Posts Tagged ‘interpretive planning’

A couple of weekends ago, I visited Hughenden Manor, managed by the National Trust.  I joined a guided tour on World War II, when the house had served as a base for map makers. The tour guide, a lovely and otherwise very welcoming lady, kept using ‘we’ as she spoke about Hughenden’s history during the war.  ‘We’ used this place.  ‘We’ made maps here.  ‘We’ photographed the maps.

At first I was merely puzzled. Did ‘we’, the National Trust, photograph the maps?  Did ‘we’, a collective of which I, as a visitor, was a part, use this place?  Of course, by the time the tour guide said ‘We bombed Hitler’s Eagles Nest’ I realised that ‘we’ meant ‘the British’.  And as the tour progressed, this group identity became even more pronounced.

I wasn’t the only non-British person in the group.  There was the French friend I was with, as well as a couple from the Netherlands and a few Americans, as far as I could tell.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether the guide and the National Trust as the organisation whom she represented had really thought through this use of language. The message sent to us non-British seemed clear: this wasn’t our past.  Our place in this narrative was as spectators, and judging from the proud and emphatic tone employed, we were supposed to be admiring spectators.

My own role was of course more complex than that.  I am German, so even in a non-philosophical way (I would argue that one country’s past is almost always also another country’s past, especially if you’re talking about a World War) the past that was represented was indeed partially my past.  But the language used left no room for my own engagement with that past.  I was to share in the celebration of the maps’ accuracy in enabling pilots to bomb German towns, dismissing the ‘few civilian casualties’ [1].  What is more, as the tour progressed, I noticed myself becoming self-conscious about being German.  I wondered what the guide’s, and the group’s, reaction would be if they ‘found out’.

Is this really how the tour guide, and the National Trust, wanted to make me feel?  I dare say the answer is no.  To me, this points to a few things.  It is not enough to devise a guided tour that shares facts in an engaging and fun way.  Evaluated on these criteria, the tour would score as outstanding.  But what we need to consider is visitors’ own engagement with a topic.  Do we allow them to contribute, to share?  Are we making it possible for them to look at something from a different point of view, while still respecting the one that they arrived with?  Are we providing a welcoming and safe place for everyone?  Are we inclusive?  Judged on these criteria, I’m afraid the tour at Hughenden Manor wasn’t very successful.



[1] I don’t think it’s necessary here to go into a discussion about the war.  It is needless to say that I acknowledge the harm that Germany did to many countries and people, Britain included.  But as someone who has interpreted war for the better part of her professional career, I feel keenly the importance of bringing sensitivity to war interpretation, no matter how long ago things happened, or who we think was the aggressor.

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I was quite intrigued by the lead article in the current edition of the Museums Journal [1].  In essence, the article asks whether we should move away from permanent exhibitions, using the number of visitors, and of repeat visits in particular, as the yardstick by which to measure value for money when it comes to investing in exhibitions.  At our museums service we’re currently looking at relocating and redeveloping one of our museums, so the question is hot on my mind.

The Museum Association’s own standpoint seems quite clear.  Their Head of Policy and Communications, Maurice Davies, compares current permanent exhibitions to ‘feature films’, suggesting that what museums should produce instead is news programmes.  The implication is that temporary exhibitions are the way to go: Kelvingrove Art Gallery’s manager Neil Ballantyne feels that the public really only register temporary exhibitions and full-blown gallery changes, while Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Collection, places his bets with the rapid advances of technology, which in his opinion will ‘make the delineation between permanent and temporary displays obsolete’ – presumably because content would be fluid and to a large extent selected by the user (think library reading room).

The article doesn’t sway me in favour of ditching permanent exhibitions though, and here is why. Firstly, the article doesn’t refer to any visitor research that examines the relationship between repeat visits and temporary/permanent exhibitions.  There are plenty of ‘professional’ opinions offered on the matter, but no one seems to have asked the visitors themselves.  This suggests the kind of patronizing attitude that defined museums a hundred years ago, where objects had value simply because the professionals said so, and where visitors had to contend themselves with whatever mode of consumption the professionals allowed.

