Posts Tagged ‘stakeholders’

I spent this week at the joint Interpret Europe/National Association for Interpretation conference in Sweden.  The conference theme was global citizenship, but probably due to my own interests, I ended up hearing mostly papers on stakeholder engagement [1].

Here are a few impressions and thoughts that I’ve had during the conference – no doubt I’ll come back to blogging later on in detail about some of these things.

Read, Travel, Be Someone!
Ted Cable’s opening keynote reflected on three pieces of advice that writer Barry Lopez gave (as I remember, it was advice about finding your place in the world.  Ted Cable applied it to becoming a world citizen, and an interpreter).  Firstly, Lopez recommended to read: reading gives depth, especially if you read broadly, and if you read the classics you’ll get exposed to some truly universal themes (as an avid reader of all kinds of literature I couldn’t agree more).  Secondly, Lopez said to travel, for travelling helps understanding, gives meaning, and makes us care (true).  Lastly, Lopez recommended to become somebody.  For Ted Cable this means to become an interpreter with your own beliefs, for otherwise ‘you’re just another source of interpretation’ [2]. One to think about.

The relationship between audiences
The first paper I heard was by consultant Jane Severs of Newfoundland.  She and her colleagues had been hired by a town that wanted an ‘interpretation of their heritage’, their story.  Jane and her colleagues told them that there really wasn’t that kind of story there (go Jane! It takes courage for a consultant to tell their client the truth and do the right thing).  Instead, they spent time exploring the issues: existing inhabitants felt their heritage was getting lost, while new inhabitants felt they were excluded from that heritage story. Jane came up with a project that combined old inhabitants’ knowledge of the landscape with an opportunity for new inhabitants to contribute their own experiences in this place.  As a process, I thought this was great, and the resulting concept was good too (changeable panels at different, unlikely locations, including the post office).  People could phone in and hear stories as well as leave their own.  The only issue I see is that the local museum hadn’t (at the onset) given much thought to how they would include new comments left.  These are now somehow displayed at the museum (I can’t remember the details), but there are no plans to actually make them accessible via the phone system – bit of a missed opportunity, I think.

No communication between interpreters’ organisations
John Jameson of ICOMOS made a very good point as he talked about the ICOMOS Ename Charter: that there is an ‘appalling lack of communication’ between the different interpretation/heritage organisations, including a lack of consideration of the Ename Charter.  Now, I’m aware of the issues with the charter’s first emergence (interpreters and their organisations weren’t involved), but let’s get over that now.  The charter is not perfect, but it’s also not a bad start at all.  Perhaps more importantly, however, we should acknowledge that coming from ICOMOS, the charter has clout.  As Jameson pointed out, in countries that don’t have their own heritage or interpretation organisations, the guidelines and policies of UNESCO and ICOMOS are important documents, which are regularly referenced.  I think existing organisations should make use of this momentum, rather than ignore it.  Let’s work with ICOMOS and the Charter, instead of each organisation trying to force their own vision through.

The thing with underrepresented groups and special exhibitions
I’d already heard Stuart Frost speak about the British MuseumsHajj exhibition at the Encountering Religion Study Day a few months ago.  What was interesting in terms of developing audiences was one particular observation he made in Sweden: the Hajj exhibition saw increased numbers in usually under-represented groups (mostly Muslims), but these dropped right back to their usual levels once the exhibition closed.  This isn’t unheard of; many museums actually report that special exhibitions or projects attract ‘special’ audiences, which then will disappear again from the museum’s visitor profile.  And yet, it’s an observation that isn’t sufficiently discussed when museums talk about audience development: Here, the argument still implies that one-off projects with ‘excluded’ groups can permanently change whatever the underlying issue may be.  If this simplistic formula doesn’t work at the British Museum (and their resources with regard to audience research, front-end/formative evaluation and not to mention marketing make me white with jealousy), then it’s unlikely to work anywhere else.

Yay to Denmark
The second day’s keynote speech by Poul Hjlmann Seidler and Mette Aashov Knudsen of Denmark was great for one particular thing: they actually called interpretation facilitation.  That’s the first time I’ve heard someone use this definition at a conference, and since I’ve been harping on about this for years, I felt like jumping up and yahooing.  I must confess that I knew nothing about the work that’s being done in Denmark on interpretation (mostly nature interpretation, I gather), but this is exciting.  Poul later mentioned their interest in doing some more fundamental evaluation research that goes beyond the tools and really looks at impact, which is of course right up my street.  I hope they share their progress; I’ll certainly keep an eye on Scandinavia now.

