You’re a what? Interpreting Interpretation to Non-interpreters

When asked what I do for a living, by the time I’d arrived at Interpretation, I was quite used to people looking bemused and saying something like: “Er… what is that, exactly?”

The trouble started with ‘Archive Conservation’. Saying that you “look after old documents” doesn’t really explain the role adequately and also makes it sound as dull as ditch water – when it actually has the potential to be very interesting and creative.

Quite the opposite happened with ‘running a Rare Breeds attraction’ because people often imagined it to be more exciting than it really was: the common misconception being that Rare Breeds are endangered exotic species – when they are actually unfashionable (and therefore endangered) old breeds of British livestock. Most of the excitement, in fact, came in the form of ‘interactions’ with difficult visitors!

So, I’m at a party and someone’s just asked me what Heritage Interpretation is and what a Heritage Interpreter does. I explain that I’m a ‘professional Explainer’ and try to give some examples of what that might mean. Unfortunately this strategy can backfire if, after a couple of glasses of Prosecco, my further explanation isn’t quite clear enough – and they are then left wondering how I could possibly earn a living doing something I’m clearly so bad at!

Some definitions

Let’s look at some definitions of Heritage Interpretation and see if they help. The first is from Wikipedia:

“Heritage interpretation refers to all the ways in which information is communicated to visitors to an educational, natural or recreational site, such as a museum, park or science centre. More specifically it is the communication of information about, or the explanation of, the nature, origin, and purpose of historical, natural, or cultural resources, objects, sites and phenomena using personal or non-personal methods. Some international authorities in museology prefer the term mediation for the same concept, following usage in other European languages.”

What? Personal or non-personal methods? Anyway, I can’t imagine saying that at a party. Let’s try another, this time from Interpretation Canada: “Interpretation is a communication process, designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage, through involvement with objects, artefacts, landscapes and sites.”

Hmmm… it’s certainly short, but it sounds a bit, well – boring! In fact, these rather dry, academic-sounding definitions are all very well, but sometimes they just make Interpretation sound like a really worthy, dull activity – which is surely the exact opposite of what we are aiming to achieve in our working lives!

These definitions do nothing to convey the ‘fun’ element that’s often present in what we do – we are, after all, usually communicating with someone who is trying to have a nice day out! And, if these definitions are anything to go by, you would not imagine an Interpretation practitioner dressing up as a bee, rabbit, pig or Saxon pig drover. Yet these are all things I’ve done in the name of ‘Interpretation’!

Here’s the definition from the Interpret Europe website:

“Heritage interpretation is a structured approach to non-formal learning specialised in communicating significant ideas about a place to people on leisure. It establishes a link between visitors and what they can discover at heritage sites such as a nature reserve, a historic site or a museum.”

Interpretation does

Still not party-talk. But then follows a list of the things Interpretation does – which definitely starts to bring it alive:

“Good interpretation is always based on first-hand experience and often on personal contact with staff on site. Interpretation does four things:

  • it provokes visitors’ curiosity and interest in what may be an unfamiliar topic or theme
  • it relates the site or objects to visitors’ own knowledge, experience, background and values,
  • it reveals the significance of the site or objects which visitors can understand and appreciate, and
  • it helps people to enjoy a satisfying experience.”

If that sounds familiar it’s because you may have read it before in this form:

The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation

Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

Freeman Tilden 

Freeman Tilden was the first to set down the Principles of Heritage Interpretation. He defined six principles in all – but the above three are probably the most useful.  Tilden defined Heritage Interpretation thus:

“An educational activity which aims to reveal meaning and relationships through the use of original objects, by first-hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information”.

“After 50 years, this is still one of the clearest insights into the role of the interpreter,” say the Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI) on their website.

This is the AHI’s own definition and explanation:

 “Interpretation is primarily a communication process that helps people make sense of, and understand more about, your site, collection or event. It can:

  • Bring meaning to your cultural or environmental resource, enhancing visitor appreciation and promoting better understanding. As a result your visitors are more likely to care for what they identify as a precious resource.
  • Enhance the visitor experience, resulting in longer stays and repeat visits. This will lead to increased income and create employment opportunities.
  • Enable communities to better understand their heritage, and to express their own ideas and feelings about their home area. As a result individuals may identify with lost values inherent in their culture.”

