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Posts Tagged ‘interpretive planning’

As I continue to plough my way through transcribing the visitor interviews that I’ve done at Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany I am struck by one observation: a lot of visitors refer to ‘the presentation’.  They came because they wanted to see how the story was ‘presented’.  They liked ‘the presentation’.  ‘The presentation’ was excellent.

Contrast this to the relative silence when I probe them about what they take away from their visit, and I wonder if there is something going on here. If ‘the presentation’ is that good, then why does it appear to have left them completely cold?

Of course, this could simply be a wider cultural issue.  Germans may just turn out to be much more reserved when it comes to history.  Or, they may simply be reserved when it comes to the history of this particular site [1].  I am planning to do visitor interviews at a related, but less regimented site next year to test this.

However, I am reminded of what I learnt during my studies in art: If the audience thinks about the medium, then you’ve lost them.  If they think about how you’ve cut your film or created your scene, then they’re no longer in the story, and your film has failed.  It’s that simple.

Is the same true for interpretation?  If all visitors can think of when you ask them about their visit is how you’ve told the story, does that mean that they’ve actually not connected to the story at all?  This could be a matter of medium: it may be clunky, and draw attention to itself.

Or, and this is what I think may be going on in Kalkriese, it may be that your medium is indeed excellent, but what you’re telling is just not the whole story, or it isn’t what has meaning to visitors.  There have been several occasions where visitors almost seemed to censor themselves, and tell me what I think they believe they are expected to feel, or have learnt, or say.  The way in which the interpretation at Kalkriese was put together was marked by what seems an overwhelming fear that the site will be misused and misappropriated by nationalists.  Consequently, the tone in the exhibition is constantly tempered by relativism, caution, and an almost obsessive focus on material evidence [2].  The result is an exhibition that does not, ultimately, disinterestedly present facts, but one which is oddly misbalanced and focussing on the side which was defeated in the battle [3].  I cannot help but feel that this must have an impact on the way visitors respond to my questions.

If that is indeed the case, then interpretation has a few things to think about.  The first and most obvious point is that it is not enough to ask visitors whether or not they ‘liked’ the interpretation.  Clearly at Kalkriese they did, or at least as far as they feel at liberty to tell me.  It also means that ‘good’ interpretation cannot be marked off by material criteria alone.  In other words, we can’t develop a tick list of observable qualities to determine whether a piece of interpretation is ‘good’ [4] – heritage just doesn’t work that way.

It’s an exciting journey, and I’m really interested in seeing how visitors at the other site respond.  As ever: Watch this space.

Notes
[1] German nobleman raised in Rome turns against the Empire, (temporarily) unites the many German tribes and defeats three legions.  You can read more about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest here.
[2] I’ve written here about another side product of this focus on finds.
[3] In German, the site is called ‘Varusschlacht’, the Battle of Varus, Varus being the Roman commander that was defeated in the event. There are historic reasons for this also, but ultimately it was a choice.  The symbol of the site, reproduced on all signage and marketing as well as in an oversized replica greeting visitors as they enter the exhibition, is a Roman mask that they found early on in the excavations.
[4] It’s a bit ironic that I should write this today, when I received an invitation to propose ‘quality criteria’ for interpretation to Interpret Europe.  Some of the original criteria that were proposed and discussed at a workshop during the last IE conference were exactly limited to these observable, Tilden-based qualities, and I heatedly argued against this.  They’ve now agreed to include process criteria, which I think are better placed to fit the bill.

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I spent yesterday at the Battle of Hastings site [1].  They had a big event on to mark the upcoming anniversary of the battle, and at some point during the day, people laid down wreaths at the Harold Stone – the stone marking the place where King Harold is said to have fallen [2].

It made me think again about ‘place’ and interpretation.  We interpreters talk about place a lot in one way or another.  It’s usually about two things: on one hand, we’re concerned about communicating, or creating a sense of place for visitors [3], and on the other, we’re harking back to Tilden and his bit about meeting ‘the Thing Itself’, which we tend to discuss only in terms of siting panels, or getting visitors to look at something.

But place goes far deeper, and is much more complex, than simply being something we need to explain or create, or a visual focal point for an interpretive intervention.  Place is a destination, a pilgrimage, as is obvious for example from roots tourism [4]. It doesn’t even have to be a historically legitimised place in order to become a destination, as war memorials illustrate, or, for a less-obvious study, Mount Rushmore [5].  On the other hand, where historical events are concerned, people do seem to want to know where it happened, as the search for the site of the Varusschlacht in Germany shows [6].  And yet, if there is a strong enough marker at another site, both may continue side by side as a destination – historical authenticity not being all that important to visitors [7]. One reason for this may be that place isn’t so much about place at all as it is about memory and social action, as Byrne has argued [8].

So what does this mean for interpretation?  Well, first of all we need to think about the above a little more when we talk about planning, or ‘doing’ interpretation.  If place is a social action with multiple layers of meaning, then we cannot pretend that interpretation is (just, or maybe even at all?) about explaining to visitors what is special about a place [9].  In other words, we can no longer treat place as the neatly defined physical object of interpretation. It does not do to assume that ‘visitors’ come without meaning, and will not already, for example by their very act of visiting, participate in ‘narrating place’, as Byrne has called it.  For many sites, meaning, and a desire to perform place, will already exist for people – as is the case at the Battle of Hastings [10].  Some interpreters may feel that by considering prior knowledge, existing attitudes, and a whole range of other segmentations, we’re already addressing this.  But I would advise caution here: for as long as the proclaimed objective of interpretation is to ‘explain’ something, to ‘change attitudes’ and to ‘evoke support for conservation’, we’re still falling into the trap of wanting to somehow change visitors – and that, I feel, too often means disenfranchising people, disrespecting their right to their heritage, ignoring their part in creating heritage.

