“Hot Interpretation”: Telling Difficult Stories

There is probably no such thing as “value-free” interpretation. But some stories are more sensitive, contested or emotionally-laden than others.

In the context of heritage sites, attention to the emotional content of a visitor experience has been described as “hot interpretation”, to distinguish it from the more cool, detached, and primarily cognitive approach that heritage interpretation has traditionally emphasised [1]. In hot interpretation, emotional engagement is seen as a way of challenging visitors to reconsider their values, preconceptions and beliefs.

There is no doubt that telling difficult stories is an important thing for heritage interpreters to do. This often involves acknowledging past wrongs – such as formal Government apologies for the Stolen Generation in 2008 and forced adoptions last week (to cite two Australian examples). But both of these examples have shown that there is a need to handle the issues sensitively and carefully, and to do your homework – much damage can be done by the wrong choice of words.

A 2012 article by Ballantyne, Packer and Bond [2] identified some general principles to guide the development of ‘hot interpretation’, based on visitor research at the Broken Links exhibition (about the Stolen Generation):

  1. Personal stories: including personal stories of real people helps people make a connection to the subject matter – stories connect more than statistics do. Allowing people to make multiple personal connections gives a story an emotional resonance that isolated facts and statistics do not.
  2. Balance despair and hope: despair is disempowering and ultimately unengaging. Hot interpretation means invoking difficult feelings – anger, shame, regret. Unless there is a way for visitors to deal with and work through these feelings, and see some cause for hope and optimism, they may get overwhelmed or otherwise enter denial.
  3. Educate, not persuade: if visitors get the sense that the interpretation is biased, or is forcing them to reach a particular conclusion, they will put their defences up. This will limit personal engagement with the story and render the interpretation less effective. Personal stories need to be balanced with verifiable facts and avoid propaganda. Of course, bias is in the eye of the beholder and it’s probably impossible to avoid accusations of bias entirely. 
  4. Provide space to reflect: the paper describes reflection as the ‘missing link’ between experience and action. Thus, if the purpose of hot interpretation is to encourage visitors to reconsider previously held attitudes and beliefs, there needs to be an opportunity for visitors to do this. Comment walls and other opportunities for visitors to participate, leave their own thoughts and see the reflections of others were suggested as effective ways for visitors to reflect.
  5. Focus on the past to inform the future: like the need to balance despair and hope, hot interpretation should not dwell solely on the past but also look to the future. What lessons can we learn? What can we do to avoid the mistakes of the past? What can we change about our own lives?


  • Disclosure: two of the authors of this paper, Jan Packer and Roy Ballantyne, are my PhD supervisors. This is just a quick (and possibly ham-fisted) summary of a far more detailed body of work and I encourage you to go to the original source if possible.
  • This blog post came about because someone sent a query to me via this blog’s comment form about difficult content for interpretation. Writing this post seemed like a good way to answer their question. Do you have a question or a suggested topic for a blog post? Feel free to ask me – I’ll do my best to answer if I can.

[1] Uzzell, D., & Ballantyne, R. (1998). Heritage that hurts: interpretation in a postmodern world. In D. Uzzell & R. Ballantyne (Eds.), Contemporary Issues in Heritage and Environmental Interpretation (pp. 152–171). London: The Stationery Office.

[2] Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Bond, N. (2012). Interpreting Shared and Contested Histories: The Broken Links Exhibition. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55(2), 153–166. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2012.00137.x


Hallowed Ground

“It’s more than just grass . . . Imagine the amount of history and the superstars of cricket that have been on this grass. It’s a piece of history.”

If someone starts lining up at 1.30am to pick up four 30cm-square pieces of turf, it’s obviously pretty important to them. And this woman wasn’t alone – yesterday hundreds of Adelaideans lined up to get their own piece of ‘history’ in the form of a few squares of turf.

Adelaide Oval, a city landmark much loved by cricket fans, is undergoing a major redevelopment at the moment. Part of this redevelopment involves replacing the turf and the state government decided to give the old turf away on a first come, first served basis yesterday (Sunday) morning. This was promoted on the local evening news late last week but, not being a cricket fan, I promptly forgot all about it.

Then, yesterday morning, I headed off to the Museum (to do some PhD fieldwork). My route passes Montefiore Hill, which overlooks the oval and was the advertised pick-up site for the turf. I saw a queue snaking up the hill and wondered what was going on. Then I saw people returning to their cars with bundles of turf in their arms, and remembered the previous week’s news.

The queue was snaking up the hill like this when I rode past at about 10am. The giveaway started from 9am and the first person had started queuing up at 1.30am.

Footage of long queues and soundbites from happy turf collectors added some local colour to that evening’s news bulletin. Watching the news, my partner found it all a bit baffling – “It’s just grass”, he said. But obviously other people felt differently about this ‘hallowed’ turf. Was it just because it was free, and people love free stuff? Was there an element of jumping on the bandwagon given the high level of airtime the giveaway had received during the lead-up? Or do these squares of turf have a deeper meaning for at least some of these people? And if so, what are the criteria for this meaning? Looking at the comments on this news piece, it seems that some people felt the heritage ‘currency’ of the turf was diminished when they learned that it was only a few years old (the turf had last been replaced in 2007). Other people dismissed the interest as a sign of small-town parochialism and a populace with too little to do. There is also the view that cutting up and giving away the turf destroys the heritage value altogether, as in this tweet: 


So what do you think? Does a piece of ground from a certain place have meaning in and of itself? If so, under what circumstances? And is this meaning destroyed if it’s commoditised?

