Posts Tagged ‘visitor experience’

A few years ago, I visited Stonehenge for the first time. Like many others, I was shocked at the (then) lack of interpretation and facilities, and after circling the stones once (also an oddly disappointing experience), I set off with the dog to go on a hike through the landscape, totally unplanned, merely drifting along the paths that led, un-signposted, from the car park. I had just seen a documentary about Stonehenge in its wider setting, and remembering what I had heard, my walk became the experience. It was a physical encounter, and one slow enough to really get me thinking about the people that built Stonehenge, and why, and what this all meant to me. My fondest memory is following the avenue as it rises up from a dip, and seeing Stonehenge emerge in the distance. I loved it.

With this in mind, I was really curious to see how the new visitor centre improved matters when I visited there earlier this week. I didn’t want to go back to the stones [1], but I did want to see the new exhibition, and repeat my hike through the landscape. Unexpectedly, my visit made me think about visitor management, and the norms we’ve come to accept – possibly to the detriment of visitors’ own discovery of and encounter with a site.

The new development at Stonehenge is everything we have come to expect at a site of this status: there is the large car park, the landscaped walk to the centre, the centre itself with its large café, large shop, obvious toilets [2] and a proper exhibition (inside and outside). The architecture is modern, light, with lots of glass, wood and stone, but no other obvious reference to the site it serves, like many such centres are these days. Access to the stones is by timed ticket and a visitor shuttle bus that takes you there. If you wish, the signs explain, there is a mid-way drop off point so you can walk the rest of the way on your own [3].

If this had been my first visit, I probably would have thought it perfect. Since it wasn’t, I became aware of how externally structured the visit was: there were no options. If you wanted to see the stones, you had to go on the shuttle per your timed ticket, or (as it appeared) walk along the tarmacked road used by the shuttles (presumably to coincide with a timed arrival at the stones). There were no sign-posted paths from the car park into the landscape [4], and no other visit option was discussed [5]. I became so insecure about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do without following the prescribed visit, that in the end I didn’t even ask about walking the landscape.

Stonehenge is not the only site to have approached visitor management in this way. Brú na Bóinne in Ireland, for example, also works on timed tickets and a shuttle bus [6]. We can easily argue that conservation leaves no other choice, but I would challenge that in a context where the landscape is quite vast, and surely has a carrying capacity that is nowhere near being reached. If anything, I imagine it would ease pressure on the main monument itself, especially for repeat visits.

Such rigid visitor management also seems to go against every principle of self-selection that we’ve established in learning theory, psychology and interpretation. More philosophically, I think it raises questions also about controlling heritage, and the ways in which people are allowed to encounter it. I’m not suggesting that unlimited access to the inner circle of the stones should be granted [7]. However, as many ways of exploring and encountering Stonehenge as possible should be actively enabled and facilitated. Tickets for different types of visits, and way-marked paths into the landscape seem an easy and obvious solution. Just as in interpretation and exhibition design we (should) think about giving space to visitors’ own meanings and relationships to the heritage in question, and facilitate many different encounters, this should be a key consideration for wider site developments and visitor management – another argument why one should never be done in isolation from the other, and why different disciplines should work together for the benefit of sites and visitors.

In many ways the new visitor centre at Stonehenge is a marked improvement on what was there before [8], and I would not wish to detract from this. My observations seek to question some of the norms we’ve come to accept about managing visitors, and the ways in which we do this. Every choice is also an exclusion of something else, and we better make that exclusion for very good, thought-through reasons, and never lightly.

[1] Since my first visit, I’ve had the opportunity to go inside the circle of stones during an ICOMOS workshop as well – nothing can top that.

[2] My visit was just after Christmas and I still had to queue at the toilet, so I’m not sure how this was calculated to work during peak time.

[3] I did see people set off along the tarmacked road from the visitor centre, so I assume that’s the only suggested path. Certainly no others were signposted from the centre.

[4] This actually seems a really odd omission, because the exhibition itself makes much of the landscape and its importance.

[5] In fact, I had to ask the attendant in the exhibition if it was okay to visit the exhibition only, as all the signs merely talked about a timed visit to the stones.