As chance would have it, the day after I read the article, I came across a reference to a visitor survey done in the East Midlands in 1994/5 that found that changing exhibitions would only encourage 9% of visitors to return [2]. In contrast, children’s activities would bring 14% of visitors back.  This highlights that the issue is much more complex than permanent vs temporary exhibition, and yet the article doesn’t explore what else – if anything – is offered in museums.  There is one reference to events, but it is immediately undermined by the statement that ‘we are not a theatre’.

This highlights another concern that I have about the article: its tone is still dominated by ‘objects’ and ‘communicating history’.  I’m not getting the sense that museums have really engaged with key concepts of our times: the heritage autonomy of individuals, the invalidity of the idea of intrinsic value of objects, stakeholder engagement, and visitor creator-ship. There is a lot of talk about technology and self-curation, but what’s presented as the answer to all our permanent exhibition issues still confines visitors to rearranging content prepared for them by the professionals.  This is neither participation, nor co-creation, nor does it step away from the one idea that actually may be ‘outmoded’: that museums are about the presentation of objects, permanently or otherwise.

And finally, as Jonathan Griffin, director of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall rightly points out: there is also the matter of the ‘big picture’ or, as a lady at one of our museum’s recent stakeholder engagement events said, the ‘core story’ that she wants to find out about.  You simply cannot tell that story in ever-changing news flashes.  The story doesn’t change: it is the essence that visitors come for.

So what am I proposing for our museum redevelopment?  Well, first of all, we’re doing a lot of visitor surveys and public engagement work.  I definitely want us to have a permanent exhibition, but one that is based on the stories that are truly important to residents and visitors.  I also want our permanent exhibition to offer plenty of opportunities for visitors to participate (not just interact!), comment, and contribute.  And we will have an on-going programme of interventions, activities, and events inside and outside of the museum to share that core story, and to transform the museum into an intrinsic part of the social fabric of our local community.  But we will also have a reasonably sized temporary exhibition space, alongside spaces for doing projects and events.  At the heart of this will not be the objects in our collection, but the stories that make our community [3].


[1] Rob Sharp, Flexible Thinking: Should museums and galleries be looking at radical new ways to present their permanent exhibitions? Museums Journal, October 2012, pp. 24-29

[2] Black, G., 2005. The Engaging Museum.  Developing Museums for visitor involvement. London and New York: Routledge, p. 23

[3] This particular museum is the district museum, but the concept also applies to our Roman museum – it’s not the archaeological artefacts that will take centre stage in the future, but the stories that these artefacts can help us to tell.

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Last week, I had a meeting with our Interpretation Stakeholder Group.  We discussed the interpretive vision for a project to relocate and redevelop one of our museums.  And what an interesting discussion it was!  As always, the most inspiring comments came from people who aren’t interpreters.

The first thing that struck me was just how much desire there is to make sure that our interpretation is not simply interactive, or even participatory.  These stakeholders want to see interpretation that is generated by the community and visitors in an on-going cycle of comment and response.  It is the ultimate democratic interpretation model.  I find that hugely exciting.  I had already put it into our interpretive principles that any interpretation would provide plenty of spaces to enable community and visitor authorship and participation.  However, this is a concept of interpretation that goes far beyond community engagement and participatory elements.  This is interpretation that evolves and changes with the people coming through, it is interpretation by visitors.

I don’t know if this will actually work in practice.  Especially visitor-tourists do come to museums also to learn about a place.  Their ability to comment, or make sense of other visitors’ contributions may be limited if there isn’t further professional intervention.  There is also a potential danger here that we inadvertently go backwards and introduce a specialist, albeit community jargon that is as inaccessible to visitor-tourists as the archaeologist’s, or historian’s etc.  And I don’t see a way around an initial starting point of whatever making, that selects content and presents it in a certain way.  But – and this is the important thing – I want to keep the possibility of such a democratic interpretation model in mind, and push my own boundaries of what I thought interpretation as facilitation can be.

Another comment that I found really interesting was with regard to policies.  I had written that our interpretation would support and deliver several local policies.  At this point, a local coucillor stopped me and asked that we also ensure the interpretation contribute to these policies.  I’m not entirely sure whether in their mind, they primarily thought of interpretation as the document before them, in which case using it to influence other policies is quite possible to do.  But imagine they didn’t.  Imagine they thought of interpretation of the kind described above.  Imagine that such interpretation could – and should – actively impact policy making on an on-going basis.  Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?  Wouldn’t that burst museums and heritage sites right out of their built confinement and into that sphere of social and civic life where we always say heritage belongs?

