Heritage interpretation in New Zealand: Research informing practice
Research in interpretation can take a variety of forms. Naturally, a great deal of effort goes into understanding ‘the resource’ – the feature or focus of the interpretive enterprise, be it a scientific process, a cultural practice or an historical event. Interpretation practitioners are very skilled at this.
What practitioners are perhaps less likely to do is undertake research about the interpretive process itself; from ‘blue skies’ academic studies about the broad nature of experience or cognitive processes of engagement, through to small-scale project evaluations of the success or failure of a museum exhibit.
Clearly all such research endeavours have their place, but pragmatics will no doubt dictate that the lion’s share of this work will be in the evaluation space – addressing defined objectives usually set by managers or funders in order to meet some agreed performance indicator. This is critically important work and will help address criticisms about the value of interpretation projects and potentially pave the way for reinvestment in future interpretive schemes.
…vs pure research
At the other end of the scale, is ‘pure’ research which attempts to explore detailed facets and features of how people form connections with place, process and elaborate on messages, or make decisions about how to behave in a given context. This work is fundamental to the creation of a knowledge base in the interpretation field, but sometimes fails to connect with practitioners because of the longer-term nature of research, limited funding, or the inability of researchers to adequately articulate the applied value of their work.
But there’s never been a more important time for researchers to connect with those working at the coalface of interpretation delivery.
Changing times are creating challenges for interpretation
A range of challenges confront the heritage management sector in New Zealand, the result of changes experienced at various scales (global and local) and at different velocities (sudden and gradual).
Key among these changes are:
- declining biodiversity;
- a social ‘disconnect’ with nature;
- a risk-averse culture;
- ubiquitous digital technologies;
- environmental change;
- and natural disasters.
These represent both challenge and opportunity for those working in heritage interpretation, and underscore the need for collaboration between researchers and practitioners to produce meaningful responses to these phenomena, and to provide empirical evidence to support the value of the heritage management sector.
Research and evaluation are critical components of heritage management and interpretation delivery
Practitioners need to know:
- if their messages are getting through (are themes, signs or panels effective)?;
- if target audiences are engaging with core concepts;
- if the interpretive medium is appropriate;
- how people experience places, personal interpretation or static exhibits; and
- the value of the broader interpretive effort.
The ability to document, quantify and explain provides the power to augment, improve and justify interpretation to an increasingly discerning public and private sector. Furthermore, in my experience, the benefits of research can extend well beyond the single project level, opening up opportunities to form professional relationships and networks that create myriad positive outcomes – linking education / training to industry; ‘educating’ decision-makers about the value of interpretation; and even giving back to communities.
In some ways, the future of interpretation as a profession is reliant on the ability to demonstrate the value of what interpreters do
The challenge for interpretation practitioners is to reach out to those in a range of academic fields (such as psychology, education, sociology, tourism, human geography, design and media studies etc) and begin dialogue about how their work might lead to improvements in interpretive delivery, and ultimately contribute to community well-being, increased appreciation for natural and cultural heritage and enhanced visitor experiences. Of course, to get the greatest value out of research and evaluation, those planning and designing interpretation programmes and projects need to imbed these dimensions within the project core – rather than add as an afterthought. Only then will the true potential of the research-practice nexus be unlocked.