Posts Tagged ‘public benefit’

This Monday past I went to the launch of the UK Museums Association’s ‘Museums Change Lives’ vision document.  And I will say that as ever, it is nice to hear and read a good few confident assertions of why our work as (museums) professionals actually matters.   And it is good to have a large organisation such as the Museums Association put themselves out there and say, Yes! This is what we think we (can) contribute to society.  I’ve already referenced the document in a grant application.  The next step, David Anderson, President of the MA, and Maurice Davies, their Head of Policy, explained will be for the MA to engage in-depth with funders and decision-makers, do some lobbying, get the doubters behind the vision.  And that’s great.

The thing is, despite the above, the document leaves me a bit cold.  It starts off with a set of ten principles, of which some seem rather commonplace [1] – especially to someone with a background in interpretation.  Museums offer ‘excellent experiences that meet public needs’, the principles say for example, and museums ‘engage with contemporary issues’, and are ‘rooted in places’.  Read (and I can’t believe I’m quoting Freeman Tilden here): relate, reveal, and sense of place.  So my first reaction to the principles was to think, but we know this already.  This is not the issue.

The document then makes further statements under the three headings of Museums Enhance Wellbeing, Museums Create Better Places, and Museums Inspire People and Ideas. My concern here is that the statements made are not actually supported by any research.  Of course, this is a vision document – it doesn’t need to be supported by research.  However, as we’re talking about impact here (the document is ‘The MA’s vision for the impact of museums’) I had hoped for something more reflective of the discussions and research already going on around impact.  Museums and the heritage sector have for a long time asserted their positive impact on, or contribution to society.  What researchers and policy-makers have been grappling with for years is how to measure this impact.  ‘Museums Change Lives’ doesn’t reflect that at all.

There are also a few assumptions in the document that I think would benefit from a more critical elaboration.  The one that jumped out at me is the work that museums should do with ‘disaffected people and those from marginalised sections of the community’ (under Museums Enhance Wellbeing).  As I’ve reported here, this is still an essentially hegemonic view of ‘the other’ that needs to be brought into the fold of the majority.  But do they?  Again, I appreciate that this is a vision document, and yet, as so many critical discussions are already taking place around these issues, I just can’t help but feel that in including these assumptions without at least a nod of acknowledgement to the associated issues, the document opens itself up to easy dismissal by those not converted to the cause in question.

Finally, and I am sorry if I sound too critical of what in the end is still a very worthwhile effort: the document really feels as if it was already decided on before the research into public attitudes was completed.  Select findings from the research are included, but they are blatantly reinterpreted: While research participants ‘strongly rejected’ [2] the purpose of promoting social justice, and merely felt that museums should be ‘accessible and inclusive to all’ in terms of free entry and aids for the disabled [3], the vision document states that the public’s support for accessibility [4] is intrinsically connected to social justice, thus reiterating that promoting social justice is a purpose museums should pursue.

I applaud the MA for having started a really good discussion.  Museums 2020 was a great stimulus, and the research into public attitudes (while perhaps not as comprehensive as one might have wished) was still very, very useful.  Museums Change Lives is bound to be quoted often, and hopefully as it is put out there now it will encourage further conversations – maybe also of the issues that I’ve highlighted.  I’m supporting it, but I’ll also continue to look for that research, that critical analysis that doesn’t contend itself with stating beliefs and giving examples of work we think fits the bill.


[1] Let me immediately qualify this: The feeling behind the document, and one borne out to some extent by the sectors’ responses to the MA’s Museums 2020 discussion paper, is that many museums aren’t actually implementing these principles yet.  And although it doesn’t feel to me that this applies to very many museums, I was at a workshop yesterday where participants confessed to having a ‘conservative attitude’ about museum curatorship.  Of course, they were at a workshop on co-production, so their commitment to change is obvious.

[2] BritainThinks, 2013. Public perceptions of – and attitudes to- the purposes of museum sin society. A report prepared by BritainThinks for Museums Association, p.20

[3] ibid.

[4] On a side note, accessibility really shouldn’t have to even be mentioned anymore at this stage.  Any person responsible for interpretation/presentation/management in museums who is not considering access should not hold their job.  Yes, that’s how strongly I feel about this.  This is like telling an archaeologist not to use a digger when excavating Richard III’s body.

