on 24 January 2011
There's a scene in Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles in which the hero carries four milkmaids, one by one, across a flooded stream. He confesses to Tess, the last milkmaid and the real object of his affection, that he has no interest in the other three, and has `undergone three-quarters of the labour entirely for the sake of the fourth-quarter'.
Some collected volumes are like that. Fortunately this fine anthology is not among them. Editors Alison Hems and Marion Blockley, both vastly experienced heritage interpreters from the UK, have brought together a diverse and talented range of commentators and practitioners. Their focus is mainly on cultural heritage interpretation, and mainly in the UK. However it is neither devoid of reference to natural heritage, nor completely lacking in discussion of non-UK projects (`though Australia scarcely rates a mention).
In the opening chapter Brian Goodey finds urban interpretation in crisis, so seldom does it harness the possibilities presented by urban areas. He speculates that guiding and publishing for (mostly urban) pilgrimages foreshadowed what we now call interpretation. Yet today the field has been left to others, and `the vast majority of urban interpretation is not done by interpreters' (p. 23). This seems to hold true for Australia too.
Andrew Robertshaw tracks the progress of `living history' and `live' interpretation beyond the professional suspicion that dubbed them `historical hooliganism'. He both defends and celebrates the role of interpretive re-enactment in communicating more than mere information. `Rather it is intended to reveal concepts such as philosophies, religion, emotions and attitudes' (p. 49).
Similarly Carol Parr's chapter on public art challenges us to think beyond standard paradigms. She enjoys expounding Tilden's `interpretation is an art' in reverse. Where interpretation seeks to `provoke, stimulate, reveal and relate', she finds a role for public art. And in seeing art as an early form of interpretation, she outbids even pilgrimages. It began `in the cave painting and rock carving' of early humans (and here at least Australia is mentioned). While this chapter covers the public art side well, there is a fuller treatment of the interpretation side in Carter and Masters' 1998 work `Arts and the Natural Heritage' (Scottish Natural Heritage Review No. 109). However Parr does raise a crucial issue when she asks how public art in an interpretive context should be evaluated.
There are very useful chapters recounting interpretation's progress in Scotland and Wales. In the case of Cadw - the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage or Historic Scotland - Peter Humphries provides an admirably straightforward account of the brief history and scope of heritage interpretation on its sites. Their modest goal is `to provide a minimum of one information panel at every site in its care, together with a published account of that site in a guidebook' (p. 71). They have nonetheless managed to use a broad range of interpretive techniques to suit varying sites.
Two chapters look at different aspects of Scottish interpretation. Rona Gibb gives a fine summary of the Highland Interpretive Strategy - an exemplary region-wide approach to interpretation. Planning, evaluation and working with locals stand out as the keys to its success. The wonderful `A Sense of Place - An Interpretive Handbook', which emphasises both sensitivity and creativilty, was also integral here.
Chris Tabraham of Historic Scotland tells the delightful story of another `proto-interpreter', John Shanks. He was `keeper and shower' of Elgin Cathedral in the early 1800s, and has become something of a model of the educated enthusiasm that many aim for. But Historic Scotland backs this up with a great deal of interpretive planning and media savvy. Tabraham uses the stone age village of Skara Brae as an example of how the new can be used as an adjunct to the old.
The 13 chapters also cover such topics as interpretation and the National Trust; interpretation and English Heritage; interpretation and UK national parks (which Margi Bryant saw as initially lagging behind UK museums and heritage sites in its quality of interpretation); and new technology in historic landscapes. Throughout there are instructive case studies.
A couple of minor quibbles. The excellent introduction by Alison Hems is made harder to read because it's in a sans serif font. Why slow down the reader's entry into the volume? Secondly (aargghh!) the word `interpretative' appears on p. 25. It may be in the dictionary, but interpreters don't use it.
I doubt we'll be reading this volume a century from now, as will be the case with `Tess'. But it will certainly provide much stimulus for heritage interpretation and communication professionals in the present. And it may be that years from now it will be seen to have played a part in increasing the professionalism of heritage interpreters.
[Peter Grant is Manager of Interpretation & Education for Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. He is a past President of the Interpretation Australia Association (IAA) and former editor of the IAA's newsletter Interpreting Australia.]