AHI Conference 2012 – Some interesting questions

So that’s the first workshop and the first set of keynote talks out of the way at this year’s Association for Heritage Interpretation.  All well delivered and full of provocation with plenty of relevance and some revelation.

Sorry, that’s an ‘in joke’. A long time ago, 55 years ago to be precise,  an American journo wrote wisely and well about what we do.  A while later, his work was reduced to those three words: Provoke, Relate, Reveal.  I now refer to them in my more iconoclastic moments as ‘The Bluffer’s Guide to Heritage Interpretation’.

Nowadays, there is rather more subtlety and precision around the business of communicating about and engaging people with heritage.  That has been apparent here.

Is this what these visitors want? Good questions! Why not ask them?

In her workshop, Gerri Morris of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, who I have raved about here and here, talked about the need to know your visitors really well. Their 30 years of research has in my view helped to change the game in this area and made visitor focus that much more possible.  A visitor focus requires good knowledge and understanding of your visitors, she said. I think she’s so obviously right that there’s not a lot to say.

Interestingly, others in the room were more sceptical. My mission now is to find out why. Someone suggested it is that some designers and some interpreters like to think they know the answers to questions about what visitors want.  I can see that belief would make life easier.  It won’t help us produce the best work – or to engage with the most people, make the most impact, or best demonstrate the importance and value of heritage. Data matters. Using it well matters more.

So there was a whiff of that old curatorial and interpretive arrogance ‘we will tell them what we think they should know, in the way we want to tell them’ in the air.

Other speakers blew that away.  Graham Black of Nottingham Trent University put down markers on how the communications revolution and the ‘Age of Participation’ calls for us to ‘go forth and innovate’.  He also rather interestingly told us to clasp our visitors to our bosoms, so I will be trying that at some point, and blaming Graham.

Cathy Lewis was refreshing, entertaining  and scathing about the use of language in art museums and made a cogent and well-argued case for interpreting art .(I don’t entirely agree; I would be more inclined to take novice art gallery goers through an imagination warm up gym rather than  giving them better interpretation but that’s another story.) I liked the examples of better interpretation that Cathy gave enormously.

These are people well worth listening to. They have got us off to a good start.

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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2 Responses to AHI Conference 2012 – Some interesting questions

  1. Thanks, Susan. I enjoyed reading about the AHI conference. I am curious about the interpretation of art museums in the U.K. and Europe. I do not find art museums doing much of an interpretive nature in the U.S. and it is rare to meet art curators or professionals at interpretive meetings. I really enjoyed some of the interpretive stories in art museums in Amsterdam and thought others interfered a bit. The Van Gogh Museum showed some of his works and then the works of others that influenced his paintings. It left me with the impression that his work were poor imitations of other artists. I doubt they wanted me to get that idea, but it is where I landed. I’ll be looking more closely at art interpretation as we travel. I think they need interpretive planners, but then again, that’s what we do so I would think that – wouldn’t I. 😉

    • Hi Tim and thanks for this comment. I too am curious about interpretation in art galleries too and think it’s worth thinking about more. I am guessing that you, like me, have no ‘background’ in art at all? If so, I think that makes it even more interesting. You might enjoy reading my post “How I visit an art gallery’ about our recent visit to the Hepworth Gallery Wakefield that set me thinking. More to the point is probably Regan Forrest’s excellent comment on that blog. I don’t know whether you know Regan, but if you don’t, check out her blog “interActivate’. I find it a good read.

      I think Regan would agree with me that part of visiting an art gallery or, maybe more precisely, enjoying an art gallery for at least some people is about having permission to to enjoy the space and the experience and to be creative with it, if only internally. The role of information in that is precarious and contestable and tricky as you suggest. Maybe in this context interpretation is more about encouraging the experience.

      (… and now I go out on a limb that I have just spotted …)

      In that regard, art interpretation is possibly more like wildlife interpretation – which is based on skills and the widening of the sensory and empathetic experience judiciously seasoned with knowledge – than human heritage interpretation where narrative and storytelling has a far greater role.


      I agree with you that the Van Gogh Museum did not want you to get that impression. I am very sorry you left possibly my favorite art museum in the world thinking that way. With my “But I would think that wouldn’t I?’ hat on, I wonder whether the interpretation assumed a level of familiarity with how those ‘in the know’ think about art that the likes of you and I don’t have. (Just don’t get me started on Classical concert programmes, a world I trying to break into that definitely needs an interpreter. BIWTTWI?)

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