Interpretation is dead. Long live interpretation!

Crisis of professional confidence. And, being me, I’ll write it publicly and allow cleverer people than i to let me know how i’m missing the point…

I’m seeing that the word ‘interpretation’ is no longer fit for purpose – its meaning is too degraded to be useful. Taking four definitions…

The US National Association of Interpretation

Interpretation: A mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.

Wikipedia

Heritage interpretation refers to all the ways in which information is communicated to visitors to an educational site, such as a museum or science centre.

Interpretation Canada

Interpretation is a communication process, designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage, through involvement with objects, artifacts, landscapes and sites. 

Interpretation Australia

Heritage interpretation communicates ideas, information and knowledge about natural or historic places in a way which helps visitors to make sense of their environment. Good interpretation will create engaging, unique and meaningful experiences for visitors.

So why does this list of definitions bother me? Apart from disquiet that a profession over 50 years old can’t agree on the basics, it’s the introduction of multiple meanings and unchallenged assumptions that feel problematic.


So one meaning is around a process – interpretation as a verb. ‘The team will make this exhibition using methods collectively referred to as interpretation.’


Another is around an end product – interpretation as a holistic, collective noun. ‘The team will make the [interpretation] using objects, text, lighting, sound…’


A third is as a specific subset noun within something else. ‘The team will make an exhibition containing objects, interpretation and lighting.’


Never mind that some definitions are struggling to make a noun of something they seem to treat as an adjective.


But there is a much wider problem for me. The notion that a ‘resource’ has only one intrinsic meaning or set of meanings is woven tightly within all of these. While the better ones are generous in allowing audiences multiple meaning-making, and acknowledging they may have different interests and motivations, the authority over meaning is kept very close.


Who has chosen which meanings are valid? How transparent is it who has made that choice and how? And it’s implied that there are correct ways to engage with the resource and incorrect ways.


I’m starting to think about it differently. I suppose over the years I have been influenced by Learning outcome methodology, and the concept of ‘engagement with’ rather than ‘communication to’. And being in Australia, where certain truths about museum collections are more visibly, actively and helpfully disputed, has made me question this authority position further.


So I think I’ve landed here. Interpretation happens inside the minds of the visitor, and all that is – or isn’t – in the space contributes to the active meaning-making going on inside any individual mind. We in exhibition-making are there to create the conditions in which people can do this.


Our job is to understand and enable this meaning-making. We present, display, write about, theatrically present, select, light, etc etc – and in so doing enable the visitor to make their meanings. All of these skills are encompassed within the loose network of professionalisms we call interpretation, evaluation, informal learning, curation, etc. If we deploy these skills critically and enthusiastically, the end product will enable audiences to make meanings, and those meanings will be life-enhancing. This could involve selecting what meanings we think should be made – that’s fine but we need to consciously own (document and publish) that we are doing so.


Following that logic, we must grant extraordinary generosity of spirit to our visitors – they are arriving for a reason, and they will use the stuff we make for that reason.


Visitors are the meaning-makers. Visitors do the interpretation. Long live interpretation!
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