Posts Tagged ‘significance’

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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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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