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Posts Tagged ‘National Trust’

I outed myself at work this week when I declared that I actually don’t want any interpretation at a lot of the National Trust-style country estates. We were talking about places that have no other story than one family’s wealth and privilege. The new-ish trend has been for a few years now to explore the ‘downstairs’ (or the attic, where most of the servants quarters were). Another, more recent initiative is to explore slavery and colonialism, which is, let’s face it, at the heart of much of the wealth that produced these often outlandish places.

Both developments are laudable, and they certainly respond to what visitors want: the stories of ‘the common man’. For me, however, these stories merely distract from a more fundamental question about privilege and class, especially in a modern (British) society that still has a hereditary class.

It has prompted a bit of soul-searching for me, as I wondered what this actually means for interpretation. The first question that came up for me was:

 

Should interpretation challenge the current social status-quo?

Well, since I keep harping on about how utterly unacceptable it is to push onto visitors a ‘preferred reading’, the answer might look like an obvious no. And it is, as far as a confrontational myth-busting approach is concerned, as the word ‘challenge’ suggests. However, I think the current Downton Abbey-style stories of downstairs/upstairs life and‘how the servants lived’ are themselves a selection that excludes, for example, explorations of why servants’ lives were different from that of ‘the family’ to begin with. Would visitors be interested in that? Is that so glaringly obvious to them already that they don’t care? I don’t know. For me personally, I know a lot of the downstairs stories already (working at a site like that does that), and I am aware of the hereditary system in Britain (coming from a republic takes care of that), so it gets my back up big time to notice that there is no acknowledgement of that in the interpretation at all: it makes me feel like I’m being manipulated.

This then had me think about the expectations that many policies have of heritage and by extension of interpretation. So:

 

Should interpretation really not ‘be challenging’?

Well, no, but also, yes: it should challenge. It should challenge the master narrative of our societies if that narrative is to the detriment of some people. It’s a hard one, because museums and sites, and the people (interpreters) working there are all part of that master narrative. We can only be a reflection of the societies we’re part of. But if there is a will in that same society to change things, then I think interpretation is called upon to respond to that will, and bring it out in the open. I keep coming back here to the concept of facilitation: interpretation as facilitation can do that. It can facilitate the exploration of that social will, provide a space and an opportunity. It’s not about giving answers, or throwing down the gauntlet to a specific view. More and more, I come to think of this as providing facts: from all sides. It’s that opportunity, and ‘professional authority’of knowing all facts and giving a balanced view that visitors are looking for. It doesn’t have to be ‘in your face’. But visitors should feel that they are able to explore these aspects, that they are encouraged to do so.

Which brought me to the next question:

 

Does everything actually have a story?

The British National Trust Acts (first south, then north) both talk about aesthetic value and enjoyment. For the longest time I scorned this, and actually criticised the National Trust for providing next to no interpretation and relying merely on how pretty their places were. These days, I can quite cheerfully walk around a National Trust historic estate and revel in its beauty – it’s why I go there. I feel myself expand and be at peace. It’s only when you start telling me about ‘the family’ that my enjoyment plummets. It’s when this is presented to me as ‘heritage’ that everything inside me shouts: Who’s heritage? For me, this is probably an expression of a sense of unfinished business – it’s not quite heritage to me if the exclusion on which it is built continues today. That doesn’t mean that I think all National Trust places should be flattened. But as far as I’m concerned more often than not their value does indeed lie in their aesthetic and the enjoyment they provide, and not in their story. Especially not in their story.

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I recently read about someone saying that heritage managers and interpreters were ‘selling’ experiences. I’ve already written in a recent blog post how ‘experience’ seems to have been a popular concept for a while now.  In fact, even I was raving when the National Trust first changed all interpretation and visitor related job titles, along with their philosophy, over to ‘visitor experience’.

I’m a lot more sceptical about this now, and as I’m sorting out why, I thought I’d share my thinking so far.

‘Experience’ seems to express another stage in the development of our understanding of and approach to interpretation, but I’m not entirely clear what lies beneath it.  The early stages of interpretation – promoting preservation and then education – are clearly evidenced in legislation and policies, and go hand-in-hand with the (by now heavily criticized) material approach to heritage value [1].  But then the two seem to move away from each other.  Legislation today talks about benefit to communities and individuals, while interpretation has focussed on ‘experience’.

