Posts Tagged ‘public value’

Last week, UK’s Channel 4 aired a documentary about an archaeological dig in search of Richard III.  I found the show really illuminating.  Not because of its intended content – I actually thought the way they presented everything was neither here (archaeology) nor there (history). No, what I found fascinating was what the documentary revealed, rather unintentionally, about how little understanding some professionals have of people’s sense of heritage, and how unprepared they are for dealing with it.

Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society was the driver behind the project (the society funded it).  She was clearly deeply and emotionally connected to Richard III as a man and a king whose memory had been mutilated.  Everything about the dig had a meaning to her: the ‘R’ written on the parking space under which (apparently) they found Richard III’s body.  The rain clouds that drew up when they came upon his bones.  As she watched the bones being carefully freed of earth, she started to cry and practically hyperventilate.

The presenter, Simon Farnaby, a comedian and writer, clearly did not know what to do with this reaction or Langley’s emotional connection to Richard III in general.  Gazing down into the pit alongside Langley, he talked of how ‘weird’ it was to be ‘digging up a dead body’.  His choice of words said it all: while she talked about ‘finding him’ and ‘Richard’, to Farnaby this was something rather more remote and barely connected to an actual human life.

The scientists of course didn’t make this connection either.  To Dr Jo Appleby, the osteologist (bone expert), this was clearly neither about ‘Richard’ nor ‘dead bodies’.  This was a matter of an object to be scientifically examined in order to make a statement based on statistical probability about whether or not this was indeed the remains of a historically documented person (phew).  No humanity left in there at all. At first, this amused me – I thought of my own careful language when I write anything about my research.  Quickly, however, I became uncomfortable.  I could not help but feel that Appleby’s attitude toward Langley was downright patronising, never mind devoid of any understanding. A scene that highlighted this for me in stark contrasts was when Langley suggested that Appleby wrap the bones in Richard III’s colours for removal from site.  Appleby refused: ‘I’m not sure I’m very happy about doing that’, she said, allegedly because she felt it would be an inappropriate action if DNA testing later showed this was not Richard III (it didn’t and it was).

I have no issue with Appleby’s refusal per se.  What I did take issue with was how she made no effort to understand or show respect for Langley’s feelings throughout the documentary. Later, Appleby and a colleague told Langley that Richard III did have a ‘hunchback’, thus using a term to which it was clear Langley would take objection, it being at the heart of the defamation of Richard III’s character (they later qualified the ‘hunchback’ to have been a slight curvature of the spine that would have been hard to spot under clothes).  When Langley spoke of Richard III’s reputation as an able military leader, Appleby brought up a ‘source she could not now remember’, but which described Richard III as ‘effeminate’. Why?

For me, the documentary highlighted several points.  Neither Farnaby nor Appleby are likely to consider themselves heritage professionals, and yet here they were dealing with heritage and being confronted directly with the person holding a heritage belief.  Farnaby seemed merely befuddled, well-meaning but lacking depth.  Appleby on the other hand acted in a manner that seemed very arrogant, considering her own ‘evidence’ as above Langley’s heritage belief.

In reality, science and heritage aren’t even in competition.  They can, actually, live peacefully side by side, if it weren’t for the ‘specialist’s efforts to put all the facts straight.  There is a way of sharing evidence, and you can do it respectfully and without missionary zeal.  That is where the ‘heritage’ in ‘professional’ comes in – it does take training and learning to get it right.

As for Langley –  I don’t share her heritage belief, and I’m really not that fussed about Richard III.  But I thought it a poignant fact that if it hadn’t been for her and her heritage belief, the dig, and the celebrated discovery, and the documentary and Leicester’s (or York’s) future visitor attraction would never have happened.


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In the UK the impact of budget cuts is starting to become evident all around us.  The latest issue of the Museums Journal abounds with news of museum closures, staff reductions or reduced opening hours. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is about to become usurped by the Arts Council in England and funding programmes are slimmed down.

People are complaining, some quietly, some less so.  What’s missing in the response from the museums and heritage sector, however, is a solid, clear argument for why the cuts should not be directed at us.

Of course, it’s still a hotly debated issue, that of the value of culture and heritage.  Especially in the past reference to an ‘intrinsic value’ seems to have been enough.  For years, however, even that ‘intrinsic value’ has been called into question.  Some writers have argued that it doesn’t even exist: every value is a social construct, and it can change over time [1].  This also highlights the issue of who defines and upholds any given ‘intrinsic’ value.  Many specialists will fiercely defend an object that is relevant to their field due to its age or rarity.  But if this object doesn’t hold any value for anyone else, can we really justify spending valuable resources on it?

This is really the key dilemma.  I’m not arguing the case for the government, but in principle, any funding and policy decisions have to be transparent.  Such transparency relies on objective criteria, and these are mostly measured in monetary terms.  A cost-benefit analysis is generally the norm, and it is here that the ‘intrinsic value’ argument falls short in its persuasive power.  The obvious answer, therefore, is that we need to give culture and heritage an economic value: it needs a price attached that can be compared.  This is not ideal.  Any valuation method to arrive at such a price is flawed and subject to many factors [2].  However, even the sceptics acknowledge that such economic valuation is likely to get close to the intrinsic values, or those which will be difficult to express in monetary terms [3].  No doubt cultural institutions, including museums, will be increasingly asked to undertake such valuation of their services.

