Posts Tagged ‘personal 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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After a few weeks off for illness, today I took the opportunity and left the house for a visit to Llancaiach Fawr, a historic mansion in South Wales.  I’d heard much about the place: at a conference a few months ago it was hailed as a site exemplary of visitor-focused interpretation, and a colleague’s enthusiastic report about ‘the servants you will meet there’ also made me curious.

Now if you’ve been following my blog, you will know that I am not a supporter of first person interpretation.  Nevertheless, I believe in testing one’s opinions every now and again, and so I went to the place in cheerful expectation.

And I must say, it went off to an amusing start.  Upon arrival, my friend and I were issued with a letter of introduction to the owner of Llancaiach Fawr, Colonel Prichard.  The reason being, the reception lady explained, that ‘you will step back in time to 1645’, and the letter would make sure that the servants in the house would grant us entry.  This was certainly one of the more interesting admission tickets I’ve ever received.

Next we went into an exhibition that took us from modern times back to 1645.  I struggled with this concept, for my mind naturally wants to start at the chronological beginning and work my way back to my own present.  In fact, it sadly took my friend’s explanation that the reason for this layout was the premise of us ‘stepping back in time’ – evidence of a genuinely confusing set-up or merely an embarrassing slowness on my part to keep up?

Once I got the concept, I quite enjoyed the exhibition.  There are loads of opportunities to touch, explore and interact (without a computer in sight!), mixed in with more traditional panels and contemporary testimonials.  The latter are used sparingly but smartly, to enhance a point made in the panels in just the right mix of historical encounter and explanation.

The exhibition centres on the Civil War, and Charles I’s visit to Llancaiach Fawr during that time.  It does a good job in highlighting the differences in opinion between the Royalists supporting the King, and the Parliamentarians that opposed him.  Many little facts make the story tangibly human, such as the origin of the term ‘cavalier’ for a Royalist, and the lack of obvious distinction between the two camps.  A nice touch is the opportunity to proceed either through a door marked as ‘Royalist’ or one marked ‘Parliamentarian’.  As soon as you step through, you are immediately confronted with facts that link either camp to the other – thus showing that this, in the words of one contemporary, was truly ‘a war without enemy’.

After this section of the exhibition the tour of the house began, and with it my qualms about the interpretation.  Firstly, I go with other critics that are weary of interpretation and presentation that freezes a building at a particular point in time.  By focusing entirely on King Charles’ visit to Llancaiach Fawr and the year 1645, nothing else about the house’s history remains visible. The impression that I have after my visit is that the house ceased to be important after this date, and that it has no connection whatsoever to its modern social environment.  Maybe because all the sites I’ve worked at had a clear heritage value in the present, I find this difficult to believe.  At my current site, for example, one group of stakeholders recently expressed the worry that we would focus too much on the site’s distant past, thereby erasing the intervening years and the current importance of the site in its community connections.

The interpreters in the house did not help.  They truly did play-act as servants, and as such they were unavailable to answer questions about anything other than the year 1645 and before.  Not only that, but they also used a mock-old English language that I found difficult to understand.  Although English is not my first language, I think I have a fairly good grasp of it.  If I struggle to make sense of what the interpreters were telling me, I can only imagine the difficulty that non-English speakers will face!  This is creating an unnecessary barrier.

In fact, I have to say that all my reservations about first person interpretation were confirmed.  I felt utterly unable to ask any questions beyond the predetermined scope of the interpretation.  The interpreters set the parameters of what I was allowed to explore, and it felt rude to try to force them outside of the roles they so enthusiastically portrayed.  My own many questions remained unanswered because the interpreters did not enable me to even pose them.  That, in my mind, is quite an outrage – I’m afraid I cannot put it any more mildly.

To make matters worse, the interpreters in their role-playing quite rightly assumed that we as ‘contemporary’ visitors had the same historical knowledge as they (which in reality of course we didn’t have).  This meant that any questions we did dare ask, for example about the uses or decorations of rooms, were answered with mild condescension.  In their effort to maintain small talk, the interpreters also made reference to other things that happened at the time (1645), and they seemed to expect a response. At one point, to lighten the increasingly uncomfortable questioning from the interpreter, I said to my friend that next he’ll be called stupid – because that’s how I started to feel!  My friend himself reported a sense of anxiety about what the interpreter would say next.  Surely that is no way to increase anyone’s understanding of or connection to a site.

Don’t get me wrong – like other visitors we laughed heartily about the amusing experience of seeing someone pretend so decidedly that they are a person from 1645.  And yet, I wonder how many other visitors felt like we did, and how many of their questions remained unanswered.

What I think happens too often when site managers and interpreters decide to implement first person interpretation is that they believe this is the only way to interest visitors and ‘entertain’ them.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Good third person interpretation – costumed or not – will achieve far more: it will be interesting, entertaining, and most importantly, it will respond to visitors’ needs.  As seen above, first person interpretation by its very nature limits what visitors will be able to explore.  In contrast, third person interpretation enables interpreters to communicate an experience from a certain time period while still being flexible to connect to visitors’ current interests and horizons.  In fact, I often wonder how so many supporters of first person interpretation can, with conviction, cite Freeman Tilden’s principle of relating interpretation to visitors’ own lives, and then proceed to completely exclude visitors’ personal experiences from the interpretation they offer.

