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In one of my jobs, emails from our security guards about incidents were a regular occurrence, usually involving large groups of youngsters trespassing and getting drunk. One day, I was feeling rather depressed about this and I told my friend, ‘I feel I need to be a social worker in this job, not a heritage manager.’

The recent Culture and Poverty report by Baroness Kay Andrews reminded me of that day. Decision makers expect a lot of heritage and museums professionals, especially in such challenging and demanding environments as can be found in Wales [1]. However, I’m neither sure that we have the training to meet the particular challenges of these environments, nor that we should be the people (and sector) expected to do so.

Take community engagement for example, which is one of the key foci of the report. It should of course be part of the skills-set of any heritage manager or museum professional. But there is quite a difference between engaging with a community that ‘just’ may not visit your museum, and engaging with a community that struggles to survive. It is one thing showing young people what the museum has to offer them, and quite another discouraging them from burning down a historical structure in the first place (and I mean literally).

I certainly wasn’t prepared for the latter when I first started. My team and I did a lot of the reaching out and networking that the report calls for, but throughout, the above feeling stayed with me. It was exhausting.

So while I fully support the view that heritage, culture and the arts have a lot to contribute to all sorts of social initiatives, I’m not sure we can or should place the core burden on heritage and museums professionals. Yes, they should be open and willing to engage with all kinds of partners, such as Community Safety, Youth Workers and Social Care. And yes, they should certainly actively reach out to them all. But if decision makers expect heritage and museums professionals to deliver these programmes as the lead, then they will need to provide the necessary training and support. They will also need to provide better funding, which doesn’t constantly threaten museums and heritage professionals with losing their jobs, so that skills can not only be gained, but also retained long-term. The same goes for those carefully nurtured relationships not only with partners, but also with (let’s call them) users – one-offs or constantly changing staff undermine and actually damage work that has already been done.

Decision-makers also need to take responsibility for the, well, decisions that they make which affect society at large. Benefit cuts and immigration caps, and the rhetoric that goes with these, probably all have a greater detrimental impact on social exclusion and deprivation than any community engagement efforts by museums and heritage professionals can alleviate. If families can’t afford to travel to our sites, then making them more attractive won’t provide a solution – it’s the government that needs to do something. And so on.

I am not suggesting that the report ignores the above entirely – it doesn’t [2]. But having worked in the South Wales Valleys, and seen the excellent efforts of so many museums, heritage and social work people there, I’m just a little bit worried about recommendations to a government and the cultural sector as a whole that focus so much on what the sector should do and should achieve. I’m beginning to get worried that this is just setting heritage up for failure, by shifting responsibilities and creating unrealistic expectations in a context that is itself becoming increasingly damaging to social inclusion, positive empowerment, and opportunities for all.

 

Notes
[1] The report writes that Wales has the highest rate of child poverty outside London. Wales has some of the most deprived areas in the UK. (p. 12) 24% of the population in Wales live in Communities First clusters. (p.13)

[2] Recommendation 2, for example, at least suggests the creation of a task force to the Welsh Government, which would ‘identify solutions to barriers around transport’ (p. 4), although it doesn’t outright suggest funding be made available.

Two things recently have made me think again about what should be included in a ‘good’ interpretive planning process.  One was hearing at a meeting that first should come the decisions about the content, and then we’ll ‘add on’ the interpretation, suggesting an understanding of interpretation as, well, an add-on, a media solution.

The other thing came up in the paper that I’ve been writing for the last month for my PhD studies.  In one of my case studies, staff responsible for creating the interpretation actually considered interpretation to be misleading: essentially a ‘making up’ of narrative that is unsubstantiated.  Consequently, they preferred what I’ve previously called ‘the history approach’, and what they saw as scientific distance.

Ironically, both in my MSc research and in my current research it emerges that such interpretive planning approaches sail right past what is important to visitors.  While visitors ‘get’ the interpretive messages [1] these don’t capture why the site is important.  In fact, in my current research, data at the moment looks like the interpretive messages might actually be preventing visitors’ engagement.  And if that’s the case, then the interpretation is in real trouble.