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One of the unexpected outcomes of my current research into heritage interpretation and public benefit is that visitors actually tell me what they expect of interpretation.  I didn’t start out with this in mind; perhaps in my own version of researcher’s arrogance it didn’t even occur to me that they would be able to articulate this expectation.


But boy, do they know what they want.  And the fact that I didn’t set out to ask this question of them (‘Now, do tell me what you want from interpretation’) actually meant that their answers emerged naturally, and unencumbered by my own assumptions [1]. I’m not finished with my interviews yet, and there’s still the proper analysis to do, but already I’m getting a sense of something that I shall henceforth call ‘The People’s Charter for Interpretation’.  And here are just some of its articles:


1) Interpretation must provide guidance

Visitors want us to tell them where to look.  They want us to help them navigate what can be quite an overwhelming flood of stimuli: a massive stone tower over here, an open field over there, and a museum full of artefacts in the middle.  Guidance doesn’t hinder their own exploration.  It just gives them a good starting point.


2) Interpretation must give context.

Many of the visitors I’ve spoken to aren’t only interested in this one event, or this one building in front of them.  They want the context, the background, the whole fabric of before and after that explains why this event took place, or why this building is here.


3) Interpretation must enable you to make up your own mind

This came out especially in Germany, where people expect interpretation to provide all the (relevant!) facts, so that visitors can decide for themselves what ‘the truth’ is.  In this, visitors once again come across as much more informed and considered than what we often give them credit for.  They can handle controversy.  They just want it presented in a fair way [2].


4) Interpretation must provide room for emotion

Further analysis may make me change the phrasing of this one.  At the moment, I feel that visitors aren’t asking for ‘emotional interpretation’.  What they want is interpretation that doesn’t shy away from the realisation that the subject at hand, the ‘fact’, the event, the story may have an emotional resonance in people.  I have the motto in mind that we had a Culloden Battlefield: to treat the events and people ‘with respect and dignity’.  That wasn’t emotional, but it allowed people to be emotional (and they were).


5) Interpretation must hurt

This is my favourite, and it’s how one gentleman in Germany expressed it.  He did actually give the example of times gone by, when a little boy would be slapped at the site of a border stone, so that he may remember its location in the future.  It turned out that he didn’t actually propose that we slap visitors as they come through the door. What he meant was the physical encounter with an event or site.  He felt that interpretation should help visitors to physically work at understanding the site, by moving around purposefully, doing activities that are physically interpretive.


These are just some of the things visitors have told me so far.  Some of it is different from what we as interpreters tend to talk about, and some of it isn’t.  What’s amazing to me, as always, is just how many insights visitors actually have.  We would do well to start all our professional debates with a good old chat with them.



[1] That’s another thing that’s becoming more and more obvious to me: Researchers can really sabotage their own quest for knowledge by plonking their own concepts onto an unsuspecting public.  They don’t speak our language, and they really may not be much interested in what we’re trying to get at, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to say or contribute.  I find people mostly enjoy talking about their experiences, and it’s in sitting back and listening that the best insights turn up.

[2] I was tempted to say ‘in a factual way’, but in interpreter speak that would throw us back to a false belief in ‘facts’ and potentially boring texts that recite these.

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Next month I’ll be presenting a paper at the NAI/IE joint conference entitled ‘Interpretation can make us citizens of the world’ in Sweden. I’m really looking forward to what people will say about this topic.  As I’ve reported in my last blog post, only one couple out of the 100+ people I’ve interviewed so far have made a reference to something approaching world citizenship: they called it mutual understanding.


I’m interested in how this mutual understanding was generated.  The conference title suggests that interpretation has a role to play here.  I’m sure it does, but I wonder if that role is as active and targeted as the title implies.  My interviewees touched on ‘mutual understanding’ when they spoke about their own visits to foreign countries.  And ‘mutual understanding’ here wasn’t confined to heritage either.  It also arose from people on the street responding to the gifts they had bought for their grandchildren back home.  Arguably, there was no interpretation involved here – in fact, there was a language barrier, which seemed to have been overcome by the time-honoured means of waving arms.


But they did also specifically mention going to heritage sites as a way of connecting to the people abroad, and finding out more about them.  They found similar stories: of poor versus rich, power struggles and passions, and the hardships of survival in times gone by.  They didn’t talk about royal connections, or the many ways in which European histories crisscross back and forth. My impression was that the interpretation provided paid no heed to them as a ‘special’ audience (i.e. foreign): it simply told the story of the place.  And my interviewees found simple human stories through which they connected to the people: in seeing that their personal struggles past and present were similar to their own they did away with the unfamiliar, and recognized ‘the other’ as similar to themselves.


