What interpreters can learn from the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony

Interpreters can learn a lot from other forms of cultural communication – like Olympic opening ceremonies.

So  what can we glean from Danny Boyle, the guy who created the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony?  This is what he had to say about the process of trying to introduce contemporary Britain to the world.. (If that link to the BBC doesn’t work outside UK … Google Huw Edwards interview with Danny Boyle (it appears not to on YouTube yet) or try my Facebook  … and if that doesn’t work just read on.)

Welcoming the world to LOndon for the Olympics is really rather exciting.


1. (In answer to question ‘Where do you start?”) ‘We sat down with a blank sheet of paper and said ‘okay what is it about us? … Start talking…’ 

All creative processes begin with a blank sheet and a gang of people with something to say – and that arduous, energising, tense process of working out exactly what that is and why it matters.   I don’t think it matters whether the end product is a half hour tour of your house or a three hour multi-media international extravaganza. Danny’s piece showed the values they were trying to convey – inclusion, community, change, drama, humour, humility and warmth.

2. ‘It’s a wonderful thing to do’

Yes, Danny, it is.  Those of us who who have a part to play in recording, preserving, celebrating and sharing our natural and cultural heritage are fortunate indeed. I have said it before, for instance here, and will doubtless do so again.

3. You focus on the best of us … but you have to be slightly critical’

Yes, again.  Increasingly, I feel that engaging interpretation comes from the passion and connection of the interpreter with the story they are telling. That includes being absolutely clear about why you need to tell this story. That becomes the core of your communication and it is compelling.

Balance is another thing. Other perspectives are often crucial but may be best presented alongside rather than mixed with and blunting the main story. Telling our story properly often involves many voices (it certainly did in the Olympic stadium)

Like Danny Boyle, I have come to trust the public to deal with complexity, nuance and diversity.

4. ‘ … she didn’t grow up here , so she can say “I don’t know what you’re on about here – an international audience would be totally bemused …” . You have to keep an international perspective.’

It is always so important to listen to parts of the audience who are ‘not like you’.  It is so easy to get caught up in the delight of telling your own story.

I am not sure Danny really got this right but I cannot judge because I am too enmeshed in this culture.  I am guessing that quite a lot of the world was pretty bemused by much of that ceremony. I am also fairly sure that foreign visitors will be bemused by much of the interpretation presented at natural and human heritage attractions in the UK, which can also be rich in cultural references and assumptions.

We may be incomprehensible but we are welcoming.

I understand that the Chinese commentators endeavoured to explain all the cultural references from grime to Mary Poppins.  I think we should give them another medal, to add to their doubtless mega-haul, for that!

5. ‘It has to represent us and be truthful about our heritage and the details of our growing up …‘ 

I can judge on this.  Yes, this felt like a decent, truthful stab at the story of my troubled, colourful, exciting, diverse, and divisive country. I love that notion of our heritage as ‘the details of our growing up’.  That really resonates with much of our work, especially the work we are doing in Kilkenny.

6. ‘You gotta remember where you come from, you gotta have respect for the past and the heritage but you’re pushing forward, as much as you can, you’re trying to move forward.  This is about the next generation … about inclusivity … it belongs to the people.’

Yes, yes, YES. Punches air.

This nails the real importance of what we do as heritage communicators. It is about saying and celebrating who we are, about sharing that with others and increasing understanding between and across communities and cultures.

And here’s the challenge – are we always doing it with an eye to the future .. are we pushing forward as much as we can?  I hope so – but maybe we could do better. Higher. Stronger. Faster.

Celebrating Britain is an unsettling, unusual but not entirely unpleasant experience.

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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