So here are a few thoughts that I’d like to share about the interpretive planning process:

1.    Be clear about what interpretation actually is

I was frankly gobsmacked hearing these views on what interpretation is by people involved in the process.  It is not an add-on – that’s just poor practice.  It is also not a forced narrative, misleading visitors as to the completeness of substantiated knowledge – that’s not even poor practice, that is just plain unprofessional.  I could get into definitions of interpretation now, but actually I don’t think that’s even necessary here.  What is important to understand is that interpretation encompasses the whole: the content, the visitor, the site, the science, the management, the policy framework and only at the end, the media.  In that sense, Lisa Brochu’s 5M model is as relevant today as it has ever been [2].

2.     Grapple with the complex issues that interpretation deals with

Interpretation isn’t an easy thing.  We can’t just present ‘scientific facts’, especially not when it comes to history.  Not only does it not work, as several studies have shown, but it’s also plainly not possible.  Scientific facts, if they exist at all, never exist in isolation.  People always have a response to them.  History always means something to someone, has affected their life or that of their ancestors.  Nature, biology always touch emotions.  And it’s these emotions, these existing relationships that interpretation needs to account for.  Now what do you do?

3.     Start with people, not content

It goes without saying that without content there is nothing to interpret [3].  But to start with the content, as selected by the specialist content expert, is to miss several key points.  Firstly, this content is likely to be someone’s heritage.  We have to understand what that heritage is.  It’s unlikely to be the material thing.  If we don’t understand that heritage, and interpret it, then we’re interpreting something irrelevant to most people.  Secondly, we have to take people into account when selecting content.  This is an Interpretive Planning 101 classic: What are people interested in?  What excites them? What connects with the heritage value they already hold?  It’s not about specialists making their scientific selection [4].

4.     Do not, under any circumstances, impose a preferred reading

Ironically, in my case study where interpretation was rejected as misleading in favour of ‘scientific fact’, there is a clear preferred reading or message within the interpretation provided.  To me, that is not acceptable.  People, visitors, are autonomous beings with as much right to their own opinion as any interpreter – even more so at sites that are their heritage.  It is not up to anyone to sanction one view and reject another.  I’m afraid it’s that black and white for me.

 

Notes

[1] Should they though?  Is it about ‘messages’?  This is something that I asked here.

[2] I think the 5M model is excellent in reminding us of all the aspects we need to consider.  The only thing I would add is that we need more guidance in interpretive planning models on how to deal with heritage value and significance, and the danger of interpretive bias.

[3] just on an aside, the concept of ‘content’ is usually understood as a material content – as with the person in my example.  Many times that may be so – we have some material – but that material isn’t the heritage for most people.  It’s how it makes them feel.

[4] Just for the sake of completeness: I do appreciate that in some areas, visitors do want to and need to be guided by specialist knowledge.  But even in say, art history, people’s sense of heritage and interests should take precedent over the curator’s assessment.

 

I’ve recently read English Heritage’s consultation on under-represented heritages [1] and it got me thinking, yet again, about target audiences. Here are some of the points that struck a chord with me:

We don’t want [insert under-represented heritage here] sites
In fact, one respondent called this idea ‘horrible’ (p. 10).  In other words, they didn’t suddenly want a load of sites that were designated as Black, Muslim, LGBT, whatever.  And there were a couple of reasons why:

The groups aren’t separate
It was actually in the disabled group that they pointed out that disabled people are also lesbian, gay, black, Muslim…But that’s not all:

Groups don’t like to have their marginalisation constantly reinforced
This was specifically said with regard to the language used by organisations: how are the groups represented?  They didn’t want to be represented as always different.

Don’t we all have an ethnicity?
…asked one participant when it came to judging categories for searching heritage lists, such as the category ‘Ethnic History’ – which, alas, doesn’t mean ethnic at all, it means non-White, non-European, non-Western.  But the point that touched me the most was this one:

It is ‘very dangerous’ to address [insert under-represented heritage here] history only to members of that community
This came out of the LGBT group, where they felt that for their ‘political safety’ (p. 25) everyone needed to understand why their history was important.

