Posts Tagged ‘stakeholder engagement’

You may remember that I mentioned a few months ago that I am organising a conference at my site about involving stakeholders and communities in interpretation.

I am pleased to announce that registration is now open.  Spaces are limited, so if you’re interested please register as soon as possible.

This is a one-day conference that will take place at Bedwellty House and Park in Tredegar, South East Wales, on Thursday, 13th September 2012.

The conference brings together policy makers, researchers and practitioners to examine current practice and share insights into the challenges and benefits of involving stakeholders and communities in interpretation.  To do so is a requirement of many grants and a policy goal across many public agencies.  But how to go about it? The conference offers a good mix of presentations that look at policy, community engagement standards and practical examples from interpretive practice. Confirmed speakers include Jo Reilly, Head of Participation and Learning at the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as Amanda Williams of Participation Cymru. There will also be representatives from the site’s stakeholders and the local community to share their views on why stakeholder engagement is important, and how this has worked out at Bedwellty House.

Please click here to see the draft programme.

Please click here for the registration form.

For further information about the conference, either post a comment, contact me on LinkedIn, or email the site at info@bedwelltyhouseandpark.co.uk.

Hope to see you in September!


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Three months ago I blogged about the HLF funding I secured for a young people’s project at my site.  This week, we’re completing the first activity of the project – the ‘research’ phase -, which I thought was a good time to share an update and explain why this is interpretation also.

We started off with two sessions during which we took the young people behind the scenes at the house, and also around the park.  I made a point of not just telling them about the history as we know it, but really focussing them on what we don’t know (and there’s lots of it).  I was surprised to find that the young people totally went for this: they started formulating really exciting research questions that ranged from ‘What happened to the Ironmaster’s children?’ to ‘Why did they turn this into offices when the house was given to the town?’

Armed with these research questions, the group (with us as chaperones) then went to spend four sessions with the local History and Archives group, the local history librarian as well as the Registrar.  It worked out quite nicely that I was actually on annual leave for part of this, so that when I returned, we arranged for the young people to ‘present’ their findings to me.  What impressed me was how much more confident the young people seemed at this stage.  It felt to me like they considered themselves something of experts on the topics that they had researched, which was great to see.

Another thing that worked out quite well was that the young people realised that they couldn’t find answers to all the questions they had raised.  On the back of this, we had a good conversation about history: that it isn’t ‘objective’, that it depends on the surviving sources, whose sources these are, and how we can understand them.

We also decided then to add another session (which is the one we’ll do this week), to see who else could help us with finding the answers to our remaining questions. For some of the group this is a step out of their comfort zone, because they’ll be writing letters to people they’ve never met and whom they’ll likely to consider as ‘beyond their reach’ (bearing in mind that the local area includes two of the most deprived wards in all of Wales).

So has this been interpretation, what we’ve been doing here?  My answer is a very emphatic yes.  This first activity is of course part of a larger project, in which each activity links in with and builds on the preceding one.  As such, a lot of thought has gone into what we want to achieve with the project.  One of the aims is one that any book on interpretation will proclaim as the aim of interpretation at large: to bring people closer to the heritage of our site.  We want young people to engage directly with the site, and think about it, and learn about, and take it into the future.  During this research activity, young people have done just that.  They’ve learnt about the site, not just from the tours we’ve given them, but from the questions they’ve asked and researched themselves.  Their confidence has markedly increased, which achieved two more of our aims: to increase their ability to speak about their heritage, and to increase their skills overall.

This latter aim is really important to me.  You will be aware that I’m very interested in the expectation in legislation and policy that heritage (and interpretation) deliver public benefits, very often tied to desired strategic outcomes.  For my local authority, upskilling people, and providing them with opportunities is a very important strategic outcome.  This project is designed to use the site to increase people’s skills through their engagement with heritage.  This first activity so far has been a great step in that direction.

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Last week, the Heritage Lottery Fund approved a grant for a project I’m planning that involves young people in the heritage of my site, and its interpretation.  I am hugely excited about this.  For one thing, the project is all about interpretation as facilitation, as I explained in a recent post [1].  The other aspect of the project is that the participants will also create a piece of interpretation of their choice.

