The big and important work of heritage interpretation?

Heritage interpretation plays a bigger and more important part in many heritage-related businesses and initiatives than many people think.

How big and important is heritage interpretation, this business of connecting people with the past and how it shapes the present? Of developing meaningful connections with the natural world? Of helping people position themselves in time and place?

I would say it is pretty big.

How important are heritage-based regeneration or heritage tourism, or sustaining heritage-based SMEs?

How important is it to use heritage as a cornerstone of community identity and vision?

How important is it to help conservation organisations engage with new people, build influence, motivation and support?

That sounds important to me – and interpreters do it.

How big is helping heritage attractions translate brand into experience into footfall, satisfaction, ROI and word of mouth recommendations?

How big is putting the ‘sustainable’ into sustainable tourism and building  cross-cultural understanding?

That’s big – and people like us do that too.

How important is it to help people see nature? To build understanding of the shifting climates and distributions that we live in? To realise that we are all part of something bigger?

How big is well-being? It is certainly as trendy as trending can be just now.

How important is to to create moments of beauty and reflection where nature and art can be more intensely experienced?

Pretty damn big and jolly important, I would say.

Heritage interpretation  at the heart of all of those good things. All of them require a good sense of history or environment , stories well told, and have significance and meaning at their core.

That’s how big and important I think it is. That’s why I run training in it.

In my last post I wrote about the Future Proof Museum Notebook and its approach to audience engagement. There’s a lot to like and a lot to think about there for countryside and conservation organisations as well as museums.

But there is one thing that I don’t like. In fact, it severely bothers me. Last time I called it a warning to heritage interpreters.

Can you see it?

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 16.43.51

Where’s interpretation on the spectrum? Oh, yes, there – under ‘Inform’. Really?

According to Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, the architects of this spectrum whose views I always value, interpretation has a small place in the spectrum and, by implication, in future proofing museums/heritage organisations/countryside organisations. It sits squarely under ‘Inform’ with a promise of ‘we will open your mind and expand your horizons’.

That is one tiny piece of the engagement pie. It is too small a piece for me. I do not see myself, or the work of TellTale, or of many other skilled people, who do the high level work that I detailed above, reflected in this definition of interpretation.

Interpretation for us is bigger, more contemporary, and more important than that. In my mind it includes, or at the very least should include, the whole of this spectrum. I would argue that it needs to if we are to future proof interpretation as a recognised and valued skill set.

Maybe my biggest disquiet is that I understand why MHM did this. They are thoughtful, perceptive people; so this observation, this restriction of interpretation to a small area, cannot just be dismissed. It can’t even be waved away with ‘creating a table of complex process will inevitably involve some compromises’ although that is true and possibly part of the story. It has to be taken seriously.

It reflects a widely-held and deep-rooted misunderstanding about the natiure of interpretation. It illustrates why we in TellTale have spent so much time anguishing over the word ‘interpretation’ because people do not understand it. They only recognise what we do when they see what we have done.

‘Interpretation’ is far too meagre a slice of the action in many people’s minds (including clearly MHM’s) for what we do.

I reject this definition of interpretation, whilst recognising it as hugely important. It highlights the risk we face and it rings a warning.

It warns us to recognize how far we have come. It tells us to stop harking back to the past. It tells us that we need to be part of the twenty-first century where whole new ways of communicating that are live, participatory and multi-vocal. Digital communication is not just an app. Social media is not just a platform. Interpretation Now is in a sharing, liking, following digital world that calls for more open, more exciting conversations.

If we accepted the limitations of this definition, interpretation would be too small for a profession, probably even for a job. It would certainly be far too limited to sustain our business and probably any other.

Is it time to refocus on the case for heritage interpretation for contemporary visitors in commercial terms, in regeneration terms, in sustainability terms and in well-being terms? I think it probably is.

That means we also need to refocus our training. The Interpretation Now course, that I run with fellow AHI Fellow, James Carter, in Snowdonia, is a step in that direction.























Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *