One of the challenges facing anyone running a heritage site is how to interpret, or explain, the site to visitors. The aim is alway to impart information in a manner that engages, educates and entertains them. I deliberatly use the term heritage site here, as I am primarily envisaging large spaces, usually outdoors, rather than the more controlled environment of an indoor museum, where technology, immersive audio-visual techniques, and traditional graphic panels can be used in large quantities. On such heritage sites the interpretation may have to bring to life a building, some ruins, archaeological remnants or an empty field that was once a bloody battlefield. In this blog post I want to explore some of the methods that can be, and are being, used to do this.
The key to any such interpretation is to present a balanced blend of accurate historical facts, an understanding of the place being interpreted and engaging storytelling. These days there is a range of ways in which this can be done that go well beyond the humble, but still much loved, guidebook.
For many years the tried and trusted interpretive board has been a good start. The image below shows one of a set located on the English Civil War battlefield of Naseby (14 June 1645) in Northamptonshire. This board has all the essentials. A couple of maps to show the course of the battle, some images to show the sort of troops fighting the battle, a narrative and in this case a very useful panoramic photograph to help the viewer relate to the ground they are observing. Indeed this board, and its compatriots elsewhere on the site, do an extremely good job in providing the visitor with an understanding of the battlefield. They are also supplemented by some resources on the Naseby website to help orientate the visitor before they arrive.
The image below is an interpretive board at Bletchley Park that has to do a little less in the way of interpretation than the Naseby one, as it is sited in an already well-interpreted heritage site. But through the use of wartime pictures and quotes from veterans, an empty space within the site can be brought to life for the visitor.
Such interpretive panels of course have their limitations. They are inanimate, they can be damaged and they can’t answer questions posed by the visitor! Therefore for the many people there is probably nothing that beats a human interaction to bring a place to life. Indeed the less physical interpretation there is on a site the more this will tend to be so. A human guide has some obvious advantages over a static board. She/he can interact with the audience, understand their needs, answer their questions and provide a more bespoke experience. Today human guides are employed in a raft of heritage sites and by numerous organisations. These range from stately homes and heritage sites that have their own teams, to peripatetic battlefield guides taking groups of visitors on tours to sites around the world.
But is all cases the key to delivering high quality guiding is to have a good and effective training or development programme. Most sites using guides have their own and organisations such as Britain’s ‘Blue Badge Guides‘ provide training programmes for multi-site guides, whilst the International Guild of Battlefield Guides provides a validation process to set a quality standard for battlefield guides.
One of the best guide training programmes I have come across is the Gettyburg Licensed Battlefield Guides training programme. Why is this? Well first of all it has a very demanding four-stage selection process. A Written Examination is followed by a Panel Interview, then a Mandatory Information and Orientation Programme, and finally an Oral Battlefield Examination. Quite a few hoops to jump through before becoming qualified, and the end result is a high quality cadre of well-respected guides. But to me the most interesting thing about this programme is the underlying philosophy. Even before entering its selection process candidates are asked to answer a very important question. Is guiding for you? In particular they are asked to consider a set of more detailed questions:
Do you love to teach? Are you a storyteller? Are you an extemporaneous speaker? Are you a simplifier? Do you love people? Are you comfortable speaking to groups? Are you flexible? Are you patient? Are you humble?
A very quick analysis of this list will reveal that, and it should come as no surprise to any high quality guide, the key attribute needed is to place ones audience at the centre of things. Unfortunately this sort of focus is not always evident in some guides. Standing in front of an audience and interpreting a place or a battlefield requires self-confidence and a strong element of showmanship, traits that can be at odds with the humility and visitor focus outlined above. Sometimes the ego takes over and the guide becomes the end in itself, rather than a vehicle to interpret the place for the visitor.
Another challenge with human guides is quality control. The guide has to walk a fine line between being an historian and a storyteller. No one is going to stand for a hour on guided tour if the guide is not engaging and entertaining. But this should not mean that the guide lets the truth get in the way of telling a good story! I have been to guided tours in more than one location where myths have been more prevalent than reality. This therefore requires that the training programme must have a validation or quality control element to it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti human guides – far from it I’m one myself! But the limitations and issues highlighted above must be considered when they are used. And there is one other significant limitation to a human guide and that is that they are not always available! But these days technology is on hand to help with this particular problem.
Today, with a smartphone in many pockets, there has been a huge growth in app technology to assist the heritage visitor. These come in a variety of shapes and guises, but all have some overarching benefits to those trying to understand a price of heritage or those trying to interpret it. These benefits are principally the ability to provide consistent, accurate, high-quality and repeatable content. As a user you can be delivered hours of quality material on a handheld device which can be explored at ones own pace, both at the site being visited, or at leisure in ones hotel room or at home. For the interpreter, visitors can be provided with a whole raft of content, using a range of media and with a consistent standard of delivery to every visitor, so quality control is never an issue.
By way of a very good example of this genre, I would highlight the United States’ Civil War Trust’s Battle Apps® Guides series of guides to some of the key battles of the American Civil War. The screenshot above is taken from the app for the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861). As can be seen the quality of the mapping is excellent and activating buttons marking stops and places additional content is exposed, as cab be seen in the screenshot below.
As mentioned earlier this technology also allows the embedding of a whole range of static and dynamic media, from contemporary photographs and maps, to sound clips and video. The example below, taken from the Bull Run app and featuring Civil War Trust’s Director of History and Education Garry Adelmen, demonstrates how a visitor can almost have the best of both worlds. A human guide recorded talking about a location, with the flexibility of having the information to take away on their own portable device!
This technological approach is of course not without its limitations too. At the moment it can’t answer a question from a visitor in the way a human guide can. There are also technical issues in the form of battery life and the need to download some content which might be difficult on a remote site without data connectivity. But as a mass method of providing interpretation there is much benefit in this approach. In the future I suspect that other technologies will emerge to enhance this form of interpretation. For example the potential to use wearable technology, such as a Google Glass style device, integrated with interpretation. There are teething problems to resolve in this area, but the possibilities are very exciting.
To conclude I have looked at a number of different methods of interpreting heritage sites. None should be looked at in isolation and there is great value to the visitor of a heritage site in having a layered approach that uses some or all of the methods highlighted. This gives the visitor choice and variety, and a range of opportunities for them to engage with the site, be educated by it, and have an entertaining day out.