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Historic Sites, Museums and Galleries
Live interpretation of Heritage
Over the past few decades heritage and culture has become an important part of people’s life, especially in respect of their leisure and tourist activities (Boyd 2003, p.1). This is particularly true in the case of tourism, where the historical demand for tourist and leisure activities have waned in favour of those filled with more cultural elements. There is an increasing desire to visit historic sites, museums and galleries in an attempt by the individual to learn more about their heritage and those of other cultures and social groups. At the same time, today’s heritage visitor has become more discerning about the manner that these venues present heritage experience to them (Boyd 2003, p.2). In essence therefore, heritage can be seen to relate to historical events and settings and the visitor wants to experience those historical experiences as an almost physical event.
However, despite the numerous researches and survey results that supports this change in the visitor demand, there is still evidence that a number of heritage sites, museums and galleries are failing to react positively to these findings (Black 2005, p.10), which in many cases has resulted in a drop in visitor numbers at these venues. This situation can have serious consequences, especially for those heritage sites that rely upon entrance fees to bridge the gap between state funding and the running costs of the venue. Even where this not the case, for example where government funding is used to provide free admission, such venues are still accountable to the state and need to prove that their establishment is delivering to the needs of the public, which a reduction in visitor numbers will not achieve. In an effort to address this problem the last two decades have seen an increase in literature related specifically to the manner in which heritage is displayed and portrayed to the visitor, creating a new discipline under the general title of heritage interpretation.
Heritage interpretation relates equally to the understanding of the site or objects displayed for the visitor and the motivation determinant and needs of that visitor (Blockley and Hems 2006, p.1). Until recently, most academics agree that heritage interpretation has been the least developed aspect of the venue’s promotion to the visitor (Boyd 2003 and Blockley and Hems 2006). Interpretation forms and integral part of the visitor experience and will influence the experience that they take away from the visit (Boyd 2003, p.193). Therefore, it follows that understanding what motivates a visitor or group of visitors will enable the museum, gallery or heritage site to be better able to display and promote their product (ibid 2003, p.64). For most visitors that motivation will be to gain pleasure and learning from the object or activity being displayed.
In most cases, as Blockley and Hems (2006, p.10) suggest in their research the motivation for the visit is to fulfil the individual’s need for pleasure and leaning and if the heritage venue or object does not achieve this the visitor will leave dissatisfied. In fact, the visitor has come to expect to be greeted with visual views, and animated displays when visiting heritage sites (Dicks 2003, p.17). Thus it is essential for the venue managers to ensure their destination and its contents meet these requirements.
One aspect of interpretation that has come to the fore in the minds of the visitor during recent years, and an area that academics agree is an essential part of interpretation, is the level of interaction that exists between the visitor and the heritage venue or object. A recent development in this respect is the increasing use of various forms of live interpretation within the heritage display and other venue activities, and it this area of interpretation that will form the focal point for this study.
Live interpretation of heritage is the most direct form of interaction between the visitor and the artefacts and events that are being exhibited at heritage sites and venues. Visitors and tourists today expect to see live heritage and cultural displays rather than inanimate objects displayed in empty or one dimensional building and display boxes. For example, visitors to industrial museums have come to expect to be treated to visual and moving displays of historical machinery and even to feel the experience through a living example of the society of the time (Dicks 2003, p.29).
The process of live interpretation can be delivered in a number of formats. One early example of live interpretation was achieved by allowing the visitor to interact with working models, which enabled them to better interpret the processes that were involved with that models operational purpose. As the process of interpretation continued to evolve, these working models were enhanced by the inclusion of audio and visual interpretation methods, which research indicated were perceived to be more rewarding for the visitor than written text material, such as leaflets and books (Boyd 2003, p.231). The use of information and communication technology is another area of live interpretation that can prove effective, through a process of interactive involvement or displaying films and holographic images (Atkinson 2007). As Atkinson (2007) report further explains, by using ICT it is possible for the heritage site management to be able to “personalise and tailor exhibits and experiences to the individual or specific group’s needs.”
