The Association for Heritage Interpretation 2012 annual conference (http://www.ahi.org.uk) focused on quality and the visitor experience, putting heritage interpretation at the heart of designing the experience visitors have of a property.
The presentations and visits have highlighted the necessity of considering the visitor experience from the outset of interpretive planning. It is not rocket science, however a number of speakers have shown the efforts they have made to change organisational thinking and avoid the scenario of staff simply deciding what they will do to visitors without finding out what visitors desire. Examples ranging from the National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces to interpretation for visually impaired people and pre-schoolers demonstrated why interpreters and property managers should consider how visitors do and should experience a place to offer a more satisfying and accessible visit. The benefits include an enhanced sense of place leading to higher values of a property and its heritage, as well as financial return from longer and repeat visits. Numerous speakers showed the link between heritage interpretation and tourism development, and the need for thorough planning and evaluation. To me, it seems essential that interpretation is closely linked with tourism assessment of a property.
I was particularly interested in properties which encourage visitor participation in their engagement with the place, partly building on the new ways people interact with their world through social media and people’s resulting expectations of interacting with ‘bricks and mortar’. The concept of the participatory ‘museum’ can be applied to other types of venue, and is an essential approach to communicate with audiences who expect to interact actively with their world, as well as being a way to develop a sense of ownership of a property for those audiences.
I gave a presentation about providing interpretation to pre-school children and their families in such a way that this audience can enjoy a visit to countryside and historic house properties. Pre-school children can engage with and remember carefully chosen key messages, while their parents or guardians can also engage with the property rather than miss out because of needs of their children take them away from concentrating on the property’s heritage stories. Appropriate interpretation can be integrated into the needs of the pre-school family through play, art, crafts, story telling and even snack time.
Conference visits were made to Blists Hill Victorian Town, Much Wenlock Museum and RAF Cosford. All three venues offer different visitor experiences which engage people with specific heritage themes. Blist Hill is a reconstructed 1900 industrial town populated with costumed interpreters, Much Wenlock interprets the local cultural and natural heritage witha focus on the birth of the modern Olympic movement, while Cosford has opened a huge Cold War museum which goes someway beyond just being about big planes. I would take the Blist Hill property managers to task about their claims for ‘authenticity’ as if they are creating something which is an unsullied real 1900 experience rather than. 21st Century tourism representation.