Interpretation: whose business?

I have a confession to make.

Probably a contentious one, given I am Vice President of Interpretation Australia, but one I will make nonetheless: I’m having a bit of a problem with the word ‘interpretation‘.

The word is tantalisingly – misleadingly – simple: and this in itself presents an interpretive problem. Outside the heritage profession, it has a completely different meaning, usually related to translating foreign languages. And even within heritage circles, I sometimes wonder whether we are all talking about precisely the same thing when we’re talking about ‘interpretation’.

The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud from (One of the top images which came up from a Google search under 'interpretation' - yet another meaning for this vexed term!)

Before I go on, I’ll bring in an analogous example – the word ‘theory’. No-one would need to go look it up in the dictionary. Through common usage we all know it means a ‘hunch’, something we’re basing on conjecture but which we don’t have enough evidence to prove outright. In common usage, ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’ are interchangeable terms. But not to scientists. In science, a ‘theory’ is something that is so well backed up by available evidence that it can be taken as an established fact. A hypothesis, on the other hand, is closer to our common understanding of  the word ‘theory’ – we think we know what might be going on, but the results are not yet in.

This disconnect between everyday and specialist usage of a seemingly harmless word such as ‘theory’ has its consequences.  For instance, people who wish to undermine the well-established Theory of Evolution for their own political or religious agenda can turn around and say:  “Well, it’s only a theory, isn’t it?”

Now ‘interpretation’ doesn’t suffer quite like ‘theory’ in the way it is wilfully misinterpreted. But even so, I think the issue of definition runs deeper than just having to clear up confusion when you answer one of those ‘So what do you do?’ questions at dinner parties. How do you get someone to value something when they’re not even sure what it is?

The latest edition of Interpreting Australia focuses on the business side of interpretation: does interpretation make sense from a business perspective? How can we incorporate the value of interpretation into business bottom lines? Is there a firm line where marketing and customer service stop and interpretation begins? And what does this mean for who should be charged with ‘doing’ interpretation?

Sue Hodges writes the first instalment of a thought provoking series (the rest will be coming on the Interpretation Australia website soon) about how the unclear definition and intangible nature of interpretation makes it easy for it to be undervalued and ‘claimed’ by other professions rather than being a separate entity, calling for its own dedicated expertise and budget:

Intepretation suffers from being pluralistic. It spans many disciplines . . . Yet it is this very adaptability that currently threatens our profession; many other disciplines also want our slice of the pie . . . most [interpretation] could theoretically be undertaken by anyone because the required skills base is neither mandatory, legislated nor confined to the arts or sciences. Interpreters are vying for business against specialties which are more clearly defined, such as architecture. . . . it can be hard to justify adaptive and intangible interpretive work against the familiar and tangible work from allied professions. (Interpreting Australia Issue 43, p6)

In this context, consultants from all sorts of fields can claim they can do the ‘interpretation’ part of a project. And if clients aren’t entirely clear what interpretation is, and get different definitions depending on who they speak to, this only muddies the water further.

In a similar vein, I recently had a discussion with someone who is charged with helping local tourism businesses create better experiences (to the end of increasing visitor spend and of course, profits). While we both understood intuitively how interpretation can (and does) enhance tourism experiences, it’s hard to quantify exactly what interpretive ‘inputs’ will lead to a specific set of bottom-line ‘outputs’. And without this hard data, it can be difficult for some business owners, unfamiliar with the term ‘interpretation’ in the first place, to get it (and see why it’s a wise investment).

Our discussion did make me wonder whether the use of the term ‘interpretation’ was actually counter-productive in this instance, and whether we should just be seeing good interpretation as an integral part of creating a distinctive experience, regardless of what we call it?

Or maybe we turn it the other way around –  and show how interpretation is something people know about already! In another of the Interpreting Australia articles, Michele Bain of Designhaus draws upon the example of Jamie Oliver as an ‘interpreter’ of food and nutrition:

. . .he engaged us and inspired us so completely we never even noticed that we were actually learning to cook. (Interpreting Australia Issue 43, p10)

Perhaps if we described interpretation in these more familiar terms – i.e. applying interpretive principles to communicating the very concept of interpretation – we might help businesses make the conceptual leap from seeing interpretation as something that sounds very academic and not particularly relevant to them,  to understanding that it is the ‘secret ingredient’ which makes the difference between so-so and must-see.

To take the cooking analogy a step further: bricks-and-mortar might be the meat-and-potatoes of a destination, but without the carefully planned and expertly created ‘sauce’ that is interpretation, the experience may satisfy the basics but it is hardly going to be unique,  memorable or emotionally satisfying.

Maybe that is the way to describe what I do at the next dinner party . . .

