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Sensitive heritage, sensitive interpretation: asking tough questions and promoting good practice.

Heritage that hurts. What happens when intellect and emotion collide? Who is the moral guardian of memory? In June I had the privilege of attending the Interpret Europe conference in Krakow, Poland, which addressed these powerful issues. The conference program asked how we interpret heritage that has the potential to trouble or even distress people, such as sites where atrocities and crimes against humanity were committed or at places that have conflicting or controversial meanings for different people. How do we interpret minorities--or majorities? Can interpreting national heroes or enemies feed nationalistic ideologies and foster exclusion? How can interpreters avoid unintentionally embarrassing or upsetting visitors when explaining aspects of history that involve the homelands of hosts and visitors? Can interpretation help overcome stereotypes? Can it present what is true without sometimes causing offense?

I appreciated that the conference organizers ensured that the strong theme of Sensitive Heritage, Sensitive Interpretation was woven through every keynote and field trip and that their goal for presenters was for them to be "challenging, thought provoking, and even controversial in what they present and what they debate, while respecting that others may have a different view."

This conference was a powerful experience. Keynotes reminded us that we tend to have good guys versus bad guys in the stories we tell, challenging us to think about which stories we choose to tell. They pointed out that there is both collective memory and collective forgetting, invoking Martin Luther King's reminder that we must repent from the "appalling silence of the good."

We heard about letting people reach their own conclusions and find their own meanings. We were reminded that controversy is an opportunity: If a topic is controversial, it means it's relevant. As interpreters we need to be balanced, trustworthy, and objective to handle difficult issues with care but not avoid them.

I could write pages here about each session and what I felt and learned. But space allows me to mention only one. "Thoughtful Provocations: The Philosophies that Drive Interpretation," presented by Patrick Lehenes and James Carter, posited that interpretation has one foot in the enlightenment and one in romanticism, and that our constructivist approach has root in educational theorists John Dewey and David Stenhouse. Most importantly it raised provocative questions about how we define interpretation, especially in terms of our visitors and their own meaning making.

This was the second international conference I attended this spring, the other being the NAI International Conference cosponsored with our friends at Interpretation Canada in April. At this truly collaborative event, one of the overriding issues discussed was what we might do collectively to enhance interpretation and its practice globally and in our individual countries through the formation of a collaborative international alliance or federation of interpretive organizations. This discussion was continued in Krakow to great support. While details will take time to work out, after ensuring an inclusive process, there is agreement on the need for a body that would raise awareness and support of interpretation and advocate at the highest levels for its inclusion in all aspects of heritage management and preservation. Having attended the World Parks Congress in Sydney last Fall--an event of 5,000 people and 40 nations that included heads of state and major decision makers on important heritage issues--to find not a word, not a strand, not a single session on interpretation, I believe that the formation of such a body is crucial.

To everyone in the interpretive community who is striving to better the field of interpretation by asking tough questions, striving for good practice, and continuing these important discussions, I thank you.

NAI's president Amy Lethbridge is the deputy executive officer of the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority in southern California. Reach her at
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Author:Lethbridge, Amy
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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