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.

At the Frontier: Conference Wrap Part 4

Some final thoughts and observations


  • “Enjoyment” is just part of the story: in John Holden’s opening keynote, he observed that the three main things that audiences want are to Enjoy, Talk and Do. However, several sessions brought our attention to the fact that we don’t always visit places for “enjoyment” – sometimes it’s to reflect on difficult realities or see things that open our eyes and tell us things we need to hear. The Holocaust Memorial in Andrea Witcomb’s talk, interpreting the complicit role of the English in the Irish Potato Famine (in Susan Cross’ talk), and Brad Manera’s talk about the role of war memorials are just some of the examples that emerged during the conference. Revealing difficult truths (and the way this can be sanitised by Government intervention) was powerfully brought home by Professor Peter Read’s closing keynote about the people who were “disappeared” to meet horrific fates during the Pinochet regime in Chile, and the different ways this had been memorialised subsequently. In light of this talk, during the Q&A it was agreed that “Enjoy” was only part of it – and maybe “Engage” is a better word. We can be “Engaged” in something we find difficult, upsetting or cathartic. We wouldn’t call it Enjoyment, but it’s worthwhile nonetheless.
  • “Social Media Schisms” – the new “Digital Divide”? – during the conference there were many sessions showing how museums and cultural organisations of all shapes and sizes are using social media to reach new audiences and interact with existing audiences in new ways. Just some of the examples I saw were Kelly Eijdenberg’s Scavbot project (an iPhone based scavenger hunt through the Tasmanian Botanical Gardens); Andrew Bowman’s work on putting the small WA town of Carnamah on the Social Media map (his paper is online here); and Rod Annear’s armchair ride of social media tools from blogs to Google Goggles (the only presentation I saw all conference using Prezi!). But I noticed that there still seems to be a big gap between the people who ‘get’ social media, and those who still find it all a bit baffly and scary (and maybe a fad that will pass if they ignore it for long enough). Then there is a bit of a middle ground of people who have dipped their toes in the water and haven’t quite figured out what the fuss is all about, but are keen to learn. I noticed during one social media presentation, the person next to me passed a note to their companion along the lines of: “I can barely figure out how to use my personal email account – never mind this stuff!” It’s hard to pitch the same presentation to the skeptics looking for a reason to care, and the converts looking to see who’s using what new tools and gadgets. Hence my term the “Social Media Schism” – which appears to be alive and well in the cultural sector.
  • Busting myths about Blockbusters: Carolyn Meehan presented some interesting visitor data from the Melbourne Museum’s last three ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions – Pompeii (2009), Titanic (2010) and Tutankhamun (2011). (Carolyn prefers the term ‘international travelling exhibition’ to ‘blockbuster’, but the latter is catchier.) Contrary to what many people had predicted, the Blockbusters do not seem to ‘steal’ visitors from the rest of the museum for the rest of the year. On the other hand, they do not necessarily bring in a more diverse demographic into the museum. Crowding is the biggest issue, which the Museum is looking at ways to address in the way exhibitions are organised. The three exhibitions each had a different business model: Pompeii was an in-house production using loaned collections; Titanic was an international exhibition that MM modified; and Tutankhamun was a ‘hosted’ international show over which MM had very little creative control. The museum has decided it prefers the former model, and will be pursuing this preferentially in the future. Following Carolyn’s talk, James Dexter reminded us that international exhibitions should not be considered one-way traffic – Australia should seize opportunities to export its own stories as well, such as the AC/DC exhibition (co-produced by WA Museum) currently touring the US.
  • Together but apart: as one final reflection, I’ll observe that while there are many similarities between the ‘museums’ and ‘interpretation’ communities, as demonstrated by the synergies in the conference program’s content, the two fields also have very different histories, assumptions and scholarly traditions. This also became clear over the course of the conference. This made me think about my own place in the landscape – in some ways I’m from both communities; in other ways I sometimes feel like I’m neither. But exploring that idea further is a whole new blog post . . . .

More conference blogs

As a final wrap here’s a shout-out to my fellow conference bloggers:

  • An Island Art – this is a wonderfully illustrated blog, complete with photographs and caricatures of the keynote speakers. There are posts for Day 1, Day 2 and Day 4.
  • A further update from Thornypebble’s pond
UPDATE – more blogs:



TEDxAdelaide – 2011 edition

Having been to Perth and back since (with much food for thought from that trip), it seems like ages ago that I went to TEDxAdelaide (my preview post is here). But it was less than a fortnight ago (12th November to be precise).

The TEDxAdelaide team have done a speedy job of posting the talks online – see a list here.