Again, I don’t know how we would do this. I don’t know whether this can ever be possible, considering all other requirements of interpretation and heritage management.  However, as above, this is an immensely challenging and at the same time inspiring concept.  I for one want to keep it in mind, and see what might come from it for our practice in the future.

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Next week sees the For Them and By Them: Involving Stakeholders and Communities in Interpretation conference take place, which I initiated.  I am no longer able to be at the conference myself, so I thought I’d share here what I was going to talk about there [1].

It is really quite astonishing to see just how much the focus has shifted over recent years from heritage protection for its own sake, to heritage for the people [2].  This is expressed in what is generally referred to as the (public) benefits of heritage. [3]

In the UK, it is English Heritage who first started to really specify what these benefits are.  This was in 2005, in their strategy ‘Making the past part of our Future’.  The benefits that the document listed ranged from vague ‘social benefits’ to ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘well-being’ [4].  Over the following years, policies and strategies have further defined the public benefits of heritage: English Heritage’s 2008 Conservation Principles add ‘sense of identity’, ‘gives distinctiveness, meaning and quality to places’ and ‘reflection…of diverse communities’.  The National Trust in their 2010 ‘Going Local’ strategy introduce ‘social cohesion’, ‘inspiration’, ‘pride’ and even ‘peace’.  In 2011, the Arts Council England writes that heritage (through museums) can ‘empower people as citizens’, in addition to the benefits already listed above.

The interesting thing is that all these policies also provide a vision for how these benefits can best be delivered.  Access and provision of learning are no longer seen as enough.  It is again English Heritage’s strategy of 2005 that takes the first leap forward: it suggests that heritage managers ‘engage with diverse communities’.  In their 2010 strategy, the National Trust declare that they no longer want to act as proprietors, but as facilitators, which signals their intention to place ‘the visitor’ in the driving seat of their own experience.  Heritage Lottery Fund, the main funder in the UK heritage sector, require projects to demonstrate right from the start how they engage with stakeholders and involve them in creating and shaping the project.  Most radically, however, it is the Arts Council England that express how heritage can realise its benefits for the public: managers need to work with ‘the public as creators’.

In other words, the impulse given by official policies (many from funders) is that by involving stakeholders and even handing control over to them, heritage can deliver a variety of benefits that are important to the welfare of society as a whole.

For those of us working in the field, the challenge is twofold: we need to find meaningful ways of engaging with stakeholders, and we need to provide the evidence that what we do really delivers.

I’ve reported in my last post that according to the Arts Council England, we’re not doing too well on the latter point.  But what about the former? Are we engaging stakeholders in interpretation in meaningful ways?

Very often the approach is to have a series of focus groups at the start of a project, or maybe put out a call to the local community about stories or objects.  While this is better than nothing, it doesn’t go far enough.  In fact, the sector is full of stories (seldom properly analysed) of disillusioned communities who don’t visit their local sites after having been involved in consultations.  The issue is usually around four key factors:

–       expectations aren’t managed properly

–       there is no or only a very poor communication strategy (e.g. keeping participants informed)

–       there is a lack of transparency about the process

–       an authoritarian or patronizing approach by the professionals [5]


What this highlights is that managing stakeholder engagement takes skill.  It is as important to heritage management and interpretation as are the other tools of the trade.

But let’s look beyond consultation.  The Arts Council wants people to be the creators.  I don’t believe that’s a call for volunteer museums, and I’ve written here about the issues associated with those.  I think it’s actually a call for interpreters acting as facilitators [6].  If you think of it this way, then engaging stakeholders in interpretation becomes about two key things:

1) to help stakeholders articulate what they feel is their heritage, and

2) to help them interpret this heritage to a wider public.