This is something I’ve always advocated: that as interpreters, we must involve stakeholders and communities.  This goes far beyond simply asking the (local) community for their stories, an approach for which Bella Dicks criticised interpreters.  To involve stakeholders and communities is to acknowledge that heritage is heritage because of the value that they give it.  It is about ensuring that the heritage we seek to interpret and manage (or protect) is not treated as separate from the daily lives of people but instead continues to make a beneficial contribution to our society, nationally and internationally.  In fact, when I wrote my application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for this latest project, this was one of the areas they specifically asked about: what contribution will this project make? What are the benefits it will bring? What is the heritage in this case, and how to will this project enable people to participate in it, and share it?  Who are the people, the stakeholders?

These concepts, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘communities’, and also the ‘benefits’ that heritage and its interpretation are meant to bring to both, by now are central to British (and EU/UNESCO) heritage legislation.  However, I feel that interpretation discourse still needs to go some distance before it catches up with these developments.  For a start, we need to really engage critically with some of these key terms – stakeholder, heritage, community – and reflect on what impact our understanding of them has on our practice.  We also need to gather more hard data on what we do, and how well (or not) we do.  As funders and policy makers increasingly define what they expect of heritage and its interpretation with regard to stakeholders, communities, and people, we need to be able to speak their language, and provide evidence for the impact our practice has – especially in terms of benefits.  And consideration of benefits brings us right back to stakeholders, communities, people.

I can’t wait to start this project at my site.  I’ve done a lot of stakeholder and community-driven and considered interpretation before, but this offers a real chance to try out stakeholder involvement in its purest sense.   And in fact, I feel so strongly about this, that I contacted the UK Association for Heritage Interpretation to see if they would support a conference on this topic.  They said yes, so I am currently organising the conference at my site.  After all, benefits to people, especially pride and self-confidence, are at the heart of the vision for my site. I’ve had many interesting conversations about this topic with fellow interpreters, but also with fellow researchers, heritage managers, funders and policy makers.  What this conference aims to do is bring the above together to examine current practice and share insights into the benefits of involving stakeholders and communities in interpretation.

If you feel that you can contribute to the conference, please see the call for papers.  The deadline for submission is 1st May 2012.  Registration for the conference will open on 15th May 2012.  Watch this space for further info.



[1] By ‘facilitation’ I always mean ‘facilitate the performance of/participation in heritage’.

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I attended a course today on coaching people through change.  There were several suggestions and tools, which I found particularly useful, and which gave me some food for thought for interpretation also:


1. What makes a good coach?

There are a few principles for a good coach, and it struck me that many of these are actually useful to inform what makes a good interpretive planner, too.  Here are just a few:

– Listening is more important than talking
Let people tell you what the site is about, not the other way around.

– What motivates people?
What are their feelings, emotions, experiences? Why do they come, what does it mean to them?  Only by understanding people’s motivations can you achieve good interpretation. [1]

– Coaches don’t provide the answers.
Coaches encourage the “pupil” to go on their own journey of discovery and problem-solving.  In practice, this means asking questions: ‘Questions sell, statements don’t.’


2. The Bubble Map

I have used mind mapping before, but the bubble map was new to me.  In terms of coaching people through change, you start off with your ideal outcome.  Then you identify what outcome you would settle for.  These are your goalposts.  From here, you start the negotiation:

–       You give your reason for the change.
–       You anticipate their objection.
–       You formulate a solution to their objection, and so on.

Now substitute ‘change’ with ‘interpretive objective’ etc., and you have a really interesting starting point.

What would interpretation look like that anticipated people’s resistance/negative feelings/qualms about the importance or story of your site?  And how can we ignore the fact of their (likely) resistance in some cases (e.g. at a war memorial site).


3. Seven types of difficult behaviours

This is a great list developed by one Robert M. Bramson, PhD, especially because it’s followed by a second list of Do’s and Don’ts in terms of how to respond to the behaviour.  It becomes particularly useful in combination with the bubble map above, and anticipating people’s objections.  Here, I’ll limit myself to listing the types of behaviours, and some of the Do’s and Don’ts:

– The Sherman Tank
Don’t argue with what they say
Don’t try to cut them down

– The Exploder
Do switch to a problem-solving mode of interaction

– The Complainer
Do state the facts without a comment
Don’t allow an accusation – defense – re-accusation pattern to develop

– The Clam
Do ask open-ended questions

– The Wet Blanket
Don’t argue them out of their pessimism.
Don’t offer solutions until the problem has been thoroughly discussed.

