Posts Tagged ‘truth’

I am currently coordinating two working groups, one on authenticity and one on inclusivity, for ICOMOS ICIP [1] and Interpret Europe [2]. To be truthful, I thought I would most enjoy the discussion on inclusivity. As it turns out, it is the conversations that we are having around the concept of authenticity that I personally find most stimulating.


It is not that we are discussing anything dramatically revoluntionary. The Nara Document on Authenticity of 1994 already acknowledged that authenticity is more than a material attribute to be determined by the relevant science. It highlighted that what matters are the ‘values attributed to the heritage’ (paragraph 9) and that this naturally leads to ‘judgments about values’ (paragraph 11). And while the text is still heavy on traditional terms such as ‘conservation’ and ‘protection’ – a red flag to all weary of the Authorized Heritage Discourse [3] – it does also make clear that the ‘judgments about values’ cannot be based on ‘fixed criteria’ but ‘must be considered and judged within the cultural contexts to which they belong’ (paragraph 11). This is really quite progressive, even if, let’s be honest, this is not how authenticity is generally treated and managed in everyday professional heritage practice [4].


What excites me about the conversation in the working group is that we are approaching authenticity from quite different perspectives, yet they coalesce around similar ideas. We have historians in the group, archaeologists, a philologist, people from heritage studies, and interpreters, but most discuss authenticity in terms of different aspects, or layers, or perceptions of authenticity. Thinking of authenticity as a multitude of possible components to me radically makes clear what was rather more moderately suggested in the Nara Document: that authenticity is not invested per se in the material, or fixed on any other level of traditional science. The working group also quickly agreed that authenticity is socially constructed, and as such has a strong experiential element which transcends the material, or, if you will, combines the tangible with the intangible into a new whole (the ‘authentic’?).  I find it fascinating that a conversation about authenticity led me to deconstruct experiences in a different way.


The parallels to contemporary thinking about what (who) makes heritage and about the need for interpretation to make visible more than just one perspective or theme are also really intriguing to me. In some ways this makes perfect sense of course, and almost seems self-evident now that I write this down. But I don’t think it is self-evident, at least I’m not conscious of having read anything that really mashes up the discourses of heritage and authenticity in this way. However, authenticity as it emerges in the conversations within the working group, is really a great indicator for heritage. It captures that essence of an experience of what we may call ‘truth’, albeit in an understanding of truth that is constructed, socially within a group, but also in an ‘experiential’ (see above) exchange with the tangible. The group also floated the notion of ‘authentic’ as meaning ‘trusted’, which opens up further dimensions beyond ‘truth’. Because it is constructed and experiential, however, this trust is not about age, purity or continuity as assessed by science; it is inherently social, with all its cultural and political complexities.


At the beginning of this process, I was fully prepared to challenge a material framing of authenticity, and I probably expected the discussion to centre on this. Now I feel truly inspired to explore authenticity far more widely and creatively in the context of heritage and heritage making, as well as interpretation. The group is still in full swing and I am personally at the very beginning of this journey into the exciting universe of authenticity. But this is something I’m really looking forward to now: it promises to fundamentally influence my thinking about interpretation, and I’m sure my own practice can only benefit [5].




[1] ICIP is short for the ‘International Scientific Committee for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites’. Sadly, the committee does not receive any financial support, which means the current website is hopelessly outdated and unhelpful. I therefore won’t even link you to it.

[2] I do so in my capacity as ICIP’s Vice President for Policy and following a survey about the ICOMOS Charter on Interpretation, which identified that authenticity and inclusivity were two concepts in need of furter explanation and guidance. The working groups are working on producing policy statements and guidance notes.

[3] Smith, L., 2006. The Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

[4] This may be so because people don’t know how to practically approach authenticity other than in a material way. That is a central aspect of what the working group is trying to establish and outline in the guidance notes.

[5] In closing, thanks are due to the members of the working group. I’m looking forward to our final document.

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In Britain, we’re experiencing interesting social and political times at the moment [1], which raises the question again what role museums, heritage sites and by extension, interpretation should play in response to this [2] – if any.

I’ve argued previously that it is a dangerous myth to think especially of museums as apolitical spaces – and this goes for interpretation and heritage sites as well [3]. By that I mean that we need to acknowledge that everything that happens within museums is in fact a selection done by people who are themselves governed by a variety of experiences and political views. It is the suggestion that museums ‘tell the truth’ or ‘are objective’ by virtue of the professionalization of their staff that has contributed to the exclusion of vast segments of the public from heritage and decision-making about it.   So that’s clearly not the way to go.

At the same time, audience research shows over and over again the faith that visitors have in museums’ integrity and authority. Social and cultural strategies too place high expectations on museums to deliver a ‘good’ for everyone: to bring integration, cohesion, and lots and lots of wider benefits. This suggests that while acknowledging our limitations as human beings, museums and heritage professionals, and interpreters in particular, have what I’m going to call a moral obligation [4].

To me, that obligation lies in a several things. First of all, it lies in holding up a mirror to society. I think it would be great practice for museums to look for example at current debate and put on exhibitions that seek to illustrate either a more balanced or indeed the opposite point of view. So for example, in Britain we would have exhibitions up and down the country right now talking about migration and immigration throughout history: what it has achieved and contributed, what has worked, what hasn’t, who says so etc.

Secondly, the moral obligation is to tell a balanced story: to present both sides with equal care and respect. And I do here mean both sides: even the side that makes us cringe. We must not censor, but we must test and question as much as we can in a respectful way.

Thirdly, we must openly acknowledge that we are not infallible. We do get it wrong and we must constantly look at our own words, actions and practices, even in the little things. So for example, a constant reference to ‘foreigners’, as I’ve experienced in one of my jobs, just doesn’t speak of an inclusive, welcoming culture. We must acknowledge that, and work hard to change where change is needed.

And finally, at least for this list here: I do think that museums and heritage sites are ultimately part of the final line of moral defence not only of our individual societies, but also of humanity at large. At the conference I recently attended, a colleague questioned one of the keynote speakers on where we draw the line: when does tolerance become sanction of the intolerable? I think that’s a fair question. And listening to some of the discourse in Britain at the moment, for example, I think museums are called upon – not to dictate what society should think, but to take a stance based on their purpose and the role that government allegedly wants us to play [5]. This, I believe, can be achieved when done with humility.



[1] Start here to explore the issues. I find it frightening.

[2] For example in this discussion on LinkedIn.

[3] From here on in this post, when I write ‘museums’ I include heritage sites and interpretation as well.

[4] If you prefer, you can substitute ‘moral’ with political or social – either are equally valid.

[5] On a side note, in this I disagree with the BBC’s approach to the coverage of the European elections. According to BBC Radio 4 Feedback, there were 1400 individual complaints about the extensive coverage of UKIP, to which Ric Bailey, the Chief Political Adviser (I think it was) said that the amount of coverage they got just matches how many people support UKIP. Now, I didn’t mind so much that the BBC gave UKIP so much airtime. What I did object to was and is the lack of critical coverage. What I expect of the media here is the same as what I expect of museums, heritage sites and interpretation: balance and proper questioning of ‘the facts’, not something catering to the (supposed) masses.

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