A project for and by stakeholders is really exciting, but it’s not free of challenges.  There are a number of issues that emerge:

–       there’s never just one group of stakeholders

–       stakeholders aren’t saints: they will try to dominate the discussion over another group

–       stakeholders aren’t professional interpreters either: whatever took their fancy during their last museum/heritage visit is probably what they’ll focus on in terms of media for their project

–       motivation, motivation, motivation: some stakeholders really aren’t that interested in working with an organisation

At Bedwellty House and Park, where the conference takes place, we tried a number of engagement projects with varying success.  One project was to train up volunteer tour guides, and then work with them on developing new guided tours.  There were representatives from the local heritage forum at the initial training who had very strong views about what period of the history of the house and park we should focus on.  It also quickly became apparent that their estimation of some of the key figures in that history differed quite substantially from that of other stakeholder groups.  My approach was to encourage all groups to substantiate their interpretation of history with relevant references (the most basic interpretive principle).  I also encouraged a discussion among group members, and suggested that perhaps the way forward was to indicate in the guided tours that these different viewpoints existed – without making a judgement about either.  The project was unfinished when I left my post, but before I left, I agreed with the heritage group that we would put on ‘opinion’ tours, whereby they would be able to present their views as passionately as they felt about them.  I would have used the marketing of these tours, and the programming around them to make sure that visitors understand what is contentious about the issue.  Whether or not this would have worked, I will not know until I try it at another site, should the issue arise again.

Another project, which worked really well for us, was the ‘Memories of Bedwellty’ project.  Before the site opened in July last year, we actively went out into the community and asked people about their memories of Bedwellty.  We put out the call for memories via newspapers, our website and posters and flyers around town.  We also set up shop in several care homes, the local library, a local café and in the local youth café. The responses we got were fantastic.  They ranged from stories of love to youthful adventure to work to the simple joy of being in the park. It did several things:

–       it made people aware of what was happening at the house and park

–       it gave people an opportunity to meet the new management team where there had been none before

–       it let us know what people valued about Bedwellty House and Park

–       it gave us a ton of material and ideas to use for future programming

For a start, we made some of the memories into an exhibition which we put on when the house opened.  In my view, this provided a nice feel of continuation between what the house and park used to be, and what it was going to be now.  Overall, this was a very low-key stakeholder engagement project, but it gave a starting point to do more.  You can see a very basic version of the exhibition online.

The most notable thing about all of the stakeholder engagement projects that I’ve done and that we’re currently setting on their way in my new role, is that the benefits that people gain from heritage aren’t delivered by the outputs of these projects, but by the process.  It is through engaging in the process that people learn new skills, meet other people, challenge prejudices and increase their quality of life through participating in opportunities.

In other words, interpretation makes connections no longer through media, but through engagement.  At least that is what the research seems to suggest.  It is certainly the process that attracts the funding, and not the end product per se.  We do need more proper research into this, for it is already clear that evidence for the public benefit delivery of heritage projects is the next developmental step in public policy.



[1] Some of you may have planned on catching up with me at the conference.  Please feel free to send me a comment via this blog and I’ll be happy to catch up about my research by phone or email.

[2] For the purpose of this post, I’m focussing on the UK.  EU legislation was actually much quicker in putting people at the centre of its heritage legislation, at least in terms of benefit, if not participation. Benefits as we would recognise them now from UK legislation started to emerge in 1975, in the European Charter of the Architectural Heritage.

[3] In the UK, the term ‘benefit’ is actually first used in 1907, in the National Trust Act: the trust protects heritage ‘for the benefit of the nation’.  However, the act didn’t specify wherein this benefit lay.

[4] Wellbeing is an interesting one.  The Office of National Statistics introduced questions about wellbeing into their questionnaire in 2011.  The Happy Museum Project is an initiative that sprang to life from the same thinking.

[5] There is a lot of knowledge about Stakeholder Engagement outside the heritage sector, which is why I am very excited that Participation Cymru will be at next week’s conference.  Click here for the Scottish set of engagement principles.

[6] You still have to be careful, though: facilitation can be manipulative also, just like a survey can be, depending on how you frame your questions.  We need to always take a step back and allow stakeholders to explore their own paths.

