Can some visitors be beyond interpretation?

This month I decided to re-read Freeman Tilden’s seminal work “Interpreting Our Heritage”. All these years later it still underpins how we approach heritage interpretation. Yet, something occurred to me whilst I was reading the book, and it relates to audiences; more specifically those who come to a heritage site or museum to build on their extensive knowledge.

As interpreters we are encouraged to think of our target audiences as ‘window shoppers’ who are receptive to ‘learning’ if it captures their imagination. Tilden himself states, “To capitalise on this mood, even if it arises from pure curiosity of whim, is a challenge to the interpreter.” He adds, “The visitor is unlikely to respond unless what you have to tell, or show, touched his personal experience, thoughts, hopes, way of life, social position, or whatever else.

This second quote suggests interpretation can appeal to anyone, but let’s look at two of Tilden’s six principles:

  • – Interpretation is not information. Interpretation is revelation based upon information.
  • – The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

Furthermore, Tilden states that the visitor, “has not come to be educated. He has come to see, to  sample, to try something new.

With this in mind, and taken in it’s purest form, is it actually possible to interpret to a specialist audience who are interested primarily in specialist information? Because this visitor has already been stimulated to learn more, are they not seekers of pure information, rather than imagination? Does the informal, non technical but authoritative approach we are called upon to provide as interpreters add a veil over what they want?

When Tilden refers to specialists in his book, he generally talks about the people that provide the ammunition for the interpreter to weave their magic. But for these very people, does their yearning to know more and their love of their work not spill over into their leisure time? Of course it does. The question is, can we truly cater for these people in our interpretative schemes at heritage sites? Being clear who you are interpreting to is obviously a key step in interpretive planning, but heritage sites are generally billed as an attraction for a wide range of visitors. Can we really target primary (physical) interpretation at experts? Layering content allows the flexibility for visitors to drill down for more detail, but layering suggests more specialist information is buried deeper down in the interpretive hierarchy, and therefore not immediately available.

If the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation, then is there a cut off when we say that a person is too specialist (in a particular subject) for us to be able to truly interpret to? Can someone be beyond interpretation? What do you think? Let us know what you think by contacting us using the tab on the right.

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