The above makes me think that interpretation is very much about marking place, much more so perhaps than it is about anything else – at least in some places.  If I look at what visitors tell me at Varusschlacht in Germany, for example, that’s what they say: they want interpretation to state this is the place where.  Their favourite interpretation is the recreated Germanenwall, the turf wall from behind which the Germans attacked the Romans.  And some interpreters wouldn’t even call such reconstructions interpretation! Similarly, the Harold Stone at Battle Abbey literally just states the fact: Here is where traditionally Harold is said to have fallen.  But it is arguably the focal point of the entire site.  Is it interpretation? [11]

So finally, and this is contentious even to my mind, I wonder how much interpretation as a marker of place must actually be about stating facts, giving information, and not about explaining (or revealing, as Tilden called it).  Is this where facilitation lies? The giving of facts that visitors in Germany have requested, so that they may make up their own mind?  I don’t know.  I hope as I embark on analysing my visitors interviews over the next months, I’ll get an answer.  Watch this space.

 

Notes
[1] 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey is one of my research sites for my doctorate research.
[2] This wasn’t a ‘scheduled’ laying down of wreaths, so unfortunately I missed the act itself.  The notes that went with the wreaths suggest that they were put down by the re-enactment societies involved in the event.  I actually think someone should do a proper study on re-enactment societies and what they do for the people involved.  There is a scheduled wreath-laying ceremony on Monday, 14 October, the actual date of the anniversary.
[3] That is in a nutshell what the interpretive handbook ‘A Sense of Place’ sets out to do. Here, as with other definitions of interpretation, the objective is, in my own words, to foster appreciation of place so that visitors may support its conservation.  Hello Tilden again.
[4] Paul Basu’s book Highland Homecomings (Routledge, 2007) is a good read on this topic.
[5] see Pretes, M. (2003). ‘Tourism and Nationalism’ In: Annals of Tourism Research 30(1), pp. 125-142.
[6] see for example Henige, D. (2007). ‘”This is the place”: putting the past on the map.’ In: Journal of Historical Geography 33, pp. 237-253
[7] see for example Hoffman, D. (1994). ‘Der Teutoburger Wald und andere Orte der Erinnerung.’ In: Fansa, M. (1994). Varusschlacht und Germanenmythus: eine Vortragsreihe anlaesllich der Sonderausstellung Kalkriese – Roemer im Osnabruecker Land in Oldenburg. Oldenburg: Staatliches Museum fuer Naturkunde und Vorgeschichte Oldenburg, pp. 87-107
[8] Byrne, D. (2008). ‘Heritage as Social Action’. In: Fairclough, G. (2008). The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 149-173
[9] This being the definition used in the above cited ‘A Sense of Place’ handbook.  Variations of this definition can be found in all definitions by our professional organisations, and the classic interpretation literature.
[10] There is a discussion to be had about where that meaning comes from.  School education is certainly one aspect, which comes through very strongly at the Battle of Hastings.  But there’s also something else, for at Culloden Battlefield, and indeed at Varusschlacht, there is a public association with the site that is in direct opposition to what has been taught at school.  This is interesting, but outside of my study, so for the moment I’m not aware of any studies that have been done on this.  I expect it’s something around public memory.
[11] Before you say it: yes, the rest of the provision, from the sheer tourist sign along the motorway to the café and finally the exhibition, also play a role.  What kind of role I haven’t established yet, and may not be able to either in my research, the focus being on something else.

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In a recent meeting, my PhD supervisors asked me: Is interpretation missing the point by focussing on messages?

That interpretation is about communicating messages is a conventional wisdom in the field.  Distinct messages are inherent in the definition of interpretation as a ‘mission-based communication process’ [1], and they are the basis from which we measure knowledge gain and attitudinal/behavioural change [2].  Expressed as objectives, we consider messages to be the core of any properly planned piece of interpretation.  In another guise, messages are also our interpretive themes, and I’m not even going to start to list the many books and studies that have persuasively argued the case for themes [3].

I establish objectives and themes in every one of my interpretation plans.  I scorn plans that don’t have either, and I have done so for years.  And yet, for years, I have also argued that interpretation is facilitation.  I have stated over and over again that interpretation is not a one-way street of imparting knowledge, or worse yet, educating our visitors. Now I wonder if on some level my practice – despite my best intentions – does actually miss the point I’ve been making.

When visitors tell me during my current research that they want ‘facts’ presented in an accessible way, and facts that equally represent both sides, then what they may try to say is that actually, they want just the opposite of predetermined messages (unless, of course, your message is a simple, ‘here’s the dough, now go and bake your own bread’).  Similarly, any meaningful theme, able to be expressed in a single sentence, may also sail right past visitors’ desire for an overview and orientation, and the ability to find their own space within the event narrative.