For me what emerges from the above is one key point: these people don’t want to be singled out and ‘targeted’.  They’re just part of our whole wide wonderful and diverse world.  The moment we focus in on one attribute of a person (“gay”) and then target a programme at that, mostly what we’re signalling is that we, too, see difference, exclusion and marginalisation.  We’re effectively reinforcing that segregation by addressing, as they said, members of that community alone, when the real need may lie somewhere else entirely – for example in addressing our own and society’s focus on just one attribute.  That’s an uncomfortable thought, I know.  But the reality is that there are museums, as mentioned in this report, that simply ignore for example the homosexual attraction their key historic figures may have felt.  And that, more than any lack of targeted programming, may be the reason why people feel our museum is not for them.

So do let’s search our visitor data for under-represented audiences, but let’s understand that what it tells us is not something about those that don’t come.  First and foremost it tells us something about our own organisation.  If there is a black strand to the story of our site, then let’s tell it.  But let’s not set out to tell it ‘for black people’, let’s tell it for people.  Let’s include that ‘ethnic’, LGBT, disabled imagery in our children’s activities as a matter of course, not because we’re doing a programme specifically for these groups.  If there are barriers that may prevent people from coming, be that cultural barriers or physical, then let’s address those barriers – let’s not address the people, as if they were the issue.  That’s what is the underlying principle of equalities legislation and practices, and it’s what museums should apply too.  Once we normalise what we consider an attribute that makes someone hard to reach, our place will become more welcoming to them.  And we may just find that they visit without a single targeted programme on the schedule.

And I will no longer have to use language that talks of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Notes
[1] As an aside, the selection of those consulted is quite interesting: Participants were shortlisted based on whether they had published a major body of research in one of the areas identified as under-represented.  Bless the LGBT expert who noted that it would be more relevant to speak to the local community.  If English Heritage is truly committed to giving equal consideration to communal value then this approach to currently under-represented heritage is unlikely to reach those communities.

When I reviewed the visitor interviews I did last year for my PhD research, I was amazed at the wide associations visitors made.  They talk about Edward Snowden, the attack on Lee Rigby, the experience of getting chased by a local gamekeeper for collecting nuts in a wood just after the Second World War.  They talk about Iraq, class society, making ends meet, and asylum.

Visitors make these connections in response to events that happened more than 2000 years and nearly 950 years ago, respectively.  More interestingly, the interpretation at both sites does not suggest these connections to them, or any others, for that matter.

This made me think about the ‘relate’ principle that is still the foundation stone of much interpretive practice.  Just to remind you:

Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. [1]

For Tilden this was an active ‘relate’: the interpretation has to do something.  His examples are of directly addressing the visitor and her location, as in, ‘The chances are that [prehistoric mammoths] browsed right where you are standing now’ [2].  Since then, addressing the visitor has been one of the key criteria interpreters discuss when they talk about ‘what makes good interpretation’.  Many interpreters will also propose additional practices, such as comparing something old to something modern, as in,  ‘this old thing here is like this thing in (your) modern life’.

However, at neither of my case study sites does the interpretation really make use of this ‘relate’ principle.  The audio guide at Battle Abbey does not address the visitor beyond telling them where to move next.  And yet, it is the most mentioned interpretive device when visitors talk about what helped them connect with the site [my words], along with touching and lifting the weaponry.  Marking place, as I’ve written elsewhere, indeed emerges as immensely important to visitors when it comes to interpretation, and what’s offered, especially at Battle Abbey, is, apparently, perfect: but it doesn’t say ‘where you stand now’, it just literally says, ‘here’ [3].

Tilden’s principle, in theory, predicts that the interpretation therefore is ‘sterile’, and visitors are not able to make connections.  And yet the opposite seems to be the case in my research.  Not only are visitors making wide associations, at Battle Abbey in particular they also make very strong claims on the heritage and its physical site: this is our heritage, our history, our identity.