To me this does raise an important question that I’ve found myself asking throughout this research process so far: what does interpretation need to do (actively, purposefully) to deliver certain benefits?  Is there a limit to this activism, and the desire to prompt a certain outcome? Because listening to these visitors and many of the others, I was really struck once again by their informed approach, and their clear desire to create their own narratives, and not be dictated to [1].  They didn’t need the interpretation to tell them that x is similar to z, and really, the two hark back to a shared origin that makes us all the same.  They didn’t want an integrated story of European history, but embraced the uniqueness of the foreign heritage: that’s what they had come for.


I wonder if there is a danger for interpretation to go overboard.  I think there is a fine line between keeping your eye on the heritage in front of you and trying to (actively) create and deliver overarching outcomes that are, let’s face it, so often politically motivated.  For me, a stabilising factor lies in engaging with stakeholders, which is what my own paper at the conference will focus on.  But whether this is the ultimate answer, or indeed what the many complexities of these questions in general are, is something I suspect I’ll be contemplating for a while yet.





[1] That’s also what I suspect lay behind ‘the public’s rejection of the idea of the museum as a place for debate in the Museums 2020 research: they probably thought that the museum would take a side and try to brainwash them.

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I’m three-thirds through my interviews with visitors at Battle Abbey [1], and this seemed a good time to stop for a moment and reflect.


Firstly, and as always, it is just humbling to talk to visitors. Every time I have the luxury of actually spending time with them, I am reminded that in the field of heritage, no amount of specialist knowledge can ever surmount the importance of people’s own connections with heritage. And don’t they know it: where heritage professionals fail, visitors’ judgment is swift and crushing.  They make it quite plain that they don’t need us, at least not beyond making sure they can come to the place when they want.  Where the work is good, like it seems to be at Battle Abbey, visitors make use of it, but never without suspending that awareness and expectation.


Visitors are really smart.  I can count on one hand the number of people out of the 100+ that I’ve interviewed so far [2] who have given me simple answers.  Most people have challenged my assumptions, provided insights I’d never even dreamt of, and engaged me in conversations that have left me feeling inspired and invigorated.


The primary purpose of these interviews is to establish whether the benefits that visitors gain from heritage are the same as those proposed in legislation (and to some degree literature).  And some are.  Historic interest is something that visitors cite quite often as a reason for visiting.  Upon further enquiry, this generally seems to split into a thirst for acquiring historical knowledge for its own sake and a desire to imagine the past [3].  The latter is also a benefit cited on its own: to see what it was like to live in past times, sometimes simply in order to better understand and compare it to the present, and sometimes as a sort of mediated time travel to experience a life that is desirable, perhaps as an adventure, perhaps as a missed destiny [4].


Imagining the past is also connected to another benefit cited on its own, which is the need to locate oneself in a long chain of events in the history of mankind, both nationally and internationally – a benefit emphasised in legislation.  Many have described this as providing a sense of anchor, of understanding how humankind have arrived at this particular place in time, and to feel prepared for the future (although the latter was rarely expressed without further requests for clarification).  In legislation, this is often related to larger concepts such as ‘peace’ and ‘mutual understanding’, which interestingly is a point that only one couple have made, but not with regard to visiting sites in England, but rather in relation to visiting sites abroad.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, many visitors also cited having been taught about the Battle of Hastings in school as their motivation for visiting.  When I prompted them to explain why it was important to come on site, rather than watch a documentary about the battle, for example, two things emerged.  The first will make every heritage educator’s heart sing: heritage sites, visitors explained, provided different and more interesting opportunities to learn and engage than those offered in classrooms and through books.  Being in the place itself was the second point that many emphasised, and some even raised this as a point in its own right.   This also relates back to imagining the past – people spoke about standing on the battlefield, imagining the battle unfold, soldiers dying.  This experience of being in the place itself, more than any other, seemed to make the event real to them, and to allow them to connect with it.


I will confess that I expected visitors to connect with the site on an identity-level, and a few did as far as national identity goes.  However, the importance of the site, and the need to come, really related mostly to having learnt about it at school – an interesting point to ponder when it comes to national narratives, and the (manipulative?) impact of school curricula [5].  Nevertheless, visitors’ attachment was very strong – when suggesting (hypothetically) that the site might be redeveloped for something else, everyone without exception expressed the need for preserving it.  Place, the physical connection to an event, was of the utmost importance.


