The day before the AAM conference in Seattle started I had the fantastic experience of taking part in a meeting of people involved with interpretation at art museums. (You can read a bit about the group on the Future of Museums blog here). The conversation was inspiring, at times surprising, and always thought-provoking, and certainly where I heard some of the best discussions, stories, and ideas of my time in Seattle.
The group covered a lot of topics– both on and off the planned agenda– but one of the most interesting turns in the discussion came from a brief comment. I have been thinking about it ever since, and suspect I’ll be thinking about it for a while to come. Someone asked whether what we do should be called “interpretation.” It’s a great question. It’s also one that is tied closely to questions that we’ve been talking about in our team planning, one of the most important of which is how do we talk about the work that we do in a way that will help people understand it?
Interpretation seems like a word that is both loaded and opaque. For a field whose mission is to support visitor engagement it seems ironic that the word used to “describe” our work seems to be all but incomprehensible. The most common response (and by common I mean basically everyone’s response) to hearing my job title is: “Interpretation. Hunh. (Pause) So, what does that mean?” Or, so what, exactly do you do? Or, does that mean you [fill in activity here]?
These are questions that I’m asked by visitors, by friends, by family members, and by colleagues in the museum field. I think that last one is particularly important. Museums are full of their own internal nomenclature, and we often struggle with inside/outside usage (for example, internally there may be a programs vs. events distinction– we may think of these as very different because different parts of the institution are in charge of them, but to visitors they are all just things that happen at the museum). But in talking with people in the field the word interpretation doesn’t even seem to work clearly internally.
For people working in interpretation in art museums the scope of the work could cover a lot of different areas, and not every interpretation position or department is the same. It might include digital media, audio tours, labels and other text-based didactic materials, programming, visitor research, evaluation, docents and volunteers, and other duties, in a variety of configurations. So across museums interpretation means, in a practical sense, a lot of different things, even if the underlying purpose is similar.
So, how should we talk about the work that we do? Is interpretation the right word? Is there a better one?