Of course, there are other factors that may enable these associations, and these still require further examination.   I will share one thought, though: perhaps Tilden, despite his caution to interpreters, himself underestimated the power of visitors’ ability to make connections for themselves. In addition, it may be altogether more sustainable and more inclusive not to suggest to visitors how they should relate to what they see.  As we are expected to make heritage more widely accessible, it seems rather shortsighted to arbitrarily pick a few connections out of the many that are possible and inscribe them into our (permanent) interpretation.  What may be meaningful in one way to one visitor may be meaningful in a completely different way to another– or indeed it may be entirely irrelevant. What visitors’ comments in my research seem to suggest is that other factors, such as presenting a balanced view and using simple language, are more important in helping them connect to a site and make wide associations, or, in Tilden’s terms, to ‘relate’ [4].

Notes
[1] Tilden, F., 1957.  Interpreting Our Heritage.  3rd edition.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, p. 9
[2] ibid, p. 13.  The emphasis is mine after Tilden’s own highlighting of these two terms on the following page.
[3] And then proceeds to do a dramatization of what happened ‘here’, accompanied by a very lively, conversational, yet authoritative and balanced commentary.  What this may suggest is that there are other factors at work that make the interpretation successful if measured by connections made.
[4] And note the shift here in who is active in doing the ‘relating’: the visitor, not the interpretation.  Important point, if you ask me.

Last week I left my job as Audience Development Manager for St Albans Museums Service to join Jura Consultants as a Senior Consultant.  The change has prompted a few reflections, not the least around what it means to me to go from being a site-based member of staff to becoming a consultant.

There are a few things I think I’ll miss from being site-based.  I’ll miss those encounters with visitors who simply appreciated the contribution I made to their visit as a frontline interpreter. My key ring is still one that a visitor to Culloden Battlefield gave me.  For months, I kept a little piece of twig art in my car that a girl on one of our educational programmes made for me at Montgomery Place.

I’ll also miss being witness to people’s emotional responses to a site.  I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog the man who grabbed hold of my arm after a guided tour of Culloden Battlefield to tell me, with tears in his eyes, how glad he was to have made it there before he died.  What a privilege to see that happen!  And it opened my eyes to the fact that heritage is more than a material thing that must be protected.

I’ve learnt so much from visitors and stakeholders about heritage and interpretation. Theory and reports let you get away with words.  On-site practice holds you responsible to stakeholders’ on-the-spot feedback.  It was great doing a module on community engagement at university, but it wasn’t until I worked with the people of Tredegar that I understood why this was so very, very important, and how much further I needed to push my interpretive practice at Bedwellty House and Park to do them justice.  I valued that.

I think I’ll also miss having the ability to be creative and take risks with programmes and activities on site.  At St Albans Museums, our Occupy the Museum event last year was a great way to gauge people’s thoughts about the museum, and what we should bear in mind for an upcoming major redevelopment project.   Our Blood, Lust and Roses historic soap opera about the Wars of the Roses was a process-driven community engagement project that responded to outcomes from Occupy, and was one of the most creative, meaningful and yet unconventional projects I’ve ever been involved in.  It was also great to set out on these journeys of trial and error with an amazing team, and learn together.

Of course, some of this will also be part of my work as a consultant.  With every new project I will meet new, dedicated on-site staff and passionate stakeholders, and encounter visitors and what their heritage means to them. More so than in my work on site, I will be able to do in-depth research and take the time to properly analyse results and decide what this means for practice (there never was enough time to do that properly on site).  I’m thrilled to have joined a company that I’ve regularly come across professionally and as part of my academic work, and frankly, consultancy of the Jura kind has been my goal for a while now.  I am so looking forward to this new chapter in my professional life.

But as I leave St Albans and my work as a site-based member of staff, I realize how much these experiences have meant to me – professionally, and yes, I admit, also personally.  So, not knowing how much of this will be repeated in my new life as a consultant, I’m feeling a bit emotional.  And I’d like to say thank you to all the wonderful visitors I’ve met, to the stakeholders who challenged me to test my theories, and to the members of the various teams I’ve had the honour to work with.  Much of what I can bring to consultancy I owe to you.

I recently read Sharon MacDonald’s fascinating book Difficult Heritage.  Negotiating the Nazi past in Nuremberg and beyond [1].  There were a lot of thought-provoking observations in the book, but the one I’d like to focus on today are the guided tours of the Nazi rally grounds.