[6] Of course, the timed ticket at Brú na Bóinne includes access to Newgrange’s chamber.

[7] English Heritage as managers of Stonehenge do make it possible to have that experience of the inner circle, and they are working with people to allow access during the solstices – this is all very good. Nevertheless, having been inside the circle, I do wonder whether anything else has any meaning at all. If this just absoluely isn’t possible (and we’ll have to believe the experts here) maybe a real alternative could be created. The 360 degree projections in the new exhibition are not it though.

[8] It’s easy to pick holes in any exhibition, so I’m not going to start this here. However, I was surprised to see two outdoor signs point away from the thing they were talking about – that’s such a basic mistake even in my eyes, and I do no longer subscribe to easy-to-follow guidelines (but this might be one that should be kept). And I would be really interested in hearing why someone felt the need to have a First World War exhibition at Stonehenge – it really added nothing to my understanding of the site. Incidentally, it also nonchalantly mentioned questions that would have been really interesting to explore: like how it could be that this monument was owned by a private landowner and then sold? To whom? What does this say about how the site was valued – or not – by the nation, given its contemproary ‘iconic’ status?

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I have a confession to make: as I prepared for my first weekend of field research last week, I was suddenly overcome by a terrible fear.  What if it turns out that interpretation has no real importance to visitors?  What if they don’t come because it’s heritage?

Quite a few of the staff involved at the sites I study [1] told me that visitors ‘just come for a good day out’.  At Kalkriese, the museums manager is convinced that no one visits for ‘public benefit’ reasons – they’re just here for ‘something to do’.  I’ve not asked her or any of the other staff yet why they think visitors come to heritage sites for fun.  I wonder if their statements have something to do with experience seeking in Falk’s sense [2]: it’s a well-known site, so people come to tick it off their list.  In other words, the attraction is not the heritage, but the prominence of the site. People don’t care greatly about the story or how it is told, they really just care about the facilities that let them have a good time.  As one of the front-of-house staff told me yesterday at 1066 Battle of Hastings: They always ask about toilets and the café. They’re not that interested in the history.

And this is when I worry.  If my field research really finds the above to be the case, without any as yet unrecognised heritage motivation, then the question begs why anyone should invest in something as expensive as heritage.  Why not shed the conservation costs for Battle Abbey by flattening the site and building a miniature Saxon-Norman Amusement Park on top?  If people really just come for ‘fun’, would they care?

Of course, the real attraction could be a connection to ‘place’.  Kalkriese is a good example of how important ‘place’ seems to be to people: experts and local groups have argued for years over whether or not this is really the site where the battle took place [3]. But then, place can also be created: again taking Kalkriese as an example, the original Hermann Monument has lost none of its attraction power just because the site of the battle was determined to have been quite a distance away. In other words, our Saxon-Norman Amusement Park on the site of the battlefield might serve the same purpose. I dare say it would bring in more money.

I would have a major crisis as an interpreter if I really found the above to be the case at these sites. I fundamentally disagree with a view of interpretation as ‘doing’ something to visitors: in my book, interpretation is NOT about telling visitors about why a site needs to be protected, invested in, conserved. I do NOT want to spend my expertise as an interpreter on manufacturing something for visitors that they’re really not already interested in. I actually think public money can be better spent.

What comforts me at this stage is my own experience.  Working with people directly at various sites I’ve always found that while yes, they care about facilities, they still come for a (heritage) reason.  Yes, they want to have a good day out – but they’ve chosen this, a heritage site, over another leisure activity precisely of the site’s heritage value to them.  They may not be able to articulate it very well, and the level of heritage attachment to the site may be superficial, but I’ve always found it to be there.  Even at our Roman Museum, one of the sites I work with now and which is the furthest removed in historical terms of any site I’ve ever worked at, our visitor surveys suggest that visitors come for the history.  I’ve not taken this response apart; it could be anything from general learning interest to a feeling that this ‘history’ is part of their wider identity as British or European people.  But it does convince me that even where visitors tell us they’re here ‘to have fun’ the reason is linked to the sites’ outstanding characteristic: heritage.

