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Posts Tagged ‘public benefits’

For the past month I’ve been watching the Football (or Soccer, if you’re American) World Cup. Is there anything in this that might help us think about heritage and interpretation? Here are my (utterly unscientific) thoughts – and apologies to those who just don’t do world football:

 

Enjoyment

Enjoyment is a key term in heritage and interpretation discourse. For those of us who like world football the World Cup brings tons of enjoyment. It is the holy grail of sporting events. It’s visible everywhere, it gets people talking who may not otherwise have things in common, and it throws everybody into the same pot. I think it’s this sense of a shared occasion that makes the World Cup so enjoyable. What could we do with this in terms of heritage? Certainly, as European policy points out, there are numerous shared occasions in the histories of our nations. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to think less nationally, and more globally about exhibitions and events? Do we need not only a pan-Wales interpretation strategy, but actually a pan-Britain, pan-European, pan-the whole world strategy?

 

Mutual understanding

This is straight out of the heritage policy cookbook: what heritage should achieve is mutual understanding. This is closely linked to empathy, something you see a lot in the World Cup. Players and fans alike just know what the other team is feeling both when they win and when they lose. People console and celebrate each other across national divides, as the flood of images show beautifully. It comes back to sharing in one thing – a game – and relating to what the other side is going through. This, it seems to me, should be an easy feat to accomplish in interpretation, not only when people voluntarily travel to other countrys to seek out the other side of a story there, as I’ve found people to do in my research, but also at one single site. It’s part of the ‘balanced story’, tapping into that sense of ‘we’re all the same’.

 

Inspire Curiosity

This is a traditional interpretive outcome, and certainly for me personally, and many of the people I’ve spoken to, this has happened during this World Cup. For example, I’ve learnt more about national anthems and their histories than I ever knew before – and that includes my own country’s! There was one single moment that inspired me to do so: that spine-tingling moment of the very first game of the tournament when a whole stadium of Brazilian fans sang their anthem’s second verse alongside their team without music. I daresay most interpreters would shudder to create a moment like this – using a national anthem no less! – but this was unbeatable for its emotive power. It was clear what it meant to the fans and their team, and I wanted to know more about that, and their country. This curiosity was sparked by pure emotion and joy in someone else’s identity.

 

Identity

Especially in Germany, inspiring identity emerges repeatedly in policy. Oddly enough, my research over there suggests that interpreters have a real worry about doing this, though. For many academics, too, identity and any identity-inspiring heritage practice is almost a dirty word– they mostly frame it as the base need of an insecure mass that is thus manipulated by (evil?) powers. Needless to say, I don’t see identity like that. And during the World Cup, there was plenty of identity work going on. Ironically, it was most obvious to me when I visited Germany: during the World Cup there were plenty of flags around, something that prior to the ‘Sommermärchen’ of 2006 was unheard of. This is a positive, inclusive identity, that sits happily next to the identity-work of Brazilians, the Dutch, the French. My research suggests to me that it is such positive identity-work that interpretation should enable. The evil lies in trying to suppress it.

 

As I wrote above, all of these thoughts are simply my observations and not based on any research. I’m sure within sports literature, and some identity research as well, someone has taken some of these aspects apart, and if you know of any articles, please fire them my way. It certainly seems a worthwhile endeavour to look more closely at what is going on here, and what heritage and interpretation may learn from this.

 

Have a happy World Cup Final!

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Yesterday I attended ICOMOS-UK’s World Heritage for Tomorrow conference that marked the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention.  For me, the most interesting theme that ran through the presentations and discussions was the apparent tension between tangible and intangible heritage, and how to deal with it within a system that is concerned with designation.

Baroness Andrews, Chair of English Heritage, opened the conference with reflections on what the impact of the World Heritage Convention has been nationally. What struck me about her speech was a statement she made about heritage being finite: ‘we’re not making it anymore,’ she said.  She didn’t elaborate, so I’m not clear about what exactly she meant by this.  For even if we narrowly define heritage as tangible, and as buildings or monuments in particular, then surely that statement isn’t true.  We are still creating amazing buildings, if not monuments, all around the world.  Should these not be considered heritage?  Should we only assign heritage status to things that are hundreds of years old? My answer is a resounding no, but perhaps this is still the underlying concept of heritage that powers the World Heritage List – even despite inscriptions of sites of more recent history.

