Mark Woolmer

Provoking Interpretation – Geneticists have Gregor Mendel; Underwater Explorers have Jacques Cousteau; Heritage Interpreters have… Freeman Tilden.

A former journalist, playwright, and novelist, Tilden began writing about America’s national parks in the 1940s and was the first to set down the principles of heritage interpretation. In his pioneering 1957 book, Interpreting Our Heritage, he defined six principles – but of the six, these three are probably the most useful:

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
  2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.
  3. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

For the past 50 years, Tilden’s principles have been used as a framework by interpreters across the world. Their most recognisable form today is the ‘Interpretation Mantra’, “Provoke, Relate, Reveal”.

Though these three principles are probably equally important and are often intertwined, I’m mainly going to talk about provocation. For starters, if I’m honest, I’ve always found provoking a lot more fun than relating and revealing!

And anyway, it does tend to be the prerequisite for effective communication. Because if your interpretation boards doesn’t grab the audience’s attention, it won’t matter how effectively people will be able to relate to what you’ve produced, or what brilliantly rewarding information it reveals… it just won’t get looked at!

When Tilden talks about provocation in interpretation, he isn’t just talking about grabbing the audience’s attention. Provocation can also be about encouraging people to look at something in a different way, or making them behave differently – or it can be about helping them create new connections between ‘facts’ they already know, but had previously thought unrelated.

The Adverts

I like to think of ‘provocative’ interpretation techniques as the much nicer cousins of advertising techniques.

According to Wikipedia, “Advertising is a form of marketing communication used to promote or sell something, usually a business’s product or service”. In Latin, ad vertere means ‘to turn toward’. And that’s exactly what we Heritage Interpreters want visitors to do when they chance upon our lovely bits of interpretation! It stands to reason, then, that the two activities may have a lot in common. But exactly how far can you go in attracting visitors’ attention – in provoking a response? How much can we interpreters borrow from the field of advertising?

In advertising, if you really believe the old saying that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” you basically can’t lose! What offends also attracts attention. And that raises awareness. And therefore, in theory, SELLS. (Or, in the case of charities, elicits donations.) Ad agencies instinctively know this, or they wouldn’t devise offensive and risqué campaigns for their clients!

But what offends one person will not necessarily offend another. To coincide with its 50th anniversary in 2012, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) collated the 10 adverts from the past half century that had provoked the most complaints. Anyone guessing what these would be might speculate along the lines of sex, violence, swearing, animal cruelty and blasphemy.

Wrong. The most complained about advert of all time was found to be a 2005 Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) TV commercial, featuring call centre workers singing with their mouths full of food!

The KFC ad received a record 1,671 complaints. Many people felt it could encourage bad manners among children. (Incidentally, the complaint was not upheld by the ASA.)

Also making the top 10 were adverts featuring a blind football player kicking a cat across a pitch, a car engineer fighting with versions of himself, and two with religious themes.

But other controversial ad campaigns were conspicuous by their absence. Where, for example, was Benetton, which pioneered the use of ‘shock tactics’ in the 1990s?

And where was one of the highest profile and most controversial British ad campaigns of recent years – French Connection UK?

I well remember doing a rather spectacular double-take as I drove past my first ‘FCUK’ billboard in the late 1990s. So it worked for me! (Which is to say, the ad caught my attention – but it certainly didn’t sell me any clothes!)

I’ve never been offended by the FCUK advertising campaigns. I am, however, very offended by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) marketing slogans – such as Stand up to cancerLet’s show cancer who’s boss and Come and hit cancer where it hurts.

I hate the way CRUK have given cancer the ‘personality’ of a playground bully. I hate all the cancer-battle-fight analogies. In fact, I hate these ads so much that I have vowed never to give money to CRUK! However, their strategy probably works quite well on frightened people who haven’t had cancer yet – and are hoping like mad not to get it in the future!

As heritage interpreters, we have few opportunities to be as provocative as FCUK! But what we should take from all this when producing our content is that, in exactly the same way, what provokes one person may not provoke – or relate to – another. So it’s very important to consider the context of your interpretation, and the intended audience.


Here Comes the Pun

In written communication, the initial provocation often comes in the form of an eye-catching title. As well as in advertising, witty and provocative titles are also to be found in the media – particularly the ‘Red Tops’.

