“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


One Reply to ““Hot Interpretation”: Telling Difficult Stories”

  1. Good post, Regan. The other issue is the responsibility of the historian – it’s part of our training to present the past as we really find it, based on weighing up the evidence. This is part of the code of ethics for our profession, which gets tricky. I had an incident with a client re Aboriginal history and leavimg a key massacre out of a talle of Major Mtichell just yesterday (their idea). and had to explain what history is etc. I am strongly in favour of authoring exhibitions – there’s no such thing as objectivity in history so it’s better to own that.. In the prehistory of my career I did a very controversial exhibition that was actually the subject of some protests due to its conceit of ‘hidden histories’ in small country towns – I wish I’d had access to this research!

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