At least this is what I gleaned from the two speakers that followed Baroness Andrews. Susan Denyer is World Heritage Advisor at ICOMOS, and she talked about how the understanding of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) has changed since 1972.  She said that people’s views about the values of a site are receiving more consideration, but it is the World Heritage Committee that decides what the Outstanding Universal Value of a site is – in other words, those values that make it relevant to all of humankind. Denyer emphasised that the committee recognises that the OUV isn’t fixed: it changes over time.  Consequently, inscription is merely a statement about OUV at that particular point in time.  The question that she left unanswered was what consequence this has for the enduring relevance of the World Heritage List.  Shouldn’t we review it regularly, and change inscriptions, or delist sites altogether?  Professor Christina Cameron of the University of Montreal reported that a 25-year review cycle has been suggested, but so far, no commitment has been made to this.  In my opinion, this is a clear statement.  It does imply a view of heritage as something of the past: It can be assessed and fixed in time, and the present’s claim on it takes a backseat to what experts have declared its overwhelming value.

The other interesting question that arose in Denyer’s talk was that of intangibility: can ‘sacred nature’, she asked, ever be seen and inscribed as heritage?  She implied that this concept of sacred nature was not associated with tangible attributes.  Leaving aside for the moment whether or not this is so, Denyer’s answer to the question was no, we cannot see or inscribe something as heritage without tangible attributes.  The World Heritage List ultimately is about place.  She’s probably right about this, but the question that this raises for me is again one of relevance.  Can the World Heritage List, which seems so concerned with expert values about materiality, really be meaningful to the rest of us?  Or are we actually dismissing the listing, or at best using it as another version of the Visit Britain awards?

That is in a nutshell what James Rebanks of Rebanks Consulting suggested.  He’s done quite a bit of research into the benefits of World Heritage Status (WHS), and unsurprisingly he found that WHS alone doesn’t do anything – it’s about how you use it (well, and what your starting point is too).  One of the key benefits of WHS emerged to be as a label, both for attracting funding and for marketing.  It could also serve as place-making, in that the process of submitting a site for subscription requires those preparing the submission to do a lot of work with people.  For Rebanks, heritage is first and foremost about local people.  He gently criticised many authorities responsible for using heritage for the public good for narrowly focusing on tourism.  I found it really refreshing that he made a point that we don’t hear often: tourism doesn’t bring jobs of high value, and the money a heritage site brings in isn’t actually spent at the site, but entirely around it, in the infrastructures of transport and accommodation.  It was great to see someone being unashamedly economic about assessing heritage benefits, and yet coming to an insight that many heritage professionals still don’t have: that the value of heritage lies in what the people think, not in experts’ assessments of material attributes.

To a degree, this was also echoed by Adam Wilkinson, Director of Edinburgh World Heritage.  He didn’t talk much about tangible versus intangible, or expert versus people values of heritage.  In a way, it seemed that in Edinburgh they know that what makes Edinburgh special is all of the above together – there was no need to take it apart.  Wilkinson talked about restoration projects and projects with disaffected youth, and most importantly, he made the point that heritage is about how you use it.  What came through very strongly was the need to work with all the stakeholders, because, as Wilkinson said, ‘if we try to go it on our own we fail.’

So getting back to the question of tangible versus intangible, it seemed to me that those actually working with sites – trying to manage them for people, rather than being concerned with inscription – have a much more fluid understanding of heritage.  It may be that materiality is an unfortunate concept that we cannot escape when talking about listing, and all the historic overviews that we got at the conference made it very clear that conservation of fabric, and thus listing, is important if we want to have a framework to guide our day-to-day decisions about planning and development.  And yet, I worry that this material concept of heritage is actually sabotaging our effectiveness when keeping heritage alive.  For me, all heritage is intangible, but generally linked to a tangible attribute, such as place.  That’s not even a philosophical issue for me, but perhaps we need to make it one.

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Last week, I had a meeting with our Interpretation Stakeholder Group.  We discussed the interpretive vision for a project to relocate and redevelop one of our museums.  And what an interesting discussion it was!  As always, the most inspiring comments came from people who aren’t interpreters.

The first thing that struck me was just how much desire there is to make sure that our interpretation is not simply interactive, or even participatory.  These stakeholders want to see interpretation that is generated by the community and visitors in an on-going cycle of comment and response.  It is the ultimate democratic interpretation model.  I find that hugely exciting.  I had already put it into our interpretive principles that any interpretation would provide plenty of spaces to enable community and visitor authorship and participation.  However, this is a concept of interpretation that goes far beyond community engagement and participatory elements.  This is interpretation that evolves and changes with the people coming through, it is interpretation by visitors.