[1] My study sites are 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey in England and Museum und Park Kalkriese in Germany
[2] Falk, J.H., 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
[3] Incidentally, someone is bringing the same challenge to the site of the Battle of Hastings now.  See here.

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Last week I attended an excellent workshop on ‘Visitor Experiences of Co-produced Exhibitions’.  Co-production is a central theme in museums at the moment, and participants were encouraged to bring their own experiences of co-production to the workshop for discussion.  I came away with a few good points to ponder, which you might find interesting as well.


Process vs Product

Call me naïve, but it surprised me that all but one of the examples given by other participants were actually of co-producing an end product, usually an exhibition.  This is not what I do in my practice, where we are much more process focussed.  We do in general have a clear idea of the outcomes we hope for (e.g. understanding people’s heritage values as in our current Stake Your Claim project), and we are committed to doing something with whatever outputs are created.  But what that will be is decided in a second step, usually upon completion of the process.  My rationale for this is twofold: 1. Until the process is completed we won’t know what we’ll get from it – that’s the nature of truly handing over authority, as we try to do.  2. Creating a product for other visitors requires following best practice interpretation, which is a process governed by its own, and rather tight rules.  This is actually something that came out strongly in participants’ evaluations:


Just because it’s co-produced doesn’t mean other visitors like it

Over and over, participants reported this as an experience with their co-produced exhibitions: visitors’ reactions were either lukewarm or downright negative.  One project reported something very interesting: visitors didn’t like the co-produced exhibition – until they were told that it was co-produced.  They still didn’t seem to take more from it, relatively speaking, but they approved. This sense of moral approval came through quite strongly for other projects as well, but the question is of course whether moral approval is a good enough outcome for co-produced exhibitions.  Those in the discussion group that I was in agreed that it wasn’t.  A lady from Glasgow Museums raised the very interesting point that perhaps we feel that by selecting a group for co-production, say young people, we speak to all young people.  Interestingly, one of the projects actually found that the exhibition co-produced by young people was in fact rejected by other young people, who were more interested in the ‘expert’ voice.  Why?  Because they felt that if they wanted to hear what young people thought they could talk to them all day long outside the museum! Which brings me to another point we discussed:


How do you select groups for co-production?

I wish I could share the conviction put forward by one participant from a university: that selecting target groups by demographics is ‘no longer how museums do it’.  Well, it’s certainly how all of the projects we heard about at the workshop seemed to have selected the groups that they worked with (usually ‘young people’), never mind the local authority matrix that I continue to have to work toward, or the ever-present HLF identifications [1]. The colleague is right, however, that these group classifications are of limited if any use, especially if we expect the outputs (e.g. an exhibition) to have relevance for other groups.  This, in fact, is the crux of the matter: can co-production with one particular group ever be relevant to other groups? As we’ve seen with young people above, even such a seemingly clear-cut group doesn’t produce an exhibition relevant to the same group.  I don’t have the answer to this one, except that this is less of an issue when looking at ‘co-production’ as a process rather than end product.  Also, in my own practice I’m dreadfully reluctant to identify any specific target groups (by motivation or otherwise), so we just widen it out to as many people as possible.  It seems to work for us.


What, actually, do we mean by co-production?

In the end, this was one of the questions we were left with.  Some of us, myself included, argued that narrow parameters, such as providing objects for group interpretation, don’t actually make co-production.  The whole concept of co-produced end products also seemed generally flawed, and co-production thus a misleading term.  We agreed that further examination of concepts was required, not the least to provide a shared language between departments.  After all, without proper understanding of terms there cannot be proper implementation.


What next?

The workshop ended with some discussion on what the next steps should be.  In my opinion, we need to establish proper criteria that identify ‘successful’ co-production (whatever we decide this to mean).  Is this success for the museum? For participants? For visitors? We also need researchers that can spend time on identifying factors that impact the success of co-production.  This goes beyond the usual evaluative studies that we can do on our own, even those that go that one step further and ask, why did this work (because who answers the question will bias your results)?  Finally, I would also like to move beyond co-produced end products and look into how visitors can contribute to exhibitions while they’re up.  That to me is true co-production: on-going, dynamic, and democratic.  Here’s to the new challenge.