However, today the most direct form of live interpretation is deemed to be that which involves physical face to face interaction between the visitor and a representative or group of representatives directly involved with the heritage site, either on a voluntary or employed basis (Blockley and Hems 2006, p.184), which most researchers identify as an interpreter. As these author’s point out “face to face interpretation is seen as the best form of enlivening the visitor experience” and certainly make them consider that it is time well spent. One important aspect needs to be mentioned in respect of the actions of the interpreter. This relates to their level of competence and degree of competence. As Boyd (2003, p.195) explains, “Whilst live interpretation is deemed the most effective form of interaction between visitor and the heritage object, poor quality in live interpretation is worse than nothing.”
However, the degree to which the “interpreter” brings the heritage experience to life will depend upon the venue and its content. For example, they can range from the inclusion of a tour guide to costumed characters who re-enact the history and culture that the heritage site is promoting. This degree of variation and the appropriateness for the heritage venue will be further addressed in the following sections of this study.
Museums and Galleries
A number of researches have been conducted with the intention of discovering how much time visitors spent in museums and to what extent the format and display of the exhibits influenced the length of visit. One such survey, conducted for the research carried out by Boyd (2003, pp.77-78) found that there was a point of time at which visitors interest in the exhibits began to wane and the inclination to “head for the exit” began to dominate their thought processes. This was especially found to be true where the interpretation of the exhibits relied solely upon the basic strategy of display. For example, unless the visitor has a specific historical or academic interest in the specific artefacts being displayed within the venue, which only relates to a small segment of the population, after a while one exhibit, be that a painting, vase or another kind of inanimate object, all began to look alike to the visitor. At that stage the pleasure and learning gained from the experience began to deteriorate.
There still exists the purist view that will argue against the introduction of live interpretation has no place within museums and galleries. Their reasoning is that the visitor should be allowed to interpret the exhibit free from the influence of what those who hold this opinion perceive to be external interference. However, although as stated previous this might be relevant for those who have a dedicated reason for visiting the museum or galleries it was becoming apparent to the mangers of these venues that this was not concurred with by the majority of visitors upon whom these museums and galleries depended. Therefore, remedial and innovative action was seen to be required if the decline in visitor numbers was to be reversed.
It became apparent that some of the key qualities that visitors expected to experience from viewing a particular exhibit were clarity, poignancy, attractiveness together with a dynamic presentation (Boyd 2003, p.224). However, in the case of many visitors it proved difficult achieve the satisfaction of many of these qualities unless the object or exhibit was appropriately interpreted in the first place. This did not mean that the museums and galleries had to introduce moving or highly interactive interpretation process for all of their exhibits. In many instances it was simply a question of introducing a tour guide (Dicks 2003, p.171). This would involve employing a person who had sufficient knowledge and experience about the exhibit to be able to provide an appropriate interpretation, which the visitor could consider and come to their own informed opinion. An example of where such a tour guide is frequently used is in the Royal heritage. Often professional interpreters are used to bring the heritage to life, as is the case with the royal palaces (Blockley and Hems 2006, p.45). To maintain the dignity of these historical sites it would be inappropriate to introduce some of the more technological based live interpretation methods, such as videos, films and other gadgetry. In such cases therefore, the tour guide will be employed to act as the face-to-face interactive interpreter. The heritage visitor or tourist would not expect any greater level of interpretation in such delicate and reverent historical surroundings, and the same reasoning would be applied to heritage sites of religious significance, such as historical churches and cathedrals.
Nevertheless, there are other museums and galleries where the more proactive and interactive live interpretation methods are useful in improving the visitor experience. Providing visitors with a method that allows personal live interpretation, for instance by using computer generated informational processes that explain the origins of the object or gives more information relating to its original use and purpose, can enhance the benefits that the visitor receives from viewing the object. Another method that is being used more frequently within the museum and gallery environment is to make the object or artefact live by introducing information and communication technology process that allow it to move and react (Atkinson 2007, p.7). Black 2005, p.264) promotes the increased use of files within the museum, arguing that this manner of interpretation is more likely to enable the visitor to experience the object as a living thing, thus creating a psychological connection. One area of museums where these methods have proven to be particularly successful is in the field of natural science. For example, presenting the dinosaur animal generation in an interactive and live interpretation method provides the visitor with a better idea of the size, power and a concept of the physical damage that such creatures could cause.
Another recent development within the museum sector of heritage is the evolution of the open-air museum (Boyd 2003, p.224). Because of the difference of the environment for the exhibit, these venues have developed an interpretation process that is far more focused on its live element. In effect the visitor can almost touch a living exhibit and, through the detailed live interpretation process, is transported back to the historical times during which the object was created. In fact, by the use of costumes and special effects often in these cases the visitor will feel as if they have had a personal connection with these events.
Research has shown that, where museums and galleries have adopted some of these live interpretation measures within their venues, and to provide a better understanding of the exhibit, this has resulted in a positive effect on the length of a visitor’s stay (Black 2005, p.257). Furthermore, it has also had a positive impact in that visitor numbers have seen improvement in many instances.
As Jane Malcolm-Davies (2003, p.1) mentions in the introduction to the process of using costumed robes for live heritage interpretation, historic sites are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in the competitive environment of the leisure and tourism industry, not least because of the reduction in government funding, but also because of the impact of competing sites. As a result they have to resort to new and innovative measures for interpreting theirs sites in a manner that will increase visitor numbers. To stand out from the crowd and gain a competitive advantage that will lead to an increase in visitor numbers, live interpretation of the heritage value of these sites often has to resort to making the historical event come alive, a process that is most commonly referred to as re-enactment.
These live interpretation events can take a number of forms. Some of the best known would be the re-enactment of historical civil wars, with authenticity attempted in every aspect of the actor’s costumes and equipment, accompanied by the realistic noise of battle. In other cases, the event might involve a live reconstruction of a home or village as the actors perceived it to be in historical times. Alternative versions of these occur where industrial processes, plants, and retail business environments are re-created to resemble how it might have looked in yesteryear. In a number of cases there is an invitation for the visitor to join in with the experience, creating for them a unique memory of the occasion.
However, as with the use of live interpretation developments in museums and galleries, there has been some intense disagreement inn the past between academics and members of the historical heritage groups regarding the use of re-enactment and the use of costumes, with the opponents considering it to be fake (Sansom 1996, p.134). Indeed, many of those who hold this opinion consider this approach little more than theatrical nonsense. It is probably partly because of this reaction that it took until the latter part of the 1980’s before heritage sites began to employ “paid, permanent, costumed staff as an integral part of their daily interpretation” activities (Hicks 1994, p.9).
The difficulty was that, before the employment of professional interpreters or “actor” there could be said to be some truth in the opposing argument. However, to the extent that these objectors delayed the introduction of a more professional approach to the live interpretation, it could be said that they contributed to the poor standard of interpretation that previously existed. In his dissertation thesis in 1990, Robershaw (1990, p.31) found from his research into the situation with regard to costumed interpreters that whilst it had the cosmetic effect of creating a more realistic atmosphere, this was not at that time communicated to the visitor. The same author quoted other literature that, like his own, concluded that visitors were demanding that the historical site managers should deliver a more “interactive experience”, which was clearing not happening at that time. It was also argued that because of the educational leanings, the resultant experience lacked any element of fun and entertainment.