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Tomorrow I will start in my new job and I thought that’s a good time to reflect on what I learnt in my last role.  So here we go, in no particular order:


It’s key to understand the heritage values

I started with a deeply felt commitment to inclusive significance assessments.  What this job did was remind me of why. There was no single dominant heritage value represented in this site.  To many people it was about the history of the labour movement.  To many others, it was about the Industrial Revolution and the Ironmasters that drove it in this particular region.  To a substantial group of others, it wasn’t about either of these things, but about their use of a much-loved green space.  What is more, all of these values were visible and lived all around the site.  For our management and interpretation of the site this meant there was no single story we could focus on.  This is a major concern that I have about almost every single interpretive planning model currently out there: they do not acknowledge that more often than not, this is the case at sites, nor do they offer a methodology on how to manage the situation.  I blame this for the many sites whose interpretation freezes them in time and falsely portrays a story to visitors that has been simplified beyond recognition.


Interpretation is facilitation, e.g. through events and projects

Especially because this site was in daily use by the community, and because they engaged in its history through various groups, more than any other role this job confirmed my belief that interpretation is about facilitation.  By facilitation I mean opportunities for stakeholders (community members, visitors, etc.) to actively live, experience and contribute to the heritage values of the site.  Events and projects are a perfect way of doing this, and they require the same degree of interpretive planning as your more traditional exhibition needs if they are to be meaningful.  A look at the current job listings will also show you that events and projects are considered to be part of interpretation by many employers, especially in the public sector.  A one-off intervention to put up panels or lay out a trail is no longer enough.


Stakeholders are your partners

The beautiful thing about this site was that the local stakeholders were so involved in it.  They had been more or less the ones who ‘managed’ the site before, and their rightful expectation was that they would continue to be a contributing part to how the site was managed, presented and used.  Again, I’d always believed in engaging with stakeholders, and this site offered plenty of opportunities, as well as learning in that area.  Mind, stakeholder engagement isn’t simply asking the local community about what they’d like to see, what stories they think are important, or what their local knowledge is.  The consultants that were responsible for the permanent interpretation at the site had done plenty of that, and then proceeded to do their own thing – most of which later proved meaningless in the on-going interpretation of the site and became a subject for criticism by stakeholders.  No, stakeholder engagement to me is about working with stakeholders as your partner.  So we did lecture series in collaboration with a local heritage group, we involved the community in creating our local history exhibitions, we created a project that we co-delivered with local stakeholders and through which young people will eventually interpret the site, and of course we had a community management board that gave direction to our efforts.


Interpretation is just a part of a larger whole

In many ways this harks back to the discussion about what interpretation encompasses.  And yet, in practice there are many limitations to what an interpreter – by virtue of the powers of their role – can do.  For example, I knew that the lack of tourism signage was a major issue for the site, but the power to change this didn’t lie with me, but with the Highways Department, together with the Tourism Officer (and funding, of course).  All of these departments and roles need to come together to make a heritage site work.  I will say, though, that they should probably recognise the expertise of the interpreter, and take their advice.  Which leads me to the final point.


It takes heritage professionals to support a heritage site

Unbelievable as it may seem, I was the only person working on site with a background in heritage.  This caused major issues.  I spent many hours trying to explain to team members why what they had done in a leisure centre (!) didn’t work as an approach to a heritage site.  In one instance I even had to explain what heritage meant, and why it was important that in our engagement efforts we focused on the heritage values of our site, rather than offer predominantly generic programmes such as willow weaving.  The consequence of this team make-up was that we didn’t achieve as much as we might have done otherwise in the time given.  While I would expect to have to do a certain amount of persuasion in bringing a new team up behind a particular vision, this took us back to such basics that I do feel the site was held back by it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three months ago I blogged about the HLF funding I secured for a young people’s project at my site.  This week, we’re completing the first activity of the project – the ‘research’ phase -, which I thought was a good time to share an update and explain why this is interpretation also.

We started off with two sessions during which we took the young people behind the scenes at the house, and also around the park.  I made a point of not just telling them about the history as we know it, but really focussing them on what we don’t know (and there’s lots of it).  I was surprised to find that the young people totally went for this: they started formulating really exciting research questions that ranged from ‘What happened to the Ironmaster’s children?’ to ‘Why did they turn this into offices when the house was given to the town?’

