Posts Tagged ‘quality standards’

The Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI) in the UK has recently announced the re-launch of their awards scheme for interpretation. AHI have yet to publish their rationale and criteria for the awards, so the following are my thoughts on their published information to date.

The Ambition
AHI want their awards to be a ‘prestigious badge for recognition’. That’s a great ambition. Interpretation is in dire need of more visibility as a distinct profession and discipline, and one that deserves its place alongside curators and conservators. Awards can achieve a lot in that regard if they are well respected, within the field, but perhaps more importantly by those outside of it. That requires carefully setting up the awards – from application through to assessment.

AHI write that ‘submissions’ for the awards will open in January 2015. It’s not clear from this who will submit sites. I hope it won’t be a peer submission scheme, as these tend to be based solely on visible interpretation, or in fact personal involvement, and have profile primarily in the field itself. I think submission by sites themselves based on a transparent application process that is linked directly to the standards and criteria works best. This gets managers’ attention and raises the profile of interpretation within organisations and at sites. It also means that organisations at large think about how to embed interpretation in their practice, as the application process (hopefully) will require more than mere assertions of ‘this output is great’.

That’s really the backbone on which the success of this or any awards scheme hinges. In the past, criteria that have been discussed have been focused on outputs: writing style, text length, relevance to visitors, design, or diversity/hierarchy of media, to name but a few of the usually cited ‘best practice principles’. I accept that these will be part of considerations about awards for interpretation, and to some degree rightly so. However, there are two concerns: the first is about the lack of convincing evidence for the universal effectiveness of these practices. Only last week, yet another report was published that discredits methods that to some extent are also upheld in the current canon of ‘best practice’ interpretation. The second concern is that interpretation is not simply outputs, design, and media, and the planning thereof. It is, or should be, first and foremost about the underlying philosophy, and here particularly concepts of heritage and heritage communities. Linked to this, interpretation is as much, and in my opinion more, about audience research and stakeholder engagement than it is about outputs and their evaluation. Award criteria can shape practice, just as the outcomes declared important by the Heritage Lottery Fund have done. Focusing these criteria solely on outputs therefore would suggest that the crucial philosophical and scientific underpinning of interpretation is less important, and thus may be ignored.

The five awards categories (seven if you count the ‘best of show’ and an interpreter’s ‘Lifetime achievement’ award) are firstly by type of attraction, destination, or site:

  • museum or historic properties/sites
  • landscapes/forests/nature reserves/parks and gardens
  • visitor and interpretation centres.

To me, these three categories suggest that interpretation and its best practice is different depending on what type of attraction it is. I’ve worked in all three categories, and I can’t say that my experience upholds this (nor does my reading). A label is a label no matter where you put it. Of course you need to find the best possible solution for that particular site, content and challenge, but this again is an interpretive principle that applies to all attractions. I’d be quite interested to hear why the more obvious categories of types of interpretation were not used. Why isn’t there a category on Live Interpretation, A/V use, Online Interpretation, etc? This could have helped move forward our understanding of what works best regarding these particular methods of interpretation.
The other two categories that AHI have implemented raise even more questions for me. The first is Community Projects, defined as ‘developed and co-managed by community groups’. I assume that AHI wanted to give credit to those pure community-instigated projects that thrive all over the country.  However, in singling them out, the signal this gives is that somehow, communities are separate from, for example, museums, or visitor centres, and the ‘professionals’ that do interpretation there. And that, sadly, is still very, very often the case in interpretation. In reality of course every heritage has a community. And every piece of interpretation should be developed with and co-managed by the community. That should be part of the awards criteria for each and every award category. So while a ‘Community Project’ category may flow with AHI’s choice of categories by attraction type, it sits very uncomfortably with what should actually be the standards for interpretation as far as I’m concerned.
The final category is Interpretation for a target audience. I invite you to read this post about my views on target audiences. Adding this category tackles none of the issues about exclusion, responds to none of the findings about how targeting groups often makes them feel even more isolated and ‘other’, and says nothing at all about the fact that once targeted interventions are over visitor numbers more often than not plunge right back to where they were before. Clearly, there is a real flaw in practices that ‘target’ audiences, and adding this category cements these flaws into what the UK professional association for interpretation considers best practice.