Happy New Year to all of you!



[1] Allow me an entirely personal rant here: 1. As a practitioner, I rely on university researchers to challenge me and to provide me with solid insights.  This requires that researchers actually examine existing practices on the ground, rather than build their argument on what I can only describe as wishful thinking.  The latter looks great on paper, but there may be a reason why it’s not being implemented in practice – and it is understanding these very reasons that can improve my practice. 2. As a researcher, I am expected to critically examine assertions and provide data to support my claims.  I am deeply worried by the many so-called researchers that are given a voice in our field who do not abide by this most basic of research principles.  It is absolutely acceptable to be a theorist, but let’s not treat theorists as researchers, please.  Apologies if I sound harsh, and no personal attack is intended on the colleague in question.

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I recently read about someone saying that heritage managers and interpreters were ‘selling’ experiences. I’ve already written in a recent blog post how ‘experience’ seems to have been a popular concept for a while now.  In fact, even I was raving when the National Trust first changed all interpretation and visitor related job titles, along with their philosophy, over to ‘visitor experience’.

I’m a lot more sceptical about this now, and as I’m sorting out why, I thought I’d share my thinking so far.

‘Experience’ seems to express another stage in the development of our understanding of and approach to interpretation, but I’m not entirely clear what lies beneath it.  The early stages of interpretation – promoting preservation and then education – are clearly evidenced in legislation and policies, and go hand-in-hand with the (by now heavily criticized) material approach to heritage value [1].  But then the two seem to move away from each other.  Legislation today talks about benefit to communities and individuals, while interpretation has focussed on ‘experience’.

As the quote above shows (‘selling experiences’), the experience is often presented as a commodity, and something that we, as interpreters and heritage managers, create and package, and subsequently ‘sell’ to our visitors on a ‘leisure’ market.  I wonder therefore whether what lies beneath this understanding of ‘experience’ is related to an understanding of heritage which Hewison in 1987 criticised as The Heritage Industry.  In this understanding, heritage is called upon to replace vanishing economies and produce economic outputs as part of a growing tourism market [2]. In subsequent years, heritage was increasingly analysed within this leisure context [3].

Now add to this mix Pine and Gilmore’s 1999 book, The Experience Economy. In a nutshell, Pine and Gilmore argue that businesses [4] need to sell an ‘added’ value with their product, which is the experience that consumers have through engaging with the company and its product.  Sometimes this experience will be transformational, but that is not necessary – for Pine and Gilmore pleasure is enough to make it an experience.

When interpreters speak of ‘experience’, this seems to be what they mean: the added value of the heritage product traded on a leisure market. For some, the comparison with Disney’s practices thus becomes desirable, in that Disney of course are a giant in the experience leisure economy and hugely successful in providing a competitively memorable experience product.

I suppose this is where I’m getting a bit uncomfortable with the experience concept. If the above is really what lies behind our concept of experience in a heritage context – and it’s certainly all I can find – then I have a few issues with it:

  • To start with, I’m not convinced that visitors really see visiting a heritage site or a museum as simply one possible leisure pursuit among others, even if we allow for a mild ‘educational’ bias. There are varying degrees of heritage attachment to sites, of course, but I would be surprised to find that visitors treat even the most ruinous of English Heritage castles on a par with Disneyland.  I think a lot more research is needed here before we can make such an assumption.
  • Secondly, we know that visitors bring their own agendas to sites, so the notion that we ‘craft’ an experience for them is just not sustainable. They make their own experience, based very much, as my own work leads me to believe, on the heritage belief that motivated them to visit in the first place.
  • Thirdly, while we’re thinking of interpretation as creating an experience for our visitors, we’re neglecting to engage with what they think about their heritage.  This ‘experience-making’ approach to interpretation still suggests a one-way street, albeit a more entertaining one, from interpreter to visitor.  We’re still – apparently – disenfranchising our visitors by assuming that we will create an experience and then sell it to them.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course our facilities will contribute to the ‘experience’ that visitors will have at our sites, whether they will enjoy themselves and create memories, and recommend us to their friends.  Of course our presentation and marketing have an impact.  Of course all of this is important. I just don’t think an approach to interpretation as ‘crafting experiences’ is in step with other developments in heritage management.