And our actions speak louder than our words, too
One final paper that stood out for me was by Kate Armstrong of the Museum of Australian Democracy.  Her key question was whether or not an organisation’s actions actually matched their professed mission.  The obvious example was of a nature centre that didn’t offer recycling facilities on site.  It’s less obvious when we come to examine our actions as museums of social history, or in Kate’s case, a museum about democracy.  I found this really thought provoking: Kate questioned whether her museum’s programmes actually were democratic, and whether their processes and actions mirrored the processes of democracy that they wished to convey.  The issue is probably more pressing and challenging for some types of museums than others, but it’s definitely something that I’ve not heard considered before (and this applies to my own practice too).

Overall, I was really pleased to have attended this conference.  Sweden was a great host (I’d never been), and it was good to visit such famed sites as Skansen [3] as part of the excellent choice of study visits [4].  The Scandinavians are clearly interested in digging deeper into the impacts of interpretation, and how the theoretical framing of the discipline relates to practice.  Personally, I would have wished for more such critical papers, which don’t merely share practice, but really examine the thinking, the intention, and the outcome.  Even as a practitioner, these are the examples I learn from the most, and I fervently hope that one of my fellow presenters will be proven wrong in the not too distant future when he said that theoretical papers (such as his own) just don’t attract that much interest.  Well, they should.


[1] It was so wonderful to see that the interpretive community finally seems to be giving more thought to stakeholders.  I’ve been arguing for including stakeholders in interpretation more widely for a long time and to adopt a wider definition of the term also (see for example here), and yet as late as last year I still had interpreters here in the UK question me on whether stakeholders were important at all beyond the (immediate) local community and the decision-makers (especially in planning and landowners).

[2] Personally, I’m not so sure about this last one –since I believe my job as an interpreter is to facilitate someone else’s engagement with (their) heritage I really don’t think I have much of a place as a private person in this equation (something to explore at a later date).  Nevertheless, Ted’s passion for interpretation was, as always, moving.

[3] On a side note, I was really disappointed with Skansen.  A lot of the buildings were closed with neither a sign saying so (one was simply confronted with a locked door – never a good experience), nor an explanation of whether they are ever open (some apparently are, others aren’t – I still don’t know which ones).  The quality of the personal interpretation provided by the costumed interpreters was also inconsistent.  Even allowing for language issues (although I’m told all interpreters are expected to speak English) or a certain level of self-consciousness when dealing with a bunch of international interpreters with name badges dangling around their necks, this wasn’t very impressive. After all, for people dealing with personal interpretation, Skansen is pretty much the birthplace of the format.

[4] The Swedish colleagues really did make an effort here.  They structured the visits, and they wanted both us as the conference delegates and the host sites to get something out of it.  The only qualms that I had: in all this, they didn’t always allow us to be ‘visitors’, which is not only important for our own sakes (after all, I have no idea when I’ll have the chance to go back to Sweden) but is also a prerequisite for anyone giving informed feedback on the interpretation provided.  But that’s just a mini-concern.  Overall, the Swedes have just shown us how it’s done.

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Last week, I had a meeting with our Interpretation Stakeholder Group.  We discussed the interpretive vision for a project to relocate and redevelop one of our museums.  And what an interesting discussion it was!  As always, the most inspiring comments came from people who aren’t interpreters.

The first thing that struck me was just how much desire there is to make sure that our interpretation is not simply interactive, or even participatory.  These stakeholders want to see interpretation that is generated by the community and visitors in an on-going cycle of comment and response.  It is the ultimate democratic interpretation model.  I find that hugely exciting.  I had already put it into our interpretive principles that any interpretation would provide plenty of spaces to enable community and visitor authorship and participation.  However, this is a concept of interpretation that goes far beyond community engagement and participatory elements.  This is interpretation that evolves and changes with the people coming through, it is interpretation by visitors.

I don’t know if this will actually work in practice.  Especially visitor-tourists do come to museums also to learn about a place.  Their ability to comment, or make sense of other visitors’ contributions may be limited if there isn’t further professional intervention.  There is also a potential danger here that we inadvertently go backwards and introduce a specialist, albeit community jargon that is as inaccessible to visitor-tourists as the archaeologist’s, or historian’s etc.  And I don’t see a way around an initial starting point of whatever making, that selects content and presents it in a certain way.  But – and this is the important thing – I want to keep the possibility of such a democratic interpretation model in mind, and push my own boundaries of what I thought interpretation as facilitation can be.