I applaud the AHI for clearly making a push over recent months to give interpretation a greater profile in the UK. I think the sector is ready to set down standards and criteria, and make these the basis for an awards scheme. I will await AHI’s awards criteria with much anticipation. For the time being, however, I am not sure how prestigious, or reflective of ground-breaking thinking, the AHI awards will be, based on what I currently know about them.


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As I continue to plough my way through transcribing the visitor interviews that I’ve done at Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany I am struck by one observation: a lot of visitors refer to ‘the presentation’.  They came because they wanted to see how the story was ‘presented’.  They liked ‘the presentation’.  ‘The presentation’ was excellent.

Contrast this to the relative silence when I probe them about what they take away from their visit, and I wonder if there is something going on here. If ‘the presentation’ is that good, then why does it appear to have left them completely cold?

Of course, this could simply be a wider cultural issue.  Germans may just turn out to be much more reserved when it comes to history.  Or, they may simply be reserved when it comes to the history of this particular site [1].  I am planning to do visitor interviews at a related, but less regimented site next year to test this.

However, I am reminded of what I learnt during my studies in art: If the audience thinks about the medium, then you’ve lost them.  If they think about how you’ve cut your film or created your scene, then they’re no longer in the story, and your film has failed.  It’s that simple.

Is the same true for interpretation?  If all visitors can think of when you ask them about their visit is how you’ve told the story, does that mean that they’ve actually not connected to the story at all?  This could be a matter of medium: it may be clunky, and draw attention to itself.

Or, and this is what I think may be going on in Kalkriese, it may be that your medium is indeed excellent, but what you’re telling is just not the whole story, or it isn’t what has meaning to visitors.  There have been several occasions where visitors almost seemed to censor themselves, and tell me what I think they believe they are expected to feel, or have learnt, or say.  The way in which the interpretation at Kalkriese was put together was marked by what seems an overwhelming fear that the site will be misused and misappropriated by nationalists.  Consequently, the tone in the exhibition is constantly tempered by relativism, caution, and an almost obsessive focus on material evidence [2].  The result is an exhibition that does not, ultimately, disinterestedly present facts, but one which is oddly misbalanced and focussing on the side which was defeated in the battle [3].  I cannot help but feel that this must have an impact on the way visitors respond to my questions.

If that is indeed the case, then interpretation has a few things to think about.  The first and most obvious point is that it is not enough to ask visitors whether or not they ‘liked’ the interpretation.  Clearly at Kalkriese they did, or at least as far as they feel at liberty to tell me.  It also means that ‘good’ interpretation cannot be marked off by material criteria alone.  In other words, we can’t develop a tick list of observable qualities to determine whether a piece of interpretation is ‘good’ [4] – heritage just doesn’t work that way.

It’s an exciting journey, and I’m really interested in seeing how visitors at the other site respond.  As ever: Watch this space.

[1] German nobleman raised in Rome turns against the Empire, (temporarily) unites the many German tribes and defeats three legions.  You can read more about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest here.
[2] I’ve written here about another side product of this focus on finds.
[3] In German, the site is called ‘Varusschlacht’, the Battle of Varus, Varus being the Roman commander that was defeated in the event. There are historic reasons for this also, but ultimately it was a choice.  The symbol of the site, reproduced on all signage and marketing as well as in an oversized replica greeting visitors as they enter the exhibition, is a Roman mask that they found early on in the excavations.
[4] It’s a bit ironic that I should write this today, when I received an invitation to propose ‘quality criteria’ for interpretation to Interpret Europe.  Some of the original criteria that were proposed and discussed at a workshop during the last IE conference were exactly limited to these observable, Tilden-based qualities, and I heatedly argued against this.  They’ve now agreed to include process criteria, which I think are better placed to fit the bill.

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Last week, I received the membership renewal notice from one of the interpreters’ associations that I belong to.  As the economic tide has rudely swept into my household budget as well, I found myself doing a quick cost/benefit analysis.  What do I get out of being a member of this organisation?  Should I rather join a different organisation instead?

As I spent some time contemplating these matters, I reflected on a few comments made to me during my recent research visit to Germany.  Germany also has an interpreters’ association, although they call interpretation by a different name [1]. When I asked the director of the Museum in Kalkriese whether the association had any influence, the answer she had gave me a lot to think about.

