Posts Tagged ‘interpretive writing’

Last week I came back from my first trip to Rome. What an amazing place! However, as someone working in heritage, I thought what probably thousands of heritage professionals before me have thought: this interpretation (if you can even call it that) is just terrible [1]. Signs were cluttered, randomly placed and half of the time facing away from the very thing they were meant to explain. Text was disorganised, full of jargon, and so dull that even I, a committed reader of panels, became switched off. There was no narrative, no red thread, and nothing to get me excited about what I was seeing – and that’s quite an achievement given how extraordinary Rome’s historic environment is.

Internally, I found myself collating helpful pieces of advice: Add illustrations! Use headlines! Address the visitor! Avoid jargon! Find comparisons to modern-day life! And for a second there I felt that this was quite acceptable and enough. After all, the responsible Italian colleagues here clearly had no existing concept of interpretation. They were, so to speak, still in a pre-interpretation stage of (heritage management) evolution, and just getting them to apply some simple design and communication principles would vastly improve their interpretive offer to visitors.

And that’s quite true. It would indeed have made a difference if the interpretation provided had been better presented visually, and better written. So the temptation was there to use such an evolutionary model of interpretation, and then focus on its very early stages with ready-made guidance for implementation, with possibly a bit of planning advice thrown in (‘Be clear about your objectives!’). After all, there was nothing more to these ruins I saw before me, right? The history was done and dusted, now it’s all about revealing to me, the hapless tourist from abroad who didn’t do her homework, what happened here. Job done.

Except of course I’ve just spent the last two years doing research with visitors at two sites which may not be as old as Rome, but still a good few years removed from contemporary history (i.e. 2000 years in Germany, and nearly 1000 in the UK). And they had not only a myriad of pre-existing connections to these sites, but also connections that wove right through their identity and perception of their place in the (international) world. They had very clear expectations of interpretation, and while pragmatic considerations of word counts, font sizes, and illustrations were certainly part of that, they by far were not the most important. Add to that the literature I’ve been reading around heritage and tourism, and I realised that my initial recourse to an interpretive discourse about (effectively) implementation was quite worrying.

Here is why. It is true that in many ways interpretation in the UK and the US [2] is years ahead of interpretation elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean we should suspend what we’ve since learned and thought about successful interpretation when we coach colleagues. There are no evolutionary stages of interpretation that colleagues have to run through in order to catch up with us. It is interpretation as a discipline that has evolved. We’ve broadened our understanding of it. Interpretation, especially when we add ‘heritage’ to the term, has long since ceased to be merely about design and communication. Heritage is so much more complex than that, and interpretation has needed to evolve accordingly. This may not yet have been pinned in our interpretation textbooks. But it’s certainly applied in most projects. In the UK, the Heritage Lottery Fund will not give you money if you don’t properly involve people (and being the largest funder for heritage projects, that means almost every project applies the principle). In the US, they’re even further, by asking uncomfortable questions about covert structural exclusion of people – and we’re not talking a lack of targeted programmes here. So this is where we need to meet our international colleagues in countries that are new to interpretation. Let’s not just give them guidance on design and communication (and education and psychology). That’s just the end-tools. The process of getting there is much, much more important and involved, and far more complex [3].


[1] This relates to static, or impersonal interpretation. Two guided tours I went on were quite good. I didn’t get a chance to use audio guides within ancient Rome, because they asked for ID, which I’d left in the hotel for fear of losing it. It made me wonder whether there could be a better solution, especially given the fact that Rome is (in)famous for its pickpockets.

[2] These are the two places where I’ve personally worked, and which are traditionally listed as the ‘advanced’ countries in terms of interpretation. From my reading, I would add to this Canada and Australia, whose discourses on indigenous heritage and interpretation have been hugely influential on my own research.

[3] I acknowledge that this is based on the hypothesis that in order to properly provide interpretation it has to be interpreters doing the job of covering the process. More traditionalist interpreters disagree, leaving the identification of ‘content’ to other specialists such as archaeologists and historians. Neither of these disciplines has at their core an engagement with the process required for understanding people’s heritage values (to name but one aspect). Their specialism is something else (a subject within archaeology, a period in history). In contrast, interpretation is the discipline most visible to visitors on site when it comes to content. It is the only discipline charged with actively (as opposed to passively, for example through architecture) engaging visitors with a site. Interpretation therefore appears to me the logical discipline to cover the process through which one arrives at the final content, and thus implementation.

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Now here’s an oxymoron in most interpreters’ view: how can any panel that reads like ‘a book on the wall’ ever be good?  And of course these interpreters are right in pointing out that rows upon rows of text are highly unlikely to be read and they will probably fail to get a memorable and relevant message across.  In other words, such panels are simply bad practice [1].

However, bear with me for a moment.  Last weekend I visited Rhondda Heritage Park in Pontypridd, South East Wales.  I didn’t have a lot of time so I only managed to explore their free of charge exhibition area.  Included in it was what they termed ‘an exhibition’ about the Tynewydd mining disaster of 1877.  I put ‘exhibition’ in quotation marks because it was very small indeed, consisting of two adjoining walls which were covered by a mural and on which were mounted seven panels (if I remember the number correctly).

