Can interpretation change the world? The AHI conference

A personal view, by a first-time attendee, on the 2016 AHI conference held in Belfast. The theme ‘Can interpretation change the world’ led to sharing stories, ideas and big debates.

Following our arrival, we begin with a paper from Mark Leslie from Martello Media. He opens for us the complex history of Ireland with an insight into the Dublin General Post Office (GPO) exhibition titled ‘Letters, Lives and Liberty’. The exhibition focuses on Donnelly and other key players, who are famous for their role in the Easter Rising. Personal stories and narratives form the core of the exhibition content. Visitors and communities are then invited to thread these stories back to their own family tree. The GPO site itself is a National Monument (as well as a working post office!), instrumental in Irish history, providing an anchor for understanding personal and political history. As the story of the exhibition unfolds, I’m surprised to realise that even I know a descendant of Donnelly and this somehow seems to be what the exhibition is about: building our personal sense of interconnection with history.

Later in the day we are treated to the powerhouse that is Sam Ham. With dynamic delivery, he reveals ways of changing public behavior by examining why people neglect to follow interpretive instruction or guidance. He encourages us to examine, through research, what drives the actions of our audiences. He promotes a process that identifies ways of speaking directly to an audience’s interest, rather than falling back on our own logic. He tells us that we can’t assume that other people think like us, suggesting that we, as interpreters, are not like other people. Somehow, in our quest to change the world, that seems reassuring to hear.

The following day our excursion brings us to a vast building that rises up from a pristine spit of dockyard, that is the birthplace of the Titanic. It bursts from the ground, metallic and angular. The building simultaneously depicts the ship, the iceberg and the moment of their final reckoning – its exterior is interpretive in every way. We step inside its vast hull to be quickly ushered into lifts and delivered to the top-level conference suite, framed by sheer, panoramic dockland views. The introductory speech highlights the methodologies behind the exhibition, brought about by the absence of historical artifacts. In this respect, we are informed that the site is not promoted as a museum, instead it is marketed as location-based experience. The exhibition winds down, level by level, from stories of the ship’s creation to its final sunken remains in the murky depths.

Above all, however, this experience is a celebration of the industry and craft born of this place. I particularly enjoy the design details of the construction, especially in relation to the workers’ stories. The few fragments of historic items, such as the child’s letter stowed safely in the father’s coat pocket, stood out as special within this reconstructed world. The site is enriched by the petite SS Nomadic, the last White Star Line ship in the world, which sits like a baby sister in the original dock where she was built. Her materials, smells, corrosion and rich interpretation bring an immediacy and sense of time that only archival objects can provide. Many of us note the tiny aperture within the exhibition that frames the tragedy of the Titanic that we all know so well. But this is an exhibition about celebration, pride and homecoming. In that respect, it has changed the way that Belfast is seen and has made a huge impact on tourism for the city.

Next, we make our way to Ulster museum, which is almost the exact opposite to the Titanic, with its hoardes of ancient artifacts and historical objects. The site has recently been redeveloped with fresh white spaces to house eclectic exhibits that are grouped by meaning, in gorgeous collections. I am mesmerised by the beautiful spaces created for engagement. On the top floor, overlooking the park and city, is an arts studio for families. A long desk-bench houses still life objects on a central plinth as the focus of the room. Off in a side room families can step into scenes from the great masters of Ireland that have been brought to life by visitors in a life size 3D painting. Other family engagement rooms include a history space and a natural history study. Each room is homely, welcoming and studious. It feels like the kind of place that changes the way a new generation grows.

On our final day, we hear from The Whole Story, who breeze onto the stage with performance style delivery. Their approach reflects how they like to ‘shake up’ guided tours and bring new life to old material. We hear of the change they delivered in the new guided tours at Bletchley Park. The tour is arranged to embed stories into the physical landscape; visitors are hearing about the spaces that they can also see. The tours went from receiving extensive complaints to achieving rave reviews.

Finally, we hear from Tandem Design, who tell us about the new Seamus Heaney Visitor Centre, ‘Homeplace’. The Centre had just opened the previous week. Many people questioned whether Heaney’s home place, a tiny village, was the right place for a visitor centre. Would people travel to visit the site if it was set in the remote countryside? On returning home, I discovered that my parents, who live in Wales, visited the site for its opening. They were on a pilgrimage to poetry, having read about its opening in the newspaper. They stayed for almost week, visiting the centre every day to discover all they could about Seamus Heaney. Now that tells me that, corner-by-corner, interpretation can change the world.

We heard about so many lovely projects making a difference and these are just a few that stood out for me.

Beth Morafon is a Senior Consultant for WWT Consulting, a subsidiary business of the conservation charity the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT). She recently moved to the business wing of the organization, having spent 17 years designing and managing interpretation projects for WWT’s UK visitor centres and reserves. She can be contacted at:

To cite this article:
Môrafon, B. (2016) ‘Can interpretation change the world? The AHI conference’ In Interpret Europe Newsletter 4-2016, 20

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