Inheritance and legacy, stories in heritage interpretation

When I consider using story in interpretation, I am mining a vein of thought that has run deep through my 30 years in the interpretation business, constantly welling up into new ideas and questions. For me it has been and continues to be a rich seam.

The traditional image of the storyteller has been an inspiration for much of my work.

Look at/ listen to this. It is a voice from across a millennium

Anno Domini. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the Ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”

That’s from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, telling about the arrival of the Vikings in Britain. It was written in the early 12th century somewhere between 100 and 300 years after the event it describes. This is someone looking back through generations and setting down what happened and what it meant, for their contemporaries and their descendants – and doing so in a way that that hits us, in our unimaginably different lives, in our hearts and in our heads. We understand and we feel it. Is that what you do or aspire to do? It is my goal.

So how far will our words and pictures carry? Whether we present them in print, guided tours, audio, podcasts, apps, QR codes or digital watermarks or anything else we are about to invent, how far can they go? What can help them go further, and to reach and pass through the frontiers of time, space and culture? I believe the answer lies partly in a deep understanding of and respect for story and the transmission of stories.

Twenty-five years ago I named my business TellTale for the exact same reason, but with far less understanding. The role of the storyteller has been a motif and inspiration for much of my work. It has served me well and taught me much.  (You can read more on this here.)

It’s not only in our business name, just look how those words fly off the page! Like all the best stories, they have a life of their own.

Story, inheritance and legacy

As interpreters and museum professionals we have a clear and possibly unique way of looking to the future. Like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler, we have a grasp of inheritance and legacy – what was passed to us, and what we will pass on.

Our professions are based on the preservation and perpetuation of places, wildlife, objects and their significance. We record people and events, animals, rocks and plants and, crucially, tell their stories. It is the stories that enshrine and transmit the value and significance of what we do. We are communicators, not simply collectors or conservationists.  Our task is to take the treasures of our collections and our sites out into the community, across the world, and through generations into the future. To do we need to become the modern equivalent of the ancient storytellers.

This talk is about the role of story and storytelling in society. It is a reflection on the skills, approaches and understanding that make for story. It is about the spirit of story.


1. I do not mean lies, I am not advocating the deliberate misleading of the visiting public. Not at all, never. Interpretation has to be based in truth and integrity.

2. I am talking figuratively rather than simply literally here. I am not saying the future of interpretation lies only in face-to-face communication, in people relaying narratives ancient and modern – although that can be absolutely great.

This is the first in a series of posts based  on my keynote ‘Bridging experience; story as a vehicle for interpreters’ at the Museums Australia / Interpretation Australia ‘At the Frontier’ Conference in Perth, Western Australia in November 2011. I remain profoundly grateful to Interpretation Australia for that invitation and for the wonderful and unexpected opportunity to visit Australia.  Subesequent posts are here, and here.


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.
This entry was posted in Australia, Historical interpretation, Interpretation, Interpretation Australia, Interpretelling, Museums, Stories, Storytelling, Tips and advice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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