Which hat fits?

People who know me will be aware that I wear a lot of hats (and this has nothing to do with my bio picture!).


Taking just my Australian memberships, I’m a member of Interpretation Australia, Museums Australia and Australian Science Communicators. In the past I have also been an active member of the British Interactive Group and Visitor Studies Group; and a regular presence at European Science Centres conferences.

While I like this variety and the diversity of people this allows me to meet – I sometimes feel that none of my many hats is a true fit. I always feel a bit of an outsider. To illustrate my point I’ll need to bring in some stereotypes (or are they archetypes?); in any case bear with me:

  • I’m not a real Science Communicator because science communicators are people who spend their entire working days evangelising about the importance and benefits of science to our lives.
  • I’m not a real Museum Professional because I don’t have a specific subject or collection about which I’m particularly knowledgeable; furthermore I’ve never actually worked in an operating museum.
  • I’m not a real Interpreter because interpreters are outdoorsy types who love spending all their time in national parks and getting people excited about the value of nature.
My roots (and qualifications) are in Science Communication, but the closest fit these days is probably Visitor Studies, which spans my interests across all these fields. However, the small and distributed nature of Australia’s population makes it difficult for a dedicated Australian Visitor Studies community to be vibrant and self-sustaining (for instance, the Evaluation and Visitor Research Special Interest Group of Museums Australia is small and has limited resources). I’ve recently joined the Visitor Studies Association in the US and I hope to be able to afford to travel to their conference in next year. But it’s no substitute for the face-to-face collegial and social networks you can foster much closer to your own backyard.
That said, I think I can turn my ‘outsider’ status into an advantage. Perhaps I can build bridges and offer broader insights that can inform each of the respective fields?
As I noted before, at the joint Museums Australia / Interpretation Australia conference held earlier this month I noticed some instances where the different histories and assumptions of the respective fields came together on a bit of a collision course. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and have come up with a few ideas. I’d be interested in hearing what you think:
Collections value is axiomatic; environmental value isn’t (yet)
For museums, the starting point is collections: unlike visitor centres, or other exhibition sites, museums have collections which they are duty-bound to study and preserve for the benefit of future generations. Because this is so wrapped up in a museum’s identity, no-one expects museums to have to justify it. There is no apparent need to explain to the public why looking after a bunch of Picassos or ancient artefacts is important. It’s just generally accepted that it’s something that advanced civilisations should do.
Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said for our natural heritage. Those same civilisations that have treasured their Picassos and potsherds have often given their environmental assets short shrift. National Parks have a shorter history than museums, and their intrinsic value is questioned more frequently (this might also be because National Parks are more likely to be in direct conflict with economic interests such as mining and logging).
Whatever the reason, it means that Museums and Interpreters (of natural heritage) probably assume a different starting point when it comes to communicating with their audiences – for museums, the collection is axiomatic; for natural heritage the battle for full recognition is still being won (or is perceived to be so).
Interpretation is all ‘Front of House’

By definition, Interpretation is about communicating with the public (especially visitors). Thus interpretation will attract people who are visitor-focused and genuinely interested in how visitors think, act and react. Museums, on the other hand, have many staff whose roles do not bring them into direct contact with the visiting public. They may not even be particularly interested in that aspect of the museum’s operations. At a museums conference, there will always be a mix of ‘back of house’ and ‘front of house’ interests. This is less so in the interpretation world, and I wonder if this difference was why some of my interpretation colleagues expressed frustration at some museum professionals not ‘getting it’ when it came to interpretive concepts such as themes and narrative.


Parallel Literary Canons
You will see I’ve made the generalisation that Museums tend to be more about Collections and Interpretation is more about National Parks. The lines are blurred for sure, but this distinction is rooted in history.
Freeman Tilden, the ‘father of interpretation’, was from the National Park Service – not a museum. Thus the origins of interpretation being an outdoorsy, Parks-led discipline can be traced to Tilden and his interests. Similarly, Sam Ham, who is among the most cited contemporary writers on interpretation, has a background in forestry management. It would be impossible to do a course in Interpretation without encountering the work of Tilden and Ham. However their names rarely (if ever?) appear in the museum studies literature.
By contrast, comparable literature in museum education / visitor studies is more explicitly grounded in the theories of pedagogy and psychology. Most of the authors in this field are from this more academic background, and have sought to apply a more theoretical approach to understanding the museum space. The roots of museum visitor studies is traced to psychologists (Robinson and Melton) who tracked visitor movements through art galleries in the 1920s and 1930s. The landmark literature, mostly from the 1990s, was by museologists (Eilean Hooper Greenhill), educators (George Hein and John Falk & Lynn Dierking) and psychologists (Stephen Bitgood). While this work is not incompatible with the Interpretation literature, there are different starting points and assumptions, and I’m not sure how well-known their work would be to most Park-based interpreters (with the exception of Falk & Dierking, whose work is probably the closest to bridging the nature-culture divide in the literature). A special hat tip to my PhD supervisors here too, Jan Packer and Roy Ballantyne, whose work spans museums and natural heritage settings – no surprises why I was attracted to their work!
The different scholarly traditions may be the origins of another divide I perceived in the conference – between the academically-minded and the more practically-driven. Again, I think I’m a bit of both – I like academic theories and research, but I want to keep sight of how these findings can inform real-life practice.

2 Replies to “Which hat fits?”

  1. I can see your point, a lot of the commonly cited interpreters (Ham, Tilden et al) are natural history people, but I get the feeling that it is becoming more broad than this. When I think of the people I know who would consider themselves interpreters, very few of them work in natural history. My interested isn’t really even that much in mueseums, it’s more about sites and places than things, but their cultural values. At least in Australia I think there are people with prominent places in the industry who are breaking the mould. Like your good self. It’s up to us to be visual, and vocal, and publish publish publish, to get other perspectives out there. It can only make the discipline stronger.

    1. Thanks for commenting 🙂

      I think you are right . . . with some caveats. Many people who could claim to be interpreters still don’t *own* the term (or even know it exists!). I think back to my days in science communication and science centres. We talked about “key messages” all the time . . . but ‘interpretation’ or ‘themes’ was not in our lexicon. As far as I know this hasn’t changed since.

      There was a discussion in Perth among some IA people (I follow Chatham House rules on this blog so no names!), and we agreed that one of our greatest challenges was to make the word “Interpretation” stand on its own without greater elaboration or explanation. The day this happens is the day we can say Interpretation has ‘made it’ as a field. At the moment, this seems only true in the Parks system, thanks to Tilden’s legacy. This creates a positive feedback loop – Parks people seek out Interpretation communities because they are aware of their existence, making Interpretation communities predominantly Parks people, creating the impression that Interpretation is some kind of Parks thing, and so on it goes.

      You are right about Australia breaking the mould – and I think this is the upside of being a smaller and more dispersed population. Professional communities that are large enough to become autonomous ‘silos’ elsewhere don’t have the same critical mass here, so they need to look to others with common interests. When I lived in the UK I was aware of AHI and such like, but it never occurred to me to join because I was busy enough with my Science Centres / Hands on Learning networks. By contrast, Interpretation Australia and Australian Science Communicators have held joint events in Adelaide before (and it was great to see some ASC members at the most recent IA workshop in Adelaide – blog post forthcoming).

      We are probably both the same in that we are more about the “Stories” than the “Stuff”.

      Here’s to Australia being at the vanguard of a new view of Interpretation!

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