Armed with these research questions, the group (with us as chaperones) then went to spend four sessions with the local History and Archives group, the local history librarian as well as the Registrar.  It worked out quite nicely that I was actually on annual leave for part of this, so that when I returned, we arranged for the young people to ‘present’ their findings to me.  What impressed me was how much more confident the young people seemed at this stage.  It felt to me like they considered themselves something of experts on the topics that they had researched, which was great to see.

Another thing that worked out quite well was that the young people realised that they couldn’t find answers to all the questions they had raised.  On the back of this, we had a good conversation about history: that it isn’t ‘objective’, that it depends on the surviving sources, whose sources these are, and how we can understand them.

We also decided then to add another session (which is the one we’ll do this week), to see who else could help us with finding the answers to our remaining questions. For some of the group this is a step out of their comfort zone, because they’ll be writing letters to people they’ve never met and whom they’ll likely to consider as ‘beyond their reach’ (bearing in mind that the local area includes two of the most deprived wards in all of Wales).

So has this been interpretation, what we’ve been doing here?  My answer is a very emphatic yes.  This first activity is of course part of a larger project, in which each activity links in with and builds on the preceding one.  As such, a lot of thought has gone into what we want to achieve with the project.  One of the aims is one that any book on interpretation will proclaim as the aim of interpretation at large: to bring people closer to the heritage of our site.  We want young people to engage directly with the site, and think about it, and learn about, and take it into the future.  During this research activity, young people have done just that.  They’ve learnt about the site, not just from the tours we’ve given them, but from the questions they’ve asked and researched themselves.  Their confidence has markedly increased, which achieved two more of our aims: to increase their ability to speak about their heritage, and to increase their skills overall.

This latter aim is really important to me.  You will be aware that I’m very interested in the expectation in legislation and policy that heritage (and interpretation) deliver public benefits, very often tied to desired strategic outcomes.  For my local authority, upskilling people, and providing them with opportunities is a very important strategic outcome.  This project is designed to use the site to increase people’s skills through their engagement with heritage.  This first activity so far has been a great step in that direction.

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I spent the start of this week in Pisa at the annual Interpret Europe Conference.  Possibly the greatest inspiration that I took from it was the forming of a group of like-minded professionals with an interest in ‘closing the gap’.  Talking to each other, we found that there is a discrepancy between how interpretation is currently presented from within the field, and what many of us are asked to do in our professional roles.

Like myself, many of these colleagues are having to use their interpretive skills for projects that go far beyond interpretive planning and implementing an exhibition or trail.  As one Australian consultant reported of a recent project, the client didn’t just want an interpretive plan.  They wanted public outcomes, processes, and engagement.  In Scotland, the Centre for Interpretation Studies encounters similar demands, especially from Local Authorities.  Here, heritage is seen as a means to deliver policy outcomes such as increasing community capacity or providing routes into learning for young people.

All of these activities fall outside the traditional view of interpretation.  Interpretation is no longer asked to merely provide an explanation in the form of a media solution.  Traditional interpretive outputs such as panels become much rarer in what is required by clients.

And yet, our discourse doesn’t reflect this.  In many ways, the conference, while truly enjoyable, provided a good example for this.  The opening keynote speech argued in favour of interpretation as an end in itself based on Freeman Tilden [1].  While it included an interesting discussion of the discipline’s philosophical connection to Humanism and the enlightenment, the sheer fact that we still open interpretation conferences by quoting a writer of more than fifty years ago shows a worrying degree of orientation to the past.  It also shows an obsession with defining what interpretation is, based on parameters that are no longer relevant for present circumstances.

This in particular seems something of an issue with many practitioners.  When in one presentation the suggestion was made that interpretation is also marketing I felt a noticeable unease sweep through the audience.  But why?  Why are we so precious about not wanting to associate interpretation with marketing, for example? I suspect the closing keynote of the conference contained some clues to this conundrum.  The speech was filled with immensely inspiring and motivational quotes about what interpretation and interpreters do: we care, we share passion, we protect what cannot be replaced.  Don’t get me wrong: I subscribe to all of these.  And yet, is it this moral definition of our work that makes us look with disdain onto more practical effects, such as marketing?

