Friday, 17 February 2017

Interpretation, interpretation, interpretation!

Lately, Samar, our ‘Opening Up Scotland’s Archives’ trainee, has been thinking a lot about ‘interpretation’ within the context of the arts, cultural and heritage sectors, so she thought she would share a bit about what she’s been learning with you…

In the month of February, I’ve focused on all things interpretation: beginning a professional development course at the University of Dundee called ‘Outreach and Education: An Introduction to the Promotion of Archives’, attending a professional development workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London called ‘Planning and writing your interpretation’, and next week I’ll be delivering my own outreach workshops for the Festival of Creative Learning called ‘Making History: A Feminist Craft Project’.

As a part of my Dundee course, I read a really interesting publication, A Closer Look (2001), which was written collaboratively between Interpret Scotland and the Scottish Museums Council (now Museums Galleries Scotland). It was written in order to support a policy statement that Scottish Museums Council had outlined at the time, called Museums and Social Justice. The publication includes practical guidelines that should be considered when museum professionals plan their interpretation. On the very first page of the publication it is explained that “the notion of social justice asserts that people have a right of access to the collections and to associated information that museums hold on their behalf”. I agree with this statement, and strongly believe that social justice is integral to every form of interpretation that we plan, from exhibitions and talks to workshops and online content. This is because, interpretation is the key way in which arts, cultural, and heritage organisations can make the most of the meeting between their collection and their visitors, and it is our responsibility to make this meeting as stimulating, rewarding and memorable as possible for every visitor that engages with us.

I attended the V&A course on interpretation this month because I wanted to learn how to write exhibition text that is interesting, engaging and accessible to a wide audience. When planning an exhibition, it is a matter of principle to me that the way in which the material is presented is engaging to any visitor who may attend. This was a daunting task to me, considering exhibition visitors can range from experts in the field to young children. The V&A course reassured me that although this is a difficult task, it is not an impossible one. I learnt that in order to cater to a wide audience, I don’t have to ‘dumb down’ the research or collection that I’m presenting, rather, I have to recognise people’s needs and interests, and use the devices of good writing to communicate my ideas. By good writing, the course instructor didn’t simply mean clarity and proper grammar, but producing a personality, life and rhythm in the text that can appeal to all.

As a heritage professional, interpretation is one of my favourite parts of my role, because it’s a chance for me to share my enthusiasm for our collections with the public. So, I’ve been very excited to get to apply this new knowledge in the planning of my own series of workshops for the University of Edinburgh’s Festival of Creative Learning. When planning my workshops, I wanted to interpret Lothian Health Services Archive’s material in a way that illustrates the role of social justice within the archive sector, as well as diversifying the general public’s understanding of history and heritage.

The materials which archives hold are the foundations from which history is written, and historically, as well as in the present day, women’s achievements and contributions to society have been omitted from archives, and therefore history. In my workshops, I wanted to counteract this damaging effect by working with the public to make sure that the stories that we hold at LHSA about Scottish medical women are written into the canon of history. During both workshops, held on Monday 20th February and Wednesday 22nd February, we will discuss the ways in which archives can be, and have been, used within activism, and then do some feminist activism ourselves by producing a crafty zine that celebrates the achievements of LHSA's medical women. After the two workshops, the zine will be converted into an online booklet which will be shared on this blog and our Facebook page, in order to highlight the significant women in our collections, not only to the participants of our workshops, but to our wider online audience. These workshops have been months in the making, and I can’t wait to get crafty with all of you, so if you’re interested in attending, we still have a few places left, so make sure to sign up soon!

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