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Interpretation Strategies: getting to the nub of significance

Heritage interpretation plays a far more important role in heritage initiatives than many people realise.
Public art can be a powerful form of heritage interpretation. (Image: Devenish, Victoria, @p1xels)

Over the last few years, the concept of heritage interpretation has escaped from the specialist’s pantry and commandeered the kitchen. No longer just the preserve of ‘nature education’ or museums, interpretation is now widely recognised as imperative for the conservation of built heritage. Right now, we are witnessing a surge in heritage interpretation across Australia; with a myriad of projects, both large and small, being required to demonstrate their interpretive bona fides to approval authorities, users and communities.


All those involved in a heritage project should be acquainted with this ‘in vogue’ heritage/urban planning concept as well as aware of its tangible outcomes. Luckily for you, this blog offers just that.

Heritage interpretation does not always mean soaring instances of public art. A light (and inexpensive) touch can also achieve much. (Image: Meroogal House, Nowra, author’s collection)

What is heritage interpretation?

Do wall’s talk? And if they can, do they say enough by themselves? The answer is of course, site-specific. Yet more often than not finding and strengthening the voice of heritage places requires additional assistance.


This is where heritage interpretation comes into play. Interpretation seeks to communicate (reveal) the unique qualities about a place which make it important and relevant to people today and into the future. Effective heritage interpretation ensures that even as change (and sometimes loss) occurs, a site’s cultural value/s is accessible and continues to resonate. All the scholarly evidence, our experience and everyday sense shows us how eloquent heritage interpretation contributes to a sense of continuity from the past to the present and creates a heightened sense of place.

Another useful way of thinking about heritage interpretation is to see it as an act of translation. By this we mean rendering the (hopefully) expertly voiced but dense/jargonistic Statement of Significance (and the conservation analysis that precedes it) it into a meaningful message/s about a place that all can understand and appreciate.


Heritage interpretation then, is at the front-line of conservation. As a key interface between people and heritage sites it has the potential to bestow a value and relevance despite physical appearance and condition, and – to put it without all the bells and whistles – tell us why we should care about a place.

Interpretation can bring out texture and tacticity at a site. At Places Victoria (Docklands), salvaged warehouse doors are displayed in the new entrance. (Image: @interpretationaustralia)

A clever move - commission an Interpretation Strategy

The method by which the above interpretive ambitions are met is most often via the preparation of an Interpretation Strategy. This report is a multifaceted document that not only presents an overarching vision for the interpretation of a heritage place but also gets into the nitty-gritty of doing so. It is an exercise in thinking innovatively but realistically about communicating the significance of a site to the public in a manner that adds value to a proposal.

An effective Interpretation Strategy will be moulded to the needs and character of its associated proposal and site typology, however, the following elements will most likely be present:

  • an ‘inventory’ of the site’s physical and intangible components (for instances, architectural details, past and current usage, historical context);

  • a wide-ranging discussion of interpretive opportunities and constraints;

  • the identification of target audience – a crucial step, as few successful interpretation schemes can be something for everyone;

  • distilling of the expertly voiced cultural significance of a place into principle message/s for public consumption – in modern interpretive practice this is done via a thematic approach (which reminds us not to attempt to convey all the ‘facts’ about a place to people but rather to elicit an emotional connection); and

  • recommendations for interpretive media and devices that suit the realities of the site and its themes and target audience (sometimes this includes the provision of draft content, such as a selection of visuals, quotes and/or interpretive language, however, this delivery stage – the actual production of the selected forms and media – conventionally takes place at a different, later phase, often termed as the ‘Interpretation Plan’).

This all takes place in a whirlpool of directive literature and best-practice guides – particularly Freeman Tilden’s seemingly timeless six principles.


At what stage of a design is an Interpretation Strategy useful?

Simple. Every stage.


Truthfully, while it varies from project to project, in our experience, the provision of an Interpretation Strategy never fails to accomplish for a design what it is supposed to do for future visitors and users – that is, reveal, provoke and stimulate.


For the most part, Interpretation Strategies tend to be commissioned near the beginning of the design process or in response to consent conditions set by an approval body. Although it is never too late to get a little interpretive, we find the result of a late approach is a reduction in the ability of a proposal to take advantage of the very real ways in which interpretation can augment a heritage proposal.


We believe that with any decision regarding change at a place of cultural significance yields an interpretive component. Heritage interpretation is far, far more than the end-stage installation of an interpretive panel, embedment or mural. New work itself, be it repairs, reconstruction, adaptive re-use or new additions, all comprises potential for interpretation (using, for example, detailing, materiality and siting). The cultivation of an atmosphere or purposeful highlighting of a physical element, say a weathered façade or time trodden threshold (click here to read about patina), can be a powerful means of inciting an emotional connection to a heritage place.


Consequently, taking advantage of an Interpretation Strategy at the front end of a project can ensure that the driving motivation of a proposal is the desire to interpret a place’s significance. Further, its presence articulates this to regulatory bodies who are ever on the look out for evidence of informed, contextually savvy design proposals when it comes to the historic environment.


Even if Interpretation Strategies were not regularly expected and/or mandated by decision-makers, we still think they make good development sense. These are reports that dig down to the essence of what is distinctive, even unique about a place. It does not take a giant imaginative leap to see how this could factor into a whole range of place-making and commercial opportunities. Authenticity is all the rage these days.


Interpretation should reveal, provoke and engender wonder. (Image: Janet Bathgate, Denniston Heritage Coalfield)

Well-versed, realistic and passionate - Touring the Past's approach to heritage interpretation

Our interpretive methodology is a compound of theoretical understanding, practical design know-how, talented weaving of stories and a contextual knowledge of Australian history. This last facet is particularly crucial, as rigorous and robust historical practice is the foundation of worthwhile heritage interpretation. It enables us to employ the physical remnants of the past, together with omissions and gaps, to divulge the intangible worth of heritage places; all the events, lifestyles, concepts, assumptions, sensibilities, mentalities and idioms of the past which contemporary people are hungry to find out about.


Touring the Past is passionate about heritage interpretation – we perceive it as a key part of the substantial and important business of connecting people with the past and exploring how it shapes our present.


We want to hear about your interpretive projects and ideas – why not talk to us right now?

The digital revolution continues to open up immersive and increasingly cost-effective media forms for heritage interpretation. (Image: The Centre for Democracy, Adelaide, @interpretationaustralia)

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Touring the Past:

Heritage Consultancy

0491 341 906

contact@touringthepast.com.au

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Blue Mountains, NSW 2780

0491 341 906

contact@touringthepast.com.au

PO BOX 966

Artarmon, NSW, 2064

     

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