The remarkable thing is that, since the introduction of live costumed and professional methods of interpretation (Sansom 1996, p.122 and Malcolm-Davies 200, p.9), this element of interaction and increased in the value of entertainment and fun has become more evident. The improvement has led to a situation where it has been found to the level of recall and understanding that is experienced by the visitor. Most academics, including Black (2005, p.117) and Dicks (2003, p.49) are now firmly of the opinion that historic and cultural sites that adopt the live approach to interpretation and encourages interaction with the visitor, even to the extent of re-enacting historic events, do find that it leads to an increase in visitor numbers. Furthermore, it leads to a greater degree of satisfaction of their need for enjoyment and learning.
The proponents of live interpretation for historical sites argue that these re-enactments, especially now that they are more professional in nature, can be considered to be displaying an improved and closer depiction of the actual event, and therefore should be viewed as being more authentic. Furthermore, they will also argue that these events are serving to deliver to the main demands of the visitor, in that they provide a much greater depth of learning, whilst at the same time satisfying the visitor demand for them to include an element of fun and entertainment.
The managers of these historical sites will also argue that, the inclusion of live interpretation and re-enactment within the promotional element of the destination, such moves are also serving the objectives of the destination, which are a) to remain self-sufficient in terms of funding and b) to assist the destination in achieving a competitive advantage over other similar destinations. They would further argue that the reported visitor number increases for the industry sector as a whole, and many of the destinations individually, support their choice of interpretation methods.
As has been mentioned in the introduction section of this research, over the past few years there has been increasing pressure exerted upon the managers of historic sites, museums and galleries to become self sufficient and accountable for the value achieved as a result of the limited resources provided to them from the public purse. It is natural that, in order to meet these conditions, the managers of these sites have been forced to consider a more innovative solution to promoting their destinations (Dicks 2003, p.122). An increasing number have turned to the use of live interpretation as a means of providing a resolution to the problems they have been facing.
In the past there may have been some merit to the argument raised by opponents to live interpretation. These might have been justified especially where those elements of this process went as far as the inclusion of costumes and re-enactment. This justification can be linked with the lack of professionalism that existed at that time. However, in most cases that position has changed and the introduction of professional actors, directors and costume designers have dramatically improved this element of live interpretation.
However, in the final analysis of the appropriateness of these methods of live interpretation it is the results produced that determine their success or failure. When one poses the question whether the adoption of these new approaches to interpretation have had the desired effect in terms of increasing the numbers of visitors being seen at historic sites, museums and galleries, the external researches studied by the author all support a positive response. Similarly, looking at it from the viewpoint of the other main stakeholder, the heritage visitor, the question to be asked is whether “live” interpretation promotional methods have improved their enjoyment of the experience and is more completely meeting their demands and needs. Here, again, current research and survey results confirm that this is the case. In fact, as Hunt (2004, p.387) states in his detailed research on heritage and interpretation., “acting the part has now become almost essential, as most visitors have come to expect it!”
In conclusion therefore, it is found that live interpretation is more effective as a method of education and learning, and as a means of visitor entertainment, than has been the case with most of the other methods of destination promotion adopted by historic sites, museums and galleries in the past. It is therefore recommended that those destinations that have yet to adopt these methods, and are experiencing difficulty in meeting financial or public accountability standards, should seriously considered following the example of the many institutions that have benefitted from live interpretation.
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Black, G (2005). The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. Routledge, Abingdon, UK
Blockley, M and Hems, A (eds) (2006). Heritage Interpretation: Theory and Practice. Routledge, Abingdon, UK
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Dicks, B (2003). Culture on Display. Open University Press. Maidenhead, UK.
Dray, C (1999). History as Re-enactment: R.G. Collingwood’s “Idea of History”. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK
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Hunt, S.J (2004). Acting the part: ‘living history’ as a serious leisure pursuit. Leisure Studies, Vol.23, No.4, pp.387-403
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Ransom, E. (1996). Peopling the past: current practices in archaeological site interpretation. In Archaeological displays and the public: methodology and interpretation (McManus, P. Ed.), pp.118-137, Institute of Archaeology, London’
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