Geschichte fuer Alle organises these tours.  Their website explains that they are an organisation ‘working scientifically’, which aims to provide a critical point of view.  For the tours of the Nazi rally grounds, MacDonald writes that the organisation wishes to ‘present the site factually rather than through moralising statements’ (p. 149).  This last bit I think is worth highlighting.  No moralising statements.  This sounds really progressive.  It suggests that visitors are allowed to make up their own minds.  We’re facilitators, not dictators.  We won’t moralise, or preach to you.

According to MacDonald, the organisation provides their guides with in-depth scripts for reference, giving not only the key points that should be covered, but also a range of suggestions on how to deliver them.  Questions, for example, are strongly promoted as a good way of engaging audiences.  Now that’s something we all know from learning theory, and it’s a strategy well rehearsed in interpretative best practice.  However, as MacDonald continued with her observations of the tours, I began to wonder about the way the questions were employed, and what impact they may have on visitors as the tour progresses.

Questions such as, What were the party rallies? (p. 151) are no doubt a good way of gauging visitors’ level of knowledge. But what dynamics do they actually activate?  The question asks visitors to give quite a clear answer about what they know.  And immediately, there is the possibility of a wrong answer – either factually or in terms of social acceptability.  Will visitors take that risk?  Or, in the case of social acceptability, will they simply tell us what they think we want to hear? Either way, does a question like this really promote interaction, and achieve any positive aim for the interpretation?

The questions to me became even more doubtful when used as part of eliciting what MacDonald termed the ‘preferred reading’ of the site.  For example, the question ‘Do you like the façade [of the Congress Hall]?’ was then followed by explanations of how the stone for the building was quarried by inmates from nearby concentration camps, themselves illustrated by pictures which the guide held up.  On the face of it, this is a brilliant technique: you engage visitors emotionally with a building (Do you like it?) and then you ‘peel away’ at the façade (MacDonald literally calls this ‘façade-peeling’), leading to the hidden truth behind what you can see.  Great.

Except of course, you are also making it clear that any response that suggested a visitor liked the space, was, alas, wrong.  In fact, I can imagine visitors feeling as if they, by liking the building, are thought to have embraced the way in which it was built.  Their positive answer not only becomes wrong, but it becomes morally reprehensible.  Again, I understand that the technique means to peel away the façade.  But does it achieve that? You are asking a question based on one piece of information (how the buildings look) and then you effectively make a judgment about that answer by revealing additional information (forced labour, concentration camps) that completely changes the context of your first question.  You got interaction, certainly.  But is it the right kind of interaction? And what about those visitors that have a sense of awe, or of unity and community when it comes to the rallies and their buildings?  Can this technique really get them to critically engage with those feelings?  Or does it make it easier for them to reject the tour’s ‘preferred reading’, because they feel they are being censored and manipulated?

Which brings me to the preferred readings themselves.  It may be easy to embrace the concept of preferred readings when it comes to a site like the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg.  But how are preferred readings different to those moralising statements that Geschichte fuer Alle vowed not to make? MacDonald observed instances where eyewitnesses on tours were effectively neutralized, and their experience of having felt ‘forced’ to participate in the rallies or the Hitler Youth dismissed and muted by the guide.  Where is the line here between telling historical facts (and challenging inaccuracies), and the despotic inscription of meaning?

I’m intrigued by all of this, not the least because my own research in Germany suggests that such encoding of preferred readings in interpretation is undertaken without enough consideration or understanding of its impact on visitors.  Furthermore, responses from visitors themselves suggest that they are well aware of it, and that some most emphatically resent it.  I’ve yet to do some more interviews at a control study site, but if the findings there are consistent with the findings that I already have, then interpretation will need to rethink not only our practices as illustrated by the tours at the Nazi rally grounds, but also what motivates these practices.

Notes
[1] London and New York: Routledge.  2009.

Last week we had to cancel a training day on community engagement because of low uptake [1].  The training co-ordinator suggested that community engagement may still not be seen to be important to the work of museums.  He may be right, but I very much hope he isn’t.  After all, there is, and has been for a couple of years, a lot of talk about community engagement in the museums sector in the UK.

