Russell Staiff: Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation

When I had just started my research, in 2014 this book was published, literally down the road from where I live. So why I only discovered it a few weeks ago is a mystery. despite being published in my home town, I had to arrange an inter-library loan to get it from Leeds University Library. So, now I have to whizz through it, pulling out his thesis, and some choice quotes to illustrate it, before I have to send it back.

First, its worth point out that he come from a point of view that is (was?) skeptical about the profession of interpretation as espoused by Freeman Tilden. His preface recounts his puzzled reaction when a national park manager used the term. “Isn’t everything about interpretation? What else is there?” he, an art historian, asked himself. Indeed an early chapter is a dissection (or demolition?) of Tilden’s foundation text for the heritage industry.

On Tilden

His key point is that everybody interprets everything, all the time. Using the Michelangelo’s David as an example, he argues that while the erotic and comedic use of the David’s penis or buttocks displace the “authorized” narrative of David as the slayer of Goliath, sculpted by an artistic genius, “the two stories are not mutually exclusive for many viewers despite them being somewhat incompatible. […] Heritage interpretation cannot manage this level of of complexity without radical editing of the content or unsatisfactory and ethically suspect reductionism. What heritage interpretation can attempt is a facilitation of multiple meaning-making and meaning -making as a dynamic process within systems or representation.” He obviously thinks Tilden’s work tend more towards the reductionist angle.

For example, Staiff takes issue with Tilden’s use of the term “revelation”, on one had because it implies a hidden truth worthy of conspiracy theorists and thriller writers like Dan Brown, and on the other because “it maintains a hierarchical power relationship between the ‘expert’ and the non-expert, between those with ‘the knowledge’ and those ‘without the knowledge.'” He does acknowledge that later in the book, Tilden (in his discussion of aesthetics and beauty) “opens up the possibility of (1) the power of feelings and the role of sensorial experience of heritage and (2) visitor empowerment and (3) interpretation as a social construction.” But, Staiff claims, Tilden quickly closes that door because it “potentially unravels many of his principles of interpretation.”

Overall he considers Tilden’s work dated, and so it is. Perhaps he his correct that it is past time to move beyond Tilden’s principles.

On narrative

I very much enjoy how Staiff writes about narrative, “stories do something to us that descriptions do not; we seem to enter into what I want to call ‘fictive space.'” But, “As Roland Barthes and others have cheekily but pointedly written, texts ‘read’ the reader, the reader does not read the text. Stories, thefore do not guarantee a connection to the topographical and physical setting of the narrative. This is a crucial insight often lost in heritage interpretation.” Generally a fan of the power storytelling to give form and structure to what people are looking at, he is aware that “this is an imposed or even artificial structuring of heritage places. […] Is the way a narrative organises time and events (into causal relationships) the most appropriate way to communicate with visitors about a particular site?” On that last point, I would counter that cause and effect chronologies are just one of many narrative structures.

By way of example he imagines (creates) a segment of audio-guide for an excavation in Greece, but then critiques it. There are other ways of understanding places, he says. What of the science behind the engineering of any building? What of the context for the story his segment told? In his extract he mentions Homer’s epics. Do they need any explanation? Stories need to be peopled, but who are the people in the listeners minds? can heritage interpreters offer as well “rounded” a depiction of a historical personality as a biography, or even a novel?

He worries to that the desire for narrative might assign cause and effect to even descriptive interpretation, where no narrative is intended “In heritage interpretation the desire for explanation of often paramount in both those creating narratives and those listening, reading or seeing them.”

He concludes his musing on narrative and interpetation with four “implications”. The first is that “narrative is not the only way heritage places are represented but narrative is a very potent form of giving material things meaning and making material things the touchstone of our deepest desires, feelings, imaginations and emotions. […] The role of narrative in heritage interpretation reinforces the fact that what’s often at stake is not things but, objects and landscapes, but us.” (page 113)

Secondly he points out that there are many stories associated with any place, but they fall into two categories: sanctioned narratives – “those stories that have the imprimatur of institutions […] the narratives of scholarship (or historians, archaeologists, art historians, architectural historians, ecologists and so forth) and the narratives of custodians of heritage spaces (those who work for conservation agencies, heritage agencies or are traditional owners of a site) and usually a combination of the two”; and unofficial narratives “those created by everyone else.”

“Thirdly, narrative sutures heritage places into a particular form of representation; it absorbs the physical entity into chronological time, and it provides action, character, causation, closure and narrator. Heritage interpretation that employs narrative furthers this structuring but mostly uncritically.” I take issue with this, not with his concern that narrative might indeed structure the place uncritically, but rather I take exception with the idea that heritage interpretation “provides action, character, causation and closure.” Its often really hard to get action, character or closure out of a places history, in a way that makes an engaging narrative. Although, “Causation” there is plenty of, and I agree, probably too much. I agree with his assertion that “Chronology is particularly pernicious in the way that it organizes cultural heritage into a linear sequence.”

Finally he recognizes that “stories are a powerful and seductive way of connecting people to places,” buts asks “Is there an ethics of stoytelling at heritage places?” and here he challenges Tilden’s core aim, that interpretation should change attitudes and behaviours by instilling a conservation awareness.

In my next post, I’ll get into the meaty chapter, about digital storytelling.