Now we’re getting somewhere! We’re able to see why you would bother to do Interpretation in the first place and what it can achieve. The AHI website also makes me feel better about my chequered ‘career’:

“Heritage interpreters come from all walks of life. They are teachers, storytellers, writers, artists, curators, designers and scientists. They are often creative and usually passionate about nature, history or art. Above all, they are gifted communicators in one way or another.”

So, back at the party. Let’s assume I’ve just arrived and no-one’s offered me a glass of Prosecco yet. But someone has just asked me what I do and, when given the answer “Heritage Interpreter,” they’ve responded with: “You’re a WHAT?”

Deep breath. And then, it really depends who I’m talking to (remember that thing about relating?) but I often just say something like: “I’m the person who explains what the experts are saying (about a place or object) to the visiting public”.

This seems to tie in with the more common (and better understood) use of the term ‘interpretation’, in that you are a go-between – as in the case of a language interpreter.

I’ve tried to explain it more fully on my own website:

“Interpretation is, essentially, storytelling. It’s my job to tell a story about a person, thing or place: bringing it to life in such a way that people can relate to it, appreciate and understand it – and take something of the experience away with them.

Often, it’s about revealing links between bits of information that people already know – rather than feeding them completely new ‘facts and figures’.

Not everyone is a natural interpreter. We’ve all seen panels and leaflets crammed with technical jargon and thought “I’m not going to bother reading that!” Some ‘interpretation’ projects fail simply because they don’t bridge the gap between the knowledgeable enthusiast and the ordinary person who is just trying to have a nice day out!

Bridging that communication gap is what I do. Like a language interpreter, I’m a go-between: translating and explaining what the ‘experts’ are saying.”

Intepretation Design 

Interpretation design is a fascinating journey into the realms of hidden stories, lesser known facts and maybe even a little fiction! We will immerse your audience on a sensory level that can only be achieved through engaging design, creative copywriting and thought provoking imagery.

Well-designed interpretation should spark the imagination; conjure up scenes from the past, smells and sounds, things that cannot be seen or touched are made real through the power of clear, informative design.

I’m now wondering whether the term ‘Heritage Interpreter’ is really the best we can do for our profession in the 21st century. Maybe we need a more exciting, more self-explanatory job title!

On their blog, recruiting firm Coburg Banks shared 50 of the most ridiculous job titles they’d genuinely found on CVs. Most of these titles came from marketing applicants, “which perhaps says something about people in marketing,” the post says.

Here are my 10 favourites – together with the firm’s ‘interpretations’!

  • Beverage Dissemination Officer – Bartender
  • Digital Overlord – Website Manager
  • Retail Jedi – Shop Assistant
  • Wizard of Light Bulb Moments – Marketing Director
  • Problem Wrangler – Counsellor
  • Dream Alchemist – Head of Creative
  • Chief Inspiration Officer – A ‘CIO’ is a company representative whose role is essentially to encourage ‘belief in the company’ and ‘internal evangelism of its values’
  • Accounting Ninja – Financial Manager (Trying to make numbers sound sexier than they are)
  • Conversation Architect – Digital Marketing Manager
  • Initiative Officer – Planner

Thus inspired, I tried to think up some alternative job titles for Heritage Interpreters…

  • Visitor Provoker
  • Curiosity Provoker
  • Professional Explainer
  • Expert – Visitor Mediator
  • Information Diplomat
  • Jargon Jedi
  • Story Re-teller
  • Meaning Revealer
  • Meaning Communicator
  • Informal Educator
  • Visitor Engager
  • Visitor Experience Creator
  • Visitor Experience Enhancer
  • Visit Creator

My favourite is Jargon Jedi! But most of these would still require further explanation – and some sound downright dodgy! So I guess we may be stuck with ‘Heritage Interpreter’ for a while yet…

Unless, of course, you have a better suggestion?