What is interpretation?

5 Dec


I’ve been letting this word float around my head this weekend, hoping inspiration would strike at one moment or another, when I realized that I’ve known all along exactly what ‘interpretation’ is, because I’ve chosen roles which are based around this idea, even though the word have never been in the job title.

I think interpretation can be that lightning bolt moment when suddenly something makes sense to you, along the way people, places or things gave you the tools to understand something and suddenly it all clicks into place. I remember when somebody was explaining what had happened to an old house, when it was renovated from an Abbey to a family home…

“it’s rather like when a lady is wrinkled, the face is tired but she wants to look fresh again, so she has a face lift”

and I began to understand why the house looked Georgian, rather than 12th century.


  • About understanding your audience. Are they old or young? What interests do they have? How technologically minded are they?
  • And whatever you’re trying to interpret. Its history, provenance, context…
  • Then giving your audience the tools to engage with the place, object or collection. Websites, phone apps, displays, educational material such as quizzes, audio guides…

If you’ve done the job well, they’ll have a better grasp of the focus of your interpretation.


Interpretation can be called many things, as I have found from looking at over 50 galleries’ and museums’ websites.  Education, communication, participation, marketing, outreach and more, but in a way they all feed into interpretation; somebody within the artistic or heritage environment uses their knowledge or feeling to create a tool, which converts their understanding into a format that others can appreciate.


The ‘Digital audiences: engagement with arts and culture online’ [MTM London, Digital audiences: engagement with arts and culture online (November 2010), Arts and Business, Arts Council England, MLA (Museums, Libraries & Archives)] report has shown that people are very much interested in the live experience and phone apps, websites etc. enhance people participation with the live event, rather than detract from it.

In fact, additional online and digital applications can attract more visitors to live events.


Torre Abbey

When I was at Torre Abbey, one of my main jobs was to research the Abbey and its collections. This was a huge job, but as I began to learn more and discover more of the Abbey’s secrets the more fascinating it became. As I took people on guided tours I realised how much my knowledge enriched their visit, so I began to make some activities for children to do when they visited the Abbey. My interpretation allowed them to understand and engage with Torre Abbey more completely.

Newton Abbot Town & GWR Museum

At Newton Abbot Museum there are so many treasurers, waiting to be discovered, however its labeled as somewhere which isn’t for young people. My main aim as Youth Ambassador has been to engage more 16-25 year olds with the museum.

The museum has a huge archive of photographs, written stories and audio accounts, all from local people. I wanted to make this relevant to today’s youth. Scene Here is a website based partly on social media and partly on an archive; it challenges the concept held my some young people about what a museum is and does. Perhaps by making it more relevant to their lives, they will feel it is a place for them.


Again at Spacex my role is different, as Digital Communications and Research Assistant I need to understand the gallery and communicate this digitally to the visitors. This requires me to interpret the gallery into our online and digital presence. I have set up facebook, twitter, audioboo and soundcloud. Creating a social media and podcasting presence for the gallery.


This is my opinion on ‘interpretation’, does yours differ? I’d really like to know.


5 Responses to “What is interpretation?”

  1. sion December 5, 2010 at 11:38 pm #

    for me interpretation is all about transferring an emotional response. When translating a text i try to imagine what the reader will feel and try to provoke the same response through my work.

  2. Demi December 6, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    Interpretation is how you convey something or what something means to you. In bellydance, it’s translating/interpreting the song so the audience can SEE the music. Everyone’s interpretation/way of translating the music to dance would be different. It’s how you personally understand something that has no definite answer.

  3. Caroline December 6, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    To me, interpretation is how our prior life experiences affect everything we do and see, causing us to choose particular paths and form particular opinions. It is our individual interpretation of things that makes each of us unique and which is why it is so incredibly important.

  4. Janet E Davis December 7, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    Interpretation changes. It is part of the research and dissemination process of heritage and history activities. We find things. We conserve things. We interpret and present things.
    The ‘things’ can be a place, an object, a set of objects, documents, digital objects.
    Presentation without interpretation in a heritage context is simply architecture, landscape or interior or shop display design.
    Interpretation is the act of trying to make sense of past and present context, of connecting people in the present to people in the past.
    We try to be objective in our interpretations, but they always include some element of the interpreter’s beliefs and philosophy.
    In practical terms, interpretation presented in digital form is no different from that presented in more obviously physical form. There is huge scope for using digital interpretation with physical heritage sites or museum objects, especially for providing images (as well as audio and written words) from other collections/sites that connect with it.

    • Anthony December 8, 2010 at 8:59 pm #

      We can only make a translation from the past experiences we know. Essentially to me interpretation is taking an idea which you have molded through your own personality, upbringing, nurture and expose to an ‘X’ amount of ideas/thoughts/experiences. You could make an informed or ignorant interpretation, one could assume that methods of interpretation is a chain of events informed by mass social or microcosm events.

      The interesting part would be to take two random objects/events/situation and apply these to an unassociated description, your interpretation, or operant paradigm shall we say. For an example we could view a school teacher as a gardener and pupils as plants, therefore the school as a garden to nurture. Equally we could view a teacher as a zoo keeper and the children as animals. I could interpret this statement as a negative in that the zoo keeper has a whip to control wild beasts. Although if my experience had the informed information that zoo keepers are their to protect, help and care for animals my interpretation of this would be of the opposite extreme.

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