If you want to get an overview of the day, try starting with the end – the wrapup poem by Tracy Korsten. While I’m not 100% sure how well it will translate to people who weren’t there, it was a witty and succinct summary of the day – and might give you a hint of which of the other talks might interest you.

My pick of the bunch is Why Things Hurt by Lorimer Moseley. Never has pain been so entertaining! And it was a brilliant example of science communication (I now see the neurobiology of pain in a completely different light). Loads of the other talks had science or technology themes, while scriptwriter Emily Steel got us thinking along the lines of – what is science anyway? What is the story behind the science?

Another one of my favourites was the talk by TACSI’s Brenton Caffin about the disconnect between the kafka-esque bureaucracy of many public services, and the often dedicated individuals who work in them.

I’m sure there are many other pithy observations I could make, but a lot of those would have been based on jottings I made on the day – in that notebook I lost in Perth. Oh well, you’ll just have to watch them for yourself!


At the Frontier: Conference Wrap Part 3

On the Thursday morning I chaired a plenary session featuring Andrea WitcombSusan Cross and Denis Byrne. This session was broadly intended to kick off a day that was focused on the role of interpretation to give voice to sites and collections,  with the three speakers exploring the media of space, story and place respectively.

Andrea Witcomb: space, affect and difficult stories

Andrea Witcomb talked about the role of immersive environments in interpreting traumatic experiences. She began with a critique of the experience at the Watch House at Old Melbourne Gaol, in which visitors take the role of prisoners being processed.  Andrea posited that the role play and theatre of the experience had become a superficial end in itself, preventing visitors from considering the social significance of the site in greater depth – for instance exploring the complex social and power relationships between the prisoners and the police. The pacing of the experience, she claimed, left no place for contemplation. Her implication was that the experience did not successfully convey key parts of its interpretive message, much to the disquiet of some of my interpretation colleagues (who in 2009 had singled this project out as an example of excellence).

In did appear that Andrea’s critique was based on observation of the behaviour of a limited number of visitors over the course of just a couple of visits. The visitors’ own perspective, both during and subsequent to the experience, was an absent voice in the criticism. Did visitors engage in the theatre in an (apparently) light-hearted way and then reflect more deeply on it subsequently? Or is this possibility of depth indeed crowded out by the theatrics? Based on the available evidence, I’d contend that we do not know. However, it does seem fair to say that there is quite a disconnect between how the site is viewed from an academic perspective compared to a more practice-led one.

Andrea’s second example was a holocaust memorial, showing how design of immersive environments can be used as an interpretive tool to create a more nuanced message (some people thought the implied direct comparison between the Watch House and a Holocaust memorial was unfair; I’m not sure if this was the intent or not).

Given my research into the way visitors respond to environmental cues in exhibitions, I found Andrea’s descriptions on the uses of space, light and colour to evoke affective responses interesting, although I would have liked to have seen more about visitors’ responses. Having said that, her call to have more space for listening, dialogue and internal reflection in interpretive spaces was a compelling one.

Susan Cross: “Interpretelling”

As a counterpoint to Andrea Witcomb’s talk about space as an interpretive device, Susan Cross spoke about the interpretive value of story – coining the term “Interpretelling” as a mode of interpretation through storytelling. She practised what she preached, getting out from behind the lectern to add a level of performance to her keynote.

The key premise of Susan’s keynote was that humans are natural storytellers – it is the way we preserve and perpetuate the things that have meaning to us. Stories are contagious. Getting people talking is the ‘silver bullet’ of interpretation; it means our stories will continue to live on and be shared.

Good interpretation can pick up its cues from good storytelling: compelling characters; a narrative arc; suspense, revelation, surprise twists, resolution.  (Looking back at this now, it reminds me of a workshop facilitated by theatre director Teresa Crea at Adelaide Gaol, which was organised by the SA Branch of Interpretation Australia in 2009. We built our own stories inspired by and based upon the Gaol’s history, with some artistic license allowed. . . )

So while the storytelling ideas may not have been particularly new to me, Susan distilled the key points into a presentation that was well crafted, paced and delivered in a way that held the audience’s attention – in short, she told a story. (This made a refreshing change from the far too many presentations I saw that were essentially papers read out in a monotone – I can read it later online thanks! </rant>)

Another idea that Susan presented was the concept of broadening the ‘storytelling circle’ – making our stories relevant to a broader audience (particularly across cultures, to shed light on meanings that are implicitly shared within a cultural group), and also listening to the stories of others to add richness to our own experiences. This can be particularly important for sharing difficult histories and getting to grips with the less savoury legacies of our past.

I’m looking forward to participating in Susan’s interpretive writing workshop later this week.

Denis Byrne: Absent Stories & Seductive Mythologies

Rounding off the session, archaeologist Denis Byrne talked about the interpretive potential of place – and the implications of choosing to highlight (or ignore) certain footprints of history on the landscape.

Denis described his experience with cultural sites in Bali – between political upheaval at home and the imposition of assumptions from abroad, many stories of Bali’s historic and cultural sites remain silent. Creeping into this absence was a kind of mythology derived from the Western depiction of Bali as an island paradise.

This story was juxtaposed with Denis’ more recent work on post 1788 Aboriginal culture, and how it has evolved in this time (contrary to assumptions that Aboriginal culture did not develop and change in post-contact history).


It was the first time I had chaired a plenary session but it appeared to go well, with the questions and answers at the end bringing the threads of the three talks together into a single broader narrative about the roles of space, place and story. I also managed to introduce the concept of soliciting questions from the floor via Twitter – as far as I know a MA / IA conference first!

At the Frontier: Conference Wrap Part 2

John Holden and the “Circular Logic” of culture


John Holden from UK thinktank Demos gave the opening keynote of the conference.  He described three main forms of culture:

  1. “High” culture – this category includes the fine arts, opera and other cultural pursuits that are considered the pinnacle of cultural expression. They rely on patronage (either philanthropic or government), as their relatively limited audiences are not large enough to make them self-sustaining. However, this lack of broad appeal is worn like a badge of honour by proponents of High culture. As soon as something becomes too popular, there are accusations of ‘selling out’ or ‘dumbing down’ – thus by its own circular logic, High culture can never be popular culture.  (As Holden said, this would be like BMW saying “our last car was too popular – what did we do wrong?”)   High culture has gatekeepers, “experts” who act as arbiters of taste.
  2. “Commercial” culture – popular culture which is self-funded commercially, such as television, movies and pop music. They depend on attracting large enough audiences to fund their production and dissemination. By the assumptions of the High Culturists, commercial culture will always be of inferior quality, although this distinction is not necessarily drawn by audiences. They will find quality in any medium. Holden asks – is a popular drama such as the West Wing automatically inferior to an obscure stage production with a limited audience? Similarly to High culture though, Commercial culture has gatekeepers too – someone has to provide the initial capital investment to commission the program or award the recording contract, or else it never gets made.
  3. “Home made” culture – the culture we produce ourselves in our own homes and communities: creating our own music, crafts and performances for sharing among our peers. This is the oldest form of culture. Since it relies on our own initiative and creativity rather than money, there are no central gatekeepers deciding who makes or does what. In the 20th century, home made culture was somewhat marginalised by the explosion of commercial culture. However, the internet and social media has since lowered the cost and complexity of sharing and disseminating home made culture (Holden observed, “everyone I know under 25 is in a band”). In fact, the rise of home made culture is threatening the traditional gatekeeper role of the commercial culture producers, most notably in the music industry where the traditional record company’s business model is in terminal decline.
Holden observed how the boundaries between the three cultural types were being blurred and redefined. He challenged the cultural sector to acknowledge and respond to this change in relationship between ‘expert’ and ‘audience’. Holden predicted that while the traditional music megastore may be a thing of the past, soon in its place will emerge niche music stores that essentially ‘curate’ the mass of material being circulated in cyberspace. This example is a good one to ponder for museums who wonder what the changing landscape means for the role of curatorial expertise. It occurs to me that the time of the ‘expert’ isn’t dead, but that the role will evolve from being one of Gatekeepers to one of Guides.

Memories and stories


The following session had three keynotes, from Dr Viv Golding, Gail Richard, and Sam Walsh. They were all broadly about the role of memory and stories in our communities and bringing life to museum collections, albeit from very different perspectives (Viv is a museum studies academic; Gail is an interpretive trainer and Sam is from the mining sector).

Speaking to delegates afterwards, it appears these talks divided opinion somewhat. From my own perspective, I thought a lot of what Viv Golding talked about (the role of multisensory experiences in evoking memory and incorporating multiple voices in exhibition spaces) were things that exhibition designers and planners were doing already. She spoke about her work with a Carribbean Women’s group in a museum, but it was not apparent how this project subsequently influenced the design or implementation of exhibitions or programs in the museum (which is where my interest lies).