The above are just some reflections on what visitors have told me so far, not an actual analysis.  For that, I will have to wait until the end.  But I do feel reassured on one thing: almost nobody left it at saying, ‘It’s just a good day out’ (although it is that too).  Phew.




[1] This is part of my PhD research into the public benefits of heritage, and whether or not we are delivering these through interpretation.

[2] I’m doing group interviews, so these were 100+ people in 34 groups.

[3] The latter point – imagining the past – is not mentioned in legislation, and mostly frowned upon as a reason by academic writers.

[4] Destiny might be an unexpected term here, but I’m reluctant to dismiss it as nostalgia.  Most people that have cited this ‘benefit’ have been absolutely clear about their awareness of and even deep respect for the hardships that people experienced in the past.  Nevertheless, this was a life with particular values and a clarity of fate that they felt would have suited them better than their current lives.

[5] My initial reaction to this was to reconsider my rejection of public (or national) narratives arbitrarily determined by states, as clearly the selection of topics for the school curriculum has a big impact.  However, having worked in Scotland and Wales I am aware that official narratives are rejected, and popular ones, seemingly suppressed by the state, survive and prove to be powerful heritage motivators.  It would be interesting to look into this in particular – if you know of any studies, do let me know.

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Last week, the UK Museums Association published the research report into what the public think are the purposes of museums. I’ve blogged about the announcement of the research, and especially the brief for it, here.


I was particularly interested in their methodology [1].  My concerns were that the framework established in the brief would limit the range of responses participants could make.  I still think that might have been an issue: the method used was a workshop format that guided participants through set exercises in order to answer the research questions.  The report doesn’t say much about the segmentation put forward in the brief, but it does mention that participants were evenly split between museum visitors and non-visitors (it doesn’t specify recruitment methods).  Perhaps most crucially, while it gathered unmediated views on museum purposes at the start, participants were then presented with purposes discussed by museum professionals.  In this, it appears that their ability to explore their own new purposes was indeed limited.


The findings, however, are nevertheless interesting.  Most notably, ‘the public’ [2] fundamentally rejected two purposes that have been heavily discussed in the museums sector: Promoting social justice and human rights, and providing a place for public debate.  Even the purpose of providing a sense of community was half-heartedly supported as a ‘can do’ purpose (as opposed to ‘must do’), and there was no real support for museums playing a greater role in the community overall. Helping the vulnerable, another purpose cherished by museums professionals, also ranked very low in the public’s estimation, being a ‘can do’ purpose to which they were not willing to give much funding.


The purposes of museums that they identified without prompting were very traditional: to collect and care for historic objects, to make them accessible to the public, to promote economic growth, to facilitate personal development, and to promote well-being (read: provide enjoyment).


So what does this mean for the museums sector?  I first come back to methodology: I’m just not sure how much one can get from ‘the public’ by asking them about something so conceptual and vague as ‘the purpose’ of an institution.  It may have been more fruitful to really explore with them why they do or don’t go to museums, what they expect, what they think about them, etc.  The report did note that there were several participants that changed their attitude from never, ever wanting to go visit a museum to stating their surprise at the diverse offer modern museums provide.


The latter may be an argument for dismissing ‘the public’s views altogether as just not very imaginative.  And perhaps it’s true that ‘the public’ simply do not have the necessary overview or in-depth understanding of the potential of museums.  However, I hope that’s not what the sector’s response will be.  There may have been limitations to uncovering what ‘the public’ really think off their own back, but there is clearly something to be said about their informed rejection of the purposes we proposed to them.


I cannot emphasise enough how telling I find it that the sector has spent such considerable time engaging in a debate that has been viewed as ground-breaking and visionary, only to find its key proposals dashed by the public.  To me, this signifies a continued lack of public focus – even in the UK.  How can it be that we so grossly differ from what the public think about the future purposes of museums?


In some ways perhaps this report also points to an underlying truth that we may find hard to accept: museums and other institutions have a specific purpose, and just because this purpose no longer produces the (economic, quantitative) outcomes we want from it doesn’t mean we can change the purpose without changing the nature of the institution itself.  By that I mean quite literally what the research respondents have said themselves about, for example, the sample purpose of helping the vulnerable: There are other institutions that are better placed to do that.  This could also mean looking at alternatives where financial pressures limit museums’ ability to fulfil a traditional purpose.  Universities, for example, may be the collections stores of the future.