So while themes and objectives are without the shadow of a doubt the perfect and most effective way to get across a message, and help us be clear about what it is we want to achieve, I’m beginning to wonder whether they steer us toward focussing on achieving the wrong thing altogether.  Am I, by holding on to SMART objectives (especially of the learning kind) and snazzy themes, in fact hindering the very facilitation that I want interpretation to be?

I’m not sure yet, but the answer is probably a conditional yes.  We’ll probably still need objectives to prevent us from going all over the place, but the objectives are likely to have to be more focussed on the interpretation, rather than any expectation of what our visitors should know/feel/learn. And as for themes?  My instincts tell me that heritage events do have a core, a key characteristic, even if it is as vague as ‘a tragic battle’.  This, however, should probably be treated more as a context and cradle for engagement, and not as a message for visitors to ‘take home’ and remember.

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Last week I was back in Germany finishing up the visitor interviews at Museum und Park Kalkriese for my doctorate research.  One interview in particular struck a note with me.  A visitor was very upset about what they felt was a major lack of balanced representation.  They felt that there was little to nothing about the German side, even though the museum owed its existence to a battle in which an outnumbered force of German tribes annihilated (there’s really no other word for it) three Roman legions in 9 AD.

The visitor said that they expected objectivity in a museum. For them, this objectivity meant giving due consideration to historical fact without overlaying a modern bias.  The bias in this case, as they explained, was Germany’s difficult relationship to anything in German history that might inspire nationalistic sentiments – i.e. a tribal leader of 2000 years ago defeating the expanding Roman Empire.

My interviews with various staff suggest that this bias has indeed been present when the interpretation was put together.  However, when I specifically asked about why there is this prominent focus on the Roman side, the answer was mostly: there aren’t many artefacts that have been found from the Germans.  Moreover, the sentiment was that by focussing strictly on what has been proven archaeologically, i.e. via artefacts and physical traces, objectivity would be achieved.

I think the visitor I spoke to articulated a very good point [1].  When, numerically speaking, about 80% of an exhibition relates to one side of a story, there cannot be objectivity.  Objects and archaeological evidence do not ensure objectivity.  These are merely two sources of information, and if they don’t illustrate both sides of a story, then other sources need to be consulted and represented [2].

If this means drawing on different theories that may still be discussed, then so be it.  What interpretation needs is the courage to own up to the dictionary core of the meaning of the word: there are many possible interpretations of a story, or historical fact.  As this visitors’ reaction makes clear, we cannot hide behind archaeology and objects.  They cannot on their own deliver objectivity [3]. We have to acknowledge that there is more than one point of view. And we have to trust our visitors to be just as smart as we are.

This is an important point: what strikes me about my interviews with staff is this fear that the site will be hijacked by fascists, or at the very least misconstrued by visitors as a site of nationalist pride [4].  And in order to prevent this, any suggestion that there could have been anything like a ‘German achievement’, as the visitor called it, is carefully avoided.

In reality, visitors are also part of this German discourse.  They’re very capable of placing the historic fact of the German defeat of the Roman army 2000 years ago into the context of more recent German history.  The visitor that spoke to me was well-educated, eloquent, and fully aware both of the challenges of German history and the fact that there weren’t many German artefacts from the battle.  What they wanted was for the museum to provide a space free of the manipulation ever present in the outside world (they said) and show some (real) objectivity.  They were going to do their own thinking about the sources provided, thank you very much.

Notes
[1] It is really striking just how reserved responses in Germany are compared to those that I’m getting in England at the Battle of Hastings.  A few responses have made me wonder whether the issue does actually lie with this bias identified at this particular museum.  I have therefore decided to do a trial study at the mirror site to Kalkriese, the Hermann’s Monument.  It’ll be interesting to see if there are differences in visitors’ responses at these two sites.

[2] Ironically, where the German tribes are discussed, this is generally done via reference to Roman writers.  And yet, the interpretation then goes on to call into question the reliability of these sources, and even contradicts them – although I’m not clear what the basis for the contradiction is.

[3] Just on a quick side note, the focus on objects in our social history museum has led to key events of local history being neglected. I’m feeling a bit smug when I write here that for this reason, I wrote into our Interpretive Vision as a principle that our interpretation at the new museum would not be object driven. It did cause a mini-mutiny by our curators, but now they’re on board.

[4] In England, at the Battle of Hastings, neither visitors nor staff give this another thought.  Of course this is where The Nation Was BornOf course it’s part of their British identity, and they’re proud of it.  I hasten to add that with none of the British visitors did I get a sense of irrational nationalism.

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I spent last week at a thought-provoking seminar on interpreting megalithic sites.  Most of the other participants were archaeologists, charged with unearthing the facts that might tell us what sites are all about. I couldn’t help but be impressed by their attention to detail, and their commitment to objectivity and truth.

The latter is of course not quite as clean cut as we may think.  As we strove to define megalithic sites, and whether there were enough similarities between sites across the globe to merit clustering them under the definition, my colleagues began to argue – not about the facts (usually), but about what these tell us. I found that illustrative of the whole issue of facts, objectivity and truth.  There are facts, yes.  But how we interpret them (in the non-heritage interpretation meaning of the word) is largely dependent on our own perspectives.

And this, incidentally, is what research on learning, evaluative studies on knowledge gain through interpretation, and even general practice books on interpretation tell us over and over again: how people interact with sites, what they take from them, depends on where they started their journey.