Visitors have a fundamental stake in heritage even when they are not on site.  In my mind, our task is not to create heritage for them, because we can’t, heritage exists independent of our efforts.  What we need to do is facilitate visitors’ engagement with their heritage.  Thinking about experience as described above just doesn’t seem to encourage us to adjust our practice accordingly [5].



[1] Of course, these practices – promoting preservation and educating – still exist, and they may still have a place at some sites. However, I would argue that there is a progression; if promotion of preservation alone motivates your interpretation I would be worried.

[2] At least as far as the public-facing side of heritage was concerned.  Heritage Designation remained the same.  It should also be said that museums seem to have been unaffected by this thinking until recently, and it is interesting that now we’re beginning to hear the same talk of ‘experience’ here as we have done at heritage sites for a while.

[3] Not, of course, with regard to designation and preservation concerns.  Again, I’m talking about the public face of heritage, as it were.

[4] The book doesn’t deal with heritage or tourism, it’s basically about marketing and service industries.

[5] Of course, as a stage in the development of interpretation, ‘experience’ is perfectly legitimate.  A lot of museums could do with more ‘experience’ and Disneyification, since so many of them still just ‘talk at’ their visitors – or indeed provide no interpretation at all.

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In a few weeks I will start in a new role.  This time around, my job title will be Audience Development Manager.

Oddly enough, although my past, current and future responsibilities are largely the same (interpretation), I’ve never had the same job title twice.  What troubles me about this is that even within our profession we’re undermining that well-established term, interpretation.

Now, when I say ‘well established’, I don’t mean well established in the vocabulary of non-interpreters.  This is an oft-repeated argument in favour of ditching the term: others don’t know what it is and therefore we should no longer use it.  But do you know what Nephrology is? Probably not. And yet, when there is something wrong with your kidneys you’ll soon find out, or someone will explain it to you.  I see nothing wrong with interpretation professionals doing the same.

I’m also a little bit worried about the implications of some of the suggestions that have been put forward by interpreters themselves.  ‘Visitor Experience Specialist’ seems to be a favourite these days.  People often argue that it is good because it expresses more than ‘leaflets and panels’.  However, if anyone thinks 21st century interpretation is only about leaflets and panels, then the issue doesn’t lie with the term ‘interpretation’ but with their knowledge of it.

I think the temptation here lies in the word ‘experience’.  Yes, 21st century interpretation should provide an experience.  But to speak of the outcomes of interpretation as the visitor experience is quite naïve, I’m afraid.  And it also sabotages our profession.

Let me explain.  I find it naïve because visitors’ experiences with and of a site do not begin and end with interpretation.  I won’t repeat here what you will be well aware of – let’s just say, remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Any site manager will tell you that the whole, rather than the interpretive part, creates the visitor experience, and this doesn’t start at the site’s gates either.  Do I think that interpreters should have an input in marketing and the development of the catering menu?  Absolutely.  At my site, I actively encourage the whole team, from gardener to cleaner to cook, to contribute to everything that happens on site.  That to me is visitor experience management.  So if this title is due to anyone, it is due to site managers: those that keep track of the whole.

Of course, if interpreters themselves seek to claim the title of ‘Visitor Experience Specialist’ then we’re basically saying that in reality, we’re not specialists at all, but generalists doing all of the above.  In a way, this understanding of interpretation is what underpins my current job description.  And consequently, I have found my time divided between many different things, only a fraction of which is actually interpretation.  To be perfectly honest, I think the overall visitor experience has suffered for it – because I’ve not had enough time to actually fully develop the interpretation of the site.  And this is why I think promoting the Visitor Experience terminology above ‘Interpretation’ is sabotaging our profession.  It tells organisations that they don’t actually need someone dedicated to and trained specifically in interpretation.

