Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cultural Heritage Interpretation - What it means for museums, archives, and our audience

Last week, the subject of "interpretation" came up in conversations with two separate colleagues. When something like that comes up more than once in a week, I take it as a sign to write about it. The first conversation was with a professional grounded in the museum field who asked me about interpretation and archivists. The second was a fundraising / non-profit professional who was accompanying me to a local art museum.

According to the American Association of Museums:
Interpretation is "The media and activities through which a museum carries out its mission and educational role.  Interpretation is a dynamic process of communication between the museum and the audience. It is the means by which the museum delivers its content.  Interpretation includes but is not limited to exhibits, tours, classes, school programs, publications, and Web sites."

Archivists apparently do not like this word "interpretation." We do not want to influence the users interaction with the primary documents that are devoted to truth. We are pledged to retain their purity. To some, perhaps, to suggest that we "interpret" archives as professionals goes against this pledge. To me "interpretation" is vital to all cultural heritage professionals. I don't want to write much about this because I don't want to steal my colleague's thunder. He is going somewhere with his ideas on interpretation. Let me just say that I think archivists are very much involved with "interpretation," but it primarily lies in our "description" when we create finding aids to provide access to materials and place them in context. Archivists also need to be more involved with outreach and exhibits to make what we do more approachable to outsiders and this is a topic that needs to be accepted and further explored by my colleagues.

I am going to digress a bit so you understand from where my thinking comes...As an undergraduate, I was on a curator path. I was an art history major who took all the museums studies coursework they would allow me. I was the first undergraduate to curate an exhibit at the University of New Hampshire Art Gallery. My mentor found that I kept gravitating toward the research rather than toward the art work. My show about the German Weimar photographers Gerta Peterich, Lotte Jacobi, and Ursula Wolff Schneider was heavy in label copy about the context of their work and the environment in which they practiced their craft. Watching me spend much time in the archives, my mentor suggested that I pursue a degree in the discipline. I agreed, thinking that it would strengthen my background in research (i.e. interpretation.) I could then go on to be a curator. I liked archives so much that I stayed and made a career out of it.

Last Friday, I went with my second aforementioned colleague to visit a local art museum. "Description" was very much on my mind. I was impressed with brochures that were made readily available by this museum. They placed various sections of their displayed collections in context. I was impressed with the activities they left around to engage children with imagery. I was less than impressed with much of their label copy. I began wondering about the concept of "interpretation" - its purpose and our jobs as cultural heritage professionals in applying it.

I am going to use one example of label copy at the local art museum that concerned me. It gave the usual name of the painter, dates, etc., but no other information. I noticed that on the painting itself was the artist's name and it said that the work was a copy of a work by another artist. However, according to the label the image was of the artist who copied the picture. This could lead one to think that it was a straight-up self-portrait. In the image, the sitter held a palette and paintbrushes. From my background in art history, I deduced that the subject was the student of the original painter. The master painted her portrait and she copied it. Her paintbrushes were a dead give away to me as a symbol of her own status as a painter. Would a regular museum-goer pick all of that up? To me, that scenario is interesting enough to point out to the viewer. Thinking about the face upon which I gazed, I could picture myself in the studio with her and her mentor. To me, the people depicted in the painting came more to life when I deduced the circumstances of its creation.

Cultural heritage professionals have tools for interpretation that others do not have. We use our knowledge and expertise to figure out things that are not apparent to everyone. It is part of our job to point out connections between pieces of information. We might guide our audiences to come to their own conclusions, but without our interpretation tools, most would not be able to make educated conclusions about the resources in our care. Call it "interpretation." Call it "description." Call "it" whatever you want.  It is part of what makes us professionals. Interpretation is vital for making cultural heritage institutions vital to general society. Without it, our patrons sometimes do not know what to make of the objects in our care or even what to make of our institutions themselves. Curators and archivists should challenge themselves to interpret and to do it well. It is key to making a direct connection with potential audiences that include researchers, visitors, and supporters. It is vital for opening doors to help that audience understanding of the resources we automatically cherish.  Share what you know, welcome curiosity, and engage your public.


  1. Your point that we should engage more and make more use of exhibits and outreach is something I truly believe needs to be a central tenet of all archives. I agree with the use of interpretation as equating with description and it's up to us to take the archives to people in that sense, to make them open and accessible rather than expecting people to know what they want to see and where to find it. Also, the idea of retaining purity or 'neutrality' always strikes me as highly suspect - it was also something we were encouraged to question during our Archives MA so maybe times are changing!

  2. Interesting post!
    I wonder whether the evidential nature of most archival holdings limits the options for interpretation by archivists. I think the question here is around which user group is being targeted. For those looking at objects from a cultural heritage perspective, interpretation by an archivist may well be ok and even necessary, but from an evidential perspective the interpretation should arguably be left to the research/visitor/etc.

    This is a little off-topic but from an Archival perspective this makes me think of the problems with providing renders for digital content. Should we be providing the original software for rendering content?

    Anything else may affect the interpretation... Is it the role of librarians or archivists to choose the renderer when the results of this choice can be unpredictable?

  3. Thanks for your insight Kathryn and Euan.

    Kathry, I hope you are right.

    Euan, I like your digital content example and I'm interested in the work that Emory University has done with the Rushdie archives along these lines.

    As for evidential nature and the idea of a user group being targeted...why should we target a particular user group at all? Are we limiting our potential audience with such thinking? Take my art museum painting example for not applying interpretation through label copy is the museum limiting the audience who will stop to look and consider the item's value beyond its obvious existence as a portrait? What would it take away from my experience as an "expert" by adding label copy? I can choose to read it or choose not to read it. I can choose to accept an archivist's "interpretation" of the evidence or I can formulate my own conclusions if I have enough knowledge to do so. Should we consider the potential of our resources beyond our traditional audiences in these changing times? Archivists can perhaps see our "interpretation" function on par with a guide. We don't need to provide opinions on what we see, but we can guide users to formulate their own opinions by providing the context and other information that they might not have to come to educated conclusions.

  4. Ummm...I guess, so much for not writing "much about this"?