However, while we are quick to acknowledge the above in general terms, when it comes to letting go of our control over meaning, somehow we no longer embrace this fully.  We seem to allow people to have a range of views, as long as these are those sanctioned by the experts.  But if people stray outside of these, we’re no longer quite that easy-going.

I think our definitions of interpretation as they currently stand express rather eloquently that we have what is ultimately an autocratic view of meaning.  Interpretation ‘forges connections’, we write, as if people may not already have connections to heritage.  Even more bluntly, some state that interpretation ‘brings meaning’ to a site, again suggesting that the site doesn’t already have meaning for people.

Neither is the case, of course, as we saw for ourselves on our fieldtrips to megalithic sites in Wiltshire, UK [1].  At West Kennet Long Barrow, people had left flowers inside one of the chambers.  At Woodhenge, people had created rather lovely corn stalk circles and left them in the centre of the site, where once a burial had been.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t subscribe to the view either that Stonehenge once served as an alien landing pad.  But while one of my colleagues felt this view should be soundly dismissed, both in the interpretation offered at the new visitor centre and in any further engagement, I feel quite differently.  I have no qualms whatsoever about presenting all views put forward by people, or at least allowing plenty of room for them to express them, and live them, as it were.  What’s the harm?  Of course we should present all the facts as we know them, but clearly these facts don’t subsequently only lead to one neat meaning.

I think what might be happening is that as experts, we get too passionate, and dare I say too precious about our own meanings.  I feel the same way when it comes to interpretation, and I can certainly have heated discussions about it.  But at the centre of my view of interpretation lie the people themselves. I will give them facts, and facilitate their engagement with a site, and I’ll be on hand to offer further input when they seek it.  Beyond that, it’s up to them what they make of all of this.  It’s their site more so than it is mine [2]. I measure success not by whether or not they’ve accepted my meaning, but whether they’ve explored and arrived at their own.

I know there are a lot of issues surrounding sites, especially those where conflicting views exist, and where the desire to use a site clashes with its conservation.  Nevertheless, the seminar has highlighted for me once again how important it is that as interpreters we are honest to ourselves, and reflect on how we relate to visitors.  Do we think we know better than them?  Are we on a mission to ‘educate’?  Do we behave in a way that is disrespectful to their views where we find these unfounded, irrational, and perhaps a bit weird? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I think it’s high time to do some soul-searching.

 

 

Notes
[1] I’d like to emphasise this: out of all the sites we have, megalithic sites are the ones we know the least about.  And yet they still have meaning for people.  Some may argue that it’s precisely this lack of absolute knowledge that creates, or enables so many different meanings.  That may be the case.  But to me, it illustrates that people more often than not already have a connection to a site, and a site has meaning for them.

[2] And generally quite literally so, because I’ve almost exclusively interpreted sites outside of my own heritage.  I have no personal attachment.

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This Monday past I went to the launch of the UK Museums Association’s ‘Museums Change Lives’ vision document.  And I will say that as ever, it is nice to hear and read a good few confident assertions of why our work as (museums) professionals actually matters.   And it is good to have a large organisation such as the Museums Association put themselves out there and say, Yes! This is what we think we (can) contribute to society.  I’ve already referenced the document in a grant application.  The next step, David Anderson, President of the MA, and Maurice Davies, their Head of Policy, explained will be for the MA to engage in-depth with funders and decision-makers, do some lobbying, get the doubters behind the vision.  And that’s great.

The thing is, despite the above, the document leaves me a bit cold.  It starts off with a set of ten principles, of which some seem rather commonplace [1] – especially to someone with a background in interpretation.  Museums offer ‘excellent experiences that meet public needs’, the principles say for example, and museums ‘engage with contemporary issues’, and are ‘rooted in places’.  Read (and I can’t believe I’m quoting Freeman Tilden here): relate, reveal, and sense of place.  So my first reaction to the principles was to think, but we know this already.  This is not the issue.

The document then makes further statements under the three headings of Museums Enhance Wellbeing, Museums Create Better Places, and Museums Inspire People and Ideas. My concern here is that the statements made are not actually supported by any research.  Of course, this is a vision document – it doesn’t need to be supported by research.  However, as we’re talking about impact here (the document is ‘The MA’s vision for the impact of museums’) I had hoped for something more reflective of the discussions and research already going on around impact.  Museums and the heritage sector have for a long time asserted their positive impact on, or contribution to society.  What researchers and policy-makers have been grappling with for years is how to measure this impact.  ‘Museums Change Lives’ doesn’t reflect that at all.

There are also a few assumptions in the document that I think would benefit from a more critical elaboration.  The one that jumped out at me is the work that museums should do with ‘disaffected people and those from marginalised sections of the community’ (under Museums Enhance Wellbeing).  As I’ve reported here, this is still an essentially hegemonic view of ‘the other’ that needs to be brought into the fold of the majority.  But do they?  Again, I appreciate that this is a vision document, and yet, as so many critical discussions are already taking place around these issues, I just can’t help but feel that in including these assumptions without at least a nod of acknowledgement to the associated issues, the document opens itself up to easy dismissal by those not converted to the cause in question.