As the quote above shows (‘selling experiences’), the experience is often presented as a commodity, and something that we, as interpreters and heritage managers, create and package, and subsequently ‘sell’ to our visitors on a ‘leisure’ market.  I wonder therefore whether what lies beneath this understanding of ‘experience’ is related to an understanding of heritage which Hewison in 1987 criticised as The Heritage Industry.  In this understanding, heritage is called upon to replace vanishing economies and produce economic outputs as part of a growing tourism market [2]. In subsequent years, heritage was increasingly analysed within this leisure context [3].

Now add to this mix Pine and Gilmore’s 1999 book, The Experience Economy. In a nutshell, Pine and Gilmore argue that businesses [4] need to sell an ‘added’ value with their product, which is the experience that consumers have through engaging with the company and its product.  Sometimes this experience will be transformational, but that is not necessary – for Pine and Gilmore pleasure is enough to make it an experience.

When interpreters speak of ‘experience’, this seems to be what they mean: the added value of the heritage product traded on a leisure market. For some, the comparison with Disney’s practices thus becomes desirable, in that Disney of course are a giant in the experience leisure economy and hugely successful in providing a competitively memorable experience product.

I suppose this is where I’m getting a bit uncomfortable with the experience concept. If the above is really what lies behind our concept of experience in a heritage context – and it’s certainly all I can find – then I have a few issues with it:

  • To start with, I’m not convinced that visitors really see visiting a heritage site or a museum as simply one possible leisure pursuit among others, even if we allow for a mild ‘educational’ bias. There are varying degrees of heritage attachment to sites, of course, but I would be surprised to find that visitors treat even the most ruinous of English Heritage castles on a par with Disneyland.  I think a lot more research is needed here before we can make such an assumption.
  • Secondly, we know that visitors bring their own agendas to sites, so the notion that we ‘craft’ an experience for them is just not sustainable. They make their own experience, based very much, as my own work leads me to believe, on the heritage belief that motivated them to visit in the first place.
  • Thirdly, while we’re thinking of interpretation as creating an experience for our visitors, we’re neglecting to engage with what they think about their heritage.  This ‘experience-making’ approach to interpretation still suggests a one-way street, albeit a more entertaining one, from interpreter to visitor.  We’re still – apparently – disenfranchising our visitors by assuming that we will create an experience and then sell it to them.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course our facilities will contribute to the ‘experience’ that visitors will have at our sites, whether they will enjoy themselves and create memories, and recommend us to their friends.  Of course our presentation and marketing have an impact.  Of course all of this is important. I just don’t think an approach to interpretation as ‘crafting experiences’ is in step with other developments in heritage management.

Visitors have a fundamental stake in heritage even when they are not on site.  In my mind, our task is not to create heritage for them, because we can’t, heritage exists independent of our efforts.  What we need to do is facilitate visitors’ engagement with their heritage.  Thinking about experience as described above just doesn’t seem to encourage us to adjust our practice accordingly [5].

 

Notes

[1] Of course, these practices – promoting preservation and educating – still exist, and they may still have a place at some sites. However, I would argue that there is a progression; if promotion of preservation alone motivates your interpretation I would be worried.

[2] At least as far as the public-facing side of heritage was concerned.  Heritage Designation remained the same.  It should also be said that museums seem to have been unaffected by this thinking until recently, and it is interesting that now we’re beginning to hear the same talk of ‘experience’ here as we have done at heritage sites for a while.

[3] Not, of course, with regard to designation and preservation concerns.  Again, I’m talking about the public face of heritage, as it were.

[4] The book doesn’t deal with heritage or tourism, it’s basically about marketing and service industries.

[5] Of course, as a stage in the development of interpretation, ‘experience’ is perfectly legitimate.  A lot of museums could do with more ‘experience’ and Disneyification, since so many of them still just ‘talk at’ their visitors – or indeed provide no interpretation at all.

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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.

 

Notes

[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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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.

 

Notes

[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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I am indebted to the Association for Heritage Interpretation (UK) for publishing a news item that highlighted the National Trust’s ‘Bench mate’ scheme and a commentary on it in a national newspaper.

The latter is particularly refreshing as the voice of someone whose profession is not interpretation.  The commentator, a comedian, I’m told, makes a really good point when he describes the image he formed in his mind of the house’s lady by looking at the books in her library.  When he is told that the supposed ‘broadminded reader’ may in reality never have read these books at all since the Trust dresses (some) rooms with furniture and objects that may not be original to the house, the commentator felt willfully misled.