PhD – Two Years In

It is now a little over two years since I started my PhD, and quite a while since I blogged about it specifically. So it seems like a good juncture at which to reflect on how I’m progressing, and answer the burning questions you may have but are too polite to ask . . .

Two years is a long time. You must really have this PhD thing down by now.

You’d think so, huh? To be honest it really doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing this for two years! A lot of the time I still feel like I’m finding my feet. But I’m starting to think that that is just the nature of a PhD – nearly everything you do, you are doing it for the first time. And each new task has a niggling uncertainty about it – am I doing my data collection the *right* way? Am I asking the *right* questions? Will I recognise the answers to these questions in the mass of data I’m only just learning to analyse? What have I *not* thought of? These niggles have become part of the background hum of my mind, a bit like constantly wondering whether you left the gas on at home or not.

At some point though, you have to take a leap of faith in yourself – or else be paralysed by fear of failure – and have faith in your supervisors that they won’t let you stray *too* far off track (even if a bit of meandering might be a necessary part of the learning process).

And I don’t want to come across as overly pessimistic – I have learned a lot. Sometimes it’s hard to recognise this because no sooner have you passed one learning curve you’re on to the next. If you keep looking forward, all you can see are more mountains to climb. But every so often you get a chance to look back (e.g. offering advice to a PhD student just starting out, or being able to relate what you read in the literature to what you’ve observed in your own research) and you get to see how far you’ve come.

So what have you been doing since your last PhD blog post?

Since last May I have been:

  • Conducting 12 accompanied visits around the SA Museum (and transcribing the 14 hours of interview tapes they produced)
  • Performing an initial analysis of these transcripts to inform the development of a survey instrument, which was piloted with 170 visitors across three exhibitions (in SA and Melbourne) as proof-of-principle
  • Tracking and timing approx. 175 museum visitors in different exhibitions at SA Museum and performing initial analysis of movement and stopping patterns
  • Refining the survey instrument from above for incorporation into a larger questionnaire. Piloting said questionnaire and starting to collect the main survey sample (80 down, about 400 to go over the next few weeks)
  • Presenting a poster on my (as then, planned) research at the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) conference in Raleigh, NC, USA
  • *Finally* submitting my first scholarly article for publication (this is now undergoing peer review)

That doesn’t sound like much for nearly a year’s work. . . .

Yep. I agree with you. All these things have taken far longer to do in practice than I thought they would. I don’t know if that means my expectations were unrealistic, or whether I have been a little slow in getting things done. The logistics of data collection can be time consuming – more so than I anticipated. There are also the other things I did that were not (directly) related to my PhD:

  • Convening the Museums Australia conference in Adelaide last year (for which I took two months off from being officially a full-time PhD candidate)
  • Adding a two week study tour of Eastern USA museums to my trip for the VSA conference
  • Attending the Interpretation Australia conference and presenting a paper (unrelated to my research)
  • Attending the Australasian Evaluation Society conference in Adelaide
  • A few freelance interpretation projects
  • Planning for a trip to China next month (as part of a PhD student delegation being organised by the Group of Eight universities)
  • Various voluntary roles with Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia (and most recently at the Adelaide Festival)
  • Blogging (of course!) and other writing projects, including co-authoring an article for the Exhibitionist.
  • Probably some other things I can’t bring to mind right now

I write this list mostly to justify to myself that I haven’t been twiddling my thumbs, even if I do feel a bit behind on my research. On reflection I don’t think I’ve had the balance between “PhD study” and “other interesting things” quite right. With the long time frame associated with a PhD, it’s easy to think you can find the time for extra opportunities as they come along (particularly when they are all so tempting and rewarding). But each little thing adds up. Conferences are stimulating but they also take momentum away from what you were doing back in the office. I don’t want to be a PhD hermit, losing touch with what is happening in the “real” museums and interpretation world, but at the same time I think I need to be a bit more careful about what I say yes to in the future.

However, despite taking a slightly more scenic route towards a PhD, I’m still on track for my (self-imposed) deadline of completion before I turn 40 (just under two years away).

What’s next?

Over the next few weeks I’m hoping to get the lion’s share of my survey collection done, before heading off to China in the second half of April. May-July will be a chance to really get my teeth into the statistical techniques I need to be able to properly analyse and interpret these data (and also a chance to tidy up any loose ends on the data collection front). August is my last hurrah (a trip to the US with my partner who is attending some training courses there), before heading back to Adelaide, holing myself up and properly getting into writing my thesis.

Before that I intend to go to Hobart at some point (to see MONA and the newly refurbished TMAG) and will post some reviews here in due course. But it also might get a bit quiet on this blog from time to time as I take the time I need to focus on my research and writing up. If you don’t hear from me for a while, you’ll know what I’m doing . . .