There’s something else that troubles me about suggesting we call interpretation ‘visitor experience’.  In my mind, 21st century interpretation is no longer just about ‘visitors’, or tourists.  As I’ve written elsewhere, to me this focus on visitors is expressive of a lack of critical engagement with the concept of heritage.  Interpretation is very much about engaging with stakeholders, local and further away, and heritage communities.  To exclude these stakeholders is to demote interpretation to a mere tourism tool.

The visitor focus is also connected to another idea that is still at large in our discussions, and that is that of target audiences.  Which finally leads me to my new job title.

The focus on target audiences sits uncomfortably with me, and I’ve explained why here. I understand why an organisation may identify audiences, or rather the lack of diverse audiences, as the issue that needs to be addressed. However, when we as interpreters propose audience development over interpretation as the term to be used, I wonder whether we’re not putting the cart before the horse.  Surely our modern, professional principles of interpretation endeavour to offer various ways of engaging with heritage as a matter of course.  Thinking about the different needs of our possible, or desired audiences is at the heart of this.  So in my opinion, good interpretation already considers what some call audience development.

So if I could have it my way, I would opt to be simply called, Interpretation Manager.  Because that’s what I have been in my past and current roles, and that’s what I will be in my new role.  A role, by the way, that I am hugely excited to fill, and which I have no doubt will bring many experiences to share on this blog.

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I am indebted to the Association for Heritage Interpretation (UK) for publishing a news item that highlighted the National Trust’s ‘Bench mate’ scheme and a commentary on it in a national newspaper.

The latter is particularly refreshing as the voice of someone whose profession is not interpretation.  The commentator, a comedian, I’m told, makes a really good point when he describes the image he formed in his mind of the house’s lady by looking at the books in her library.  When he is told that the supposed ‘broadminded reader’ may in reality never have read these books at all since the Trust dresses (some) rooms with furniture and objects that may not be original to the house, the commentator felt willfully misled.

This may account for the underlying accusation in his piece that he levies against the Trust’s presentation.  Fabricated smells seem just that – a fabrication – and they represent a choice that favors the nostalgic while ignoring what are ugly truths.

The two issues raised here – authenticity and selectivity – are valid concerns about any interpretation.  Interpreters should always be mindful of both, and yet, I’m not convinced that every Trust property would gain from presenting, as the commentator writes, ‘the smell of soiled undergarments … in the cupboard below stairs, where the lord had forced himself upon the serving wench.’  I doubt that such historical accuracy is what motivates people to visit Trust properties, nor do I believe that they need to be told that such sad things did indeed occur – they already know.

Incidentally, the commentator himself makes a similar point.  He complains that the ‘bench mate’ scheme with its audio commentaries by national celebrities implies that visitors cannot be trusted to have their own thoughts.  Interpretation is accused of being patronizing, and often I would have to agree that yes, it can be – especially in those instances where interpreters haven’t spent the time to find out what the value of a site is to people (and this value may not be a heritage value at all).

The commentator of course raised his criticism in response to the audio commentaries.  Unfortunately I know nothing of the Trust’s process in arriving at these but I, too, was slightly disappointed.  First off, the introduction on the page reads that the commentaries are meant to ‘bring the National Trust’s special places to life’ [1].  Second, we’re promised ‘fond memories’ that these celebrities will share with us.  The two clips I listened to did neither of these things.  They may be the odd ones out, but if they are indicative of the other ‘bench mates’ then these are more marketing leaflet than memory.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love the idea of sitting down on a bench and listening to someone reminisce about the place.  At Dinefwr Park, however, the commentary goes on and on about the wildlife you can watch in Dinefwr Park, and its biodiversity.  This seems quite unnecessary: the visitor sitting on the bench is already there.  Why not take the opportunity to really draw their attention to something special that can be seen from this particular spot?  If the celebrity doesn’t have a memory they could still talk about their own response to this particular view [2].  Instead, Iolo Williams doesn’t even tell me what the kingfisher I’m supposed to be lucky enough to see looks like (and I wouldn’t know a kingfisher if I saw one), and so his enthusiastic delivery does very little to enhance my experience of the place.