Maybe we also need to review our responses to a changing environment.  I have been wondering, even before reading this report, whether in some ways our drive to be all and everything is a knee-jerk reaction to a looming fear of becoming obsolete.  The report suggests that ‘the public’ aren’t all that worried about that.  Maybe what the report tells us is that we should refocus on why the public already come to museums – and see how we can improve our offer in this area.


Finally, and I’m not just writing this because I’m an interpreter: I do think that museums (or heritage sites) can contribute a lot to modern societies’ needs, like social justice.  The thing is, ‘the public’ don’t want to be hit over the head with it. They don’t want a ‘social justice’ theme.  But they will be open to great interpretation that just so happens to also get them to think about social justice.



[1] Since embarking on my doctoral studies, I have noticed first my own increasing interest in methodology, and then many practitioner colleagues’ exasperated response to my examining methodology before I say anything about content. This is one example where I now feel strongly that practitioners need to review academic working methods more regularly.  It does not do to manipulate surveys (unconsciously) to obtain the desired results, or to blindly accept others’ findings when they happily fit our own agendas. Methodology can be boring to some, I suppose, but it’s the spine of any valuable study.

[2] The study had 90 participants over six day-long workshops.

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I have recently read the Arts Council England ‘Review of Research and Literature on Museums and Libraries’, compiled in September last year just before the Arts Council took over the responsibilities of the now-disbanded Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.  The review was part of an endeavour to ‘understand the needs and priorities of the sectors’ by the Arts Council.

It made quite interesting reading for two reasons.  Firstly, I had my doubts about how easily museums would sit within the fold of what continues to be called the ‘ARTS’ Council.  The review is very much written from an arts perspective, using ‘us and them’ style language that is slightly unsettling for ‘us’ on the museums side.  There is an evident and welcome willingness to engage with and represent the museum sector also, and yet I still wonder how much the continued and predominant use of the term ‘arts’ in the council’s strategic and even grant documents might over time privilege practices that are not necessarily best suited to museums.

On the other hand, the review highlights parallels in the aims and approaches of the previously distinct sectors, which are celebrated as promising starting points to bring them all under one roof.  Here the report becomes interesting for its outsider scrutiny of some of our practices and the ways in which they are – or are not – backed up by research.  The area I was particularly intrigued by was the reflections on stakeholder engagement.

The review acknowledges the fact that museums have responded to the ‘growing community engagement agenda’ (10), but notes that this has been primarily through consultation, rather than engaging stakeholders in interpretation, and giving them control (25).  Most crushingly, in my opinion, the report comes to the conclusion that while there is a lot of quantitative evidence about visitor or participant numbers, there is far less qualitative data (44).  In fact, the review notes a series of substantial methodological flaws in many evaluation studies, ranging from premature study completion (i.e. surveys finish before the project has come to an end) to ‘self-reported accounts of the difference made’ (45).  They also highlight that a large percentage of studies focus on one-off projects, producing data that cannot be generalized, and which thus cannot be used to inform practice on a day-to-day basis (45).

The report hints at the fact that funders are probably partially to blame for this state of affairs (9).  It suggests a commitment to changing evaluation criteria from numbers to capturing return on investment [1], which will certainly have a major impact on how museums will do things in the future.

Overall, the review didn’t really surprise me.  I have for a while now lamented the fact that especially within interpretation there is a lot of feel-good sharing of projects with very little critical analysis.  Practitioners say they are ‘of course’ involving communities and stakeholders, but this review confirms what Bella Dicks found in her study of Rhondda Heritage Park – that stakeholders are consulted and mined for content, but not granted any meaningful input.  The good thing of the current economic crisis and the dwindling funding is that increasingly, we will be asked to really involve stakeholders, and to prove qualitatively what difference we’re making – not in our own opinion, but in the opinion of our stakeholders: this review makes this very clear.  It’ll be a challenge, not merely because of the fact that we don’t know yet what methods to use.  It’s something I’m grappling with at the moment as I seek to measure public benefit delivery through interpretation.  But at last we’re starting to move (or be pushed) in the right direction.  No doubt there will be a few casualties in the shape of long-cherished beliefs and many bruised egos along the way, but in the end it’ll be an immensely good thing for our profession and the sectors we serve.