The thing is, sometimes I wonder whether we’re all talking about the same thing when we say ‘community engagement’.  And I wonder if the practices that are out there can really be called ‘community engagement’, or whether it’s just a label that we apply to tick a box.

I deal a lot with community engagement and co-creation, so I inevitably hear a lot of comments about it too.  And I’m afraid I often disagree with them.  At a recent network meeting, for example, someone talked about a community engagement project in which they got people in to work on their archive.  That’s not community engagement, if you ask me.  That’s getting volunteers in to do the work you need doing. Another person understood engagement as working with pre-constituted groups, which you target according to your own choice. Again, with this level of museums control (your choice) and exclusion of other members of the community, I don’t feel we’re really justified in calling this community engagement [2]. In another meeting someone felt it was community engagement if a group approached the museum with an idea and then executed it on their own with the museum in effect providing nothing more than a venue.  I’m not sure I would call that engagement either.

Now don’t get me wrong: these are all worthy project structures [3].  And compared to those times when museums were completely closed off to any public input, they are better than nothing. But personally, I feel we need to strive for more than that.  For one thing, I think community engagement should be embedded in how a museum or heritage site is run.  No more one-off projects without any links to what else is happening. Yes, you may need to kick-start the process with a few individual projects, but these quickly should turn into a constant dialogue, where one thing leads to another and then sideways feeds into yet another aspect of museums work. We need a constant stream of crowd sourcing and participation and feedback and co-production, to the point where every little thing has a public connection.  And that’s not where it should end either.  I do believe museums and heritage sites are an active part of people’s lives, and therefore our community engagement should not only have an impact on us, it should have an impact on ‘the community’ as well.

Allow me to give an example of which I am mightily proud.  In my museums service, we decided to put the call out to the community to get their input into what should go onto our Community Timeline.  Not only did people submit events, people and landmarks we’d never even considered, but we were also able to draw on a previous engagement project, where people had specifically shared local superstitions.  We also, for the first time, heard from a part of the community that so far the service had had no contact with, and whose history is completely and utterly absent from our exhibition and the story we tell: the Jewish community.  So I asked them if they would like to do a talk as part of our lecture series.  They agreed, and what was going to be just a talk given by one Jewish group turned into their own engagement project where they collaborated across different denominations within Judaism.  The talk sold out, with plenty of attendees never having been to the museum before.  Now the synagogue will host a re-run, and some of our non-Jewish visitors who missed the first talk are set to go there to catch it this time around.

To me, this is really exciting.  It was a give and take, inspiration being traded and the programming and display most decidedly being developed together over a series of different activities and collaborations [4].  It had an impact on us, and it certainly had an impact on them.

There are still a few big questions to ask, and I will be the first to admit that I neither have the definite answers nor am I sure that everything we do in our service actually works when it comes to community engagement.  What level of collaboration and dialogue makes something real engagement?  What type of power balance qualifies?  Is it engagement if the stimulus comes from us?  Is it engagement if we just provide a venue?  In my service, we use several different methods, so I suppose we’re covering all bases. But as I tried to illustrate with my example: in the end, I feel that community engagement is real and truly successful when it develops a life of its own.

Note
[1] For the record, in my practice I prefer talking about stakeholder engagement.  But if ‘community engagement’ doesn’t find enough supporters, then ‘stakeholder’ engagement gathers none.  So I’ve given in.
[2] I actually feel quite strongly that targeting groups, especially when they’re the types of groups generally favoured by a social inclusion or ‘hard to reach’ agenda (young offenders, mental health groups, or ethnic minorities), is often a rather questionable practice.  It labels and defines people by something that’s negative and which they probably wouldn’t choose themselves as their one defining attribute (e.g. the offender).  It also tends to limit the responses or perspectives that we allow people to have (I hope I never see another ‘mental health’ response to a collection).
[3] Except for targeting groups.  I really can’t bring myself to see any good in that.
[4] Our volunteers did the artwork to represent what people had submitted, and the public helped us paint the timeline.  And talking of giving over control: when the young school children we’d invited in drew green grass and trees everywhere both our Learning Officer and I were close to a heart attack.  But then you just have to let go.  Now I like how colourful it is!

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