Finally, and I am sorry if I sound too critical of what in the end is still a very worthwhile effort: the document really feels as if it was already decided on before the research into public attitudes was completed.  Select findings from the research are included, but they are blatantly reinterpreted: While research participants ‘strongly rejected’ [2] the purpose of promoting social justice, and merely felt that museums should be ‘accessible and inclusive to all’ in terms of free entry and aids for the disabled [3], the vision document states that the public’s support for accessibility [4] is intrinsically connected to social justice, thus reiterating that promoting social justice is a purpose museums should pursue.

I applaud the MA for having started a really good discussion.  Museums 2020 was a great stimulus, and the research into public attitudes (while perhaps not as comprehensive as one might have wished) was still very, very useful.  Museums Change Lives is bound to be quoted often, and hopefully as it is put out there now it will encourage further conversations – maybe also of the issues that I’ve highlighted.  I’m supporting it, but I’ll also continue to look for that research, that critical analysis that doesn’t contend itself with stating beliefs and giving examples of work we think fits the bill.

Notes

[1] Let me immediately qualify this: The feeling behind the document, and one borne out to some extent by the sectors’ responses to the MA’s Museums 2020 discussion paper, is that many museums aren’t actually implementing these principles yet.  And although it doesn’t feel to me that this applies to very many museums, I was at a workshop yesterday where participants confessed to having a ‘conservative attitude’ about museum curatorship.  Of course, they were at a workshop on co-production, so their commitment to change is obvious.

[2] BritainThinks, 2013. Public perceptions of – and attitudes to- the purposes of museum sin society. A report prepared by BritainThinks for Museums Association, p.20

[3] ibid.

[4] On a side note, accessibility really shouldn’t have to even be mentioned anymore at this stage.  Any person responsible for interpretation/presentation/management in museums who is not considering access should not hold their job.  Yes, that’s how strongly I feel about this.  This is like telling an archaeologist not to use a digger when excavating Richard III’s body.

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I spent this week at the joint Interpret Europe/National Association for Interpretation conference in Sweden.  The conference theme was global citizenship, but probably due to my own interests, I ended up hearing mostly papers on stakeholder engagement [1].

Here are a few impressions and thoughts that I’ve had during the conference – no doubt I’ll come back to blogging later on in detail about some of these things.

Read, Travel, Be Someone!
Ted Cable’s opening keynote reflected on three pieces of advice that writer Barry Lopez gave (as I remember, it was advice about finding your place in the world.  Ted Cable applied it to becoming a world citizen, and an interpreter).  Firstly, Lopez recommended to read: reading gives depth, especially if you read broadly, and if you read the classics you’ll get exposed to some truly universal themes (as an avid reader of all kinds of literature I couldn’t agree more).  Secondly, Lopez said to travel, for travelling helps understanding, gives meaning, and makes us care (true).  Lastly, Lopez recommended to become somebody.  For Ted Cable this means to become an interpreter with your own beliefs, for otherwise ‘you’re just another source of interpretation’ [2]. One to think about.

The relationship between audiences
The first paper I heard was by consultant Jane Severs of Newfoundland.  She and her colleagues had been hired by a town that wanted an ‘interpretation of their heritage’, their story.  Jane and her colleagues told them that there really wasn’t that kind of story there (go Jane! It takes courage for a consultant to tell their client the truth and do the right thing).  Instead, they spent time exploring the issues: existing inhabitants felt their heritage was getting lost, while new inhabitants felt they were excluded from that heritage story. Jane came up with a project that combined old inhabitants’ knowledge of the landscape with an opportunity for new inhabitants to contribute their own experiences in this place.  As a process, I thought this was great, and the resulting concept was good too (changeable panels at different, unlikely locations, including the post office).  People could phone in and hear stories as well as leave their own.  The only issue I see is that the local museum hadn’t (at the onset) given much thought to how they would include new comments left.  These are now somehow displayed at the museum (I can’t remember the details), but there are no plans to actually make them accessible via the phone system – bit of a missed opportunity, I think.

No communication between interpreters’ organisations
John Jameson of ICOMOS made a very good point as he talked about the ICOMOS Ename Charter: that there is an ‘appalling lack of communication’ between the different interpretation/heritage organisations, including a lack of consideration of the Ename Charter.  Now, I’m aware of the issues with the charter’s first emergence (interpreters and their organisations weren’t involved), but let’s get over that now.  The charter is not perfect, but it’s also not a bad start at all.  Perhaps more importantly, however, we should acknowledge that coming from ICOMOS, the charter has clout.  As Jameson pointed out, in countries that don’t have their own heritage or interpretation organisations, the guidelines and policies of UNESCO and ICOMOS are important documents, which are regularly referenced.  I think existing organisations should make use of this momentum, rather than ignore it.  Let’s work with ICOMOS and the Charter, instead of each organisation trying to force their own vision through.

The thing with underrepresented groups and special exhibitions
I’d already heard Stuart Frost speak about the British MuseumsHajj exhibition at the Encountering Religion Study Day a few months ago.  What was interesting in terms of developing audiences was one particular observation he made in Sweden: the Hajj exhibition saw increased numbers in usually under-represented groups (mostly Muslims), but these dropped right back to their usual levels once the exhibition closed.  This isn’t unheard of; many museums actually report that special exhibitions or projects attract ‘special’ audiences, which then will disappear again from the museum’s visitor profile.  And yet, it’s an observation that isn’t sufficiently discussed when museums talk about audience development: Here, the argument still implies that one-off projects with ‘excluded’ groups can permanently change whatever the underlying issue may be.  If this simplistic formula doesn’t work at the British Museum (and their resources with regard to audience research, front-end/formative evaluation and not to mention marketing make me white with jealousy), then it’s unlikely to work anywhere else.

Yay to Denmark
The second day’s keynote speech by Poul Hjlmann Seidler and Mette Aashov Knudsen of Denmark was great for one particular thing: they actually called interpretation facilitation.  That’s the first time I’ve heard someone use this definition at a conference, and since I’ve been harping on about this for years, I felt like jumping up and yahooing.  I must confess that I knew nothing about the work that’s being done in Denmark on interpretation (mostly nature interpretation, I gather), but this is exciting.  Poul later mentioned their interest in doing some more fundamental evaluation research that goes beyond the tools and really looks at impact, which is of course right up my street.  I hope they share their progress; I’ll certainly keep an eye on Scandinavia now.

And our actions speak louder than our words, too
One final paper that stood out for me was by Kate Armstrong of the Museum of Australian Democracy.  Her key question was whether or not an organisation’s actions actually matched their professed mission.  The obvious example was of a nature centre that didn’t offer recycling facilities on site.  It’s less obvious when we come to examine our actions as museums of social history, or in Kate’s case, a museum about democracy.  I found this really thought provoking: Kate questioned whether her museum’s programmes actually were democratic, and whether their processes and actions mirrored the processes of democracy that they wished to convey.  The issue is probably more pressing and challenging for some types of museums than others, but it’s definitely something that I’ve not heard considered before (and this applies to my own practice too).

Overall, I was really pleased to have attended this conference.  Sweden was a great host (I’d never been), and it was good to visit such famed sites as Skansen [3] as part of the excellent choice of study visits [4].  The Scandinavians are clearly interested in digging deeper into the impacts of interpretation, and how the theoretical framing of the discipline relates to practice.  Personally, I would have wished for more such critical papers, which don’t merely share practice, but really examine the thinking, the intention, and the outcome.  Even as a practitioner, these are the examples I learn from the most, and I fervently hope that one of my fellow presenters will be proven wrong in the not too distant future when he said that theoretical papers (such as his own) just don’t attract that much interest.  Well, they should.

Notes

[1] It was so wonderful to see that the interpretive community finally seems to be giving more thought to stakeholders.  I’ve been arguing for including stakeholders in interpretation more widely for a long time and to adopt a wider definition of the term also (see for example here), and yet as late as last year I still had interpreters here in the UK question me on whether stakeholders were important at all beyond the (immediate) local community and the decision-makers (especially in planning and landowners).

[2] Personally, I’m not so sure about this last one –since I believe my job as an interpreter is to facilitate someone else’s engagement with (their) heritage I really don’t think I have much of a place as a private person in this equation (something to explore at a later date).  Nevertheless, Ted’s passion for interpretation was, as always, moving.

[3] On a side note, I was really disappointed with Skansen.  A lot of the buildings were closed with neither a sign saying so (one was simply confronted with a locked door – never a good experience), nor an explanation of whether they are ever open (some apparently are, others aren’t – I still don’t know which ones).  The quality of the personal interpretation provided by the costumed interpreters was also inconsistent.  Even allowing for language issues (although I’m told all interpreters are expected to speak English) or a certain level of self-consciousness when dealing with a bunch of international interpreters with name badges dangling around their necks, this wasn’t very impressive. After all, for people dealing with personal interpretation, Skansen is pretty much the birthplace of the format.

[4] The Swedish colleagues really did make an effort here.  They structured the visits, and they wanted both us as the conference delegates and the host sites to get something out of it.  The only qualms that I had: in all this, they didn’t always allow us to be ‘visitors’, which is not only important for our own sakes (after all, I have no idea when I’ll have the chance to go back to Sweden) but is also a prerequisite for anyone giving informed feedback on the interpretation provided.  But that’s just a mini-concern.  Overall, the Swedes have just shown us how it’s done.

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Next month I’ll be presenting a paper at the NAI/IE joint conference entitled ‘Interpretation can make us citizens of the world’ in Sweden. I’m really looking forward to what people will say about this topic.  As I’ve reported in my last blog post, only one couple out of the 100+ people I’ve interviewed so far have made a reference to something approaching world citizenship: they called it mutual understanding.

 

I’m interested in how this mutual understanding was generated.  The conference title suggests that interpretation has a role to play here.  I’m sure it does, but I wonder if that role is as active and targeted as the title implies.  My interviewees touched on ‘mutual understanding’ when they spoke about their own visits to foreign countries.  And ‘mutual understanding’ here wasn’t confined to heritage either.  It also arose from people on the street responding to the gifts they had bought for their grandchildren back home.  Arguably, there was no interpretation involved here – in fact, there was a language barrier, which seemed to have been overcome by the time-honoured means of waving arms.

 

But they did also specifically mention going to heritage sites as a way of connecting to the people abroad, and finding out more about them.  They found similar stories: of poor versus rich, power struggles and passions, and the hardships of survival in times gone by.  They didn’t talk about royal connections, or the many ways in which European histories crisscross back and forth. My impression was that the interpretation provided paid no heed to them as a ‘special’ audience (i.e. foreign): it simply told the story of the place.  And my interviewees found simple human stories through which they connected to the people: in seeing that their personal struggles past and present were similar to their own they did away with the unfamiliar, and recognized ‘the other’ as similar to themselves.

