There are no meanings inherent in your resource.

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Which is not to suggest that your resource is without meaning.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately putting together basic training for interpreters, and one of the first things we always try to do is define exactly what our profession is. You’d think that’d be easy; it ain’t. Every time I try to define interpretation, I come away less convinced than ever that we exist as a discrete profession.

There are a number of working definitions, of course, generated by the likes of Freeman Tilden and Interpretation Canada and Interpretation Australia and the National Association for Interpretation… but all of them have drawbacks. And today I would like to concentrate on this particular clause, in one of the world’s most widely-used definitions of interpretation: the idea that our profession draws links between the interests of the visitor, and the meanings inherent in the resource. 

(And let’s leave aside, for the moment, the awkward word “resource.” By resource we mean our park, our landscape, our history, our artefacts, our architecture, our artwork… whatever it is we’re interpreting. It’s a bit of an ugly word, and not entirely satisfactory, but we can pick it apart in a future article.)

It’s the idea of meanings being inherent in the resource that I can’t seem to get past, especially in an age of reconciliation, dialogue, and participatory interpretation.

There is not a single meaning inherent in anything.

Meaning, or significance,  is a human construct, and a subjective one. And what I dislike so much about the term inherent meaning is that it implies that if the right person walks up to an artefact, a landscape, what have you, they can, in a flash of insight, divine its meaning. “Ooh, a canoe! An antique canoe! It’s… it’s… wait for it… it’s the embodiment of the English/French power duality in the early exploration of Canada! I have it! Write it up! Put it on a plaque!”

People have been attached to this idea of inherent meaning for a long time. And you know what? If you get a bunch of experts who are all of the same generation, with the same education, and who hold the same values, and they have the influence and weight of the powerful behind them—they are in effect the hegemony—then they are more than likely to arrive at a single common meaning for a given resource. And I suppose you can forgive them if they read the sameness of their opinion as a sign that they’ve discovered something inherent.

Thus, in traditional management planning or interpretive planning, the hegemonic voice analyzes, judges, codifies and canonizes that significance into a plan or a historic designation or a Statement of Significance, and there you have it. Meaning. Inherent. Voila.

But here’s the exciting thing that’s happening in our profession right now:

We’re coming to realize that what was once “inherent meaning” is simply a set of heritage values.

Not necessarily arbitrary values, mind you. Studied, informed values, to be sure. But heritage values all the same.

And heritage evolves.

Heritage is a wonderful and sadly overused word. Heritage is what we’re talking about when we use the word “meaning.” It’s subjective, social, and ephemeral. Heritage is not history; it is not forensic fact and it is not science. History is what happened in our past; biology is what happens in nature; science in general is the process of uncovering immutable, objective fact. Heritage is what we make of it— it’s how we collectively understand those facts; it’s what we choose to value about them.

We are endlessly in  the process of meaning-making; of redefining our heritage. There’s nothing inherent about it.

In my work as an interpretive planner, I’ve come to realize that one question matters more than any other when interpreting  a site:

“Why is this place important today?”

Answer that question, and you have relevance. You have connection. (You have attendance and revenue, too.) Fail to answer it, and you have a stuffy, sad, irrelevant attraction. And who wants to work at one of those?

The heritage values we assigned to our parks and historic sites seventy or eighty years ago don’t necessarily matter anymore. I realize that can be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. Here in Canada, we have always recounted our collective history through the lens of English vs French: the story of the Founding Peoples. What does that matter now? What does it mean to me, a Canadian who hasn’t a drop of English or French ancestry? What does that mean in a nation where 1/5 of the population wasn’t even born here? What does it mean in the age of Idle No More? In an age of violence against refugees?

It’s time to question the meanings in our resource—in our statements of significance, and in our interpretive plans, and in our interpretive media. It’s time to go back to the facts and collectively draw new meaning and new relevance from them.

History does matter. The Fur Trade still matters today; we are living with its consequences every day. The First World War still matters today; the internment of enemy aliens during the wars still matters today. But not for the same reasons they did eighty years ago.

We need to keep re-writing our heritage. We need to find new meanings in our resource, rather than delude ourselves with the assumption that those meanings are inherent.

And we need to summon the courage to step aside and encourage our visitors, our stakeholders, and  our neighbours to help us find those meanings with us.  This is the essence of reconciliation, and few things are more important in our profession today.

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Posted in Planning, Visitor Experience and tagged , , , , , , .

3 Comments

  1. Fantastic food for thought Don. It has become, dare I say, especially relevant to me and our team at the museum where I work as we embark on a reassessment of our exhibitions – not necessarily which stories we tell but how we have told those stories. Thank you for this thought provoking essay.

  2. And EVEN IF we accepted the premise that there was such a thing as inherent meaning in our resources, doesn’t that mean that every visitor would see it for themselves? What do they need an interpreter for in that case? That definition seems almost contradictory. Interpreters help visitors FIND and DEVELOP meaning in our resources.

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