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Heritage Interpretation Methods

Heritage Interpretation Methods

Interpretation can be the most effective way that museums’ communicate with their visitors. Yet, it is not always easy to do so in an engaging way. Museums no longer exist to simply ‘educate’ and as such must diversify their approach. With changes in available technology, funding accessibility and public demand, how do curators and staff alike communicate with their visitors?

In the words of W.B. Yeats, museums should “think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people”. Text panels are dominant within the sector and are highly useful in conveying information to the visitor. However, some visitors may expect more. Providing context that appeals to all is challenging but diverse frameworks that excite and immerse can approach this problem.

Barriers exist when interpreting heritage sites. Sometimes covering whole landscapes, geographical factors can restrict interpretive schemes that are often costly and extensive. Difficulty also arises in interpreting hidden heritage, such as archaeological sites and battlefields. The urban environment provides additional barriers. Historic sites within cities require interpretation that stands out and attracts people over.

This blog explores five examples of how heritage sites in England have diversified their frameworks to create more accessible and immersive methods of interpretation.

Computer Imaging – Creswell Crags


A dramatic limestone gorge on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, Creswell Crags is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in Britain. However, much of the heritage here is hidden within the landscape. Visitors can struggle to imagine what the Crags looked like in the past. The Creswell Heritage Trust worked with animators ay-pe to develop a ‘Time Window’. Using both audio and visuals, visitors can see how the gorge looked at different periods throughout history. Computer imaging has brought the interpretive framework into the digital age, through the lens of the past. The technology also creates a digital platform, which visitors can explore at their own leisure. Whilst it increases audience accessibility, it can be impractical for some smaller museums due to cost.

Immersive Audio Tours – Historic Royal Palaces


The Palace of Whitehall in London was largely destroyed by fire 300 years ago. To interpret the hidden heritage of Whitehall,  Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) created an immersive audio tour called ‘The Lost Palace’. A collaboration between different partners, the attraction is a visitor trail that uses bespoke handheld devices, binaural 3D sound and haptic technology manufactured by Calvium. As a result, visitors can recite Shakespeare, beat invisible drums and perform mock sword fights with each other. The device becomes the object the visitor needs to explore the story. Creating both an accessible and interactive experience, Virtual Reality is undoubtedly the interpretation of the future. However, at the moment, the technology is still costly and remains out of reach for many museums and heritage sites.

Pop-up Exhibitions – Discovery Museum


Museums often set up temporary exhibitions in public spaces or loan out their exhibitions to others. These dynamic pop-ups have the ability to reach the wider public, away from the museum space. The Discovery Museum established a pop-up in Newcastle’s Grainger Market – an area that sees an annual footfall of 7.3 million people. The museum was able to engage with its community, promote itself and discover new stories from those who wouldn’t normally visit. Working with the space given, the museum only had a budget of £100. Community outreach is increasingly becoming an integral component of a museum’s resilience. It is an attractive option for many heritage sites, as the cost is low but the rewards are plentiful.

The Interactive Trail – Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre


Done well, information panels can be immersive too. The Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre in Leicestershire recently installed an interactive Audio Trail designed by Studio MB. Visitors can walk the 2.2km trail, which gives audio information complimented by visuals that interpret the surrounding landscape. Limited text provides quick facts, whilst QR codes link to additional information for those interested. Large images compliment the text and show visitors what the battlefield looked like in the late 15th century. The interactive trail also helps to attract people out exploring the landscape into to the visitor centre. These panels and audio points provide an alternative to digital technology and can help diversify a museum’s interpretive framework.

Roaming Interpretation – Bakewell Old House Museum


What if interpretation was optional altogether? Different visitors expect different things from their visit. Perhaps with roaming interpretation panels, museums can appease everyone. Bakewell’s Old House Museum (OHM) recently introduced interpretive ‘bats’ to their framework. These handheld panels provide visitors with additional information. The National Trust already provide something similar, however, the panels at OHM display less text with the addition of images. Visitors can opt in or opt out of this interpretation, exploring the exhibitions on their own accord. They are relatively low-cost, replacing larger and more expensive panels that have to be installed in-situ.

For more inspiration, visit the Association of Heritage Interpretation at http://www.ahi.org.uk/

By Jake Epton, Culture Syndicates’ Administration Assistant. Jake graduated from Nottingham Trent University’s Masters in Museum and Heritage Development in 2017 and is developing his experience and skills in collections management, exhibitions and interpretation.

Featured Photograph > ‘The Lost Palace’ © Historic Royal Palaces http://ow.ly/I0Eu30hyIQo

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