 

To me this does raise an important question that I’ve found myself asking throughout this research process so far: what does interpretation need to do (actively, purposefully) to deliver certain benefits?  Is there a limit to this activism, and the desire to prompt a certain outcome? Because listening to these visitors and many of the others, I was really struck once again by their informed approach, and their clear desire to create their own narratives, and not be dictated to [1].  They didn’t need the interpretation to tell them that x is similar to z, and really, the two hark back to a shared origin that makes us all the same.  They didn’t want an integrated story of European history, but embraced the uniqueness of the foreign heritage: that’s what they had come for.

 

I wonder if there is a danger for interpretation to go overboard.  I think there is a fine line between keeping your eye on the heritage in front of you and trying to (actively) create and deliver overarching outcomes that are, let’s face it, so often politically motivated.  For me, a stabilising factor lies in engaging with stakeholders, which is what my own paper at the conference will focus on.  But whether this is the ultimate answer, or indeed what the many complexities of these questions in general are, is something I suspect I’ll be contemplating for a while yet.

 

 

 

Notes

[1] That’s also what I suspect lay behind ‘the public’s rejection of the idea of the museum as a place for debate in the Museums 2020 research: they probably thought that the museum would take a side and try to brainwash them.

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Last week, the UK Museums Association published the research report into what the public think are the purposes of museums. I’ve blogged about the announcement of the research, and especially the brief for it, here.

 

I was particularly interested in their methodology [1].  My concerns were that the framework established in the brief would limit the range of responses participants could make.  I still think that might have been an issue: the method used was a workshop format that guided participants through set exercises in order to answer the research questions.  The report doesn’t say much about the segmentation put forward in the brief, but it does mention that participants were evenly split between museum visitors and non-visitors (it doesn’t specify recruitment methods).  Perhaps most crucially, while it gathered unmediated views on museum purposes at the start, participants were then presented with purposes discussed by museum professionals.  In this, it appears that their ability to explore their own new purposes was indeed limited.

 

The findings, however, are nevertheless interesting.  Most notably, ‘the public’ [2] fundamentally rejected two purposes that have been heavily discussed in the museums sector: Promoting social justice and human rights, and providing a place for public debate.  Even the purpose of providing a sense of community was half-heartedly supported as a ‘can do’ purpose (as opposed to ‘must do’), and there was no real support for museums playing a greater role in the community overall. Helping the vulnerable, another purpose cherished by museums professionals, also ranked very low in the public’s estimation, being a ‘can do’ purpose to which they were not willing to give much funding.

 

The purposes of museums that they identified without prompting were very traditional: to collect and care for historic objects, to make them accessible to the public, to promote economic growth, to facilitate personal development, and to promote well-being (read: provide enjoyment).

 

So what does this mean for the museums sector?  I first come back to methodology: I’m just not sure how much one can get from ‘the public’ by asking them about something so conceptual and vague as ‘the purpose’ of an institution.  It may have been more fruitful to really explore with them why they do or don’t go to museums, what they expect, what they think about them, etc.  The report did note that there were several participants that changed their attitude from never, ever wanting to go visit a museum to stating their surprise at the diverse offer modern museums provide.

 

The latter may be an argument for dismissing ‘the public’s views altogether as just not very imaginative.  And perhaps it’s true that ‘the public’ simply do not have the necessary overview or in-depth understanding of the potential of museums.  However, I hope that’s not what the sector’s response will be.  There may have been limitations to uncovering what ‘the public’ really think off their own back, but there is clearly something to be said about their informed rejection of the purposes we proposed to them.

 

I cannot emphasise enough how telling I find it that the sector has spent such considerable time engaging in a debate that has been viewed as ground-breaking and visionary, only to find its key proposals dashed by the public.  To me, this signifies a continued lack of public focus – even in the UK.  How can it be that we so grossly differ from what the public think about the future purposes of museums?

 

In some ways perhaps this report also points to an underlying truth that we may find hard to accept: museums and other institutions have a specific purpose, and just because this purpose no longer produces the (economic, quantitative) outcomes we want from it doesn’t mean we can change the purpose without changing the nature of the institution itself.  By that I mean quite literally what the research respondents have said themselves about, for example, the sample purpose of helping the vulnerable: There are other institutions that are better placed to do that.  This could also mean looking at alternatives where financial pressures limit museums’ ability to fulfil a traditional purpose.  Universities, for example, may be the collections stores of the future.

 

Maybe we also need to review our responses to a changing environment.  I have been wondering, even before reading this report, whether in some ways our drive to be all and everything is a knee-jerk reaction to a looming fear of becoming obsolete.  The report suggests that ‘the public’ aren’t all that worried about that.  Maybe what the report tells us is that we should refocus on why the public already come to museums – and see how we can improve our offer in this area.

 

Finally, and I’m not just writing this because I’m an interpreter: I do think that museums (or heritage sites) can contribute a lot to modern societies’ needs, like social justice.  The thing is, ‘the public’ don’t want to be hit over the head with it. They don’t want a ‘social justice’ theme.  But they will be open to great interpretation that just so happens to also get them to think about social justice.

