Posts Tagged ‘significance’

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference on ‘Understanding Museums’ in Germany. It was about researching museums and researching audiences, with a particular focus on new and innovative methods [1].

In the final plenary session, the organiser for the museum research aspect of the conference expressed his hope that the focus on researching audiences would not overshadow research of museums. I understand his desire to research collections, and displays more or less in isolation, and I will say that the session on provenance research was quite interesting.

However, the organiser’s comment was also a bit curious in my ears, as someone who passionately believes that museums are there not just for people, but because of people. Therefore, in my universe, audience research is the start and the end of all museums or heritage work. And please note that audience research here isn’t just research with those people that come through the door of the museum: it includes non-visitor as well. Audience research examines what they value about the heritage in our professional care, how they want to use it, engage with it – or not. It seeks to establish the barriers, the perceptions, anything that the museum is (apparently) doing wrong. But also what it is doing well: What do people value about it? What works? Why? In addition to this qualitative stuff, there’s the quantitative bit that can also give you an idea of how your museum works – and how it fails: the numbers, the stats, the visitor demographics. All of these things together are the basic foundation from which to do professional museum work.

‘Professional’ is quite important here. You would not believe the number of audience research I see in my work as a consultant that is frankly useless. People seem to think they can save money on this and just send the poor intern out to quickly whip up a survey and start asking people (or worse, just have ‘comment cards’ or the vexatious ‘visitor book’). In reality, audience research is quite a complex job. You have to know what you want to use this for and how. You need to think about sampling, bias, and analysis. You need to know how to administer your audience research: even doing surveys requires a professional approach. Planning audience research requires being familiar with the pros and cons of different methods, and not just relying on a one-size-fits all approach. Often, this is long-term data and developments you’ll want to capture, so there needs to be a proper strategy integrated into your management. Without that kind of professional audience research, your work will always suffer from an unprofessional, and thus shaky, foundation.

And why is audience research the necessary foundation? Because good audience research should inform business planning, business and options development, project development, infrastructure and visitor services, and interpretation. If you’ve cheated in the audience research, and allowed, for example, your biases to come through, or a notion that you ‘already know’ your visitors and non-visitors, then your entire project will suffer from it and most likely underachieve and under-deliver, be it in visitor numbers, satisfaction rates, or financial performance.

That’s why I found slightly curious the suggestion that audience research should take second place to museum research, understood here as research on collections, as far as I could gather. If you asked me, I would have it just the other way around. Without audience research, the heart of your museum can never properly beat.



[1] Here just a quick overview, and my thoughts:

Technology 1: Eye-tracking

It was quite noticeable that the non-British colleagues were very focused on technology-based museums and audience research. Eye-tracking and the use of video technology stood out. I wasn’t too sure at first about eye-tracking, especially with regards to understanding audiences, and how the museum worked for them. But then one presenter, Hanna Brinkmann of the University of Vienna, showed a ‘hot-spot’ map of a painting. It highlighted where most visitors looked (the face) and the areas they hardly noticed. She made the point that beside helping art historians understand how people ‘read’ art, it also gives a clue to interpreters about the things that visitors appear to be missing. That made sense, although I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a more cost-effective method available.


Technology 2: User Video Study

I was particularly intrigued by an excerpt from a User Video Study shared by Johanna Barnbeck of the University of Amsterdam. Basically this type of study attaches a camera to one of the group members, in this case a little boy, to capture their visit. Johanna found that people quickly forgot about the camera, and I thought this was a great way of seeing how visitors move through spaces, respond to exhibits and use interpretation socially, and potentially also to get some candid insights into what they think. I can see this method work also for the type of study that I’ve just done, which looked at the benefits that visitors took from heritage, and their relationship with it. I was conscious that I couldn’t eavesdrop into their conversations while observing them, and this would have been a potential solution (well, with funding). I think one would still want to have an explorative conversation, to follow up and probe on what they said and did. Apparently follow-up conversations were in fact part of the methodology that Johanna used.


Qualitative Methods

Several presenters also talked about using qualitative methods for audience research, sometimes, but not always in combination with technology-supported visitor observations. Unstructured interviews and narrative inquiry featured strongly, along with accompanied visits, with several presenters making the point that pre-determining structures, similar to pre-set answer options in surveys, means that what you can find is limited by your expectations, discourses and biases as a researcher. I thought that was an important point to make at a conference about audience research.


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As part of my current research I have been reviewing the literature on heritage studies.  My opinions, gained from working at heritage sites, had already been that heritage is immensely personal: made up of different aspects for different individuals.  When I worked at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, I also realised that heritage was contested, and a matter not of fact but of what I came to call, the heritage belief.  Heritage, as I can still see with my own eyes almost daily, is also about passion, and deeply felt emotions, and finally, it is about identity.

Much of this has already been discussed in heritage studies.  Heritage has been cut up into assessable pieces (most famously by the 1974 UNESCO World Heritage Convention), the assessments have been criticised as hegemonic (see for example Laurajane Smith’s The Uses of Heritage), the criteria have finally been reviewed to add a semblance of democracy (recently for example by English Heritage), and much debate is still on-going about the relationship between history and heritage (see almost any writing by David Lowenthal), to name but a few.

In other words, heritage is by far not the absolute concept that it is presented to be in most interpretive writing.  As a matter of fact, a quick glance at the indices of the interpretation books on my shelf reveal that not a single one of them deals with the manifold issues surrounding this term so central to our profession (and the picture is only marginally better when you replace ‘heritage’ with ‘significance’, a term which has been associated with different values slightly longer than heritage has).  We spend a great deal of time discussing themes, and media, and target audiences in our journals and at conferences, but we hardly ever (well, never, as far as I’m aware) reflect on what it actually is that we’re interpreting.  What is heritage?

Please don’t get me wrong:  themes, media, and target audiences are all hugely important aspects of the work we do.  And yet, we need to move beyond that, or rather: we need to go back to understanding what it is that we’re dealing with.   It becomes immediately clear that there is no easy answer to, ‘What is heritage?’  And a concrete answer is not what I am about.  It is rather the awareness that there is something to be thought about at all which I think is necessary before we can begin to talk about interpretive best practice.

Put bluntly, the fact that our literature on interpretation spends next to no time critically reflecting on different heritage values or significance is a clear indication that something is amiss.  If we don’t reflect on the different aspects that make a site significant or ‘heritage’, then how can we expect to meaningfully interpret it to others?  Too often the underlying assumption still seems to be that interpretation is a translation of historical, architectural, archaeological expertise into engaging and bite-sized pieces for a leisure audience (or as some describe it, a ‘bridge’).

However, once you recognise that heritage doesn’t equal heritage, that sites are significant due to different values, one of which may be more significant than the other, and also, that audiences (stakeholders, visitors, users) are intimately involved in this heritage process of a site, constantly changing it, constantly contesting it, then your entire approach to interpretation necessarily has to change.  The issue becomes much less about theme versus topic, or interpretation versus information; rather, it becomes a matter of facilitation, of enabling people to engage in this process of heritage.  It also means that interpretation must become much more democratic.  Stakeholder engagement can no longer be a luxury, it must be at the heart of what we do.

And how exactly do we achieve this?  What should be these new interpretation guidelines that I call for?  Well, that’s something that I’m still working on.  Certainly, I’ve realised that this is my core hypothesis to be examined in my research: that in order to deliver public benefit, interpretation needs to intimately involve stakeholders, and democratically and comprehensively consider and reflect heritage values.

Watch this space.

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Today I guided a workshop at the first international conference of Interpret Europe in Freiburg, Germany.  I built on a paper I presented last November at NAI’s National Workshop in Las Vegas.  I was really keen to explore further with other professionals what to do about diverse, and particularly conflicting heritage values. The conversation we had during the workshop emphasized and crystallized a few things for me, which I’d like to share here:


1) There are many different values (and they aren’t all about heritage)

Legislation has identified many different values for which sites are protected and managed.  These include archaeological, architectural and historical value, and more recently social or communal value have been added.  English Heritage summarize these under the heading, ‘heritage values’, but this is a terminology that I take exception to.  I think ‘heritage value’ should represent its own category, which focuses on the claim that the ‘heritage community’ in question makes on a site.  To date, and especially in recent years, the literature on heritage has more or less established a view of heritage as a process of identity and memory-making, and it is here that I would situate ‘heritage value’.


2) You can still be historically accurate while interpreting a heritage belief

A heritage belief is what I call a strong conviction in a heritage community that may not be wholly historically accurate.  Nevertheless, the belief forms a core part of the community’s identity or memory.

One participant in my workshop today raised the suggestion (as happened before) that to interpret the heritage belief means to base interpretation on misleading or inaccurate fact.  The first thing to realize about this is that any heritage belief is usually based on a historical fact.  The issue lies with the subsequent interpretation or weighting of that fact by the community in question.  It is that experience of the historical fact that is important.  If I take the example from my research at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, one important heritage belief is that Culloden marks the beginning of the Scottish diaspora.  This belief can be explained through the historical fact of the forced changes to the clan system, which arguably paved the way for the subsequent Highland Clearances.  In other words, in interpreting the heritage belief we can highlight the historical fact that consequently became an experience for the heritage community.  It is also worth remembering that history is not an objective science, nor will a seemingly unemotional recital of various historical facts capture people’s experience of these events.  Something becomes heritage because it acquired meaning in people’s experience of identity and in their memory.


3) You’ll know a heritage site when you see one

Academics and heritage professionals still argue passionately about what ‘heritage’ is.  Heritage communities themselves are much less self-conscious about the concept.  I’ve shared before my favourite anecdote from a public consultation, where a gentleman questioned whether the story to be told would be that of his history or his heritage.  Today I’ve heard a report of a visitor comment in Malta, where a woman stated, ‘The site tells the story of the past, but it doesn’t communicate Maltese identity.’  This is not to suggest that we should stop examining ‘heritage’ critically as a concept; rather, I would caution against professional stage fright.  It may be difficult to define heritage neatly, but we should not therefore pretend that ‘anything’ can be heritage, or that ‘anything’ can be turned into heritage. It will also not do to dismiss heritage, as has happened especially in the 1990s, as ‘nostalgia’ or ‘manipulation’, simply because it does not have a scientific evidence base.


4) There is such a thing as an interpreter’s professional ethics

I’ve argued before that I strongly believe stakeholders’ values should form the basis of all interpretation.  A delegate from Asia argued, however, that an interpreter did not have the right nor the freedom to question an organisation’s objective for a piece of interpretation.  In other words, the delegate felt it was the (client) organisation that predetermined what would be interpreted.

Two things are true about this assertion: Organisations do have a framework within which they act, and this will set some parameters for interpretation.  It is also true that sites and history can be manipulated in an attempt to turn them into heritage (whether this is authentic or sustainable is a different question).  However, as a true interpreter, I absolutely see it as our professional duty to point out to organisations that what they are asking us to do is not, in fact, interpretation, and certainly not good practice interpretation.  We may be able to use interpretive methods to achieve organisational goals, but in terms of true interpretation that aspires to a professional standard, stakeholders must be at the core of thematic planning.


5) Showing the darker side is a chance to facilitate understanding and reconciliation

After my workshop I spoke to an English colleague who has been working on a potato famine site in Ireland. They reported about the site manager’s qualms about interpreting the actions of the English at the time, which contributed to the disaster.  In the manager’s opinion, leaving this aspect of history out enabled English visitors to come to the site and have a positive experience.  However, in conversation it became apparent that English visitors did not actually walk away from the site with any understanding of what had happened.  It was also apparent that they did not have a prior connection with the site, good or bad.  We can take this to mean that they perceived the site as history, but not as a part of their heritage.  They were perfectly capable of confronting their nation’s historic behaviour because they did not personally identify with this.  Rather than offend them, such interpretation may in fact have the power to help people empathize and understand the source of contemporary feelings.

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As far as J. Geraint Jenkins is concerned, the Welsh efforts to present the nation’s industrial heritage (!) are mostly doomed.  The reason is that sites, and coalmines in particular, are just not grimy enough.  He also points out that much fabric has been lost, leaving the remaining structures without the all-important context.  In presenting these faint shadow images of what life in Wales was like is to fall prey to romanticism and nostalgia, two demons that Jenkins evokes continually in his book ‘Getting yesterday right.’

I cannot help but detect in his writing that on-going suggestion of ‘heritage’ as an institution and industry.  In between the lines images are conjured of thrifty economists concocting ‘the heritage product’ that they can ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’ desperate for the romance of the past.  I’m a heritage manager myself, and my day-to-day job could not be more different.

Certainly Jenkins is right that many a valley has tried and is still trying to create a tourism attraction with whatever industrial remains they have left (and who can blame them).  But the issue here does not lie with heritage value per se, but with the tourism industry that may too freely apply the term ‘heritage’ to anything that might prove a tourism asset.  Heritage isn’t a ‘product’, it is an act performed by people.  Tourism managers may call it heritage, but that doesn’t make it so.

The other criticism that Jenkins has is that any interest that is detached from the dirt and noise of the coalmines is romantic and nostalgic.  He doesn’t elaborate on where this view comes from.  However, it does seem to hark back to a historian’s disdain for heritage as something less than history.  Of course, as David Lowenthal has shown in his book ‘The Heritage Crusade’ history and heritage are actually two completely different things altogether.  Other writers have since established the view of heritage as a practice, and like Lowenthal they have highlighted that selection, reworking and reinvention of historical facts are all crucial and necessary aspects of this heritage practice.  And the practice itself is crucial for our identity and meaning-making.

In other words, where Jenkins would like to see a whole valley still stuffed with coalmine dust, and the terraced houses cowering underneath black slag heaps to present what life was really like, the people who once lived that life might actually be mightily glad to see it gone.  A pit wheel and the opportunity to go down Big Pit if they want to, without the dust and danger, may be all they need to remember the true heritage value of the industry: the sense of camaraderie and endurance.  That’s what the miner-guide at Big Pit talked about when I went there; he even explicitly said he would not want to go back to work in the mines except for the bond he had with his colleagues.  That is the heritage of the coalmining industry.  The rest is just historical fact.

But would Jenkins prefer that we tell people’s history and not their heritage?  It does seem so.  And he is absolutely right that in presenting a whole valley as it used to be visitors would get the whole picture as an immersive experience.  I only wonder how many of them would ever want to come back?  And what about the people who live here?  Are we going to force them to live amid the reminders of what was a very hard and difficult life?  Are we going to turn them into museum pieces as well?

In all fairness, Jenkins does acknowledge that this would not be feasible.  He suggests that probably a multi-media piece of interpretation would be better, and I agree.  Only to me, this solution isn’t a regrettable compromise.  It does what good interpretation and heritage management should always do: it enables people to act on and live their heritage values as symbolised in spaces, while it gives them room to build on it, and change it, and use the security of that heritage to move forward and better themselves.  The dust and the noise are not heritage, they are history.  And some history just doesn’t need to be preserved in every grimy detail.

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During my readings I have come across this interesting quote by West and McKellar [1]:

‘By definition, interpretation as a heritage practice is a western discourse that has become necessary because official heritage has become disconnected from everyday understandings.’

It is a statement worth thinking about in greater depth.  Most interpreters would readily agree that the primary purpose of their work is to help people ‘understand’ a site.  It is such a worthy cause that I have never actually heard or read it questioned at interpretation conferences, in interpretation books or in interpretation articles.  Indeed, more often than not, when pressed for a definition of interpretation, practitioners still quote Freeman Tilden’s famous principles: to interpret is to ‘reveal’ the meaning of a site to visitors and to ‘relate’ it to their own lives.  The former assumes that people don’t recognise the true importance of a site without assistance, while the latter believes that the site has nothing to do with people’s lives to begin with.

If it’s heritage interpretation we’re talking about, one question immediately jumps out at me: if it’s their heritage, why should people need interpretation to understand it and relate to it?  Isn’t heritage heritage precisely because it means something to people and it is an intrinsic part of their lives? [2]

The next issue arising from Tilden is one of hegemonic meaning: are we really suggesting that there is only one meaning to a site, and we alone have it ready to be imparted to those not in the know?

What lies underneath Tilden’s definition of interpretation shares many characteristics with what West and McKellar criticise as ‘official heritage’ in the above quote.  ‘Official heritage’ is heritage prescribed by experts.  It is categorized, labelled, protected and managed, denying anyone else’s ability to appropriately understand and care for it.  In this theoretical framework interpretation indeed becomes necessary to educate the masses.

Of course, like West and McKellar, other writers have also criticised the expert claim to heritage for some time [3].  In short, they want to see a community’s heritage values placed back at the core of heritage assessments and management.  Heritage begins and ends with the communities whose heritage it is.  Heritage can change, it is in constant flux, and everyone can participate in it.

Once heritage is seen in this light, interpretation can also no longer be taken as ensuring people gain the right understanding.  Indeed, I have argued for some time that interpretation itself is part of a social process.  We know that visitors bring all sorts of experiences and knowledge to a site which shape what they take from it [4].  Interpretation is only part of that engagement.  As a practice it should serve as facilitator: not conveying the truth, but enabling everyone at a site to find their own truth and establish their own relationship with it.


[1] West, S. and McKellar, E., 2010.  Interpretation of heritage. In: West, S (ed), 2010. Understanding heritage in practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 166 – 204, here: p. 198

[2] see for example Millar, S. (1999) ‘An Overview of the Sector.’ In Heritage Visitor Attractions.  An Operations Management Perspective. Ed by Leask, A., Yeoman, J. London: Cassel

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

[4] for example Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (2000) Learning from Museums.  Visitor Experiences and the making of meaning. Lanham: Altamira Press

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I love National Trust properties.  I’d forgotten how much until I recently visited Polesden Lacey.  So I promptly signed myself up to become a member (again) and I’ve proceeded to visit a National Trust property every weekend since.

Of course, I’m also reading a lot of academic literature and case studies about heritage, its management and its interpretation these days, so I couldn’t help but analyse each visit afterward.  I beg your indulgence for the random nature of the following reflections that I had and which I hope are of interest:

So that’s what they mean about aesthetic value…

I’ve become increasingly suspicious about the values that are assessed in determining which heritage is worthy of legal protection.  Aesthetic value seemed a particularly obscure and elitist criteria which I was ready to (pen-) attack in full at some point.   I’ve still to analyse what sites have actually been protected and to what degree due to their presumed aesthetic value, and yet as I found myself consciously breathing in the peace and beauty of the rolling landscape that surrounds Polesden Lacey, I thought to myself that it is this aesthetic experience that to me makes protecting and preserving this site worthwhile.  I shouldn’t actually have been that surprised by the realisation, for when I asked visitors to Brú na Bóinne (sometimes falsely referred to as Newgrange) in Ireland why the site was significant and should be protected, 17.6 of responses given related to the setting and atmosphere of the place.  [1]  That’s aesthetic value for you right there.

…and it really speaks for itself

It may be chance, but the properties I’ve seen over the past few weeks effectively had no interpretation worth mentioning [2].  At Polesden Lacey, I truly didn’t mind for the enjoyment of the place was quite enough.  Could this mean that buildings and landscapes of such aesthetic value really do speak for themselves, like some writers imply?  My answer is, no – not in the sense of technical understanding.  After I left the place, I had no clue as to who owned it, who built it and how it relates to whatever aesthetic tradition may have been at work.  But did I need that understanding?  After all, I really did enjoy myself…

Enjoyment leads to understanding leads to valuing leads to caring leads to enjoyment…

…or so the cycle goes English Heritage claimed in their 2005 – 2010 strategy.  I’ve not yet found any case studies that support this claim, and certainly in my case (and in the case of the visitors to Brú na Bóinne) we seem to have skipped a couple of steps (such as understanding or indeed even the thirst for understanding that enjoyment is supposed to inspire) and we showed a complete disregard for other steps in the cycle too.

The question of course is: what was there to understand at Polesden Lacey? And: did it matter?

Significance, significance, significance

My solution to the question of when and where and how a site such as Polesden Lacey should be interpreted is to assess significance.  If audiences (stakeholders, tourists) tell you that what the site means to them is peace and beauty, then it may be better not to burden them with interpretation they really don’t care about.  An events programme that takes full advantage of the setting and provides entertainment for visitors to have a reason to repeatedly enjoy the site is likely the better management choice.  You can still bring the site’s own story to the fore: Polesden Lacey, for example, was a weekend retreat where the owner entertained friends and royalty.  I can think of a whole series of events that range from cooking classes to a 1930s evening garden party that would allow visitors to get a sense of what one of those weekends may have been like, and learn about the story of the place at the same time.

And a word about volunteers

It’s really noticable what weight the National Trust places on volunteering – any visitor-related role seems to also deal with volunteering.  In their strategy it makes perfect sense: volunteering is all about providing communities with an opportunity to become involved [4].  On site,  however, I’m much more ambiguous about this.  Don’t get me wrong: I think volunteers are great, and at every site I’ve visited it was very obvious that the volunteers passionately and sincerely cared about ‘their’ house.  But they are not interpreters.  At Dinefwr Castle, for example, I felt positively harassed by an otherwise charming volunteer who insisted on telling me for ten (!) minutes everything I never wanted to know about the minimal knowledge she had of the restoration work that was going on after a recent flood.  It did nothing to improve my understanding of the site nor my enjoyment of it – on the contrary.  I was so frustrated that I couldn’t even look at the room anymore for fear that the lady would corner me for another ten minutes.  It seems that while the Trust’s emphasis on volunteering is laudable, they now need to remember their visitors and make sure that their enthusiastic volunteers are properly trained to engage with an unsuspecting public.

And what am I planning this weekend?  Well, I have another Trust property lined up to visit…and I’m looking forward to it!


[1] Aesthetic value, when assessed by what usually is a select panel of experts within a statutory body, still seems like a woefully subjective criteria.  I can only embrace it if it is backed by popular consensus.

[2] Dinefwr Castle made an attempt at interpretation, but the mixture of voices and topics and interpretive approaches left me none the wiser about the site’s importance.

[3] For some heritage values this cycle no doubt still holds true.  My guess is that it very much depends on the dominant heritage value and how widely it is shared.

[4] For an organisation that for decades has been seen as an exclusive club whose properties have nothing to do with the surrounding communities, volunteering is also a crucial way of breaking down barriers.

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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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About a year ago, I blogged about the sense of place I experienced when visiting a May festival in Germany.  At the time, I identified two ingredients to ‘a sense of place’: a ‘symbol’ and the ‘activity’ around it.  A few months later, I highlighted that in my opinion, an inclusive significance assessment will uncover the core of what makes a place distinctive, in other words, it will reveal the ‘sense of place’ we need to communicate.

I still uphold all of the above.  And yet as I am working to communicate my own (Welsh) site’s ‘sense of place’, I’ve thought some more about what makes ‘a sense of place’, and what this means for interpretation.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

– the place [1]

I know this sounds obvious, but hear me out.  With regard to nature interpretation (which is not my main focus) it has been noted that ‘less is more’.  If you’ve been reading this blog you will know that in my opinion, interpretation isn’t just about media, it is also about visitor management.  Where a site has a strong sense of place, the best interpretation guides visitors naturally to the best places, without disrupting their experience with media.  Interpretation here may be best compared to landscape architecture.

For me, the Highlands of Scotland are a great example of a place with natural ‘sense of place’.  When I visited there for the first time and without any prior knowledge, it was the (uninterpreted) wildness of the landscape, its unforgiving harshness and soul-aching beauty that struck me with its ‘sense of place’.  Through a flute-playing tour guide traditional Scottish music became a part of that sense of place, and it is interesting that Visit Scotland nowadays use these very same incredients in their adverts.


– the place [2]

It’s easy to see how a place of natural beauty can have a strong ‘sense of place’ but the same is actually true for buildings and built environments.  I’m not just talking about historic town centres such as that of Stein am Rhein.  I’m also talking about places like the Open Air Museum at Detmold in Northern Germany.  At least for someone from the South like me, the sense of place was created by the spaces in these relocated houses and villages.  This was enhanced by recognising similar architectural styles in the surrounding areas of today.  However, unlike with the natural places of strong sense of place, I think the man-made spaces want a little support from interpretation to highlight the human stories hidden underneath the architectural spaces.  At Detmold, for example, interpretation is practically non-existent, and people are conspicuously absent.  So while the fabric of the site has considerable sense of place, the fact that its raison d’etre – people and their lives – is not visible leaves the sense of place somewhat hollow.


– an emotion

Remember what I wrote about significance assessments helping you to reveal the core of a site?  Sometimes that core is encapsulated in an emotion, and the entire ‘sense of place’ flows from that emotion or human experience.  It’s similar to a novel: the novels we tend to remember the most are those with universal human emotions.  The example of a heritage site that derives its sense of place from such an emotion is Montgomery Place along the Hudson River in New York State.  I worked there as a tour guide, and on the proch of the house, facing the river Hudson, we told visitors of Janet Montgomery who fainted on that spot when after decades the body of her husband, General Richard Montgomery, was brought down the river from Canada to be reburied in New York.  Richard was the first general that fell during the American Revolution, and Janet, dedicated to his memory, had never remarried.  That human experience, told at the very spot where it happened, expressed everything the site was about: sacrifice, and commitment, and one woman’s strength.  Many times over it is what visitors commented on after the tour.  All we did in the interpretation was tell the story in three sentences – the rest was left to visitors’ imagination, and their experience of the ‘authentic’ site which otherwise would have been merely a pretty viewpoint.


– a story

We’ve now properly entered the human realm of ‘sense of place’, widening it out from an isolated emotion.  Here, sense of place comes entirely from a story.  A good example is the story of the Gainsboro sit-ins, the start of the sit-ins during the American Civil Rights Movement, where students demanded service for non-whites by sitting at lunch counters.  A section of the Gainsboro counter is now at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History, and regular participatory performances allow visitors to hear the story of the sit-ins and share in some of the experiences that the students at the time had.  For me, the ‘sense of place’ doesn’t come from the counter – it’s authenticity is a nice addition, but the real ‘sense of what this is about’ lies in the story of courageous young people who had a vision.  The performance does a great job at conveying that ‘sense of place’.

So in summary, as we move further away from the fabric of a place, interpretation becomes more important.  It may also be helpful to remind ourselves that the ‘place’ in ‘sense of place’ is literally about a distinctive experience whereever you happen to be and of whatever it is you’re interpreting.  Sometimes the location is pre-determined – as with the Highlands of Scotland – sometimes it isn’t – as with the museum.  Sometimes no interpretation is required, sometimes you do need interpretation to convey the ‘sense of place’.  At the end of the day, however, what it all comes down to is having a good understanding of why a place or topic you wish to interpret is significant.

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Two weeks ago I presented a paper on stakeholders to the online conference of Interpretation Canada.  I shared with delegates how I go about trying to understand the main stakeholders of a project.

Step 1: Who are the main stakeholders?

My first step is to identify who the main stakeholders are to begin with. I find a broad definition of stakeholder useful: stakeholders can range from casual users to specialist interest groups, from neighbours to tourists, and from those who can trace their actual heritage back to the site to those who claim it on spiritual grounds.  By not merely limiting stakeholders to neighbours and heritage groups, I think we get a better idea of the many meanings a site carries and the needs it fulfills [1].

Step 2: What is their history?

Once I know who the main stakeholders are I spend a great deal of time understanding their history in relation to the site: first, there is of course the actual history of events that have linked the site to this group [2].  But there is also a history beyond those events, and that is the history of what has happened to the group since [3].  It is important to understand what has happened to people since historical events have turned them into stakeholders.

Step 3: What is their present?

Sometimes stakeholders’ history beyond the original event merges into their present, but either way, it is important to be clear about where stakeholders are at now.  Many writers have pointed out that heritage is a fluid concept that changes according to shifting views.  This happens in response to events in the present, and it is why we cannot ignore current developments if we want to really understand stakeholders and what a site means to them [4].

Step 4: How do they use a site?

The next step is to understand how stakeholders use a site. In some cases this is obvious: a mountain bike group will use a park for mountain biking.  At other sites, however, this may be more elusive.  For example, the casual stroll through a park to get from A to B may seem negligible use but to the stakeholders in question it represents a crucial connection.

Step 5: How do they perceive a site?

Finally, I also look at how stakeholders perceive a site.  This is not always applicable, but sometimes stakeholders’ perception of a site is quite different to what it is in reality.  Particularly in conservation cases stakeholders may not be aware of the damage that is being done to a site.  In their minds, the very fact that a site has survived for two thousand years may symbolise its resilience and the reason for why it is meaningful to them.  An unedited conservation message is likely not to come through in this instance.

Steps 1 through 5 give me a fairly accurate understanding of stakeholders.  The questions is: what do you do with it?

Step 6: Stakeholders’ views of significance

I have discussed elsewhere that inclusive assessments of site significance should be at the heart of any interpretation.  In the process described above one of my primary aims is to understand why a site is important to stakeholders.  I use these significances to develop interpretation and also to set management guidelines.

Step 7: Turn stakeholders into audiences

Another important outcome of this process is that I have plenty of information about the stakeholders to allow me to develop interpretation and programmes for them that will be relevant and meaningful.  As I’ve written in the notes below, programmes make audiences.  We want stakeholders not only as sources of information, we also want them as audiences.  Just as interpretation is aimed at facilitating a connection between a site and other visitors, it should also facilitate the engagement of stakeholders with the site.  They may not always need it, but very often they appreciate it nonetheless.




[1] Sometimes interpreters speak of these groups as ‘audiences’ before ever identifying them as stakeholders.  In my opinion, that’s going at it the wrong way around.  Programmes make audiences; where there isn’t a programme there isn’t an audience, only people that are interested and who may hold a stake in the site.  That’s why I call them stakeholders, and develop programmes for them to turn them into audiences.

[2] At my current site, Bedwellty House and Park, for example, the main stakeholder group is local casual users.  Their link to the house and park is first, that it was the off-limits residence of the manager of the ironworks that dominated over everyone’s lives.  Then, more than one hundered years ago, the house became a public property, thriving for a few decades before the industry declined dramatically, leaving the community with many worries.

[3] At Bedwellty House and Park, the main story here is that of the steady decline of the industry.  Today, none of it is left in the area.

[4] As an example, stakeholders for Bedwellty House and Park are faced with the challenge of living in one of the most deprived areas of South Wales.


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I’ve just returned from an excellent conference – the National Workshop of the US-American National Association for Interpretation.  I’ve picked up many good ideas that I will certainly blog about, but today I want to reflect on the responses I got to my own paper.

I presented some of the research I’ve recently completed into significance and interpretation.  In a nutshell, my case studies [1] as well as a review of existing interpretive planning models and organisational planning practices suggest strongly that interpreters do not undertake and consider inclusive significance assessments when planning interpretation.  Visitor surveys at the case study sites suggest that the resulting interpretation does not reflect or even shape why visitors think a site is important.  In other words, visitors to the case study sites formed their views about site importance independent of the interpretation although they did receive the intended interpretive messages.  They just didn’t think these messages expressed the site’s significance.

In my opinion that means the interpretation was fundamentally flawed.  What do we interpret if not precisely why the site is important?  How can we justify that our interpretation does not reflect a site’s significance to its stakeholders? [2]

An inclusive significance assessment must be at the core of any interpretation.  It will reveal the different meanings that stakeholders attach to a site.  Interpreting these meanings will avoid alienating stakeholders and it will ensure that those without prior knowledge will gain a true understanding of why the site is protected and important to others.

But what about those sites where two different groups have two conflicting meanings?  What about sites of shame, one delegate asked in my session? What about those heritage beliefs that some find offensive?

These are great questions and underline just how much responsibility interpreters carry.  And I don’t pretend to have an easy answer either beyond what I’ve already stated above: we need to consider all stakeholder meanings and preferably reflect them all, too.

The first step is therefore to determine who the stakeholders are.  In my opinion that goes a long way and it will reveal a certain weighting as well.  Taking Culloden Battlefield as the example from my research, a stakeholder assessment will quickly show that although English soldiers fought on the battlefield as well, the battle really does not occupy an important place in the sense of heritage of today’s English.  Experts on the battle [3] have pointed out that had the battle taken place in England, the site would most likely have long since been lost.  It is the descendants of the Gaelic community and the Scottish Diaspora at large who are the strongest force behind the protection of the site.  Historically accurate or not, to them the site represents a turning point in their culture’s and their family’s histories, and this goes across battle lines, for Gaelic speakers and Scots fought on both sides. [4]

I propose that the interpretive themes should flow from these stakeholder meanings. [5]  Above I mentioned that the stakeholder assessment may provide a certain weighting in terms of significance already.  For Culloden, this may be the overall acknowledgement that the site is a heritage site because of and to the Gaelic community, rather than the Scots-Government or English community of today.  This does not mean, however, that the relevant historical facts need to be hidden.  They just need to be introduced in a way that is respectful of the overall heritage claim of the site.

But what about sites where two meanings well and truly oppose each other with equal strength?  There seems to be a tendency to aim for what I call the ‘historical facts approach’ to interpretation in such cases.  Rather than set foot on what is perceived to be slippery ground, the interpretation presents ‘the historical facts’.  [6] This is what was largely done at Culloden Battlefield, resulting in visitors maintaining or gaining a view of the site’s ‘true’ importance quite independent of the interpretive messages.  In other words, the ‘historical facts approach’ will not reflect significance.  Therefore, I advocate to have the courage to present both sides.  This can still be done in a respectful, neutral tone that will enable the stakeholders in question to retain the site as their own as well as allow visitors to truly understand modern conflicts and make up their own minds.

Of course every site presents its own challenges.  I do not claim that the above is a fool-proof method to interpret significance.  However, if nothing else, it may help make interpreters aware of the far-reaching impact of their decisions early on in the interpretive planning process.  I hope it can help interpreters realise that their efforts may be wasted if they dodge these decisions.  They’re tough but they’re an essential part of our job.

And to all those that have joined my session at the NAI workshop in Las Vegas – thank you for your great comments and thoughtful questions, and the inspiration you have provided me.



[1] My case studies were Bru na Boinne in Ireland, Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, and Stanley Mills, also in Scotland.  However, I only considered Bru na Boinne and Culloden Battlefield since low visitor responses at Stanley Mills made firm conclusions impossible.

[2] And let us not forget here that significance is at the core of heritage protection legislation

[3] such as Archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard and Historian Christopher Duffy.

[4] I don’t want to muddle up things by delving too deeply into a discussion of the history of the ’45 Jacobite Rising.  Suffice it to say that while many have blindly associated all evil that befell the Gaelic and Highland community after Culloden with the Government’s leader, the Duke of Cumberland, the underlying heritage belief is less about the protagonists and more about a sense of loss (of culture and home), injustice (even clans loyal to the Government were punished) and brutality (suffered by many Highlanders in the aftermath of the battle).  Again, this seems to be shared across the ideological divide and therefore transcends the historical facts of civil war.  The latter, however, is one of the main messages of the interpretation in an attempt to provide ‘a balanced picture’.

[5] We will leave out the management messages etc. which will also influence interpretive themes.

[6] Of course in reality, there is no such this as a ‘historical fact’.  History is made up of fragmented records which are themselves coloured by the opinions and understanding of the writer.  On top of that, these records are then – no pun intended – interpreted by individual historians.  See Lowenthal, D. (1998) The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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