– The Know-It-All
Do use questions to raise problems
Don’t act like a Know-It-All back.
Be as specific as possible.

– The Staller
Do use problem-solving techniques.
Do focus on facts.


So in summary: How might these methods to coach people through change be useful in interpretation?

First of all, we need to truly understand the motivations and experiences of our visitors.  There will be core group(s) (see my last post) and it is them whom we need to understand.  At some of our sites with more obviously contested heritage, some core groups will have objections, which we can anticipate: so let’s incorporate these into our interpretation.  Let’s create as much of an exchange of ideas as possible, even if by mere anticipation, as might be necessary where no personal interpretation is possible. Thirdly, let’s ask loads, and loads of questions: let’s not state facts, no matter how deliciously wrapped up, but let’s truly encourage visitors to go on their own journey of discovery.  And finally, let’s be aware of who we are, and what experiences, emotions, and motivations we bring to the exercise.  A good coach never assumes, and they are never judgmental.




[1] Think of an iceberg: at the very bottom, deep under the water’s surface, sit a person’s past experiences, which they may not even be conscious of.  Above that sit, step by step their beliefs and values, thoughts, feelings, emotions, motives, and attitudes.  This brings us to the water surface: the only part that is visible is the ensuing behaviour.  What this means is that every stimulus goes from the bottom of the sea, through these different steps, where at the top they manifest as visible behaviour.  Makes sense?

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I’ve recently read Emma Waterton’s excellent book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. Waterton is not an interpreter, but much of her writing applies directly to interpretation also.

As in her other writings, Waterton raises excellent and critical questions in this book.  Some of these are of immediate relevance to interpreters:


1) Are we including people, or are we assimilating them?

In interpretive speak, what Waterton is concerned with here is target audiences: those audiences that are under-represented, and often considered to be ‘excluded’.

In policy terms, this is the concept of social inclusion.  After reviewing the introduction of the concept into policy and legislation, Waterton goes on to examine the discourse surrounding social inclusion, and the organisational practices that flow from it.

The conclusion that Waterton reaches should give all heritage managers and interpreters some serious food for thought: rather than ‘to include’, Waterton argues, what these practices are currently doing is to force the dominant culture’s heritage values onto the ‘excluded’.


2) Is there such a group as ‘the excluded’ in museums and at heritage sites?

This may be a hard question to face for many interpreters.  Identifying target audiences is still uncritically proclaimed as best practice by many, and yet Waterton argues that perhaps, the ‘excluded’ simply do not care about this particular heritage.  It may not represent them, and it may not reflect their own view of what constitutes heritage or how it should be presented and used.

Therefore, Waterton suggests, practices that claim to be motivated by social inclusion, or making heritage accessible to the ‘excluded’ and underrepresented, are actually deeply hegemonic.  She writes, ‘…to presume that everyone can or should share in an elite, class-based and white vision of heritage is to take unwarranted liberties with many peoples’ sense of identity, place and belonging.’


3) Is it fundamentally arrogant to presume that we are ‘educating’, and building bridges or creating connections between ‘visitors’ and ‘sites/objects’?

Underlying Waterton’s argument is her assertion of the existence of an Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD).  In summary, the AHD is a view of heritage that is based on materiality and dependent on expert definition and care.  In Waterton’s opinion, neither is justified.  For one, Waterton argues that heritage is a discourse: it is made, shaped and changed by people and their interactions with materiality.  Because of the nature of heritage as discourse, however, Waterton writes, heritage is ‘inherently exclusive’.

For interpreters, this immediately raises another challenge.  At the core of many definitions of interpretation are images of ‘bridges’ and ‘connections’.  In fact, the most frequently cited mantra in interpretation has ‘to relate’ as its focal point [1]. And yet, such an approach to interpretation quite obviously denies the (discursive) participation of ‘visitors’ in making heritage.  It seems to me that in interpretation, we therefore still practice what Waterton calls assimilation and hegemony.


4) Do we have a clue what we’re talking about?