[1] The report specifically mentions contingent valuation, which is basically a method to reveal the monetary value of something that doesn’t have a price per se on the market (such as the environment).  Personally, I don’t think this is the way forward to capturing impact, but it is undoubtedly the method that most easily fits with how everything else is captured and decided upon in our current political and economic system.

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The Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) is well established across Britain.  In the words of Ofqual, the body that administers the framework, it aims to provide ‘a simple yet flexible’ qualifications system that is ‘inclusive, responsive, accessible [and] non-bureaucratic’.

What does it have to do with interpretation, you wonder? That’s simple: it’s another way of engaging audiences…deliver public benefits….use heritage more widely and more effectively.  And yes, make a bit of money too.

These are all matters of huge importance to most heritage organisations these days, and definitely the publicly funded ones.  At my site – a true regeneration heritage project run by a Local Authority – they’re practically written down as performance indicators.

The QCF offers real opportunities for us here.  In idealistic terms it seeks to recognise practical learning and give it accreditation in the form of awards, certificates and diplomas.  Put more realistically, it seeks to provide routes of learning better suited to those that don’t thrive in the more formal education system.  Schools in particular are really interest in QCF for this very reason, but it also works for organisations supporting people to get (back) into work.

It is at this point that QCF is perfect for programmes at heritage sites and museums.  We don’t actually have to change anything about our approach: Practical, flexible and accessible learning may just as well be terms gleaned from a 21st century book on interpretation.  The interpretive mantra of using the resources (read: practices, remains, objects) that are there to facilitate people’s engagement with heritage values is basically the radical rethinking of learning that the QCF wants to promote.

There is an element of rigour in this, however, that might be unnatural to some interpreters.  In order to get accreditation for your programme, you have to think about creating evidence of the learning that participants have achieved.  I don’t mind this at all.  When I put together our first QCF programme recently, I felt that it’s quite similar to writing objectives into a more traditional interpretive medium (and I’m a firm believer in establishing objectives).  So in a way, a QCF programme simply has the evaluation built in from the start – perfect!

But, you may say, is this not education, rather than interpretation? I’ve actually blogged about this over a year ago here, and I’d like to highlight an example I gave in that post.  The example is also a great argument for why it should be interpreters doing this (at heritage sites) rather than teachers (who would be the more natural choice if this were in fact ‘education’): the Learning Officer that worked with me at the time was by profession a primary school teacher.  The ‘programmes’ they developed for schools were soundly rejected by teachers. The teachers said that they could do this themselves in the classroom – there was no reason why they should bring their students to us.

My colleague had not applied (how could they?) any interpretive principles that would have made the programmes relevant to their target audience of teachers, their students, and their particular (learning) needs.  The teachers wanted to bring the children on site to interact with the environment and engage in a more active, practical way of learning than what they could provide in the classroom.

Interpreters can do that.  They can create precisely the types of flexible, accessible and engaging programmes that QCF is looking for. QCF is not about education – it’s an alternative to education.  Perhaps ‘learning’ is the right term for this, and in fact, QCF calls participants ‘learners’. It is a tiny step from a live interpretive programme to a QCF course.  But it places interpretation right at the centre of current organisational and policy objectives.  I say, let’s embrace that.  Let’s claim that key role and communicate to our line managers and funders: we can do this because we’re professional interpreters.  It’s an interpreter you need for the job.

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Last week, the Heritage Lottery Fund approved a grant for a project I’m planning that involves young people in the heritage of my site, and its interpretation.  I am hugely excited about this.  For one thing, the project is all about interpretation as facilitation, as I explained in a recent post [1].  The other aspect of the project is that the participants will also create a piece of interpretation of their choice.

This is something I’ve always advocated: that as interpreters, we must involve stakeholders and communities.  This goes far beyond simply asking the (local) community for their stories, an approach for which Bella Dicks criticised interpreters.  To involve stakeholders and communities is to acknowledge that heritage is heritage because of the value that they give it.  It is about ensuring that the heritage we seek to interpret and manage (or protect) is not treated as separate from the daily lives of people but instead continues to make a beneficial contribution to our society, nationally and internationally.  In fact, when I wrote my application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for this latest project, this was one of the areas they specifically asked about: what contribution will this project make? What are the benefits it will bring? What is the heritage in this case, and how to will this project enable people to participate in it, and share it?  Who are the people, the stakeholders?