In her opinion, the association isn’t taken very seriously at all.  Interpreters, to call our German colleagues by that name, are crippled by an inferiority complex, she felt.  This is partly due to the fact that one cannot really study the subject in Germany [2]. Consequently, interpreters cannot offer scientific arguments that can stand up to the museum establishment of archaeologists, art historians and the like, most of them with PhDs.  To her ears, interpreters tend to sound ‘hysteric’.  She went on to say that the interpreters’ association in Germany is a club for interpreters with no impact outside their ‘clan’.  When it comes to representing heritage and museums to the wider world, it is the German Museums Association whose voice is heard.

Phew.  So what about our interpreters’ associations in the English-speaking world?  Do policy-makers come to us when they are thinking about museums and heritage sites?  Do we have self-confidence that matches that of archaeologists and historians?

In the UK, we have less than a handful of interpretation-specific degree courses.  Like the Director at Kalkriese said, there are many unqualified (in the true sense of the word and with no disrespect intended) people working in the field.  We have a slightly better leg to stand on in many organisations in the UK and the USA, and yet I wonder whether it is a sign of our own insecurity when we engage in on-going discussions about whether we should call ourselves interpreters, or perhaps better visitor experience managers, or perhaps something else entirely [3]? Can you imagine an archaeologist ever having this conversation?

And perhaps even that leg we think we stand on so firmly isn’t that firm after all.  Many employers change our role titles and with it our job descriptions around with worrisome ease, as if they too felt that there wasn’t that much substance to what is interpretation (not that that is what I think).  Again, I don’t see them call the county archaeologist by a different name.

So what might it take to give interpreters’ associations more credibility and oomph in the public eye?  The director in Kalkriese referred to a very eloquent lady who had a PhD (not in interpretation, mind, but in art history) who once was the director of the German interpreters’ association.  With her at the head, she said, the organisation temporarily stepped ‘out of the shadows’.  So is that what we need?  High profile leaders with academic credentials?

Personally, I think our whole discipline needs to become more scientifically based, as I’ve argued many times before.  I want to see more publications like the Journal of Interpretation Research, where we can read original, critical, and well-researched studies that give foundation to our discipline and take it forward.  It is not enough to fill our magazines with feel-good stories of projects members have worked on, or our own personal opinions.  We need hard facts and self-analysis, even where it is painful.

We also need to look beyond our own circles and take note of what happens in other, often more established disciplines that affect the museum and heritage sector.  We cannot regurgitate the same old literature such as Freeman Tilden’s principles of sixty years ago if we hope to be taken seriously.  I want us to have conferences that engage critically with new thinking and developments, and that provide analyses and data on work that responds to new challenges.  And I want these conferences to be flagged as interpretation conferences.

There is such a lot of great work being done by interpreters in the UK and elsewhere.  Now let’s show the rest of the sector that we are a crucial part of what makes it a success.

So will I renew my membership with the interpreters’ association, or will I join the non-interpretation organisation?  Well, the jury is still out, I’m afraid.



[1] This is the Bundesverband für Museumspädagogik.  Their definition of Museumspädagogik would easily be recognizable to us as ‘interpretation’.  Many practitioners are still confined to delivering personal interpretation in the form of guided tours, and a few workshops primarily aimed at children and young people, in addition to delivering educational programmes for schools.  However, despite all that, the ‘profession’ is certainly pushing to be more widely involved in what in the UK and the USA is readily accepted as an interpreters’ game (or so we’d like to think).  Before I started my research, I was fully prepared to dismiss German ‘interpreters’ and the wider ‘interpretive’ practice as decades behind that in the UK and the United States, and in many ways they are.  This blog post is not the place for me to make a comparative analysis, but suffice it to say that my research in the UK is beginning to show that interpretive practice and the acceptance of interpretation is by far not as rosy as many interpreters, myself included, seem to have believed.

[2] This isn’t quite the case.  There are what we might call postgraduate diplomas that one can pursue after one’s primary degree. However, it is true that there is no comprehensive course in interpretation that is equivalent to, say, a postgraduate degree in archaeology (at least not that I am aware of).

[3] I too have once engaged in that discussion.  I have completely changed my opinion, and it’s probably time I wrote about it on this blog.  I promise I will – soon!

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