3 Replies to “Interpretation: whose business?”

  1. Interesting. I didn’t even know there was a science or art (whatever) of interpretation aimed specifically at increasing revenue from sites and exhibitions! The term “interpretive centre” has bothered me ever since I visited Stonehenge the second time (about 1998 I think) and found the underground and above-ground construction that stopped me from seeing what I wanted to see from the angles I wanted to see it from! [And of course, mucked up any ideas of my own photos of it. Grr] When I went the first time, there was a brochure, a booklet and some small signboards explaining a few points about how Stonehenge might have been constructed, why, where the angles and directions for the solstice was, a bit about the rituals and the history of the whole site. Walking amongst the standing stones I marveled at their size and wondered how the past builders had achieved the form. I knew a little about the solstice thing and that was really enough- the enchantment of the place was quite satisfying. Then the second time there was a swarm of humanity, noisy buses, doddering older people blocking everything and zillions of schoolkids hooning about paying no attention to the scenery! You had to pay a “guide” to get a potted tour and explanation, the explanatory booklets cost a fortune and I couldn’t walk amongst the stones any more. There were lots of big boards explaining things and giving a lot of details about rituals and carved symbols etc. I found it all a horrible experience with none of the atmosphere of my first visit. All the “interpretation” just made me retreat further from what was on offer and made me quite cranky! Do you know if Stonehenge is supposed to be a good or bad example of interpretation? It seemed overbearing and intrusive to me- but I may be an unusual tourist, while the majority of people might think its wonderful. Also, is it “interpretation” when an art exhibition is laid out in a certain order so that everyone has to follow the numbers and there is a printed blurb about each painting or photograph saying various highfalutin things I can’t understand about the narrative of the work, while I enjoy the forms and colours? I like to wander amongst things and check out similarities between different works by the same artist etc.- this forced order stops me from doing that. Altogether I come out as fairly opposed to what I’ve seen as interpretation- have I got the wrong idea? [I think I need to blog on this, I’ve made such a monster comment!] {sorry!}

    1. Hi. There are a few things you’ve come up with in that response, I’ll need to unpick them.

      Firstly, interpretation is not specifically about increasing revenue – anything but! In fact, interpreters are more commonly accused of not being business-savvy enough. Interpretation should be about bringing places and stories to life. But, in a market-driven world, this has to be seen in terms of economic benefits as well (which is the subject of this particular post).

      A lot of what you’ve described I’d say is actually the OPPOSITE of interpretation! The ‘highfallutin’ things you refer to are when descriptions have been written by curators for curators, rather than by considering what the audience might be interested in / want to know. It might be information, but it’s not interpretation.

      To find out more what interpretation is in a general sense, why not visit the Interpretation Australia website (link at the top of this post)? That might give you a better overview (most readers of this blog are museum people, thus I haven’t really gone into these fundamental explanations – an oversight I guess)

      Stonehenge is a bit of an unusual case: what you are describing is a site which is a victim of its own success. Pretty much everyone who visits Britain wants to go there, even if it’s just to ‘tick it off the list’. Such popularity inevitably ends up compromising the experience – which is why I recommend that people also go to Avebury a bit further up the road, which is smaller and less well-known, but means you can get more of an intimate experience. But then this advice only works until Avebury ends up attracting as many people as well. Visitor traffic also calls for more management to control the crowds, thus driving up costs which have to be recouped somehow.

      Stonehenge is like other tourist hotspots like the Louvre, the Vatican, Venice and so forth. This means that crowd control and barriers are an inevitable part of the deal – either that or make entry prices so prohibitive that only the wealthy can afford it. This was effectively the case when international travel and extended holidays were the luxury of the privileged few; today a “price-’em-out” approach would be socially and politically unpalatable.

      As a site, Stonehenge has also been in limbo for several years as various debates have raged about whether to relocate the A303 highway, infrastructure to effectively manage the huge volume of visitors, and so forth. Plus there has been a bit of a “Government giveth, Government taketh away” situation with providing funding for serious redevelopment. Last I heard, funding had been confirmed, but I’ve also heard that before 😉

      Regarding a ‘forced order’ you describe above: I would say that that kind of thing is rare these days and maybe was more of a feature of art museums in the 80s and 90s. Where I see numbers now, it’s more for audio tours and you don’t *have* to view things in that order; they just have to give it a number so you know which track to call up when you’re in front of a given piece of work. (See the ‘Choose your own adventure’ post on this blog to see some research into freedom of choice in visitor routes)

      But layout is a complicated one: you are right that most people don’t like to be herded through a rigidly pre-determined route. But visitors can also find something without any signposting or guidance a bit disorienting and confusing. It’s a tricky balance made trickier because not all visitors like the same level of guidance.

      So, interpretation is about having something to say, but realising that the audience has something to bring to the conversation as well. The idea of constructivism (that visitors make their own meanings) has been a major theoretical underpinnining of interpretation for at least the past decade – although it can take time to fully percolate into practice!

      1. As a post-script to the comments on Stonehenge, this recent article talks about the funding announcement. Regarding your question about whether Stonehenge is considered best practice, the statement “decades of dithering” probably sums up how it’s been seen from several different perspectives.

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