Live Interpretation is about living history, museum theatre, tours, roving interpretation and other forms of person-to-person interpretation.

Here I hope to explore all styles of live interpretation with postings from me, links to resources, relevant research, comments by leaders in the field and anything else I can think of that helps us understand and become more effective at one of the most powerful visitor experiences.

I welcome your comments and suggestions!

Dale Jones
Making History Connections

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thinking about Quality

As I look back at the past year, one key thought regarding interpretation keeps bubbling to the surface -- the importance of quality in interpretation. Quality, however, is a subject we often talk about only indirectly.  Over the past several years I have developed and used a rubric for assessing live interpretation -- tours, museum theatre, living history, demonstrations, and floating interpretation.  As a last factor I always include overall impressions of the quality of the experience.  It's difficult to quantify -- it seems too ephemeral to measure, but it is there -- often in the form of someone "liking" something they have just seen, but being unable to put their finger on what it is that they like.

I have noticed in my visits to sites that a quality interpretive presentation has the power to override elements of an experience that are not quite so good. A relevant example: A quality presentation can overcome a dreadful script in museum theatre. Several years ago I conducted an evaluation of an exhibition at the Hershey Museum to assess visitors' reactions to their visit. One element was a recreation of a 1930s tour of the factory. I had read the script before I went to Hershey, and it was without a doubt one of the most dreadful scripts I have read.  When I saw it performed, however, the actress was so charming, so charismatic, that she overcame the script and mesmerized the audiences.  When I analyzed the data, I discovered that the performance was indeed the favorite part of the experience for visitors, and that visitors who saw the performance learned much more than those who did not.

On the other hand, who among us has not been on an historic house tour, with a guide that droned on and on, making us want to flee in desperation an incredibly boring experience. Even thought the house itself may be beautiful, with high quality objects, the lack of quality of the tour guide presentation can override the rest. 

Much of this appreciation of quality lies in our appreciation of beauty -- our pleasure in a thing that is well done or constructed.  I saw a talk recently on Ted.com by Denis Dutton on the evolutionary basis of appreciation of beauty (see: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty -- video here;  transcript here.) In his talk, which itself is a thing of quality with the addition of animation by Andrew Park, Dutton discusses the beauty of skilled performances:
...one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.
So it is -- when we see or experience something well done, something of beauty, we enjoy it, we like it, we want to experience it again.

And here is my wish for you:

May your New Year bring you quality in all your endeavors!

Happy Holidays,



  1. Thanks for your thoughts Dale. Developing a rubric for looking at live interpretation is a helpful idea, so we can move beyond "I liked it" or "I didn't like it."

    Happy Holidays

  2. Thanks, Dale! I've worked for directors who believed in clear, articulated standards, and I've worked for directors who believed in leaving room for the magic of performance (which can succeed or fail, in spite of all the conditions to the contrary). Thank you for demonstrating that it is, in fact, possible to believe in both--an uncommon, but very welcome, approach.

  3. Catherine and Steve,

    Thanks for the comments. Catherine, I know you have dealt with the issue of quantifying quality in your dissertation. It is so important, but so difficult to assess. I'll have to take another look at your work.

    Steve, in future posts I'll try to put up some more direct information about the whole topic of quality. There are clearly some elements that can lead to quality (see, for example, the recent three-year study at the University of Manchester on museum theatre.) I also had the case this summer of scripting and directing a play about Confederate prisoners that relied on living history interpreters who had never acted. They both did an excellent job. One of them was an Iraq veteran, and his experiences gave an authenticity to his performance which helped create a "quality" interpretive event.


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