Posts Tagged ‘National Association of Interpretation’

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.


[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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Recent discussions – online and offline – as well as my current work of pulling together the different aspects of a heritage/community site have had me think about the existentialist question: what is interpretation [1]?

As one sets out on the journey to find an answer [2], one must naturally begin with Freeman Tilden, the man most often credited with having fathered the discipline of interpretation [3].  He defined interpretation as follows:

“An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” [4]

Of course Tilden wrote this in 1957, and he wasn’t himself trained in the disciplines that today we acknowledge to have an influence on interpretation, such as the psychology of learning and communication theory.  His social environment also was different from what we find today: disengaged youth and the poverty gap were not concepts Tilden needed to reflect on in relation to interpretation.

However, Tilden’s definition is still the yard stick by which others measure their own understanding of interpretation. From my point of view, it is therefore worthwhile to critically examine Tilden’s definition more closely before moving on:

  • ‘An educational activity’ (1):  A recent study by the Welsh Assembly Government found that there was a generally negative reaction to the term ‘education’ [5].  People associated it with school, a place that for many held negative memories and experiences.  When working as a Training Liaison Officer in the Scottish Highlands, I encountered the same phenomena: people were weary of taking up further education because they were intimidated by the term.  To place the concept of ‘education’ at the heart of any definition of interpretation is therefore not the right starting point in my opinion.
  • ‘An educational activity’ (2): The other side of this coin is the interpreter’s attitude that this evokes.  The term ‘education’ suggests a one-way process: from the learned (the teacher) to the learner.  One knows, the other doesn’t.  However today, even schools have recognised that participatory and self-guided learning produce the best results [6].
  • ‘through the use of original objects…’: Few will dispute that encountering ‘the Thing Itself’, as Tilden called it, beats any remote experience thereof.  But we mustn’t forget that Tilden very much wrote in response to the interpretation he encountered at the time and on site.  Today, our media capabilities have far moved on, as have our spheres of reality and interaction.  I strongly feel that interpretation as a medium does not need to use nor be in sight of ‘the Thing itself’ [7].  In other words, an online activity to my mind is interpretation also.
  • ‘to reveal meanings’: I have already pointed out elsewhere that interpreters must take care not to impose their own meanings on others.  This is the danger I see in incorporating the concept of ‘meaning’ into the definition of interpretation in this fashion.  As we shall see below, it can be done much more elegantly and with added democratic ethos.

    On the positive side, I would whole-heartedly endorse Tilden’s statement that interpretation is not just the provision of factual information.

    The next definition of interpretation must come from the National Association of Interpretation who can claim to be the oldest association of interpretation worldwide.  They write:

    “Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource.” [8]

    I like several aspects of this definition:

    • ‘mission-based’: this places interpretation in the wider context of heritage management where it belongs.  It also hints at the fact that interpretation serves a purpose, and this purpose will depend on the organisation’s mission and goals.
    • ‘communication process’: by introducing the term ‘communication’ this definition acknowledges that interpretation is subject to all the laws that govern any other communication [9].  Using this term also makes the receiver visible, although in my opinion it could go even further in suggesting a two-way activity.  Finally, the term ‘process’ makes it clear that interpretation doesn’t happen in one piece: it is an ongoing event that involves the audience.
    • ’emotional’: hurrah for the acknowledgment that we value heritage not simply for its factual merit but also for the emotional meaning it has for us.
    • ‘connections’: beside the term ‘communication’ this to me is the crucial improvement on Tilden’s definition [10].  ‘Connections’ imply a lasting relationship that has been forged between the visitor and the resource.

      If recognising interpretation as a communication process has been a huge step forward from Tilden, then Sam Ham’s definition of interpretation must seem revolutionary:

      ‘Interpretation is meaning-making.‘ [11]

      Granted, this definition does not serve us well when trying to explain the benefits of interpretation to the uninitiated.  However, it encapsulates both the process and the outcome of interpretation: interpreters try to establish the meaning of a resource, they make a selection of what to relate and they strive to communicate that selection so that visitors will gain an understanding of the meaning of a resource.  To me, this definition is also an excellent reminder of the responsibility and power an interpreter holds in creating meaning.