Waterton criticises that policy and legislation make a link between heritage and social inclusion without actually understanding this link, or how it works – if it exists at all.  Consequently, she calls for further research that provides real evidence for the relationship, or lack thereof.  To some extent I suspect that Waterton hopes that such research will also provide the sort of persuasive argument that no theoretical writing or discourse analysis alone can achieve.

The same applies to interpretation.  The claims are many: interpretation helps protect sites, it adds value, it helps people connect.  But does it?  How do we know?  And how does interpretation achieve this?  There are plenty suggestions of how to go about it, but as far as I am aware the hard summative evidence is lacking.

I think the field of interpretation can take a lot from Waterton’s book and her other writings.  From research to discourse analysis, here are all things that will be worth looking at.  Some of it I imagine will be painful, but I would hope that rather than resist a good session of healthy self-examination, we apply that most important of interpretive qualities: to be open-minded.



[1] I am, of course, referring to Freeman Tilden.  I’ve already written elsewhere that I think we should give Mr Tilden a well-deserved rest.

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I have just recently submitted an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a project primarily (but not exclusively) aimed at young people at my current site.  Last week, HLF asked me to clarify how creating a young people’s area in our historic park was intended to help young people to understand the heritage of the park, and support the wider project aims [1].  As I wrote my response, it struck me that while the connection was obvious in my mind, it is not what we usually think of when we say ‘interpretation’ (and this is effectively what HLF were asking me about).

For me, this project is a perfect example of interpretation as a facilitated process.  The project has several stages with associated activities, which my team and I will facilitate [2].  This isn’t a one-way street where we impart knowledge about the site to the young people.  Rather, we set the parameters of the activities, and within these, the young people are very much in control. [3]

Creating the young people’s area at the end of the project is actually the ultimate expression of and participation in the heritage of the site.  The reason is this: my site is all about social empowerment and making your mark on the world around you.  It is evident in many structures that are in the historic park, and by adding their own structure, young people will visibly stake their claim to this heritage, add to it, and hopefully carry it into the future.

In other words, through this project young people won’t just learn about the heritage values of the site: they will actively perform them. [4]

I’m hugely excited about this, and I hope HLF will fund the project.  I always try to ensure the interpretation I offer is facilitation, but this is not always possible to the extent that it is with this project.  It will be very interesting to see whether young people truly connect to the heritage of the site, and see it as their own, as a result of this project.

A project like this is of course not feasible for a visitor who can only spend a limited time on site.  However, I think even these visitors will benefit from the project.  In interpretation, we often talk about ‘a sense of place’, and I think the best sense of place I can give other visitors is by facilitating the (heritage) community telling their story to these visitors directly.  That’s one activity in this project (the young people will produce a ‘traditional’ piece of interpretation), and the young people’s area will be another aspect in this.  I believe that although these visitors will not have participated in the interpretive process, the outcomes of this process, such as the young people’s area, will tell a story in themselves.  I think that a word or two about the project (e.g. “In 2012 the young people of the community created this area as their contribution to the community’s heritage of social empowerment.”) will give visitors a stronger sense of place than many other interpretive interventions could do.



[1] In summary, the project aims are about helping younger people understand the heritage values of the park, and what their place is within that heritage.  The project also aims at empowering young people to share that heritage with others.  And there are several project activities aimed at increasing exchange and collaboration between young people and older members of the community.

[2] In summary, the activities are 1) researching the history of the site in collaboration with existing community groups; 2) making a creative response to what they’ve found in the research, and organising an exhibition of this work; 3) speaking to former mayors of the town about what it meant to them to serve the community in the tradition of the many Labour politicians that started their career here; 4) working on a traditional piece of interpretation of their choice for the benefit of other visitors, and 5) creating the young people’s area.  It is envisaged that participants can leave/join the project at every new activity/stage.

[3] This ‘self-guided’ and explorative learning is at the core of not only the new Welsh curriculum, but also the Scottish one – and I daresay every curriculum in the UK and probably even elsewhere.  And it is an important aspect of the HLF funding programme.

[4] That’s my hope, anyway.  Of course, it all depends on whether we get the funding, but if we do, we’ll also do a baseline survey and evaluation throughout to measure the ‘impact’ of the project as much as we can.