It seems to me that as a discipline we cannot afford such ivory-tower thinking.  In practice, what interpreters are asked to do, and what we want to do more of, is to provide a comprehensive ‘product’ that unlocks the practical potential of heritage.  I don’t think that in order to achieve this we should ditch the term interpretation (I wrote a little about this here).  But what we need to do is to widen its application.  Only then will we be able to present the picture of a strong, responsive and more importantly, relevant discipline that is crucial to delivering outcomes from heritage.

Alas, it is this discourse that this new informal group wishes to move forward. I can’t wait to see the discussions start.


[1] I’ve already explained here why I think we need to move beyond Tilden.

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When I recently visited Germany on my first research study visit, my interviewees used two terms to describe interpretive foci, which I found quite intriguing: ‘Ereignisgeschichte’ (event history) and ‘Rezeptionsgeschichte’ (reception history).

We don’t generally use these terms in English and in our writings.  However, I wonder if they can go some way in helping us conceptualize the (interpretive) issue around history vs heritage [1].

In German usage, the Ereignisgeschichte (event history) tells the story of what happened, when, where, and of the actors involved [2].  It doesn’t go into how it may have influenced the future and our present, nor how we relate to the event today.  In many ways, it seems to me that as such Ereignisgeschichte equates (much more elegantly expressed) to what in English we mean by ‘history’.

Rezeptionsgeschichte (reception history), on the other hand, focuses on how people have responded to the event since: how they wrote about it in poetry, for example, or how they made it part of their identity make-up over time. Rezeptionsgeschichte thus is a rather academic, life-less description of what in practice more often than not involves very personal and passionate emotions.  For this reason I wouldn’t equate it with what we mean by ‘heritage’ in English, which expresses (in my mind) just these emotions felt by people.  However, as an approach to interpreting heritage, Rezeptionsgeschichte strikes me as a rather perfect method.

Let me elaborate.  When I did research at the Battle of the Boyne, I was told that the interpretive focus was on history because the debate surrounding the battle and its aftermath still caused so much emotion and unrest in modern Ireland.  While I appreciate the argument, I wonder whether the site’s interpretation consequently has any effect at all [3].

Using a reception history approach, however, might have allowed to present all subsequent responses to the battle without being emotional or appearing to take sides.  Just as in presenting historical facts [see note 2], a reception history approach allows to be ‘objective’, while still acknowledging people’s stake in the event.

It seems to me that especially at sites with contested or controversial heritage the reception history approach to interpretation may just be the solution.  Personally, wherever possible I still prefer a more immediate interpretation that reflects and resonates with people’s heritage beliefs and emotions.  However, where such ‘hot’ interpretation, as Uzzel and Ballantyne [4] have called it, is not possible, the reception history approach is far more appropriate than the history approach.  I cannot help but feel that a history approach to interpretation is almost always a cop out.

On a final note, I also want to share another term they use in German: Geschichtspolitik. Now this is a term I really cannot adequately translate into English – we have nothing like it.  What it actually means is the political use of history, for example through the selective recall of facts, or the reframing of events to suit modern needs.  Interestingly, in the English-language discourse this is usually a concept associated with heritage, and in fact, it is this proposed political (and consequently presumably flighty) dimension of heritage that is used as an argument in favour of the history approach to interpretation.  I am not entirely sure yet how we might be able to use this concept – Geschichtspolitik – to improve our interpretive practice. However, I find it most helpful to separate the political use of history out from both history and heritage.  Maybe it can sit in a reception history approach to interpretation, or maybe it is a separate aspect altogether, as the German discourse seems to suggest.  Either way, it’s good to think about these concepts, and recognise that our understanding of and responses to these concepts as interpreters have far-reaching consequences for our visitors.  They’re not something we can ignore.


[1] Two years ago, I wrote this article on the matter.  Back then, I wrongly came to the conclusion that the debate of ‘history vs heritage’ had come to an end two decades before.  This is not so.  While today heritage is less often opposed to ‘history’ as a term and concept these days, the underlying questions are the same.  What is more, the concept of heritage has seen a much more vigorous critical examination than what existed in the 1980s and 90s.

[2] As far as that is possible.  But I won’t get into a discussion now of how objective or authoritative any history can ever be.

