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

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

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

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

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

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

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