This may account for the underlying accusation in his piece that he levies against the Trust’s presentation.  Fabricated smells seem just that – a fabrication – and they represent a choice that favors the nostalgic while ignoring what are ugly truths.

The two issues raised here – authenticity and selectivity – are valid concerns about any interpretation.  Interpreters should always be mindful of both, and yet, I’m not convinced that every Trust property would gain from presenting, as the commentator writes, ‘the smell of soiled undergarments … in the cupboard below stairs, where the lord had forced himself upon the serving wench.’  I doubt that such historical accuracy is what motivates people to visit Trust properties, nor do I believe that they need to be told that such sad things did indeed occur – they already know.

Incidentally, the commentator himself makes a similar point.  He complains that the ‘bench mate’ scheme with its audio commentaries by national celebrities implies that visitors cannot be trusted to have their own thoughts.  Interpretation is accused of being patronizing, and often I would have to agree that yes, it can be – especially in those instances where interpreters haven’t spent the time to find out what the value of a site is to people (and this value may not be a heritage value at all).

The commentator of course raised his criticism in response to the audio commentaries.  Unfortunately I know nothing of the Trust’s process in arriving at these but I, too, was slightly disappointed.  First off, the introduction on the page reads that the commentaries are meant to ‘bring the National Trust’s special places to life’ [1].  Second, we’re promised ‘fond memories’ that these celebrities will share with us.  The two clips I listened to did neither of these things.  They may be the odd ones out, but if they are indicative of the other ‘bench mates’ then these are more marketing leaflet than memory.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love the idea of sitting down on a bench and listening to someone reminisce about the place.  At Dinefwr Park, however, the commentary goes on and on about the wildlife you can watch in Dinefwr Park, and its biodiversity.  This seems quite unnecessary: the visitor sitting on the bench is already there.  Why not take the opportunity to really draw their attention to something special that can be seen from this particular spot?  If the celebrity doesn’t have a memory they could still talk about their own response to this particular view [2].  Instead, Iolo Williams doesn’t even tell me what the kingfisher I’m supposed to be lucky enough to see looks like (and I wouldn’t know a kingfisher if I saw one), and so his enthusiastic delivery does very little to enhance my experience of the place.

At Calke Abbey, David Gower’s audio clip is a recital of the historical facts about the site.  He then jumps quite unexpectedly into musings about open spaces in general and the opportunities they offer for sports, and I’m sure that had I listened to this at Calke Abbey instead of at my desk here at home, I would have been even more puzzled about its relevance (or lack thereof) to my experience of sitting on this particular bench, in this particular spot.

Do I think that the benches are an example of the National Trust not trusting their visitors to have their own thoughts, like the commentator wrote?  Not at all.  I actually think the Trust had a really good idea – they just didn’t quite pull it off.  What I admire about the National Trust these days is that they are clearly committed to reaching out to wider audiences and breaking that image of the ‘gilded acorn’.  The organisational restructuring is brilliant, and what they envisage for the visitor experience is quite inspiring.  Now it’s simply a matter of implementing it to the best advantage.  I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.

Note

[1] This is actually turning into a meaningless phrase and I think interpreters should be banned from using it.  What does it mean, to ‘bring a place to life’?  Is it dead without our intervention?  If so, why do we bother preserving it?  In reality, most places are important to people because they inspire them and speak to them in some form.  An interpreter’s job is merely to facilitate and enable that inspiration and engagement for every single visitor.  You don’t ‘bring it to life’, visitors do, every single one in their own way.

[2] At my current site we’ve just completed and curated a memory project and exhibition about features – still existing and those already vanished – in our historic park.  It was a great way for us to learn about what people valued about the park, and it meant we could really engage with the community.  It also seemed that people felt reassured – the park has a brandnew management structure – and they realised that we valued their claim on the park and their input.  While practicality didn’t allow us to mount the exhibition outdoors as originally envisaged, I am looking into creating a trail leaflet from it.  However, even with having the exhibition indoors, it is clear that it sparks conversations among other visitors and inspires their own memories.  In my mind, that’s what interpretation is all about.

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I love National Trust properties.  I’d forgotten how much until I recently visited Polesden Lacey.  So I promptly signed myself up to become a member (again) and I’ve proceeded to visit a National Trust property every weekend since.