Another comment that I found really interesting was with regard to policies.  I had written that our interpretation would support and deliver several local policies.  At this point, a local coucillor stopped me and asked that we also ensure the interpretation contribute to these policies.  I’m not entirely sure whether in their mind, they primarily thought of interpretation as the document before them, in which case using it to influence other policies is quite possible to do.  But imagine they didn’t.  Imagine they thought of interpretation of the kind described above.  Imagine that such interpretation could – and should – actively impact policy making on an on-going basis.  Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?  Wouldn’t that burst museums and heritage sites right out of their built confinement and into that sphere of social and civic life where we always say heritage belongs?

Again, I don’t know how we would do this. I don’t know whether this can ever be possible, considering all other requirements of interpretation and heritage management.  However, as above, this is an immensely challenging and at the same time inspiring concept.  I for one want to keep it in mind, and see what might come from it for our practice in the future.

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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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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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Last week, I had one of those exciting conversations with a colleague, which reminded me of why I’m doing what I’m doing.  This particular colleague doesn’t have a background in heritage, and I was trying to explain to them what I wanted our interpretation to achieve at our site.  In fact, so removed is their experience from working at a heritage site, that I also explained what made our site different from, say, a recreation ground in my view [1]. Afterward, I felt really fired up and passionate, so I thought I’d share with you what we discussed.


Heritage is about people…

My current site is of high regional (Welsh) architectural importance and of low national (British) historical importance.  But that’s not why the community (local and beyond) value it.  To them, the site is entirely of social value: it represents their own social empowerment over many, many years, and it acts as a focal point for community life.  That is why people care about this site.  That is what gives it its sense of place.  Architecture and history are just a bonus.


…and it is people’s values that we need to interpret

We could put together a stunning interpretive programme on architecture, but if that’s what we focussed on we would entirely miss the point.  Our local stakeholders would rightly question our ability to manage the site, and we would send our visitors from further afield away with no understanding at all of why the site is actually important.  Therefore, our interpretation needs to focus on what the community value about the site – see above.


Heritage is about identity…

The town that surrounds my site is one of the most deprived wards in Wales – and it shows.  However, the site itself is stunningly beautiful, and by its sheer physical presence in the centre of town it goes a long way to illustrating who the people of the town are.  It is not just about one particular moment in (historical) time; rather, it is about the entire experience of life that spans the history of the site. Anytime I talk to stakeholders I feel that this is where their passion for the site comes from: the site tells of prior hardships, and of the town folk’s empowerment.  It is this sense of empowerment, and the pride that flows from it, that folk enact every time that they come to the site.


… and interpretation should facilitate this enactment of identity

I should qualify what I’ve just said: it’s not ‘folk’ per se that have this sense of identity associated with the site.  It is the older generation.  Many youngsters have fond memories of spending time in the park, but few – if any – of them benefit from the positive identity that the older generation enact on site.  So while youngsters appreciate the site as a place to hang out in, without further facilitation the site can’t help them develop their own identity as members of this particular community.  I daresay that they cannot make sense of the dilapidated state of their town, and the existence in its centre of a tranquil, and attractive property – nor can they make sense of what the older people are so very proud of.  So this is what I want our interpretation to achieve: to help all members of the community, young and old, to experience this sense of empowerment that has shaped the site and the town over time, and to participate in it.  And in doing so, I hope that our interpretation will inspire young people to carry this empowerment into the future and to contribute to the town’s revival.


Heritage is about passion…

The majority of our stakeholders are truly passionate about our site.  In our case, their passion is primarily centred on a sense of ownership.  The site is theirs, as they continuously state, and of course they’re right.  The sense of ownership is intimately connected to the empowerment that the site represents; the community have shaped the site for over one hundred years. And in my mind, this passion is what it’s all about.  In managing the site as a heritage site, we need to place this passion at the centre of all we do.


… and our interpretation needs to be passionate

I have always been a firm believer in emotion in interpretation, especially if it is emotion that is at the core of the heritage value in question.  So at my current site, it is definitely this passion, this pride in ownership and empowerment that I want our interpretation to inspire.  I want people – local stakeholders and visitor-stakeholders, young and old – to be moved while they engage with the site through interpretation.  Only then will we have done justice to why the site is important.



