The New South Wales heritage office describes that:
“Heritage conservation seeks to sustain the values of heritage landscapes, places and objects, individually and collectively, so that the community and visitors can continue to appreciate, experience and learn from them and about them, and so that they can be passed on to future generations.”
“Heritage interpretation is a means of sharing Australian history and culture with other communities, new citizens, visitors, and people overseas. It is also a means of passing on the knowledge of Australian history, culture and values to new generations……….the significance of some heritage items is easy to understand; but the values of others are not obvious and require interpretation. Many items have values that warrant interpretation.”
Heritage and heritage interpretation is, of course, not unique to Australia. Best practice guidelines for heritage interpretation are produced by heritage bodies all over the world – these documents providing commentary on key aspects that should be taken into account when designing interpretation schemes. This includes factors like a detailed understanding of the place or item (historically and culturally), an understanding of the audience and the most suitable interpretation methods based on context.
Interpretation schemes can be developed for all sorts of sites and collections of objects – for example an old building and its grounds that have become alienated from their original setting and context because of modern development.
Most interpretation schemes involve signage at the location of the subject site or item – as this is often the most direct way to tell a part of the story of the place or object. Having said that, there are now, for example, many online apps developed by governments or heritage agencies aimed at making heritage more accessible and personalised via smart-phones.
In terms of in-situ heritage education, the best built interpretation schemes that I see are those that combine signage (whether it be fixed on site or available through scanned bar-codes on your mobile device) with ground inlays or markings that identify the former location of the item.
I recently came upon a very well executed (for want of a better word) example of the above in Poland. When in Warsaw, I walked through a section of the city that contained part of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. This was the largest ghetto in Europe and was established in October 1940 to confine the city’s Jewish population, which in 1939 was about one third of Warsaw’s total population.
As I crossed an otherwise normal road (Franciszkanska Street) near the city’s old town, I noticed an inlay in the pavement – see the image below. This inlay, with inset text, shows the alignment of one of the ghetto’s many high masonry walls. An old photo (also below) taken during WWII shows this wall in place.
Interpretive signage and schemes (irrespective of how well designed, how informative or how unique) can of course only do so much to describe objects or events. An allied matter is that the presence of an interpretation scheme doesn’t automatically mean that a local or visitor will take much notice of it or the place it’s describing. But, better there than not.
Lots of street inlay ‘signage’ is regularly stepped over by locals and tourists alike. So….keep one eye on the ground in your travels and you won’t miss the history that’s marked below your feet.