[3] I was not given permission to conduct visitor research there as the management felt this would stir up emotions when the site was intended to allow for peaceful and private contemplation.  Again, I appreciate the motivation here, and yet the consequence of this decision is that they will not know the impact of their interpretation, nor will we be able to learn from it. For all we know, the heritage communities in question may feel the site is lifeless due to the omission in the interpretation of their heritage represented in the site, while visitors, well aware of the tensions in Ireland, may feel they came to what they thought was an important site in understanding this history, and yet they walk away as puzzled and uninformed as they came.

[4] Uzzel, D. and Ballantyne, R., 2008. ‘Heritage that Hurts: Interpretation in a postmodern world.’ In: In: Fairclough, G. et al (eds), 2008.  The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 502 – 513

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I spent last week in Germany on my first site visit for my PhD research [1].  Many interesting aspects emerged, but the one I’d like to focus on today is – architecture.

The architecture of the museum at Kalkriese is nothing short of imposing.  As the commercial director explained, the building was intended to be a landmark– and that it certainly is.  It is built with oxidising steel and in the shape of an L lying on its back.  In other words, it is a long, flat building with a tower rising to about 40m above the entrance.

The building itself was not intended to dictate interpretation.  And indeed, the main exhibition space is simply a large empty room with a window on one side – flexible enough to already accommodate a redeveloped exhibition.

But can architecture be divorced from interpretation at all? Can architecture’s duty to interpretation be fulfilled simply by providing large enough empty spaces?

Or should architecture itself be seen and used as interpretation?  That is what I think.  Architecture may not be interpretation in the purest sense of the word, but it most definitely guides our senses and creates an experience.  It may not ‘explain’, but it certainly ‘sets the tone’.

Take the Kalkriese building, for example.  The tower above the entrance thwarts visitors.  Then the building sucks visitors into a dark, relatively narrow staircase, which they have to climb before they reach the exhibition space – a sensory experience of having to exert oneself to gain access to the knowledge presented here [2].

The building also dominates the horizon in the adjoining park, which encloses part of the original battlefield.  The tower, quite smartly serving as an observation platform to obtain an overview of the site, can be seen from every vantage point on the battlefield.

My question as I explored the site was: since this building is so omnipresent, what does it actually add to my understanding of and engagement with the site?  Personally, I felt – nothing.  I’m sure the architecture is successful in terms of the brief, but is a statement all we should expect from architecture?  Wouldn’t visitors get a better experience of a site from architecture that either interprets (through shape, for example) or provides understated facilitation?

I’m thinking for example of the visitor centre at Brú na Bóinne in Ireland (Newgrange), which completely blends into the landscape and is designed in such a way that visitors are subtly made to look out for the monuments.  It is the ritual landscape and the monuments that sit centre stage, while the architecture provides facilitation of the experience of and engagement with the monuments.  The architecture is also reminiscent of the monuments themselves, which is something I’m really excited about.  It is a continuation of the sentiments represented in the monuments (or at least how we imagine those sentiments today), and thus creates that connection between past and present that encapsulates what heritage is all about.  I don’t think interpretation guided the architecture at Brú na Bóinne, but one can clearly see in the architecture the same approach to the landscape as a whole that was taken in the interpretation.  As such, the experience holds together quite nicely.

In my opinion, whenever possible, interpretation should guide architecture, especially at heritage sites.  Sustainability may require architecture that is subtle and therefore adaptable to future changes in (interpretive) direction.  But interpretation should always be the starting point.  At heritage sites, I really do not believe an architectural statement should ever be made.  Because the site is not about the architecture – it is about its own story, and our heritage.




[1] Just a few words about the site: Kalkriese was discovered about twenty years ago to have been the likely site where Roman general Varus was defeated by Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius in 9 AD.  While archaeological excavations have uncovered numerous coins and fragments of armoury etc., there is little else to be seen.

The landscape has changed considerably in 2000 years, so interpreting the battle is a real challenge.  My primary interest in the site, however, is for its possible impact on ‘identity-making’ – one of the core public benefits identified in legislation.  But more about that another time…

[2] Comments in the visitor book about the architecture of the museum building are split into roughly one third positive, and two thirds negative.  Quite ironically, a few visitors complain that the building appears to have been ‘neglected’ and ‘not maintained’ – a sentiment inspired, as it turns out, by the oxidising steel.

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