Last week I joined some 150 fellow interpretation professionals in Launceston for the 2010 IA National Symposium. This was the third IA conference / symposium* I had been to, so there was a good mix of familiar faces and new people to get to know. This post is intended as an overview; I’ve already posted a summary of the workshop I ran and I will cover the field trip (to the Beaconsfield Mine and Heritage Centre) in a separate post. So, without further ado:
Things I learned & things I liked:
- Zoos Victoria’s Connect – Understand – Act model of interpretation to encourage behaviour change in visitors (as presented by Scott Killeen). Interpretive activities are designed to fit into at least one of these three categories and there have been some promising signs of behavioural change, at least in the short term (petition signing and phone recycling scheme takeup).
- Catherine McCarthy (San Antonio, TX) stated that “Heritage sites change at a different pace from technology”. While this is no great revelation, it was a neat way of putting it and a lot of interpretive issues stem from this simple fact. And it’s something which is only going to increase in significance as technological advances accelerate. Plus her presentation raised a few question marks about technological / infrastructural differences and how they might affect interpretation. (She described cellphone-based audio tours and reported quite a high takeup rate compared to what I would expect. But then again this probably says more about the difference in cellphone tariffs between the US and Australia than anything else. In any case, I think the cellphone-based tour will be overtaken well before it even takes off here, by the smartphone App and the downloadable podcast.)
- Zoos Victoria / Healesville Sanctuary have a superhero called CrapMan. Inspired, brave and memorable.
- Peter Grant’s (TAS Parks and Wildlife) analogy of interpretation using a jug of ice water. The water itself is the easy content; the ice is the harder, pointer topics; and the water vapour in the atmosphere represents all the non-obvious meanings. The interpreter plays the role of the jug, allowing this meaning to condense and be appreciated. (The rest of Peter’s plenary focused on the inner journey of the interpreter, relating our job as an extension of the internal quest for meaning.)
- The term ‘disintermediation’ to describe the impact that social media and mobile devices are having on how visitors interact with culture. (And Wikipedia tells me this term is over 40 years old!).
- Kate Stone (National Film & Sound Archive) alerted us to some interesting websites and social media initiatives. New to me was Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing web platform which arose out of civil unrest in Kenya and was used by citizen journalists to map outbreaks of violence. (Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili. As an aside I wonder if it shares any linguistic roots with the Arabic shahada, which means, among other things, “witness”?). Also NLA’s Trove website, which brings together books, newspapers, journals, images, video maps and so on together into a single searchable site with an emphasis on Australian content.
- (this one is new as it seemed to have disappeared from my original notes) Dillon Kombumerri, Australia’s first Indigenous architect, gave a thought-provoking presentation on some of his work which has sought to address Aboriginal disadvantage through culturally-sensitive design. The thing that stuck in my mind was his observation that in Aboriginal culture, people identify with Country first, then Family, then as an Individual. It occurs to me that the ‘European’ colonial culture is more or less the exact opposite of this, particularly in its more recent, highly individualistic, incarnations. I fear this is just one of many examples of how completely different cultural perspectives present a real barrier to mutual understanding and reconciliation. And I don’t know what the answer is.
- Dr Jody Steele’s (Port Arthur Historic Site) informative and entertaining introduction to the world of public archaology:
Things I noticed
- The diversity of delegates: the symposium brought together academics, tourism operators, park rangers, designers, historic sites, museums, local government, architects and a wide variety of consultants, to name but a few. The breadth of fields represented in a relatively small number of people would outstrip that seen in your average museums conference, I’d wager.
- Heritage Interpretation is a hard field to pin down, and not everyone practicing interpretation would self-identify as such. (As a case in point, I started out in Science Communication and at the time had no idea what Interpretation was, even though there are very clear parallels and overlaps.) The upside of this lack of neat definitions is that it allows people from diverse backgrounds to learn from each other in the broad church which is Interpretation. The huge downside is that it can sometimes be hard to convince category-driven thinkers (e.g. bean counters and property developers) that interpretation is something to be valued and appropriately paid for. (Made worse by the fact that we tend to do our job out of vocation and tend not to be very good at selling ourselves!)
- Despite (or because of?) the points above, there appear to be some surprising disconnects between the Interpretation and Museum worlds, at least based on my experience. Freeman Tilden was dubbed by one speaker as the “Einstein of Interpretation” and his seminal work Interpreting our Heritage (1957) is often cited by interpreters, 50+ years on. However I don’t think the name has ever come up in museums circles, and I wouldn’t be surprised if mentioning Tilden at a museums conference would attract a lot of blank looks. Conversely, there were a few concepts introduced at the symposium which are reasonably well-worn territory in museums circles, but seemed to be quite new to several delegates (but perhaps I’m just showing my age here?)
- A couple of the plenary speakers really divided the crowd: some delegates thought they were fantastic; others were left scratching their head wondering what all the fuss was about. I think this probably relates to my first point, in that we are such a diverse crowd and probably bring markedly different expectations to a conference such as this. It could also be that some speakers were better at weaving their presentation into a coherent story.
*I’m really not sure what the difference between a conference and symposium is meant to be. The OED definition of a ‘conference’ is “a meeting or discussion, especially a regular one held by an association or organisation”; whereas a ‘symposium’ is “a conference or meeting to discuss a particular subject” (or “an ancient Greek drinking party”, apparently, but I digress . . .) I think the intended distinction is that a ‘conference’ is a more formal meeting with peer reviewed papers, etc; while a ‘symposium’ is more practice led and hands-on. In my experience, however, I’ve not noticed any real difference. Perhaps if I had been to heavily academic conferences I might. But, to be perfectly honest, I just found the distinction a bit confusing.