Heritage Interpretation Masterclass with Stuart Orme. April 28, Peterborough Museum
Stuart began the afternoon’s workshop by explaining a little about his background. After graduating with a degree in History Stuart trained as a teacher and gained experience as a historic interpreter for a variety of heritage sites. He has been at Peterborough Museum for 11 years, starting the Ghost Tours after suggesting them in his interview!
He gave a pragmatic and practical workshop to the participants, explaining that heritage interpretation was ‘how to tell the stories of the past in public’. This could be done through interpreting objects, with panels of information, exhibitions and live interpretation through costumes and guided tours.
Stuart’s Golden Rules were to highlight ‘what’s the story?’ who made an object or place, who used it. He made the point that history is an important subject because it is all about people. You can pose people questions through interpretation, and there is nothing wrong with not giving them an answer, they can get involved and draw their own conclusions.
The second rule was ‘who is this for?’. Who is your target audience? You can try and be all things to all men but that is not always possible. Thirdly ‘what are the practical bits?’. These include what is your budget for interpretation, what language does it need to be in, taking into account accessibility issues.
Finally, the visitor point of view needs to be taken into account. Rather than being a curator led point of view work out what the visitor actually wants to know about.
He challenged the participants to take an object relating to the history of Peterborough and interpret it for the group. In terms of writing about an object he suggested looking at what level the local newspaper is pitched at and use a similar level. Arial font at around 20point was his recommendation for any display panels, with heavily contrasting text and background, 250 words max and up to 3 pictures.
He described that when you take a space or a building you need to use as many senses as possible to tell a story due to differing learning styles. He also described how the new museum galleries have been interpreted, with the geology gallery creating the feeling of being underwater through sound effects and lighting, and the Norman Cross having a sense of confinement in the composition. The group was taken into the galleries to see how the interpretation was done.
Costumed interpretation is something Stuart is well known for and he gave an entertaining rundown of its history from the Sealed Knot to the present day. He described the pros and cons of this form of interpretation, that whilst it is a very vivid way of bringing history to life for some people it is expensive to run and can intimidate others. He described first person interpretation, where someone remains in character, and third person, where they are themselves in costume. In Longthorpe Tower the interpreters take a mid route of talking to each other in first person and to the public in third.
He finished with a section on guided tours and walks, which he described as not as easy as one would think to do. He said that to do a walking tour you must start with a very clear sense of purpose and theme. In Peterborough there are so many stories that could be done that one would need to refine the tour down to one area. Secondly you need to have some good stories and thirdly a target audience. Make sure your tour is well researched and that you are well informed, as people on the tour will ask you about other things apart from just what you are talking about. The route itself is important, taking into account what happens if you have to divert for any reason, what to do if it rains, where to collect the money if you have a paid for tour, where is interesting and where to start and stop (ideally at the same place!).
The three ‘P’s of walking tours were ‘Presentation, Personality and Performance’. Alongside this a bit of humour goes a long way. The audience must be placed where they can see and hear you and also see and hear interesting things around them. Make sure to ask ‘can you hear me at the back?’ at the beginning. Regular stops are important, at least one per street, and always wait for everyone to catch up before speaking. Stuart said that even if just one person turns up to the tours run by the Museum they will run it. The tours they run are not scripted, whilst there are key points needed in each tour each guide has their own interpretation of the tour. Stuart also gave the advice to be yourself. He challenged the attendees to present about the history of a building in pairs. He made the point that ultimately, ‘the Story’s the Thing’, and that interpretation is about using the oldest skills in human history, storytelling, to engage people.