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  • Writer's pictureTouring the Past

An anarchist's guide to heritage interpretation

Updated: Jul 19, 2018

Historic sites are not static antiquities - they are living institutions uniquely poised to address current issues while retaining their connection to the past.

Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan, Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums (2017)

Touring the Past - Heritage Interpretation
Inviting public artists to interpret historic places and spaces is an underutilised but powerful means of inviting visitors and users to reflect upon and construct meaning at heritage sites – Philagrafika presents Megawords Powel House Museum Philadelphia, 2006. (Source: Twisted Preservation,

Recently, Touring the Past read a provocative book, the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums by self-described ‘museum anarchists’, Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan (read about them in more depth here). Released last year, the Anarchist’s Guide argues that the sedate world of the historic house museum (HMMs) is disconnected – in an unsustainable fashion – from contemporary society, with their collections and messages failing to attract, interest or stimulate everyday users and visitors. Vagnone and Ryan’s remedy is radical shock treatment through a complete inversion of ‘traditional museum operations’.

Elements of their concern resonated with our interpretive practice in the built historic environment. We too have witnessed the dreaded ‘so what?’ questions and ‘meh’ reactions of contemporary users and visitors to the most well-meaning and carefully crafted of interpretative media and installations at historic and cultural places in Australia. Too often, the interpretation of the historic environment in Australia fails to live up to the simple (deceptively so) ideals of its ‘founding father’, Freeman Tilden.

Heritage interpretation has to do more and mean more

In our modern era, characterised by instant communication, diversity, global outlooks and yet, a yearning for authenticity and identity, heritage interpreters have to lift their games to be noticed and impactful. Singular, ‘educational’ narratives of pioneers, national progress and great (white) men will no longer (if they ever truly did) cut it.

What follows then, are eight principles we have extracted from the Anarchist’s Guide and planted in our interpretive garden. All quotes are from the Vagnone and Ryan’s book and we stress, that our ‘principles’ are based off their hard work and ideas.

Principles for contemporary, purposeful heritage interpretation

  1. Be honest with physical fabric – if the disorderliness of a historic places reflects its significance or perhaps its evolution, resist the urge to tidy to create an ‘imagined, gentile past’. Consider letting a site’s patina speak for itself, or contemplate whether instances of damage and even disorder may allow for insight into the ‘ebb and flow’ of a historic place. If it does, find ways to manage it rather than extinguish. Perception of authenticity is a key factor in user and visitor engagement.

  2. Resist the ‘Narcissism of Details’ and a singular focus on superlatives (the first, the best, the highest) – for the most part, a diet of narration dominated by facts and detail does not belong in the interpretive realm. Instead have faith (see below, no.3), share short stories (no.4), be non-linear and seek to activate multiple senses through the visual and visceral. Further, relish what may make a historic place interesting and provoking is not its connection with someone famous or its superlative credentials but rather, that it was an everyday lived-in place of shared human experiences and intimacy.

  3. Have more faith in the intelligence of the observer – acknowledge that visitors and users can tolerate and process a greater degree of ambiguity and mystery about the past and its relevance in the present. Utilise multiple viewpoints and embrace the concepts of simultaneity (events happening at the same time), conjecture and rumour/folklore. In some cases, encouraging users to piece together disparate elements and construct their own meaning or invite them to critically assess the scholarly consensus.

  4. 'Share short stories’ – subdivide and translates the significance of a place into distinctive episodes and compelling tales. Visitors and users remember short stories as intense moments at which an empathetic connection with the past was made. This should be the priority. Dates, didactic recitation of facts, discussions of architectural pedigree; these belong elsewhere or to the background. Simple test? Vagnone and Ryan ask us to consider if an interpretive message would be effective as a Tweet?

  5. Don’t be constrained by the key period of significance – revel in a site’s often multi-layered nature.

  6. Provide opportunities for personal ‘fingerprinting’ at a site – spur dialogue at and beyond the site through social media or low-tech methods like visitor books or identify a surface that can be written on (crayons anyone?). Give users the opportunity to share their thoughts; ‘elevate emotion(al) experiences to a standing equal with historical exactitude’.

  7. Do not ignore the neighbourhood – interpret the heritage places within their historic as well as existing built and natural contexts. Acknowledge any disconnects and differences between a heritage place and its extant community. Address them by making a case for relevance. Be imaginative. Craft short stories that have the potential to be meaningful or resonate with non-traditional audiences; ‘be reflective of, and speak to, the community that surrounds (a heritage place), not simply the society for which the narrative might have originated'.

  8. 'Engage the uninterested’ and ‘expand the guest list’ – actively seek to expand audiences beyond traditional heritage enthusiasts. For most historic places, it is from the surrounding community that multiple visits and ongoing interest/support will be realised – not one-off tourists. This will only occur through the power of relevance and action. For instance, our wise interpretive anarchists suggest that interpretation strategies should be seeking out ‘Reverse Affinity Groups’ – audience groups that would not normally pay any heed to a historic or cultural place – and actively engage.

A dash of anarchy please

Animated, consequential and charismatic heritage interpretation is the result of a deep understanding of place combined with a healthy dose of historical imagination and flair.

Good heritage interpretation not only contributes to the public good but can also significantly bolster the desirability of a development along with its environmental credentials. While an Interpretation Strategy based on the archaists principles will not allow for a great degree of adverse change, it can help water the ground for creative, flexible and unconventional design responses and uses for heritage places.

We hope this blog has given you some insight into the ways in which Touring the Past is thinking and operating when it comes to interpretation. Heritage interpretation is a broad church and we are always on the look out for cross-disciplinary lookout for ways to make the historic environment meaningful.

If you have any current or upcoming interpretive projects or needs, we would love to discuss. Getting in contact is the easy part, just click here.

Touring the Past - Heritage interpretation, blog
Interpretive signage can still be a powerful means of interpreting a heritage place but their development must stress an audience-centred message with interpretive intentions. (Source: Hartley Historic Village, NSW, author’s collection)


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