The mural depicted scenes from the disaster: miners got trapped underground until their rescuers managed to break through to them (sadly, some of the men lost their lives in the disaster).  The panels told the story from start to finish, from the beginnings of the mine to the fateful day that it was flooded.  They included quotes from the survivors and their rescuers, as well as contemporary descriptions of life in the valley.  There were also contemporary photographs of the mine and the men, followed by a modern image of today’s rescue workers.  But there was lots and lots of text.

And I liked it.  Admittedly, as a visitor I am not anything to go by because my passion for history and my professional interest has me read panels where others would long since have moved on in disgust.  But this was different: the panel text actually made an attempt at telling a story in a captivating way.

So this is where I’m getting at: there are textbooks on the wall, and then there are novels. On my German blog I’ve already argued that writers of exhibition text have a lot to learn from commercial novelists.  The Tynewydd mining disaster exhibition illustrates that point.  The panels built up tension, they used emotion through quotes from the trapped miners themselves as well as observers, and they did not shy away from presenting controversy in terms of who was – or wasn’t – held responsible for the disaster.   It did help that the text flow was eased through use of photographs and the occasional illustration, however, the panels followed none of the traditional rules [2].  The mural behind the panels also helped create a sense of urgency which overall left me with a very vivid impression both of the hardships of life in the mining valleys and the community spirit among the miners which saved some of their peers’ lives in the disaster.

In summary, here is what I think made this ‘book on the wall’ work quite well:

  • The emotive, oversize mural that provided the backdrop
  • Tension building
  • Emotional language
  • Uncensored, contemporary quotes
  • Strongly representing the feeling of injustice and controversy (rather than white-washing it)
  • Contemporary photographs that link directly to the story told in the text
  • The link to today

Was there room for improvement?  Certainly.  Sub-headers would have been immensely helpful, both to allow for visual scanning and to strengthen the sense of tension.  A larger font size as well as better spacing would also have been preferable.  More space in general would have allowed for the text to be better laid out across more panels.  Select ‘high impact panels’, for example displaying a photograph only with perhaps strategically enlarged key areas, would have further increased the sense of a story unfolding.

However, as they are, the panels of the Tynewydd mining disaster exhibition go a long way in showing that panels with lots of text and a long story to tell don’t have to be boring.  They can be dramatic and emotional, and incidentally I think that’s what interpretation should be anyway.  But more on that another time.



[1] A good starting point for finding out about best practice panels is Trench, L (2009) Gallery text at the V&A.  A Ten Point Guide [online].  Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/files/file_upload/10808_file.pdf [Accessed: 12.05.2010].  You may also want to look at Dean, D (1994)  Museum Exhibition Theory and Practice.  Oxon: Routledge.

[2] For example there were no sub-headlines structuring the text and allowing for a quick scan.


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The current issue of AHI’s Interpretation Journal is entirely devoted to words – and an inspiring debate about whether or not we should lay the interpretive panel to rest.  Verity Walker of Interpretaction rightly points out that too often, panels are the default when interpretation is sought.  She bemoans many panels’ formal, nondescript voice and highlights that their cost-value ratio is poor, as is their sustainability.  Verity champions more modern technologies, such as mobile phone downloads.

On the other side of the spectrum, Eleanor Bird argues that panels are still the best thing when seeking visitors’ attention – even if only for the supposed 3 – 15 seconds.  Panels, she feels, are easily accessible and if designed well, may even enhance the interpretation.  After all, not everyone is comfortable with the technology alternative proposed by Verity, she writes.

And where do I stand?  I agree with Verity that panels are used indescriminately even where they may not be the best interpretive solution.  Surely all of us have enjoyed a great wilderness hike, only to have the mountaintop view spoilt by an interpretive panel telling us all we never wanted to know about the mountain’s vegetation.  This is a perfect example of where a dedicated vegetation webpage on the park’s online presence, advertised perhaps in the park’s car park, would much better fulfill the needs of any hobby-botanists, while leaving the rest of us free to enjoy our views.

But I also agree with Eleanor that creatively designed panels may be just the thing under some circumstances.  But these are not your off-the-shelf text panels with the best practice image thrown in.  They are things like the children’s tiles below the bridge at Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, where one of them reads ‘I want the ferry back’.  No more is needed, and yet it offers both information (oh – there used to be a ferry, and it is within the memory of these young children) and a powerful sense of local place (oh – I guess the locals feel they’ve lost something – I wonder what a ferry can give that the bridge doesn’t).  THAT is the kind of panel I support.  Of course, not many would consider it a panel at all.

As for alternative technological solutions, I am myself not very big on I-phones and their numerous applications.  But I am perfectly prepared to check out a website, and equally, I am sure that the older generation, often assumed to be adverse to technology, would enthusiastically embrace a car park mention of a publication, too, and then go out and purchase it at the local book shop (adding some local economic benefit?).

So my last word on panels is, let’s make sure we know whom they’re for, what they’re for, and whether there really isn’t a better alternative.  If there isn’t, then let’s create panels that don’t merely tick the 150-words-max rule, but that are creative pieces of art which can enhance the environment by adding a layer.  If what you end up with is still a condensed version of a textbook, then probably the panel wasn’t the way to go after all.

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