Of course, I’m also reading a lot of academic literature and case studies about heritage, its management and its interpretation these days, so I couldn’t help but analyse each visit afterward.  I beg your indulgence for the random nature of the following reflections that I had and which I hope are of interest:

So that’s what they mean about aesthetic value…

I’ve become increasingly suspicious about the values that are assessed in determining which heritage is worthy of legal protection.  Aesthetic value seemed a particularly obscure and elitist criteria which I was ready to (pen-) attack in full at some point.   I’ve still to analyse what sites have actually been protected and to what degree due to their presumed aesthetic value, and yet as I found myself consciously breathing in the peace and beauty of the rolling landscape that surrounds Polesden Lacey, I thought to myself that it is this aesthetic experience that to me makes protecting and preserving this site worthwhile.  I shouldn’t actually have been that surprised by the realisation, for when I asked visitors to Brú na Bóinne (sometimes falsely referred to as Newgrange) in Ireland why the site was significant and should be protected, 17.6 of responses given related to the setting and atmosphere of the place.  [1]  That’s aesthetic value for you right there.

…and it really speaks for itself

It may be chance, but the properties I’ve seen over the past few weeks effectively had no interpretation worth mentioning [2].  At Polesden Lacey, I truly didn’t mind for the enjoyment of the place was quite enough.  Could this mean that buildings and landscapes of such aesthetic value really do speak for themselves, like some writers imply?  My answer is, no – not in the sense of technical understanding.  After I left the place, I had no clue as to who owned it, who built it and how it relates to whatever aesthetic tradition may have been at work.  But did I need that understanding?  After all, I really did enjoy myself…

Enjoyment leads to understanding leads to valuing leads to caring leads to enjoyment…

…or so the cycle goes English Heritage claimed in their 2005 – 2010 strategy.  I’ve not yet found any case studies that support this claim, and certainly in my case (and in the case of the visitors to Brú na Bóinne) we seem to have skipped a couple of steps (such as understanding or indeed even the thirst for understanding that enjoyment is supposed to inspire) and we showed a complete disregard for other steps in the cycle too.

The question of course is: what was there to understand at Polesden Lacey? And: did it matter?

Significance, significance, significance

My solution to the question of when and where and how a site such as Polesden Lacey should be interpreted is to assess significance.  If audiences (stakeholders, tourists) tell you that what the site means to them is peace and beauty, then it may be better not to burden them with interpretation they really don’t care about.  An events programme that takes full advantage of the setting and provides entertainment for visitors to have a reason to repeatedly enjoy the site is likely the better management choice.  You can still bring the site’s own story to the fore: Polesden Lacey, for example, was a weekend retreat where the owner entertained friends and royalty.  I can think of a whole series of events that range from cooking classes to a 1930s evening garden party that would allow visitors to get a sense of what one of those weekends may have been like, and learn about the story of the place at the same time.

And a word about volunteers

It’s really noticable what weight the National Trust places on volunteering – any visitor-related role seems to also deal with volunteering.  In their strategy it makes perfect sense: volunteering is all about providing communities with an opportunity to become involved [4].  On site,  however, I’m much more ambiguous about this.  Don’t get me wrong: I think volunteers are great, and at every site I’ve visited it was very obvious that the volunteers passionately and sincerely cared about ‘their’ house.  But they are not interpreters.  At Dinefwr Castle, for example, I felt positively harassed by an otherwise charming volunteer who insisted on telling me for ten (!) minutes everything I never wanted to know about the minimal knowledge she had of the restoration work that was going on after a recent flood.  It did nothing to improve my understanding of the site nor my enjoyment of it – on the contrary.  I was so frustrated that I couldn’t even look at the room anymore for fear that the lady would corner me for another ten minutes.  It seems that while the Trust’s emphasis on volunteering is laudable, they now need to remember their visitors and make sure that their enthusiastic volunteers are properly trained to engage with an unsuspecting public.

And what am I planning this weekend?  Well, I have another Trust property lined up to visit…and I’m looking forward to it!

Notes

[1] Aesthetic value, when assessed by what usually is a select panel of experts within a statutory body, still seems like a woefully subjective criteria.  I can only embrace it if it is backed by popular consensus.

[2] Dinefwr Castle made an attempt at interpretation, but the mixture of voices and topics and interpretive approaches left me none the wiser about the site’s importance.