At Culloden Battlefield, I only ever wrote third person interpretation, and with regard to enjoyment these presentations and tours always achieved 95% or more ‘highly enjoyable’ scores from visitors.  They also managed to touch visitors emotionally and connect them to the experiences of the people at the time – I always cite the short guided tours of the battlefields that we did, not even wearing costumes.  And yet, visitors would visibly imagine the horrors of the battle, and their questions made it clear that they had connected to the suffering and the social changes that took place in the battle’s aftermath.

So overall, I really enjoyed the initial introduction to Llancaiach Fawr via the introduction letter, and I thought the exhibition was brilliant.  The experience of the house itself, however, was sadly disappointing – and this was entirely due to the limitations imposed by the first person interpretation.

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I am regularly amazed at how many heritage managers and learning officers speak of first person interpretation as if it were the only form of personal interpretation.  Only recently I was witness to yet another suggestion that ‘to really bring the story to life’ there should be ‘a person from the past’ [1].

Have you ever been to a site where a first person interpreter was bending over backwards to keep up the pretence that he doesn’t know what a car is?  And that is just one of the limitations of first person interpretation.  Magelssen [2] lists a few others:

  • Programmes may need modern props such as microphones: out goes the attempt at authenticity as programmes become anachronistic.
  • Necessarily there will be gaps in historical information which will prevent role-players to have the same confidence on certain matters.  I would personally add that they won’t be able to draw visitors’ attention to this knowledge gap either since that would mean breaking character. In doing so, however, a false certainty is conveyed.
  • Only one selected narrative is communicated to visitors without making them aware of this selection – after all, the supposed character themselves wouldn’t be aware of it either.  Again I would underline this and highlight that in this point alone, first person interpretation presents a seriously limited opportunity for visitors, misleading them into a false belief in the comprehensive representation of history.
  • First person interpretation, if done consistently, also means interpreters cannot assist visitors with their practical needs, for they really should not acknowledge the existence of a cafe or gift shop, or indeed the nearest exit to the car park.

In general, there seem to be two assumptions which are most often called upon to justify the use of first person interpretation (interactive or monologue).  The first I have hinted at above: the assumption that first person interpretation alone is capable of allowing the visitor to ‘touch the past’.  I think primarily this is based on an equation between first person interpretation and costumed interpretation [3], and the assumption that a costume automatically creates an experience of the past.  While studies have indeed shown that costumes do enhance visitors’ experience at historic sites [4], commentators and researchers who focussed on visitors’ learning were dubious about the effectiveness of costumed interpretation per se [5].  Of course, third person interpretation can also be delivered in costume and incidentally it has considerably fewer inherent limitations than first person interpretation as discussed above.

A second assumption seems to be that only first person interpretation is capable of conveying emotion.  This particularly applies to the theatrical monologue, and the belief appears to be that only a character telling her own story will be able to draw visitors in.  Of course, any storyteller will be able to prove otherwise.  Most storytellers use a third person format, and very successfully so.  It also allows to draw on different experiences since one character alone will only provide a small window into what is often a wide and emotionally complex history.  At Culloden Battlefield, for example, I used a very successful third-person storytelling format to communicate to visitors the soul-shattering experiences of people of all backgrounds in the aftermath of the battle.  More often than not visitors were moved to tears – my own personal proof of the emotional potential of third person interpretation if used to that effect.

So do I think that first person interpretation should be banned once and for all?  Well, not exactly.  As with any interpretive means there has to be a good reason why we use first person interpretation.  We must ask ourselves if first person interpretation is truly the best solution to our interpretive needs.  Is it the most likely means to achieve our objectives?  Does it convey the themes to the best possible effect?  If the answer to these questions is yes, then by all means, use first person interpretation.  However, considering the disadvantages of first person interpretation, I have yet to come across a scenario when this was the case.  But if ever I do use it, I will blog about it – promise!



[1] Along with this very often comes the assumption that personal interpretation is always costumed interpretation.  I could, and probably will at some point, write a whole diatribe about why this is not so.  For the moment suffice it to say that a costume, like any other interpretive device, needs to prove that it serves a purpose, otherwise it’s superfluous.  A supposed added ‘fun element’ for visitors is not a purpose, however, it is just poor interpretation.

[2] Magelssen, S (2004) ‘Performance Practices of [Living] Open-Air Museums (And a New look at ‘Skansen’ in American living Museum Discourse)’.  Theatre History Studies (24), 125 – 149, p. 137ff

[3] In reality, one has nothing to do with the other.  The costume has no causal relationship with the mode of delivery.

[3] see for example Malcolm-Davies, J (2004) ‘Borrowed Robes: The Educational Value of Costumed Interpretation at Historic Sites. International Journal of Heritage Studies 10 (3), pp. 277 – 293

[4] see for example Magelssen 2004 and Malcolm-Davies 2004.


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