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When I reviewed the visitor interviews I did last year for my PhD research, I was amazed at the wide associations visitors made.  They talk about Edward Snowden, the attack on Lee Rigby, the experience of getting chased by a local gamekeeper for collecting nuts in a wood just after the Second World War.  They talk about Iraq, class society, making ends meet, and asylum.

Visitors make these connections in response to events that happened more than 2000 years and nearly 950 years ago, respectively.  More interestingly, the interpretation at both sites does not suggest these connections to them, or any others, for that matter.

This made me think about the ‘relate’ principle that is still the foundation stone of much interpretive practice.  Just to remind you:

Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. [1]

For Tilden this was an active ‘relate’: the interpretation has to do something.  His examples are of directly addressing the visitor and her location, as in, ‘The chances are that [prehistoric mammoths] browsed right where you are standing now’ [2].  Since then, addressing the visitor has been one of the key criteria interpreters discuss when they talk about ‘what makes good interpretation’.  Many interpreters will also propose additional practices, such as comparing something old to something modern, as in,  ‘this old thing here is like this thing in (your) modern life’.

However, at neither of my case study sites does the interpretation really make use of this ‘relate’ principle.  The audio guide at Battle Abbey does not address the visitor beyond telling them where to move next.  And yet, it is the most mentioned interpretive device when visitors talk about what helped them connect with the site [my words], along with touching and lifting the weaponry.  Marking place, as I’ve written elsewhere, indeed emerges as immensely important to visitors when it comes to interpretation, and what’s offered, especially at Battle Abbey, is, apparently, perfect: but it doesn’t say ‘where you stand now’, it just literally says, ‘here’ [3].

Tilden’s principle, in theory, predicts that the interpretation therefore is ‘sterile’, and visitors are not able to make connections.  And yet the opposite seems to be the case in my research.  Not only are visitors making wide associations, at Battle Abbey in particular they also make very strong claims on the heritage and its physical site: this is our heritage, our history, our identity.

Of course, there are other factors that may enable these associations, and these still require further examination.   I will share one thought, though: perhaps Tilden, despite his caution to interpreters, himself underestimated the power of visitors’ ability to make connections for themselves. In addition, it may be altogether more sustainable and more inclusive not to suggest to visitors how they should relate to what they see.  As we are expected to make heritage more widely accessible, it seems rather shortsighted to arbitrarily pick a few connections out of the many that are possible and inscribe them into our (permanent) interpretation.  What may be meaningful in one way to one visitor may be meaningful in a completely different way to another– or indeed it may be entirely irrelevant. What visitors’ comments in my research seem to suggest is that other factors, such as presenting a balanced view and using simple language, are more important in helping them connect to a site and make wide associations, or, in Tilden’s terms, to ‘relate’ [4].

Notes
[1] Tilden, F., 1957.  Interpreting Our Heritage.  3rd edition.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, p. 9
[2] ibid, p. 13.  The emphasis is mine after Tilden’s own highlighting of these two terms on the following page.
[3] And then proceeds to do a dramatization of what happened ‘here’, accompanied by a very lively, conversational, yet authoritative and balanced commentary.  What this may suggest is that there are other factors at work that make the interpretation successful if measured by connections made.
[4] And note the shift here in who is active in doing the ‘relating’: the visitor, not the interpretation.  Important point, if you ask me.

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