I think that’s a good thing. It can only improve practice and strengthen the sector’s position.  And I hope interpreters will learn from this too.  I still hear myself say over and over again that in interpretation we need more hard data and proof that we’re actually making a difference.  Too often, even at conferences, interpreters still contend themselves with mere claims of the benefits of interpretation in general and specific interventions in particular.  We must begin to be more critical.  We must strive to produce data, scientifically gathered, that backs us up.  We all can do it, even if it’s just on a small scale.  Clear objectives and learning outcomes that are consequently tested in evaluations and visitor surveys may not provide an economic valuation but they are a first step toward providing proof that what we do works (or doesn’t?).  This should be built into every interpreter’s daily practice anyway.  This cannot replace the in-depth research that we need to understand underlying factors.  But as more universities begin to offer courses in interpretation, such research will surely follow and thus will give further substance and credit to interpreters.  After all, I have no doubt that as museums and heritage sites are assessed with regard their economic value to society, interpretation will become part of that valuation.

So let’s not sell ourselves short.  Let’s prove what we’re worth.



[1] See for example Tunbridge, J.E. and Ashworth, G.J. (1996) Dissonant Heritage.  The Management of the past as a resource in conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons and Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum.

[2] For a review of economic valuation see Provins, A et al (2008) ‘Valuation of the historic environment: The scope for using economic valuation evidence in the appraisal of heritage-related projects’. Progress in Planning 69, 131-175

[3] see for example Throsby, D (2006) ‘The value of cultural heritage: Whatcan economics tell us?’ in Clark, K (ed) (2006) Capturing the Public Value of Heritage: The Proceedings of the London Conference 25-26 January 2006. London: English Heritage pp 40 – 44


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Interpreters tend to be passionate folk.  In fact, the first time I heard someone say ‘I’ve turned my passion into my profession’ was at an interpreters’ conference.  Interpreters are not the only ones involved in heritage who are passionate about a site or an object, of course, but their passion goes beyond the resource – they also want to share their passion with others.

On the surface that is the best starting point for interpretation.  It is, after all, the activity often described as ‘making a connection’ between a resource and visitors [1].  And hardly anyone would dispute the fact that a passionate interpreter enhances any live programme.

But beware.  Interpreting a site carries a lot of responsibility and gives much power to the interpreter.  ‘(…) heritage is created by interpretation,’ Tunbridge and Ashworth wrote more than ten years ago [2] but the current writing on interpretation as well as informal discussions still tend to centre on media and practice, or indeed the question whether interpretation is an art or a science.

We would do well to have a glance at what has been written about significance since Tunbridge and Ashworth highlighted the power of interpretation in 1996.  Significance, as you may remember, has been important in protecting and designating sites since the early 20th century [3].  UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972 gave significance international recognition.  However, the criteria both for inclusion in the World Heritage List and many national lists were overwhelmingly archaeological or historical.  In other words, they represented only the views of experts.

Many writers have pointed out the dangers of having only a select few assess the significance of heritage on the grounds of their specialist criteria.  Waterton, for example, wrote that such a practice ‘will continue to impose a process of management that will fail to fulfil one of its central tenets – that we conserve cultural heritage because it is valued’ [4].  A conference in London in 2006 was dedicated entirely to the importance of the public value of heritage.  In their paper, Blaug, Horner and Lekhi argued that organisations needed to find out what the public valued because ‘it is the public that must ‘authorise’ the value to be pursued’ [5].

For significance assessments this means that many views need to be captured and reflected.  Not only experts should be invited to input but also community stakeholders.  The Australian Heritage Commission summarised the reasons for this perfectly: ‘Different people have different perspectives on the significance of places, and the relative importance of places to people will change over time. It is therefore important to be as inclusive as possible…’ [6]

And what does this have to do with interpretation?  By necessity interpreters make a choice about the stories that visitors will encounter. Usually these immediately obscure the other possibilities, as Howard pointed out [7] and as many case studies have shown also [8].  There are many reasons for this, and this article is not the place to discuss this.  However, interpreters need to be aware of the power they wield.  Their passion both for the resource and for instilling in others their own enthusiasm must not cloud the awareness that theirs is only one view among many – and I don’t just mean in terms of avoiding giving more details than what visitors are interested in.  In selecting the stories we will share, interpreters must go to great lengths to review and reflect other possible values.  What we need is great humility and the courage to show contrasts even where they defy a neat interpretive story.   Research that I completed earlier this year shows that there is indeed a relationship between significance and interpretation.  If we wish our interpretation to really matter to visitors then we must be as inclusive as significance assessments progressively strive to be – for good reason [9].


[1] One such example is the definition of interpretation given by the National Association for Interpretation (USA).

[2] Tunbridge, J.E. and Ashworth, G.J. (1996) Dissonant Heritage.  The Management of the past as a resource in conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, p. 27

[3] In its early guises, significance tended to be called ‘interest’, for example in the 1906 US American Antiquities Act, the first of its kind, to my knowledge.  Britain followed in 1907.

[4] Waterton, E. (2005) ‘Whose Sense of Place? Reconciling Archaeological perspectives with Community Values: Cultural Landscapes in England.’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 11, (4) 309 – 325, p. 319

[5] Blaug, R.; Horner, L.; Lekhi, R. (2006) ‘Heritage, democracy and public value. In Clark, K. (ed) The Proceedings of the London Conference, ‘Capturing the Public Value of Heritage’.  Held 25 – 26 January 2006 in London.  Swindon: English Heritage on behalf of the conference sponsors: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Trust.

[6] Australian Heritage Commission (2000) Protecting Local Heritage Places: a guide for communities [online] Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission.  Available from > http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/ahc/publications/commission/books/pubs/protecting-local-heritage-places.pdf> [14. 02. 2009], p. 33

[7] Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum, p. 247

[8] see for example Tunbridge and Ashworth’s (1996) discussion of the interpretation of Buchenwald during the times of the German Democratic Republic.

[9] I’ll talk more about this research during my session at the NAI National Workshop in Las Vegas in November this year.  The session will present findings that go some way in answering the question, ‘Is significance important to visitors?’  Hope to see you there!

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