[1] Of course, this hypothetical recreation ground may have a heritage value also, but for argument’s sake, we imagined it as having no relevance to people whatsoever.

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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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I get the impression that Bella Dicks wasn’t impressed by the work of the interpreters (and researchers) involved in the Rhondda Heritage Park.  In her book Heritage, Place and Community her criticism effectively boils down to one point: interpreters commodify local knowledge to present a novelty attraction to outside visitors while the needs of the stakeholder community are left unanswered.

Dicks introduces the term memorialism  to denote that local need for authentic details and the often contradictory expressions of a community’s social fabric.  Instead, locals said, what the interpretation at the Rhondda provides is an unnaturally clean version of what was a dirty mine that housed its workers in equally dirty dwellings [1].  To add insult to injury, so Dicks seems to feel, the park’s management and the consultants themselves behaved as if they alone, as professionals, were able to tell the story right.

Dicks presents two main issues when it comes to interpreters [2].  Firstly, in Dicks’ opinion they ‘create’ heritage as a specific way of presentation.  In other words, rather than respond to a sense of heritage held by stakeholders, interpreters take what they think will make a good story to ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’.  This leads into her second point: Dicks has found that interpreters treat stakeholders as a mere resource to be mined for suitable storylines.

If Dicks’ findings truly applied to all interpretive practice, this would be an alarming state indeed.  I don’t believe the situation is quite as dire though.  I have noticed, however, that very often interpretation literature and practitioners do seem to think of ‘visitors’ as ‘tourists’ only: people with little prior knowledge and certainly no ‘stake’ in what they see.  Such practice will run the danger of being at odds with the stakeholder community, perhaps so much so that they may even feel alienated and stop visiting altogether (or rather, stop using the site).

For me it comes down to the underlying concepts that we apply to our practice and which are reflected in the language that we use.  For example, a ‘visitor’, tourist or not, is arguably someone without a claim on the site.  They are invited and tolerated, and maybe even encouraged to interact, but at the end of their visit they are sent home, leaving managers and interpreters in sole charge.

A ‘stakeholder’, however, is someone who lays claim to a heritage value, be that spiritual, social, archaeological or any other value.  Their need for involvement may vary, but up to that point they feel they have as much right to ‘have their say’ as ‘the professionals’ [3]. Practically all the sites I’ve worked at as interpreter have had very passionate stakeholders, and since I was site-based, that meant that all my decisions as interpreter were confronted with immediate response from these same stakeholders.

Maybe that is why in my own practice I tend to think of everyone as a ‘stakeholder’.  After all, the traditional tourist also has a stake in the site, even if that stake is only to have a good time and to learn a little bit about local heritage while they’re at it.  It is a matter of establishing the views and needs of each stakeholder and making sure that these guide interpretation [4].  It is at this stage that I transition stakeholders into audiences in my mind which makes sure that I remember that stakeholders are not merely suppliers of content but also its users [5].

This is of course not what Bella Dicks’ found at Rhondda Heritage Park.  In fact, one criticism both from her and from locals was that the interpretive consultants came from the outside – and then left again, after having extracted local knowledge and white-washed it for easy consumption by other outsiders.

It is an irony, then, that Dicks found the site to have much weaker ‘tourist’ attraction power than originally hoped.  It seems that predominantly ‘visitors’ are from stakeholder communities, either locals or people who have associations with the mining industry.  Their responses to the site’s interpretation are conflicted.  They appreciate the fact that ‘at least’ the professional effort and marketing means the site is looked after and provides an opportunity to visit.  But the interpretation itself isn’t what influences the experience or the meaning they gain.  Rather, it appears, it is the ability to spin memories off the simplified representations of the industry and the miners’ experiences that is important to these stakeholder-visitors.

For Dicks this isn’t satisfying.  There is a strong criticism of interpretation throughout her book which ultimately leads her to speak of the ‘technology of power’ that is interpretation.  Interpretation in Dicks’ view distorts and mis-uses local memorialism to turn it into the commodity called a heritage attraction.  I don’t think that any interpreter sets out to do this, but if this is the result of some of our practice, then we really need to review our good intentions.


[1] The dust from the mines and steelworks in the south Wales Valleys apparently was everywhere, and there was little one could do to keep it at bay.