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I’ve been doing some more reading recently about indigenous communities and heritage management especially in the United States, Canada and Australia.  My own research is about delivering public benefit through heritage management and interpretation using England and Germany as case studies.  However, the writings about management of indigenous heritage are really useful in this.  They have convinced me that what we need in the traditional Western heritage sector are similar practices.  I think we need to consider everyone to be indigenous [1].

Indigenous Management

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 in the United States, for example, quite a few objects and collections have been returned to the tribes to whom they originally (and still) belonged.  This is the ultimate acknowledgement of heritage as part of a people’s life: some tribes use the objects, some tribes destroy them (because that’s what was supposed to happen to them after use), and some tribes create their own version of a museum to allow tribal members access (but not always everyone – some objects, for example, mustn’t be seen by the ‘uninitiated’).  It took many decades, in some cases even a century, for the (post-colonial) heritage decision-makers to come around to this view, and to accept the right of so-called source communities to manage their own heritage.  Today most of us read these case studies and I think we mostly agree that this is the right thing to do.  However, in our own (Western European) circumstances we unashamedly practice the same colonial and hegemonic dominance over (others’) heritage.  Many are the tourism studies that show the negative effect a top-down development had on relationships with host communities, or indeed the very practice that was put on display.  While stakeholder engagement seems to develop into the Western equivalent to indigenous calls for heritage autonomy, the models still largely confine stakeholders to consultative roles during planning stages.  So perhaps if we began to think of our various stakeholder groups as indigenous communities, we may find it easier to loosen our grip on the heritage reigns, and give stakeholders more control over their heritage [2].

Indigenous Access

In some cases I’ve read about, Native tribes felt that the (post-colonial) museum was actually the best place to protect and care for their heritage objects.  And yet, as heritage objects, these still had an actual use in the tribes’ ceremonies.  Consequently, tribes and museums made agreements whereby the tribal leaders could actually come into the museum to perform rituals around these objects, or even be allowed to take the objects out of the museums and return them after the ceremonies had taken place.  Like Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton I think that heritage is a social process, and as such it needs people to continue participating in it for it to remain alive.  The agreement that tribes and museums have found here strikes me as a splendid solution.  Bella Dicks, for example, mentions the case of miners’ flags in Wales that have been taken out of use by placing them in museums.  The relevant parades happen perhaps once or twice a year: wouldn’t it be a sight supremely placed to inspire protection and appreciation if on those occasions the flags were brought back to life by flying them proudly in the parades?  I think so.

Indigenous interpretation

At the NAI National Conference in Las Vegas last year, I was really intrigued by the absolute conviction with which American colleagues asserted the necessity to have Native guides for Native heritage (and I’ve since heard the same about Aboriginal heritage).  In the literature, it becomes clear that Native engagement in interpretation actually goes much further: if the Native community doesn’t plan the interpretation themselves altogether (through labels, panels, guidebooks and any other media) then they are most certainly consulted and involved every step of the way.  Nothing, it seems, goes public at these sites [3] without those whose heritage it is having approved it.  I daresay that even the most radically minded Western conservationist would probably agree that this is a good thing. And yet, interpretive project upon interpretive project is still dominated by expert assessment and input, with stakeholders at best having been used as a convenient mine for local stories and general consultative bodies (are you happy with us doing a film about your heritage?) with little power.

So let’s think of us all as indigenous

I think by treating all heritage as indigenous, and applying the same practices as post-colonial museums and heritage managers have used with regard to ‘traditional’ indigenous heritage, we in the Western heritage sector may actually be able to address some of the concerns that have been popping up in our heritage literature.  For example, we may no longer need to worry about people being disengaged when it comes to heritage, and the consequent loss of heritage as a living, meaningful practice.  Perhaps we no longer need to lose sleep over how to communicate ‘sense of place’ because by letting stakeholders author their own interpretation (with professional guidance) the sense of place may be right there in it anyway.  Either way, I think it’s worth sitting back and giving this some more thought.  Personally, I’m already committed to this.  I’ll let you know how I get on.



[1] I am quite aware of all the injustices that indigenous communities have suffered with regard to their heritage under colonial powers.  In no way do I mean to imply that majority segments of West European countries have made similar experiences.  I am simply proposing that Western heritage management and interpretation could do with more awareness of and respect for the many different stakeholder groups that have a claim to heritage.

[2] I’m not at all proposing that we hand all heritage management over to stakeholders on a volunteer basis – in fact, I’ve already voiced my concerns about this.  Our stakeholders more often than not are far less organised and socially linked than Native American tribes, for example.  But I think you get the gist of what I’m saying.

[3] That is, at those sites which show what’s considered best practice these days.  I’d not want to claim that this is true for all sites.

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In a recent conversation, an interpretation colleague asked me how I addressed target audiences in my interpretive practice.  They didn’t elaborate; it was quite obvious that they considered target audiences to be such an obvious part of interpretation that no further qualification of the concept was required.

Something about this unquestioned assertion sat uncomfortably with me, however.  I do support the concept – I have target audiences at my site also, in fact, I’m writing an HLF application for a Young People project as we speak – and yet, I wanted to know why I might feel this unease.

So here we go:

First there is heritage, then there may be target audiences

In our quest to ensure that our interpretation is accessible and relevant to wide audiences, I fear we sometimes may lose sight of one of the most fundamental aspects of our work: the heritage we actually deal with.  The concept of target audiences in my mind can smack just a little bit too much of changeability – as if we could adapt the heritage of a site to a specific audience. In my experience, many of the audiences we segment, perhaps artificially so (e.g. locals vs tourists), actually want the same thing from interpretation: they want interpretation to enable them to engage with the essence of the heritage that’s there.

So sometimes the issue at hand may not actually be about interpreting for different target audiences at all; it may primarily be about reminding ourselves of the fundamental considerations of best practice interpretation, such as simple language, no assumptions about prior knowledge, and ensuring physical accessibility.


Are we hiding our mistakes behind target audiences?

Sometimes I cannot help but feel that perhaps through target audiences we’re trying to address an issue that we as part of the heritage profession have created ourselves.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, interpretation is often still developed as an exclusive one-way-street from interpreter to ‘consumer/visitor’.  Basing interpretation on expert values, interpreters often don’t spend enough (if indeed any) time on establishing the values held by communities and including them in the development of the interpretation of these values.  My suspicion is that this may be why certain segments of the community don’t engage with a site, at least not officially (i.e. through visiting).

In other words, I’d rather see us focus on stakeholder engagement first before we worry too much about target audiences.


If we do identify target audiences, we must make sure we know what they’re for…

At my current site, I inherited an Audience Development Plan that identified, among others, people with health issues as a target audience.  I’ve not had time yet to change this, and in all fairness, the plan doesn’t specifically say that this is supposed to be a target audience for interpretation.  However, I would seriously question the extent to which this category of ‘people with health issues’ could ever be relevant for the content and implementation of any specific piece of interpretation (the best practice of physical accessibility not withstanding).

Of course, if the category was identified with community activities in mind, then it suddenly gains a purpose – not for interpretation, but for events and programmes that we can offer for people to become more physically active.


…and make sure the categories are meaningful to interpretation

Following on from the above, if we embark on the process of identifying target audiences for interpretation, then our categories need to be able to inform interpretive practice in order to make this exercise worthwhile.  Income, for example, is still a measure that pops up in audience development plans for interpretation (I suspect uncritically adopted from tourism surveys), and I continue to wonder how this category is expected to guide interpretation.  It is meaningful to site management, yes – we can decide on admission prices to ensure lower income families, for example, are more likely to visit. But I can’t think of a scenario in which interpretive content nor interpretive design would be impacted by income levels (and it is simply faulty to equate income levels with educational attainment, for example).


So ditch target audiences?

Not quite.  I think going through the process of visitor and non-visitor surveys is a good way of becoming aware of the strengths and weaknesses in our practice.  However, I propose that we first spend time considering carefully what our audience categories are so that they will be meaningful in informing our future practice.  We also need to reflect more critically on what the results tell us (for example, is the issue more systemic than a ‘mere’ matter of outreach work?), and how we will use these to improve practice.

Most importantly, however, I think other concepts need to become more established first in interpretation, such as stakeholder engagement and inclusive significance assessments.  We might just find that target audiences become less of an issue.

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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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