Gail Richard discussed cultural differences in communication, broadly dividing cultures into “low context” and “high context” communicators. Low context cultures, such as Western cultures, rely more heavily on explicit language and clearly articulated procedures in the way they conduct business. Directness is valued because it gets to the point and doesn’t waste people’s time. Conversely, in high context cultures, what is actually said is less significant than its nuances. There is more emphasis placed on non-verbal communication and building relationships gradually. Directness can be taken as rude or aggressive. She offered tips for bridging the gap between high and low culture communicators. I thought it was interesting, and the Twitter feed was positive, however I spoke to someone else who felt that the low context vs. high context model was an oversimplification bordering on stereotype. Another difference in communication styles perhaps?

Hat tip to the other conference bloggers

Some other blog articles I’ve found from the At the Frontier conference – I’ll post more if I become aware of them:

Thornypebble’s Pond – Day 1 and Day 2

The Contemporary Museum – At the Frontier

At the Frontier: Conference Wrap Part 1

Last week I went to Perth to attend a national conference jointly organised by Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia – At the Frontier.

It was the first time these two organisations had jointly staged a conference, with over 500 delegates attending from around Australia (and a few overseas). Whereas there was a reasonable contingent of people, like me, who are members of both organisations, I would guess that the majority of delegates would have been more clearly from either the “Interpretation” or “Museums” camp, and may not have had much to do with the other organisation previously. This led to some interesting cross-fertilisation, and for me brought into sharp focus where the similarities (and differences!) between the two organisational cultures lie.

Although I wasn’t presenting any papers I had a pretty hectic schedule – in my capacity as Interpretation Australia’s Vice President I chaired a few sessions (including chairing a Plenary – a first for me!). I’m also on the organising committee of next year’s Museums Australia conference in Adelaide and so was busy spreading the word for that too.

Thus, while some others have been far more quick off the mark with their blogging on the conference, I’m still collecting my thoughts (not helped by the fact that I managed to lose my notebook on the last day of the conference!). Fortunately, I have the Twitter archive to fall back on, which given I was tweeting from two accounts in addition to my own (@InterpretAu and @MA_SA2012) is probably more or less a good summary of my notes anyway.

I’ll trawl through them and give my perspective over the next few days.

TED Juxtaposition

In advance of tomorrow’s TEDxAdelaide 2011 (see this post on last year’s event) I thought I’d share a couple of TED talks that create an interesting juxtaposition. I enjoyed both and think they each contain some truth – but at the same time the ideas within them are somewhat at odds with each other.

This first one, by Malcolm Gladwell, is about how the key to happiness is a shift away from universals into embracing a diversity of interests and needs.


Gladwell maintains that we often can’t articulate what we like or what we want, and so it never occurs to us to ask for it when directly questioned by (for instance) market research. There is a great anecdote about how chunky pasta sauce went from being nonexistent (because no-one had thought to make it) to being an overnight success on supermarket shelves across America.

One consequence of the ideas in Gladwell’s talk is the proliferation of choice. Which, according to this talk by Barry Schwartz, is the exact recipe for making us unhappy.

Schwartz laments the seemingly infinite variety of products on our shelves, something that Gladwell (implicitly) celebrated. Too many choices means we expect ever higher standards from the choices we make. Reality increasingly falls short of expectations. Worse, we blame ourselves more because somewhere, somehow, the chance to make the correct choice was ours – and we blew it.

I think there is enough middle ground to accommodate both positions, but I thought considering the two arguments together (which I only happened to do by accident today) offered useful food for thought.


“Heritage Highlights” wins Tourism Award

The 2011 South Australian Tourism Awards were announced on Friday night during a black tie dinner held at the Adelaide Convention Centre. The awards span some 28 categories, covering everything from major attractions and international events to small boutique tourism operators.

The self-guided “Heritage Highlights” interpretive trail of West Terrace Cemetery (which opened in March this year, and for which I wrote the text – see here for details) was entered in the New Tourism Development category (Category 25)

In each category, awards are given out based on the judges’ score each entry receives: a Bronze award for a score above 75%; Silver for 80% or higher; and Gold for 90% or higher. There is also an overall winner for the best entry in each category.

I was at the awards dinner as a guest of the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority, who had entered the trail into the Awards. While we were hoping to pick up a prize, we had no idea what to expect because the category had a strong and very diverse field of entries (including boutique restaurants and shark tours). So we were all a little bit shocked (and delighted) when it was announced that we’d won the category!

It was great for all of us involved to receive peer recognition for the project. It’s been a few years in the planning: I first got involved in 2008, when the Cemetery first commissioned its interpretation plan. But it’s not over yet! The next phase of interpretive signage now in its early stage of development and is due to be installed in mid-2012.