I spent last week at a thought-provoking seminar on interpreting megalithic sites. Most of the other participants were archaeologists, charged with unearthing the facts that might tell us what sites are all about. I couldn’t help but be impressed by their attention to detail, and their commitment to objectivity and truth.
The latter is of course not quite as clean cut as we may think. As we strove to define megalithic sites, and whether there were enough similarities between sites across the globe to merit clustering them under the definition, my colleagues began to argue – not about the facts (usually), but about what these tell us. I found that illustrative of the whole issue of facts, objectivity and truth. There are facts, yes. But how we interpret them (in the non-heritage interpretation meaning of the word) is largely dependent on our own perspectives.
And this, incidentally, is what research on learning, evaluative studies on knowledge gain through interpretation, and even general practice books on interpretation tell us over and over again: how people interact with sites, what they take from them, depends on where they started their journey.
However, while we are quick to acknowledge the above in general terms, when it comes to letting go of our control over meaning, somehow we no longer embrace this fully. We seem to allow people to have a range of views, as long as these are those sanctioned by the experts. But if people stray outside of these, we’re no longer quite that easy-going.
I think our definitions of interpretation as they currently stand express rather eloquently that we have what is ultimately an autocratic view of meaning. Interpretation ‘forges connections’, we write, as if people may not already have connections to heritage. Even more bluntly, some state that interpretation ‘brings meaning’ to a site, again suggesting that the site doesn’t already have meaning for people.
Neither is the case, of course, as we saw for ourselves on our fieldtrips to megalithic sites in Wiltshire, UK . At West Kennet Long Barrow, people had left flowers inside one of the chambers. At Woodhenge, people had created rather lovely corn stalk circles and left them in the centre of the site, where once a burial had been.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t subscribe to the view either that Stonehenge once served as an alien landing pad. But while one of my colleagues felt this view should be soundly dismissed, both in the interpretation offered at the new visitor centre and in any further engagement, I feel quite differently. I have no qualms whatsoever about presenting all views put forward by people, or at least allowing plenty of room for them to express them, and live them, as it were. What’s the harm? Of course we should present all the facts as we know them, but clearly these facts don’t subsequently only lead to one neat meaning.
I think what might be happening is that as experts, we get too passionate, and dare I say too precious about our own meanings. I feel the same way when it comes to interpretation, and I can certainly have heated discussions about it. But at the centre of my view of interpretation lie the people themselves. I will give them facts, and facilitate their engagement with a site, and I’ll be on hand to offer further input when they seek it. Beyond that, it’s up to them what they make of all of this. It’s their site more so than it is mine . I measure success not by whether or not they’ve accepted my meaning, but whether they’ve explored and arrived at their own.
I know there are a lot of issues surrounding sites, especially those where conflicting views exist, and where the desire to use a site clashes with its conservation. Nevertheless, the seminar has highlighted for me once again how important it is that as interpreters we are honest to ourselves, and reflect on how we relate to visitors. Do we think we know better than them? Are we on a mission to ‘educate’? Do we behave in a way that is disrespectful to their views where we find these unfounded, irrational, and perhaps a bit weird? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I think it’s high time to do some soul-searching.
 I’d like to emphasise this: out of all the sites we have, megalithic sites are the ones we know the least about. And yet they still have meaning for people. Some may argue that it’s precisely this lack of absolute knowledge that creates, or enables so many different meanings. That may be the case. But to me, it illustrates that people more often than not already have a connection to a site, and a site has meaning for them.
 And generally quite literally so, because I’ve almost exclusively interpreted sites outside of my own heritage. I have no personal attachment.