[3] For some heritage values this cycle no doubt still holds true.  My guess is that it very much depends on the dominant heritage value and how widely it is shared.

[4] For an organisation that for decades has been seen as an exclusive club whose properties have nothing to do with the surrounding communities, volunteering is also a crucial way of breaking down barriers.

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Today I attended a conference titled, ‘The Role of Interpretation in Tourism’.  As may be expected, none of the speakers questioned that interpretation was an intrinsic part of any tourism effort.  This is not a given however: at a conference a few months ago, the host country’s Director of Tourism unblushingly claimed that interpretation had nothing to do with tourism.  Even the most conservative of interpreters is likely to disagree with him, and yet many interpreters themselves have a similarly compartmentalised if not downright territorial approach to our own discipline.  I still get into discussions with fellow interpreters who draw a firm line that is not to be crossed between interpretation and marketing for example.  Such a jealously guarded distinction may work in the automobile industry, but in our sector it can quickly deliver the death blow to our joint efforts.

Let me cite an example from one of today’s speakers.  David Anderson, now Director General of the National Museum Wales, reported on a meeting with the Heads of Marketing and Press at the Victoria and Albert Museum while he was Director of Learning and Interpretation there.  Visitor numbers had been low, and the three heads of department compared who they were targeting, and how.  They quickly realised that they did not go for the same audiences nor the same image at all.  The lack of collaboration and communication had resulted in each department failing in their effort to make their museum a success.

Jonathan Jones, Director of Tourism and Marketing at Visit Wales, said that interpretation begins off-site, when visitors make the decision on whether or not they want to come [1].  He highlighted that a big part of what his organisation sells (!) is the interpretation of and at cultural sites.  I can’t make a statement about how successful Visit Wales is in promoting Welsh cultural heritage, but the point I’m making is that Jonathan wasn’t compartmentalising interpretation.  In his very pragmatic view interpretation was part of a larger whole.

That whole is the visitor experience.  In fact, if I read correctly between the lines of the key note speech given by Tony Berry, Director of Visitor Experience at the National Trust, ‘visitor experience’ is the term that the National Trust use, rather than ‘interpretation.’ It encompasses much more than what the traditionalists refer to as ‘interpretation’, and actually Tony proceeded to start his speech with a slide that read, ‘Interpretation is dead’.

Of course this was an intentionally provocative statement (at an interpretation conference!) but at the same time the National Trust did make a very clear decision here to leave behind the term ‘interpretation’.  What they have done is placed greater emphasis on what has  been an admittedly small part of interpretation literature.  The National Trust have cast their net much more widely than simply looking at interpretation as conveying interpretive themes through communication media.  The term ‘visitor experience’ is also representative of a shift in the philosophical approach: the visitor is brought to the centre and the intention is to give them an experience that begins at their first contact with a site until they leave it.

Nothing in that is new.  And in my mind, most of the above is included in the definition of interpretation.  However, once the conceptual development has reached a certain stage, in some areas professionals with a different skills set and training will need to take over, such as the marketing team.  ‘Visitor Experience’, rather than ‘Interpretation’, does away with over-zealous protection of what is considered one’s professional field.  Under this umbrella term, interpretation can neatly blend into tourism promotion and marketing without causing unnecessary headaches over whether this blurring means one or the other becomes superfluous as a discipline: it is all part of creating the ‘visitor experience’.  Using the term ‘visitor experience’ may therefore be better able to integrate different departments and ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymnsheet.

What the National Trust have done so publicly seems to be a trend in the UK. I think other organisations will follow suit and formally define visitor experience  management structures (whether by that name or not) of which interpretation will be a part.  Visitor experience roles will require specialist interpretive skills alongside general supportive skills that allow for a more holistic approach.  Interpretation will continue to require specialist education and research with regard to planning and media.  However, as part of heritage management on site it needs to be better integrated than what we have seen in the past.  ‘Visitor Experience’ may just be the right term for the job.

 

Notes

[1] John Veverka includes this in his section on Visitor Orientation Needs (Veverka, J, 1995.  Interpretive Master Planning. Tustin: Acorn Naturalists).  It’s also the Decision Phase in Lisa Brochu’s Visitor Experience Model (Brochu, L, 2003. Interpretive Planning. The 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects. Fort Collins: The National Association for Interpretation).  Interestingly, I still only rarely hear interpreters talk about these stages when they talk about interpretation.

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