens. But that is not the task of interpretation, at least not directly [6]. As visitors come to sites or to museums, or to their virtual counterparts, they do so for an existing reason [7]. It is partly an expression of their identity and their aspirations, and partly they look for further information – all of it, not simply our selection that supports and communicates to them our message. Interpretation must find ways of facilitating the processes of renegotiation, questioning and inspiration, with room for critiques and disagreements, and reinterpretations by a new society that is finding its way. It’ll be interesting to read the evaluations of the programmes run in Germany at the moment and learn from them.




[1] My case studies were two battlefields and these benefits were not reported by visitors, suggesting that they did not realise them. This is insofar of interest as at one site, Varusschlacht in Kalkriese, this European peace message was in the foreground. The short answer regarding peace/integration would therefore have to be that no, it doesn’t look like interpretation encouraged the realisation of these benefits at these two particular sites (and I spend considerable time in my thesis discussing why that might be).

[2] Tilden, F., 1957 (1977), 3rd edition. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, p. 8.

[3] Yes, some writers do acknowledge ‘prior knowledge’, but this is still a far cry from accepting this knowledge in its own right as the distinguishing heritage value. Rather, the approach in interpretation that seeks to understand prior knowledge is usually used to be able to better influence visitors toward the knowledge/attitude/behaviour the interpreter wants them to have.

[4] Even if our literature takes great pains to distinguish this ‘teaching’ from that of the ‘formal classroom’ – a distinction that professional teachers would probably be puzzled by. It suggests their practice is still stuck in the 19th century. Modern teaching is not so much different from what interpretation proclaims as best practice. But I do not therefore think that education is interpretation, either.

[5] Possibly the first book to expand on thematic interpretation (the idea was already in Tilden’s book) was Ham, S., 1992. Environmental Interpretation. Golden: North American Press, p. 33ff. However, thematic interpretation is a core pillar of much contemporary interpretation literature.

[6] Arguably, as visitors will still gain new knowledge and experiences, there is always an element of education in interpretation, or even just in visiting a site that is not interpreted at all. The difference is in the philosophical foundation: I’m advocating that we don’t set out to educate, but to facilitate.

[7] A good starting point on this are the writings of Poria et al, starting with 2001, ‘Clarifying Heritage Tourism’. In: Annals of Tourism Research 28 (4), pp. 1047 – 1049.

Read Full Post »

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference on ‘Understanding Museums’ in Germany. It was about researching museums and researching audiences, with a particular focus on new and innovative methods [1].

In the final plenary session, the organiser for the museum research aspect of the conference expressed his hope that the focus on researching audiences would not overshadow research of museums. I understand his desire to research collections, and displays more or less in isolation, and I will say that the session on provenance research was quite interesting.

However, the organiser’s comment was also a bit curious in my ears, as someone who passionately believes that museums are there not just for people, but because of people. Therefore, in my universe, audience research is the start and the end of all museums or heritage work. And please note that audience research here isn’t just research with those people that come through the door of the museum: it includes non-visitor as well. Audience research examines what they value about the heritage in our professional care, how they want to use it, engage with it – or not. It seeks to establish the barriers, the perceptions, anything that the museum is (apparently) doing wrong. But also what it is doing well: What do people value about it? What works? Why? In addition to this qualitative stuff, there’s the quantitative bit that can also give you an idea of how your museum works – and how it fails: the numbers, the stats, the visitor demographics. All of these things together are the basic foundation from which to do professional museum work.

‘Professional’ is quite important here. You would not believe the number of audience research I see in my work as a consultant that is frankly useless. People seem to think they can save money on this and just send the poor intern out to quickly whip up a survey and start asking people (or worse, just have ‘comment cards’ or the vexatious ‘visitor book’). In reality, audience research is quite a complex job. You have to know what you want to use this for and how. You need to think about sampling, bias, and analysis. You need to know how to administer your audience research: even doing surveys requires a professional approach. Planning audience research requires being familiar with the pros and cons of different methods, and not just relying on a one-size-fits all approach. Often, this is long-term data and developments you’ll want to capture, so there needs to be a proper strategy integrated into your management. Without that kind of professional audience research, your work will always suffer from an unprofessional, and thus shaky, foundation.

And why is audience research the necessary foundation? Because good audience research should inform business planning, business and options development, project development, infrastructure and visitor services, and interpretation. If you’ve cheated in the audience research, and allowed, for example, your biases to come through, or a notion that you ‘already know’ your visitors and non-visitors, then your entire project will suffer from it and most likely underachieve and under-deliver, be it in visitor numbers, satisfaction rates, or financial performance.

That’s why I found slightly curious the suggestion that audience research should take second place to museum research, understood here as research on collections, as far as I could gather. If you asked me, I would have it just the other way around. Without audience research, the heart of your museum can never properly beat.



[1] Here just a quick overview, and my thoughts:

Technology 1: Eye-tracking

It was quite noticeable that the non-British colleagues were very focused on technology-based museums and audience research. Eye-tracking and the use of video technology stood out. I wasn’t too sure at first about eye-tracking, especially with regards to understanding audiences, and how the museum worked for them. But then one presenter, Hanna Brinkmann of the University of Vienna, showed a ‘hot-spot’ map of a painting. It highlighted where most visitors looked (the face) and the areas they hardly noticed. She made the point that beside helping art historians understand how people ‘read’ art, it also gives a clue to interpreters about the things that visitors appear to be missing. That made sense, although I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a more cost-effective method available.