      James Carter’s definition goes even further.  He leaves Tilden’s one-way scenario far behind and places visitors right at the heart of the experience:

      ‘At its best, interpretation is a whisper in the visitor’s ear.  It suggests ways of looking, plants seeds that may take root in the field of a visitor’s own thoughts, while leaving them free to explore for themselves.’ [12]

      Again, for the novice this definition may not provide the nuts and bolts of interpretation required to gain a quick grasp of what it is, but as far as I’m concerned, this definition goes a long way.  It highlights what I think is the mark of any good communication: it is subtle, and it recognises its own limitations.  But interpretation, of course, is not just any communication, it is communication about heritage.  And this definition underlines the fact that the visitor has as much claim to and as much freedom to connect with this heritage as the interpreter does.  We may have a few more facts and they may be important to facilitate understanding, but the ultimate experience lies with the visitors themselves.

      I should perhaps leave it at that, but there is one more definition – or rather, philosophy – of interpretation that I feel I must add.  Interpreters often talk about their own passion for heritage, and this is equally often considered to be a prime condition for becoming a good interpreter.  However, interpretation is not about us, it is about visitors and their connection with heritage.  And there is one man who has expressed this more beautifully than anyone else.  At the 2007 Vital Spark Interpretation conference in Scotland, community activist and writer Alastair McIntosh said this in his keynote speech:

      ‘That is why we need interpretation, above all, for cultural regeneration….That demands deep leadership, even eldership, from our national institutions.  We must reclaim history that tells our past and vision that tells our future.  And there is a performance indicator to be applied as the measure of all we do.  It is the only one that ever really mattered:  ‘Does it give life?” [13]


      [1] I should make it clear at this point that I think there is a time and place for definitions – and then there is a time to move beyond them.  Particularly at the early stages of establishing a discipline it is useful to mark the boundaries, both in order to distinguish it from existing but less applicable disciplines and in order to wrap it up in easy bite sizes that foster understanding in a novice audience.

      However, once the groundwork has been laid, being too precious about definitions can unnecessarily confine the development of a discipline and make it fall out of step with the evolution of the outside world.

      My final word of caution about definitions is that by their very nature they need to artificially focus on one aspect of the thing to be defined, for example the end product.  This leaves out the other aspects which are, however, equally important.

      [2] I’m not setting out to provide a historical overview, however.

      [3]  He didn’t, though, it was the US National Park Service that had interpretive programmes in place and invited Tilden, a journalist, to be the first to write about interpretation formally.  See Merriman, T. and Brochu, L. (2006) The History of Heritage Interpretation in the United States. Fort Collins: The National Association of Interpretation, p. 19

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

      [5] Welsh Assembly Government (2010) Qualitative Research with seldom-heard groups [online]. Accessed 03/10/2010.  Here: p. 44ff.

      [6] See for example the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence.  For more evidence of this from a learning theory point of view, you may also wish to look at Jarvis P et al (2006) The theory and practice of learning, 2nd edition.  Oxon: Routledge Falmer

      [7] Unless, of course, it is on-site interpretation.  I am absolutely not advocating to erect any more panels that talk about the splendid plasterwork that is just around the corner.

      [8] National Association for Interpretation [online]. Available from: http://www.interpnet.com/about_nai/mission.shtml. [Accessed: 14/09/07]

      [9] Other organisations also use communication as an intrinsic point in their definition of interpretation.  Among these are Interpretation Canada and Interpretation Australia.

      [10] Although, in all fairness, Tilden did call for interpretation to ‘relate’ to visitors’ own experience.  In fact, this was his first principle of interpretation.  However, his is still a one-way process as I see it.

      [11] Ham, S., 2002. Keynote speech at the Scotching the Myth Conference. Edinburgh.

      [12] Carter, J (2010) ‘A Way with Words’.  Interpretation Journal Vol. 15(1), 12-13

      [13] McIntosh A. (2007)  Sparking the fire of regeneration (Keynote Speech at the Vital Spark Conference, Aviemore). Interpretation Journal Vol 12 (3), p.4/5

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