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Author: Kylie Christian | 26 October 2022

Interpretation, whether for heritage sites, sacred places, natural environments or visitor destinations, should be a creative response that engages and enriches visitor understanding. It should not only offer an educational element but allow, and even push visitors to discover, uncover or explore personal connections and meanings through unique experiences.

Within Australia, “heritage” interpretation and cultural values, often in the form of Connecting (or Designing) with Country outcomes, an initiative by the Government Architect NSW office, are beginning to become integrated and intertwined within interpretive approaches. This can be highly successful, but only when skilled interpretation practitioners are engaged and encouraged to craft collaborative and informed responses. Across the country, more and more communities not only expect but demand that projects that impact their daily lives, whether through physical or visual change, be done with a greater consideration of design and include the story of Place and People. Unfortunately, heritage interpretation is often seen as an easy, and affordable, mitigation measure to a range of development approaches and it continues to frequently be held as incidental to the design process, or in some cases as simply a tick-box exercise.

In addition, it is often treated separately from other responses such as Connecting with Country, destination marketing or public art installations, creating a disconnect or segmented result. In fact, these elements are all important facets of a holistic storytelling process. They each “discuss” different perspectives and have different voices. They can be completely different approaches and responses but should be done, at the very least, in consideration of each other to really capitalise on the opportunities that can be created together within the design.

Interpretation is and should be, part of the design development for any location, site or project. It needs to relate and connect the natural and cultural worlds to a person’s emotions and experiences. It should inspire or spark further curiosity by creating a greater understanding within the audience. Like the architectural design process, the interpretation design process must answer questions about how people experience places, what inspires people to engage, and how to elicit an emotional response. It also must facilitate uncomfortable conversations with an audience if necessary. It should connect with people on a personal level and resonate profoundly to allow them to delve deeper if desired. Finally, interpretation needs to encompass good storytelling to impress and foster greater empathy and responsibility for all cultural heritage.

“Interpretation is not just a sign”, is something I have been repeating for nearly 10 years now. Interpretation in Australia needs to move past the idea of being something affixed to a project or delivered after the main works are completed. It must form part of the process of design and be considered from the start of the project. Interpretation can be provided through design responses, architectural creations, landscapes, colour palettes, finishes and materials, digital applications, soundscapes, lighting, interactive devices, live theatre, music, artworks, sensory responses like smell or touch, as well as the usual provision of signage and plaques. Interpretation should be a celebrated opportunity within a project, not relegated to a mitigation measure, or worse, an afterthought.

Interpretation, whether it be for heritage sites, sacred places, natural environments or visitor destinations should make experiences personal, provoke a response that resonates, and inspires people to respect and understand the idea that diversity and multiple perspectives are what make these places special and worth preserving and protecting.

For further information on heritage interpretation visit Interpretation Australia.

To check out the series of global webinars on excellence in heritage interpretation visit the GAHI website.

Kylie Christian is the current President of Interpretation Australia, Australia’s peak body for the profession of heritage interpretation. She is also a founding member of the Global Association for Heritage Interpretation, an executive committee member of Australia ICOMOS, and NSW Chapter Councillor for the Australian Institute of Project Management. She is a strong advocate for the inclusion of appropriate and considered interpretation responses through the engagement of appropriate specialists. This is an opinion piece only.