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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

Notes

[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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