After the Interpret Europe conference 2012: So why do we interpret?

“This is a ‘both/and’ not an ‘either/or’ universe”.  I know I say that often, probably too often; I certainly said it rather often at the Interpret Europe conference in Pisa. I do believe it is true – in life, in business and in our business of interpretation. Not all dichotomies are real, they can be artificial barriers that constrain and stifle our thinking and interventions.

Despite the common British (and, as I learned in Pisa, Swedish) saying we can have our cake and eat it too. In fact I think we should.

I say, have this cake, and eat it. Then have another, eat that too. Keep the supply of cake and creativity flowing.

At Pisa we were offered a range of dichotomies and definitions.  Interpretation serves management OR is an end in itself (i.e. stimulates lifelong learning and personal fulfillment). Alternatively, Interpretation is concerned with tourism OR with the public good.

I don’t want to play these games. I do not want to join any of these camps, although I imagine all of them think that I would be a natural recruit. I do not even want to sit on  the fences between them.  I want to continue to do what I have always done, to find out ways that people can share what really matters about the places they love in ways that can influence, delight and inspire others.  So, I have a foot in each camp – making me now a quadreped!

This is Max – also a TellTale quadraped.

CAMP 1 Interpretation for Social Benefit

When the people with something to share and the others  live in the same place, I will happily describe my interpretation work as delivering social benefit, increasing community cohesion and dialogue, supporting mental and even, sometimes physical, health and well-being, promoting literacy, building capacity, engaging in social planning, public science, or whatever. These are great and rewarding things to do and I love this work.

Community arts and community interpretation can be closely related. Here people of all ages (3 to 80) make personal books based on exploring local flora and wildlife as part of the “Plants People and Peaks’ series of events run by Stone and Water in 2011.

CAMP 2 Interpretation supports tourism

The sharing people and the others may live far apart and the others may be visiting for only a short while.  This makes them ‘tourists’. Our interpretation work becomes the framework of a conversation where strangers can discover one another’s lives. It can open dialogue and build understanding that is maybe particularly essential in sustainable tourism. Interpretation can be part of a vivid and locally distinct hospitality that makes a place fascinating, friendly and memorable. These are great and rewarding things to do and I love this work.

Of course I am part of this camp too.  We have been working in Ireland for three and half years demonstrating how good interpretation can help visitors to the country have a better, more meaningful stay, where they feel more a part of the Irish way of life and culture.  This is really high national economic priority and a concentration on heritage interpretation is rightly at the centre of it.

I wrote Failte Ireland’s Sharing our Stories manual to help cultural heritage tourism attractions, especially small ones, use interpretation and visitor experience planning to strengthen their business.

CAMP 3 Interpretation for managing people and places

Sometimes the sharing people have strong and passionately held views about how special their place is and how the others should behave towards it.  In this case the sharing people may not actually want to share, they might prefer to dictate, exclude or control. The others may not know or care about the specialness, they may disagree, they may have good reasons for behaving differently. The sharing people may be a big or important organisation and the others local people. Or, equally, vice versa.

This camp probably needs interpreters most. There is potential trouble brewing here and our skills can help. This is important and rewarding work and I love it.

CAMP 4 Interpretation ‘as an end in itself’

Maybe, after all, I am not in this camp.  It is certainly the one I want to think about most.  From where I stand, it looks quite similar to CAMP 1 and I think it shares quite a lot of ground, the part labelled ‘sustainable cultural tourism’ with CAMP 2. I am wondering if this is the camp that academics and intellectuals like best. For myself I like to visit this camp but the real work is elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, I am in both this camp and that camp – and that one and that.  Just as I am now in San Giminiano both as an awestruck visitor and as a visitor experience/ interpretation professional.

We should maybe beware of distinctions and definitions.

About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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