At Calke Abbey, David Gower’s audio clip is a recital of the historical facts about the site.  He then jumps quite unexpectedly into musings about open spaces in general and the opportunities they offer for sports, and I’m sure that had I listened to this at Calke Abbey instead of at my desk here at home, I would have been even more puzzled about its relevance (or lack thereof) to my experience of sitting on this particular bench, in this particular spot.

Do I think that the benches are an example of the National Trust not trusting their visitors to have their own thoughts, like the commentator wrote?  Not at all.  I actually think the Trust had a really good idea – they just didn’t quite pull it off.  What I admire about the National Trust these days is that they are clearly committed to reaching out to wider audiences and breaking that image of the ‘gilded acorn’.  The organisational restructuring is brilliant, and what they envisage for the visitor experience is quite inspiring.  Now it’s simply a matter of implementing it to the best advantage.  I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.


[1] This is actually turning into a meaningless phrase and I think interpreters should be banned from using it.  What does it mean, to ‘bring a place to life’?  Is it dead without our intervention?  If so, why do we bother preserving it?  In reality, most places are important to people because they inspire them and speak to them in some form.  An interpreter’s job is merely to facilitate and enable that inspiration and engagement for every single visitor.  You don’t ‘bring it to life’, visitors do, every single one in their own way.

[2] At my current site we’ve just completed and curated a memory project and exhibition about features – still existing and those already vanished – in our historic park.  It was a great way for us to learn about what people valued about the park, and it meant we could really engage with the community.  It also seemed that people felt reassured – the park has a brandnew management structure – and they realised that we valued their claim on the park and their input.  While practicality didn’t allow us to mount the exhibition outdoors as originally envisaged, I am looking into creating a trail leaflet from it.  However, even with having the exhibition indoors, it is clear that it sparks conversations among other visitors and inspires their own memories.  In my mind, that’s what interpretation is all about.

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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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The latest issue of the UK Museums Journal gives plenty of evidence of the impact budget cuts have on the museums and heritage sector.  English Heritage is about to shut down its entire (!) outreach department, the Victoria and Albert Museum has downgraded its post of Director of Learning and Interpretation to Head of Education (the sheer terminology of which representing a step backward), and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, whose functions are soon to be taken over by the Arts Council England, has served several museum development officers with risk of redundancy notices, thus jeopardising the forward development of many museums who might benefit from their support.

Of course, the fabric of the heritage, be it objects in museums or Britain’s famed castles, will still be preserved.  But without interpretation, without outreach and ongoing support for visitor programmes, who will care?

These cuts in the heritage sector go against everything that heritage legislation and recent policies have stipulated and recognised.  Even if we put aside that heritage is supposed to enhance our sense of identity (1990 ICOMOS Lausanne Charter) and help us lead balanced and complete lives (1975 European Charter of the Architectural Heritage), ensuring that people understand the importance of protecting our heritage is also called upon as an intrinsic part of gaining people’s support.

If the sector is no longer able to help people make a connection to their heritage, who will care about a museum stuffed full of objects?  Who will care about the pile of old stones on top of the hill?  Heritage is not in the fabric of things, it is in the hearts and minds of people.  And with these cuts, we are just about to wipe that heritage out.

I do know that every sector is worthy of support, and I know that the government and local councils are having to make tough decisions.  But to jeopardise our sense of heritage in my opinion is the worst that can happen.  We may not yet have enough hard evidence to prove what every interpreter and heritage manager knows in their hearts to be true but that doesn’t change my conviction: heritage does provide us with a sense of orientation, as the American legislation that created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 says.  Heritage does tell us about our own roots and that of humanity as a whole, and it provides us with inspiration and aspiration.  If we’re cut off from that, what could possibly replace it?  Not the sheer presence of stones on a hill, I’m sure.

We need people to interact with people.  We need people who understand stakeholders and visitors and who have the know-how to connect them with a site’s many meanings.  Conserving and preserving isn’t enough.  Just imagine how quickly we throw things out when clearing out our house.  It’s when we hold that book in our hands and remember where we bought it and how a loved one read it out to us in the store that the book turns from mere object to a part of who we are.  Without interpretation and programming and outreach we deny people to learn about that part of themselves.  And in turn, they may just no longer agree that any money should be spent at all on what looks just like any other old object.  Who cares?

