Whenever people working in the heritage sector asked Steve Slack for advice on the planning and delivery of interpretation, he couldn’t put his hands on any useful guides. This is how his book, Interpreting Heritage: A Guide to Planning and Practice, was born.
As a heritage interpretation consultant working to make content relevant to audiences, Slack knows that “done well, interpretation is always relevant”, whether it’s about a piece of historical heritage or coastal land.
During the online launch for his book, Slack explained that his new work is “a guide”, not “the guide”, to interpreting heritage as an “ideal guide” does not exist to navigate the complex and multifaceted world of interpretation. The event was hosted by Marge Ainsley, co-director of Museum Freelance, with Slack connecting from the spectacular interior of The Portico Library in the heart of Manchester.
A brief welcome from Ainsley was followed by a few words by Heidi Lowther, the editor responsible for the Museums and Heritage Studies list at Routledge, the publisher of Interpreting Heritage. Lowther explained how Slack’s book is the first in a new series of practical guides, the Routledge Guides to Practice in Museums, Galleries and Heritage, which will complement the traditionally more academic list of Routledge’s publications.
If Interpreting Heritage represents the list of titles it belongs to, and if the launch event reflected the author’s approach, there seem to be two key words at the core of the project: inclusivity and accessibility.
As for the structure of Slack’s book, he spoke of how it is based on open questions, questions that, he suggests, can be asked at the start of any interpretive project to guide the why, who for, for what results, and how. Such a structure seems to aim for a practical use of the book and for a truly accessible one. Rather than telling the reader what to do, Slack accompanies them in the process of asking the most useful questions to find their own way into the right form of interpretation for their project.
Interpretive projects, in fact, are all unique. Each venue or heritage asset has its own specific characteristics and that context will change. This is why Slack has introduced the interesting idea of a constantly transforming landscape for interpretation. “A book that seeks to try and sum up what interpretation is right now is always going to be out of date as soon as it gets printed,” he argued. New elements emerge as well as new technologies.
To account for the uniqueness of interpretive projects, Interpreting Heritage contains more than 200 examples from the author’s extensive experience in the field to illustrate in-practice positives and negatives, easy wins, and the pitfalls of the potentially endless ways in which information on history, art, science, landscape, culture and the environment can be successfully communicated to audiences.
Although (as the author says) interpretation is constantly evolving, and a second edition of the book would need to account for interpretation during a pandemic, Interpreting Heritage seems to be a progressive, strong, and forward-thinking foundation to a relationship between the heritage sector and its audiences based on dialogue, accessibility and inclusivity. I am hoping for a follow-up already.
Interpreting Heritage: A Guide to Planning and Practice is published by Routledge and available to buy now.