I know I keep writing about how we need more research and critical self-analysis in interpretation. But when I recently read Dr Bernadette Lynch’s report ‘Whose Cake is it Anyway?’ (2009) and Skibins, Powell and Stern’s 2012 ‘Exploring empirical support for interpretation’s best practices’ I didn’t feel validated. I felt depressed.
Lynch researched ‘the real nature and effectiveness’ of community participation practices across 12 UK museums . While it didn’t surprise me that she found there exists ‘an illusion that the work is more effective than it is’ (p. 10), I was plainly shocked to read that ‘target participants’ felt frustrated and had ‘the unhappy feeling of having colluded in their own marginalisation, disempowerment and even exclusion’ (my emphasis, p. 12). Lynch also had a good (discourse analytic) look at the language one museum used (‘we believe’, ‘we can make people’s lives better’, ‘we nurture a sense of belonging’, ‘we provide, expand, foster, encourage’, my emphasis) . Her conclusion is that museums display ‘an almost nineteenth-century view of a passive subject, outside the institution, awaiting improvement (my emphasis, p. 16).
It’s worthwhile pointing out that in our official interpretation discourse, we use similar language as the museum quoted above. For example, here in Britain, the Association for Heritage Interpretation writes that interpretation ‘helps people’ to ‘make sense’, ‘understand more’, that it ‘enables communities to better understand their heritage’ and that it ‘enhances’ visitor’s experience, thus ‘resulting’ in a variety of benefits, including individuals possibly identifying ‘with lost values inherent in their culture’ (my emphasis). Is interpretation also stuck in a 19th century mindset?
Interestingly, in Lynch’s study the ‘participation’ experience was frustrating for participants, yes, but in the end they weren’t all that bothered, it seems to me. After all, they knew that they needed museums less than museums needed them, as one of them said (p. 21) .
The article by Skibins, Powell and Stern sought evidence for a causal relationship between the best practice techniques established in interpretation literature and outcomes examined in evaluation studies. Theirs was a review of 70 articles rather than a piece of original research, which in itself makes for sobering reading. Evaluators, they write, often didn’t seek to isolate factors that may have determined outcomes – there was a tendency to uncritically assume that an outcome is associated with a particular technique, when really, the cause for it could have been anything. This becomes even more depressing when they point out that many best practice examples still were only linked to an outcome fewer than 5 times, with many others having no link with an outcome at all. If ever there was evidence that we need more evidence, this surely is it.
That’s all I’m saying. We have to be self-critical. We have to constantly test our assumptions or interpretation as a discipline will become even more marginalised and undervalued than it is already in places.
 Participation, or community engagement as I prefer to call it, to me is the core of interpretation. Just in case you’re wondering why I’m talking about a study on participation on my interpretation blog.
 Of course that’s just the one museum who had the courage to hand over its policies for scrutiny. I daresay we’ll find that most policies talk like that.
 Which is another way of saying that they don’t need museums, or interpreters, to understand their heritage. They already understand it, or at least enough without having to put up with our professional hybris.