Technology 2: User Video Study

I was particularly intrigued by an excerpt from a User Video Study shared by Johanna Barnbeck of the University of Amsterdam. Basically this type of study attaches a camera to one of the group members, in this case a little boy, to capture their visit. Johanna found that people quickly forgot about the camera, and I thought this was a great way of seeing how visitors move through spaces, respond to exhibits and use interpretation socially, and potentially also to get some candid insights into what they think. I can see this method work also for the type of study that I’ve just done, which looked at the benefits that visitors took from heritage, and their relationship with it. I was conscious that I couldn’t eavesdrop into their conversations while observing them, and this would have been a potential solution (well, with funding). I think one would still want to have an explorative conversation, to follow up and probe on what they said and did. Apparently follow-up conversations were in fact part of the methodology that Johanna used.


Qualitative Methods

Several presenters also talked about using qualitative methods for audience research, sometimes, but not always in combination with technology-supported visitor observations. Unstructured interviews and narrative inquiry featured strongly, along with accompanied visits, with several presenters making the point that pre-determining structures, similar to pre-set answer options in surveys, means that what you can find is limited by your expectations, discourses and biases as a researcher. I thought that was an important point to make at a conference about audience research.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Two things recently have made me think again about what should be included in a ‘good’ interpretive planning process.  One was hearing at a meeting that first should come the decisions about the content, and then we’ll ‘add on’ the interpretation, suggesting an understanding of interpretation as, well, an add-on, a media solution.

The other thing came up in the paper that I’ve been writing for the last month for my PhD studies.  In one of my case studies, staff responsible for creating the interpretation actually considered interpretation to be misleading: essentially a ‘making up’ of narrative that is unsubstantiated.  Consequently, they preferred what I’ve previously called ‘the history approach’, and what they saw as scientific distance.

Ironically, both in my MSc research and in my current research it emerges that such interpretive planning approaches sail right past what is important to visitors.  While visitors ‘get’ the interpretive messages [1] these don’t capture why the site is important.  In fact, in my current research, data at the moment looks like the interpretive messages might actually be preventing visitors’ engagement.  And if that’s the case, then the interpretation is in real trouble.

So here are a few thoughts that I’d like to share about the interpretive planning process:

1.    Be clear about what interpretation actually is

I was frankly gobsmacked hearing these views on what interpretation is by people involved in the process.  It is not an add-on – that’s just poor practice.  It is also not a forced narrative, misleading visitors as to the completeness of substantiated knowledge – that’s not even poor practice, that is just plain unprofessional.  I could get into definitions of interpretation now, but actually I don’t think that’s even necessary here.  What is important to understand is that interpretation encompasses the whole: the content, the visitor, the site, the science, the management, the policy framework and only at the end, the media.  In that sense, Lisa Brochu’s 5M model is as relevant today as it has ever been [2].

2.     Grapple with the complex issues that interpretation deals with

Interpretation isn’t an easy thing.  We can’t just present ‘scientific facts’, especially not when it comes to history.  Not only does it not work, as several studies have shown, but it’s also plainly not possible.  Scientific facts, if they exist at all, never exist in isolation.  People always have a response to them.  History always means something to someone, has affected their life or that of their ancestors.  Nature, biology always touch emotions.  And it’s these emotions, these existing relationships that interpretation needs to account for.  Now what do you do?

3.     Start with people, not content

It goes without saying that without content there is nothing to interpret [3].  But to start with the content, as selected by the specialist content expert, is to miss several key points.  Firstly, this content is likely to be someone’s heritage.  We have to understand what that heritage is.  It’s unlikely to be the material thing.  If we don’t understand that heritage, and interpret it, then we’re interpreting something irrelevant to most people.  Secondly, we have to take people into account when selecting content.  This is an Interpretive Planning 101 classic: What are people interested in?  What excites them? What connects with the heritage value they already hold?  It’s not about specialists making their scientific selection [4].

4.     Do not, under any circumstances, impose a preferred reading

Ironically, in my case study where interpretation was rejected as misleading in favour of ‘scientific fact’, there is a clear preferred reading or message within the interpretation provided.  To me, that is not acceptable.  People, visitors, are autonomous beings with as much right to their own opinion as any interpreter – even more so at sites that are their heritage.  It is not up to anyone to sanction one view and reject another.  I’m afraid it’s that black and white for me.



[1] Should they though?  Is it about ‘messages’?  This is something that I asked here.

[2] I think the 5M model is excellent in reminding us of all the aspects we need to consider.  The only thing I would add is that we need more guidance in interpretive planning models on how to deal with heritage value and significance, and the danger of interpretive bias.

[3] just on an aside, the concept of ‘content’ is usually understood as a material content – as with the person in my example.  Many times that may be so – we have some material – but that material isn’t the heritage for most people.  It’s how it makes them feel.

[4] Just for the sake of completeness: I do appreciate that in some areas, visitors do want to and need to be guided by specialist knowledge.  But even in say, art history, people’s sense of heritage and interests should take precedent over the curator’s assessment.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »