Posts Tagged ‘significance’

I recently had a very interesting chat with a colleague who is working on educational programmes.  They covered a whole range of topics that may be of interest to teachers and so encourage them to bring pupils on site.  I admired their ideas for a broad variety of possible projects, and yet one thing remained missing for me: the programmes just didn’t seem to communicate the stories that were unique to the site.

Many educational and even interpretive programmes suffer from this.  The stories are generic and if you hadn’t made the trip you may well not know where exactly you’ve landed.  Just try and google ‘Victorian Christmas’ these days, and you will find sites as varied as the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey, UK (an industrial heritage site) and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, New York, USA.  Activities tend to centre on the same theme of Victorian gifts and decorations.  No sense of place there.

It is of course tempting to go for the ‘tried and tested’.  Victorian Christmas events are hugely popular, and the Victorians are a topic prescribed in the curricula across Britain.  You will have an audience, no doubt, but after their visit people (and pupils) will not be able to tell their experiences at your site apart from what they’ve had last year at a different site.

Is this good enough?  Will it be enough to convince visitors and funders when times get rough that your site is unique and worth the effort?  You can probably guess that my answer is no.  Any house that was in use during Victorian times can serve the Victorian theme purpose, but only Montgomery Place can tell the story of the first General killed in the American War of Independence, and his widow who became a national icon for decades and who remained committed to him for the rest of her life.  That is the story of the site.

And to uncover that story is what significance assessments are for.  I’ve previously written about the importance of (inclusive) significance assessments.  Sometimes these uncover conflicting stories, but in many cases they will identify a shared core that should become the spine of any interpretation.  In my opinion, only that spine can hold up what you do.   If you ignore it in any aspect of your site presentation – be it through educational programmes or events – you weaken your sense of place.

This does not mean that your site is condemned to obscurity if it doesn’t fit the most popular demands.  For school programmes it is often a simple matter of demonstrating how the experiences and activities which the site’s core story offers support pupils in similar ways as the popular topics do.  The site may also offer a unique angle on the popular theme that teachers will value because they can explore it nowhere else.  This requires more creativity and forward thinking from interpreters but it also avoids reducing the site’s story to the point of irrelevance.


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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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Recently, a wiki website was launched to inventory the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Scotland.  This is a response to the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage which defined ICH as ‘practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills’ and the objects and cultural spaces associated with these [1].  The convention called for all State Parties to inventory their ICH (Article 12) with a view to implement measures for its safeguarding where necessary.

What is particularly important is that the convention clearly requires states to involve communities, stakeholders and non-governmental organisations in the process [Articles 11b and 15].  We’ve come a long way, at least on an international level, since expert opinion alone decided on what is heritage, and what isn’t.  Perhaps ICH makes it much easier to hand power over to the people.  It is not difficult to understand ICH as living and thus-ever changing.  ICH is heritage in motion, it does not exist without the active participation of the people.

Of course, the same can be and has been argued for physical heritage as well.  At the most obvious level, the meanings which people attach to a building, for example, can be varied, as Deacon [2] points out.  These meanings also change over time as the society to which the building belongs changes.  Examples abound after changes in a political system.  Goulding and Domic [3] looked at how Croatia reinterpreted its historic environment after the war, for example, and found, among other, a cycle of destruction and erection of monuments to accommodate and express the new systems’ views.  As Howard [4] pointed out some things can cease to be heritage altogether – it all depends on the flux and flow of human society.

The UNESCO Convention on ICH not only calls for communities and even individuals to be involved in identifying what the ICH in and of their country is, but to involve them in its management as well.  The convention adopts a safeguarding approach rather than the preservation approach that has governed the designation and management of physical heritage over the past century.  In other words, it is recognised that ICH cannot be frozen in time and it can never be without people.  Once people stop participating in ICH, ICH no longer exists.

Perhaps that has been the greatest challenge of physical heritage: on the surface, it doesn’t seem to need people.  And so those concerned with its ‘protection’ focused their efforts on the conservation of the physical material alone.  Physical heritage became a matter of experts who based its significance on their own specialist assessment.  Where the public was considered at all it was as a group to be educated about the physical attributes and facts relating to the past.  But, as Grimwade and Carter [5] write, this is not enough to keep a site meaningful to society: it ceases to be heritage.

Luckily, national legislation and policies over the past decades have started to aim at greater community and stakeholder involvement in physical heritage as well.  In Scotland, Historic Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland have begun to adopt a more inclusive process of significance assessment to ensure all heritage values associated with a site are captured.  In England, both the National Trust and English Heritage now strive to engage local communities and stakeholders in the management of their sites.

The question remains, however, whether we will ever see a process as democratic as what Scotland have done to identify their ICH.  Anyone can add to the wiki inventory, and the report that led to this initiative clearly indicates the role that communities etc. can play in the subsequent safeguarding of Scotland’s ICH.  This grassroots approach to inventorying ICH raises the hope that its safeguarding will involve everyone concerned also.

PS: I will talk in greater detail about the importance of significance and inclusive significance assessments in interpretation at the National Workshop of the National Association for Interpretation in Las Vegas,  16 – 20 November 2010.


[1] ICH traditions therefore stand on their own and are not synonymous with the intangible heritage values that are attached to physical objects.

[2] Deacon, H. (2004) ‘Intangible Heritage in Conservation Management Planning: The Case of Robben Island.’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 10, (3) 309 – 319, p. 313

[3] Goulding, C., Domic, D. (2009) ‘Heritage, Identity and Ideological Manipulation: The case of Croatia.’  Annals of Tourism Research 36, (1) 85 – 102

[4] Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum, p. 185

[5] Grimwade, G., Carter, B. (2000) ‘Managing Small Heritage Sites with Interpretation and Community Involvement.’  International Journal of Heritage Studies 6, (1) 33 – 48

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