I don’t know if this will actually work in practice.  Especially visitor-tourists do come to museums also to learn about a place.  Their ability to comment, or make sense of other visitors’ contributions may be limited if there isn’t further professional intervention.  There is also a potential danger here that we inadvertently go backwards and introduce a specialist, albeit community jargon that is as inaccessible to visitor-tourists as the archaeologist’s, or historian’s etc.  And I don’t see a way around an initial starting point of whatever making, that selects content and presents it in a certain way.  But – and this is the important thing – I want to keep the possibility of such a democratic interpretation model in mind, and push my own boundaries of what I thought interpretation as facilitation can be.

Another comment that I found really interesting was with regard to policies.  I had written that our interpretation would support and deliver several local policies.  At this point, a local coucillor stopped me and asked that we also ensure the interpretation contribute to these policies.  I’m not entirely sure whether in their mind, they primarily thought of interpretation as the document before them, in which case using it to influence other policies is quite possible to do.  But imagine they didn’t.  Imagine they thought of interpretation of the kind described above.  Imagine that such interpretation could – and should – actively impact policy making on an on-going basis.  Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?  Wouldn’t that burst museums and heritage sites right out of their built confinement and into that sphere of social and civic life where we always say heritage belongs?

Again, I don’t know how we would do this. I don’t know whether this can ever be possible, considering all other requirements of interpretation and heritage management.  However, as above, this is an immensely challenging and at the same time inspiring concept.  I for one want to keep it in mind, and see what might come from it for our practice in the future.

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I spent the start of this week in Pisa at the annual Interpret Europe Conference.  Possibly the greatest inspiration that I took from it was the forming of a group of like-minded professionals with an interest in ‘closing the gap’.  Talking to each other, we found that there is a discrepancy between how interpretation is currently presented from within the field, and what many of us are asked to do in our professional roles.

Like myself, many of these colleagues are having to use their interpretive skills for projects that go far beyond interpretive planning and implementing an exhibition or trail.  As one Australian consultant reported of a recent project, the client didn’t just want an interpretive plan.  They wanted public outcomes, processes, and engagement.  In Scotland, the Centre for Interpretation Studies encounters similar demands, especially from Local Authorities.  Here, heritage is seen as a means to deliver policy outcomes such as increasing community capacity or providing routes into learning for young people.

All of these activities fall outside the traditional view of interpretation.  Interpretation is no longer asked to merely provide an explanation in the form of a media solution.  Traditional interpretive outputs such as panels become much rarer in what is required by clients.

And yet, our discourse doesn’t reflect this.  In many ways, the conference, while truly enjoyable, provided a good example for this.  The opening keynote speech argued in favour of interpretation as an end in itself based on Freeman Tilden [1].  While it included an interesting discussion of the discipline’s philosophical connection to Humanism and the enlightenment, the sheer fact that we still open interpretation conferences by quoting a writer of more than fifty years ago shows a worrying degree of orientation to the past.  It also shows an obsession with defining what interpretation is, based on parameters that are no longer relevant for present circumstances.

This in particular seems something of an issue with many practitioners.  When in one presentation the suggestion was made that interpretation is also marketing I felt a noticeable unease sweep through the audience.  But why?  Why are we so precious about not wanting to associate interpretation with marketing, for example? I suspect the closing keynote of the conference contained some clues to this conundrum.  The speech was filled with immensely inspiring and motivational quotes about what interpretation and interpreters do: we care, we share passion, we protect what cannot be replaced.  Don’t get me wrong: I subscribe to all of these.  And yet, is it this moral definition of our work that makes us look with disdain onto more practical effects, such as marketing?

It seems to me that as a discipline we cannot afford such ivory-tower thinking.  In practice, what interpreters are asked to do, and what we want to do more of, is to provide a comprehensive ‘product’ that unlocks the practical potential of heritage.  I don’t think that in order to achieve this we should ditch the term interpretation (I wrote a little about this here).  But what we need to do is to widen its application.  Only then will we be able to present the picture of a strong, responsive and more importantly, relevant discipline that is crucial to delivering outcomes from heritage.

Alas, it is this discourse that this new informal group wishes to move forward. I can’t wait to see the discussions start.

Notes

[1] I’ve already explained here why I think we need to move beyond Tilden.

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