[2] Her case study is of Rhondda Heritage Park, but from it she makes quite sweeping generalisations.  Most of these are an echo of other literature that criticises ‘heritage’ as an ‘industry’ and a ‘product’, such as Robert Hewison’s 1987 book The Heritage Industry.  Britain in a climate of decline.  London: Methuen

[3] I’m not proposing that all sites should be volunteer run.  I’ve already pointed out the downfalls of such practice here.

[4] This is also about assessing significance and heritage value.  There will be a hierarchy.  For example, to the ‘public’ a site will be more important because of its social associations, even though architecturally, it is also a fine example of a rare Georgian building in an area.

[5] I can see that I will have to revisit this terminology debate at some point.  For the moment, however, I really am not comfortable with the concepts of either ‘recipient’ or ‘consumer’.  I prefer ‘user’ for the time being.

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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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A few years ago, when I first started to study heritage interpretation at uni, we were asked to write a paper on ‘The origins, purposes and developments of interpretation.’

For me, the obvious starting point was oral history.  Oral cultures pass on and continue their traditions through the stories and songs they share: in my mind that is the archetypal form of interpretation.

As I reflected on the developments of interpretation from oral history to where we are now, I couldn’t help but try to push our understanding of interpretation just one step beyond ‘meaning-making’.  I felt very strongly then as I do now that interpretation is a living social practice.

I was reminded of that paper when I attended Sue Langdon’s session ‘When Native Voices are Far Away’ at NAI’s National Workshop in Las Vegas last month.  Sue works at the Rocky Mountain National Park. The Native American peoples who historically lived in the area of the park have long since been moved off the land to reservations many hours away from the park.  There is no living memory of the park, but the tribes still have the stories associated with the land and that part of their history.

There were many lessons to be learnt from Sue’s experience of working with the tribes. For one, there are the obvious cultural differences in terms of communication and expectations.  I was also interested in the trips the park organised to enable groups from the tribes to stay in the park for several days.  This was – is – a mutually beneficial scheme: the tribes on one hand get the opportunity to reconnect with the land they once inhabited while the park learns things they otherwise might have missed [1].

But it was one aspect in particular that intrigued me:  Sue said that the tribal elders really appreciated the opportunity to share their stories with their young people during their visits to the park.  Telling their stories was therefore not just for the benefit of the park but also their own tribe.

This was also echoed in the experiences that Dr Jeremy Spoon reported on during the conference’s opening keynote speech.   Dr Spoon works with indigenous peoples in the Great Basin and he stressed the importance of letting tribal elders have young people sit in on any discussion.  Again, it is a means for the tribe to pass on their story, and the team would ensure the tribes got copies of any transcripts that were produced.

Getting back to my original thought from when I was a student – that interpretation is a living social practice –  these examples to me show two things: first, that the process of stakeholder consultation is in itself not a static ‘information-gathering exercise’ where information is extracted from stakeholders on a one-way street. Instead, the process is very much part of the stakeholders’ own oral history, and a way for them to share and thus conserve their stories in a lively, social exchange.  Second, the interpretation that flows from these conversations is itself a contribution to their exchange, as well as a reflection of it (or at least it should be).

Others have argued that heritage is a changing and dynamic social concept [2].  It is not frozen in time nor is it divorced from the present day lives of the people it belongs to.  This means that interpretation also cannot be understood as a permanent expression of heritage.

Interpretation as a living social practice is communication in the truest sense.  It is a two-way process, it flows and changes, and it inspires and transforms.  Interpretation is not just about expression, or media.  It is about the conversations that the stakeholders – those whose heritage it is – have about a place (or object).  The process of gathering stakeholder stories and meanings is as much part of interpretation as a living social practice as is the final interpretive provision for site visitors.  Interpretation that is meaningful will capture and spark stakeholder stories and create a gateway for visitors to enter the conversation.


[1] Apart from the tribes’ stories the park also found out something about some plants.  I’m not a horticulturalist so I’ve already forgotten the name of the plant, but women from the tribe identified it on the slopes of the mountain.  It’s an herb they use in their medicine, and it doesn’t naturally grow at this altitude.  So chances are, their ancestors planted the herbs where they now are.

[2] e.g. Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum;  Tunbridge, J.E. and Ashworth, G.J. (1996) Dissonant Heritage.  The Management of the past as a resource in conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons

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