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Today I attended a conference titled, ‘The Role of Interpretation in Tourism’.  As may be expected, none of the speakers questioned that interpretation was an intrinsic part of any tourism effort.  This is not a given however: at a conference a few months ago, the host country’s Director of Tourism unblushingly claimed that interpretation had nothing to do with tourism.  Even the most conservative of interpreters is likely to disagree with him, and yet many interpreters themselves have a similarly compartmentalised if not downright territorial approach to our own discipline.  I still get into discussions with fellow interpreters who draw a firm line that is not to be crossed between interpretation and marketing for example.  Such a jealously guarded distinction may work in the automobile industry, but in our sector it can quickly deliver the death blow to our joint efforts.

Let me cite an example from one of today’s speakers.  David Anderson, now Director General of the National Museum Wales, reported on a meeting with the Heads of Marketing and Press at the Victoria and Albert Museum while he was Director of Learning and Interpretation there.  Visitor numbers had been low, and the three heads of department compared who they were targeting, and how.  They quickly realised that they did not go for the same audiences nor the same image at all.  The lack of collaboration and communication had resulted in each department failing in their effort to make their museum a success.

Jonathan Jones, Director of Tourism and Marketing at Visit Wales, said that interpretation begins off-site, when visitors make the decision on whether or not they want to come [1].  He highlighted that a big part of what his organisation sells (!) is the interpretation of and at cultural sites.  I can’t make a statement about how successful Visit Wales is in promoting Welsh cultural heritage, but the point I’m making is that Jonathan wasn’t compartmentalising interpretation.  In his very pragmatic view interpretation was part of a larger whole.

That whole is the visitor experience.  In fact, if I read correctly between the lines of the key note speech given by Tony Berry, Director of Visitor Experience at the National Trust, ‘visitor experience’ is the term that the National Trust use, rather than ‘interpretation.’ It encompasses much more than what the traditionalists refer to as ‘interpretation’, and actually Tony proceeded to start his speech with a slide that read, ‘Interpretation is dead’.

Of course this was an intentionally provocative statement (at an interpretation conference!) but at the same time the National Trust did make a very clear decision here to leave behind the term ‘interpretation’.  What they have done is placed greater emphasis on what has  been an admittedly small part of interpretation literature.  The National Trust have cast their net much more widely than simply looking at interpretation as conveying interpretive themes through communication media.  The term ‘visitor experience’ is also representative of a shift in the philosophical approach: the visitor is brought to the centre and the intention is to give them an experience that begins at their first contact with a site until they leave it.

Nothing in that is new.  And in my mind, most of the above is included in the definition of interpretation.  However, once the conceptual development has reached a certain stage, in some areas professionals with a different skills set and training will need to take over, such as the marketing team.  ‘Visitor Experience’, rather than ‘Interpretation’, does away with over-zealous protection of what is considered one’s professional field.  Under this umbrella term, interpretation can neatly blend into tourism promotion and marketing without causing unnecessary headaches over whether this blurring means one or the other becomes superfluous as a discipline: it is all part of creating the ‘visitor experience’.  Using the term ‘visitor experience’ may therefore be better able to integrate different departments and ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymnsheet.

What the National Trust have done so publicly seems to be a trend in the UK. I think other organisations will follow suit and formally define visitor experience  management structures (whether by that name or not) of which interpretation will be a part.  Visitor experience roles will require specialist interpretive skills alongside general supportive skills that allow for a more holistic approach.  Interpretation will continue to require specialist education and research with regard to planning and media.  However, as part of heritage management on site it needs to be better integrated than what we have seen in the past.  ‘Visitor Experience’ may just be the right term for the job.



[1] John Veverka includes this in his section on Visitor Orientation Needs (Veverka, J, 1995.  Interpretive Master Planning. Tustin: Acorn Naturalists).  It’s also the Decision Phase in Lisa Brochu’s Visitor Experience Model (Brochu, L, 2003. Interpretive Planning. The 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects. Fort Collins: The National Association for Interpretation).  Interestingly, I still only rarely hear interpreters talk about these stages when they talk about interpretation.

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