I’d certainly be lying if I said I’d never looked at a Red Top headline and groaned “I wish I’d written that!” Ok, there was the Sun’s notoriously offensive “Gotcha” headline during the Falklands War. But here are a few other ‘Sun’ takes on snapshots of British History – I challenge you not to be amused/impressed/provoked by at least one!

  • The Joy of Six(1543 – Henry III and his wives)
  • Arise, Sir Gravity(1705 – Isaac Newton is knighted)
  • Napoleon Blown Apart(1815 – Waterloo)
  • Chuffed to Bits(1829 – Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’)

My best pun ever is probably The Nest Best Thing – used as the title for an article on artificial nests for house martins. But yes, you can overdo the puns.

If you don’t want to use this kind of wordplay, you could perhaps use an appropriate idiom or saying instead. (But beware: this may confuse visitors whose first language isn’t English!). An example would be Beating around the Bush (perhaps on information boards about habitat management).

Or, you could simply use your imagination and write something a bit more intriguing (and therefore provocative) than just the actual name of the topic. For example, outdoor notice boards about pond life could instead be headed Fancy a Dip?; a panel about hedgelaying could instead be headed A Living Fence and a public footpath sign about nettles could instead be headed Ouch!

Questions, such as: Why do some parts of this park look so overgrown and untidy? (For example to introduce a panel about habitats) may also attract attention, as they may echo the visitors’ own thoughts. 

Culture Club

Often, a title is eye-catching not because it is in itself provocative, but because it contains a familiar pop-culture reference – such as a band’s name, song title, song lyric, or memorable line from a film – used in an unfamiliar context.

Often, these references are combined with a pun. As I write this, I have in front of me an article from a free paper about a singing dentist. It’s headed Fillings, nothing more than fillings… But Morris Albert’s song ‘Feelings’ was in the charts back in 1974. So would this pun work on a younger person with no interest in ‘golden oldies’?

Maybe to attract a younger reader, they could have used the more contemporary song title Can’t Feel My Face (when I’m with you); thus leaving the 50- and 60-somethings to frown in bewilderment instead!

Cultural references can also take the form of ‘pastiche’ – perhaps through a clever use of graphics (such as giving a ‘Dennis the Menace and Gnasher’ look to a poster about controlling your dog on a nature reserve) or a clever use of language (such as mimicking the style of a famous author – as in Five Get Into Trouble on A Nature Reserve).

But in the end, it all comes down to knowing your audience.


The Young Ones

For a Historic Landscape presentation to English Nature staff, I once had to create a picture of how many pigs would be driven into the Weald each autumn to feed on acorns in Anglo-Saxon times. And I wanted that picture to impress – in other words, provoke – and make people sit up and take notice!

The figure, extrapolated from Domesday records, was around 150,000 pigs. And, by doing a bit of research into audience figures for some large events, I had found out that precisely half that number of people attended the ‘Live Aid’ Concert at Wembley in 1985.

“The Weald was the most important place for ‘pannage’ in Britain!” I enthused to my audience. “The Domesday Book tells us that, in 1086, around 150,000 pigs would have been driven to and from the woods of the High and Low Weald! That’s a lot of pigs!”

I continued: “To imagine what that number of pigs would look like, just think of the crowd at Wembley for Live Aid – and then double it!” I paused for breath, waiting for the gasps of amazement. But this amazing revelation had unfortunately not had the desired effect on my audience. There were blank faces staring back at me. “You know… Live Aid… Bob Geldof? Midge Ure? Freddie Mercury…” my voice tailed off in despair.

Yes, you guessed it. The audience was so young – mostly half my age, in fact – that they’d only been toddlers in 1985! My lovely bit of provoking, relating and revealing had fallen flat on its face on stony, sterile ground. I could almost hear old Freeman tutting his disapproval.


About the Author – Janina Holubecki


“My first degree was in Graphic Design and Photography. After an MA in Heritage Studies, I became Education Officer at Hackney City Farm and then Interpretation Officer for two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in succession. Since 2008, when I went freelance, major contracts have included website and panel text for Lincolnshire Coastal Country Park and a book about the restoration of St Pancras Chambers Hotel. I have been a full member of the Association for Heritage Interpretation since 2003.”

Mark Woolmer

Mark Woolmer

With a strong background in art and design, Mark is passionate about the capacity for excellent design as a communication tool, leading the Fitzpatrick Woolmer company and focusing on strategy, business development and continual improvement.

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