 

Notes

[1] Since embarking on my doctoral studies, I have noticed first my own increasing interest in methodology, and then many practitioner colleagues’ exasperated response to my examining methodology before I say anything about content. This is one example where I now feel strongly that practitioners need to review academic working methods more regularly.  It does not do to manipulate surveys (unconsciously) to obtain the desired results, or to blindly accept others’ findings when they happily fit our own agendas. Methodology can be boring to some, I suppose, but it’s the spine of any valuable study.

[2] The study had 90 participants over six day-long workshops.

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Last week I attended an excellent workshop on ‘Visitor Experiences of Co-produced Exhibitions’.  Co-production is a central theme in museums at the moment, and participants were encouraged to bring their own experiences of co-production to the workshop for discussion.  I came away with a few good points to ponder, which you might find interesting as well.

 

Process vs Product

Call me naïve, but it surprised me that all but one of the examples given by other participants were actually of co-producing an end product, usually an exhibition.  This is not what I do in my practice, where we are much more process focussed.  We do in general have a clear idea of the outcomes we hope for (e.g. understanding people’s heritage values as in our current Stake Your Claim project), and we are committed to doing something with whatever outputs are created.  But what that will be is decided in a second step, usually upon completion of the process.  My rationale for this is twofold: 1. Until the process is completed we won’t know what we’ll get from it – that’s the nature of truly handing over authority, as we try to do.  2. Creating a product for other visitors requires following best practice interpretation, which is a process governed by its own, and rather tight rules.  This is actually something that came out strongly in participants’ evaluations:

 

Just because it’s co-produced doesn’t mean other visitors like it

Over and over, participants reported this as an experience with their co-produced exhibitions: visitors’ reactions were either lukewarm or downright negative.  One project reported something very interesting: visitors didn’t like the co-produced exhibition – until they were told that it was co-produced.  They still didn’t seem to take more from it, relatively speaking, but they approved. This sense of moral approval came through quite strongly for other projects as well, but the question is of course whether moral approval is a good enough outcome for co-produced exhibitions.  Those in the discussion group that I was in agreed that it wasn’t.  A lady from Glasgow Museums raised the very interesting point that perhaps we feel that by selecting a group for co-production, say young people, we speak to all young people.  Interestingly, one of the projects actually found that the exhibition co-produced by young people was in fact rejected by other young people, who were more interested in the ‘expert’ voice.  Why?  Because they felt that if they wanted to hear what young people thought they could talk to them all day long outside the museum! Which brings me to another point we discussed:

 

How do you select groups for co-production?

I wish I could share the conviction put forward by one participant from a university: that selecting target groups by demographics is ‘no longer how museums do it’.  Well, it’s certainly how all of the projects we heard about at the workshop seemed to have selected the groups that they worked with (usually ‘young people’), never mind the local authority matrix that I continue to have to work toward, or the ever-present HLF identifications [1]. The colleague is right, however, that these group classifications are of limited if any use, especially if we expect the outputs (e.g. an exhibition) to have relevance for other groups.  This, in fact, is the crux of the matter: can co-production with one particular group ever be relevant to other groups? As we’ve seen with young people above, even such a seemingly clear-cut group doesn’t produce an exhibition relevant to the same group.  I don’t have the answer to this one, except that this is less of an issue when looking at ‘co-production’ as a process rather than end product.  Also, in my own practice I’m dreadfully reluctant to identify any specific target groups (by motivation or otherwise), so we just widen it out to as many people as possible.  It seems to work for us.

 

What, actually, do we mean by co-production?

In the end, this was one of the questions we were left with.  Some of us, myself included, argued that narrow parameters, such as providing objects for group interpretation, don’t actually make co-production.  The whole concept of co-produced end products also seemed generally flawed, and co-production thus a misleading term.  We agreed that further examination of concepts was required, not the least to provide a shared language between departments.  After all, without proper understanding of terms there cannot be proper implementation.

 

What next?

The workshop ended with some discussion on what the next steps should be.  In my opinion, we need to establish proper criteria that identify ‘successful’ co-production (whatever we decide this to mean).  Is this success for the museum? For participants? For visitors? We also need researchers that can spend time on identifying factors that impact the success of co-production.  This goes beyond the usual evaluative studies that we can do on our own, even those that go that one step further and ask, why did this work (because who answers the question will bias your results)?  Finally, I would also like to move beyond co-produced end products and look into how visitors can contribute to exhibitions while they’re up.  That to me is true co-production: on-going, dynamic, and democratic.  Here’s to the new challenge.

 

Happy New Year to all of you!

 

Notes

[1] Allow me an entirely personal rant here: 1. As a practitioner, I rely on university researchers to challenge me and to provide me with solid insights.  This requires that researchers actually examine existing practices on the ground, rather than build their argument on what I can only describe as wishful thinking.  The latter looks great on paper, but there may be a reason why it’s not being implemented in practice – and it is understanding these very reasons that can improve my practice. 2. As a researcher, I am expected to critically examine assertions and provide data to support my claims.  I am deeply worried by the many so-called researchers that are given a voice in our field who do not abide by this most basic of research principles.  It is absolutely acceptable to be a theorist, but let’s not treat theorists as researchers, please.  Apologies if I sound harsh, and no personal attack is intended on the colleague in question.

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