These concepts, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘communities’, and also the ‘benefits’ that heritage and its interpretation are meant to bring to both, by now are central to British (and EU/UNESCO) heritage legislation.  However, I feel that interpretation discourse still needs to go some distance before it catches up with these developments.  For a start, we need to really engage critically with some of these key terms – stakeholder, heritage, community – and reflect on what impact our understanding of them has on our practice.  We also need to gather more hard data on what we do, and how well (or not) we do.  As funders and policy makers increasingly define what they expect of heritage and its interpretation with regard to stakeholders, communities, and people, we need to be able to speak their language, and provide evidence for the impact our practice has – especially in terms of benefits.  And consideration of benefits brings us right back to stakeholders, communities, people.

I can’t wait to start this project at my site.  I’ve done a lot of stakeholder and community-driven and considered interpretation before, but this offers a real chance to try out stakeholder involvement in its purest sense.   And in fact, I feel so strongly about this, that I contacted the UK Association for Heritage Interpretation to see if they would support a conference on this topic.  They said yes, so I am currently organising the conference at my site.  After all, benefits to people, especially pride and self-confidence, are at the heart of the vision for my site. I’ve had many interesting conversations about this topic with fellow interpreters, but also with fellow researchers, heritage managers, funders and policy makers.  What this conference aims to do is bring the above together to examine current practice and share insights into the benefits of involving stakeholders and communities in interpretation.

If you feel that you can contribute to the conference, please see the call for papers.  The deadline for submission is 1st May 2012.  Registration for the conference will open on 15th May 2012.  Watch this space for further info.



[1] By ‘facilitation’ I always mean ‘facilitate the performance of/participation in heritage’.

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I am currently researching how we deliver public benefit through heritage management and interpretation in England and Germany.  Reading through the legislation that provides the framework for heritage is quite interesting.  On the national level, people (the public) have been conspicuously absent from official heritage practices for many decades.  The values identified by the legislation were all about physical fabric (archeaological value, architectural value…) and almost nothing was said about how this fabric is of any use to the nation’s people.  What is even more worrying for an interpreter is the fact that presentation of this heritage is also a point only recently considered in legislation, and often in very vague terms.

Interestingly, however, there seems to be a relationship between heritage values, public benefit and presentation as these concepts develop in legislation and policy: as more intangible heritage values are acknowledged, the number of public benfits mentioned increases also.  As the list of public benefits becomes longer, the presentation of heritage receives more consideration.

In fact, it seems that intangible heritage value is actually defined by the public benefit associated with it.  This is quite obvious in the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage where the value is expressed as the benefit derived from it, such as ‘identity’.   Where physical objects are mentioned, it is quite clear that their intangible value lies in the benefit to people.

It is not surprising that along with benefit, presentation also receives more consideration.  Benefit is all about people experiencing something benefitial, and for this, legislation and policy recognises, facilitation is required, or as we call it: interpretation.


Promotion of enjoyment, understanding and support for conservation are the earliest guidelines for interpretation in legislation and policy.  They still persist, but now more concrete guidelines are added such as visitor focus, evaluation, communicating significance, being socially inclusive, and on a media level to be contemporary and interactive.  The National Trust in their ‘Going Local’ strategy want their presentation to be facilitation and they directly link it to benefits such as ‘a sense of belonging’.

I think this expectation for interpretation to deliver public benefit will become stronger over the next few years.  The National Association of Interpretation in the United States, with its definition of interpretation as ‘a mission-based communication process’, has already recognised that interpretation has a clear purpose to fulfill, in this case for an organisation.  At least in Germany and the UK this purpose is likely to become the delivery of public benefit.  Some aspects of how interpretation may achieve that goal are already stipulated in the literature and indeed in legislation: inclusive significance assessments, interpretation that respects all heritage values, interpretation that is based on evaluation.  I suspect that in detail, we will begin to see research and evaluative studies that go beyond testing unspecified enjoyment and achievement of learning or behavioural objectives.  We need to test interpretation against the public benefits or intangible values that people associate with a site.  Interpretation will likely become much less about ‘revealing a hidden truth’ as Freeman Tilden wrote and which in my estimation is still, in practice, a form of conveying facts.  Interpretation will instead become much more about facilitating an experience that realises the benefit  for which people value a site or object.

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