Treading a fine line: An examination of interpretive materials from world heritage sites in the United States, Canada and Australia

01st June 2012

The interpretation of World Heritage sites has often focused on certain aspects of significance at the expense of others which are considered less important. This has frequently occurred where different perspectives lead to conflicting interpretations of a place. Two of the most frequently conflicting viewpoints are those of the scientific community and Indigenous communities. This research examines the language used in the publicly available literature from World Heritage sites to determine whether they emphasise certain heritage values over others. It does this via an examination of Indigenous archaeological landscapes in the United States (US), Canada and Australia.

By using both qualitative and quantitative analytical techniques this research explores how the language used in interpretive materials at three World Heritage sites –Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, Mesa Verde National Park and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Site – presents conflicting viewpoints. Thematic analysis is used to determine the themes and language used by heritage managers to present both the scientific and social values of each landscape to the public. These themes are then quantified and analysed using content analysis and key-word-in-context to determine whether one theme dominates. Such triangulation of methods has to date enjoyed only limited application in the analysis of interpretive heritage materials. The benefits of combining these techniques in a single analysis can be seen in the way that each technique highlights different approaches used by each place to present values to the public.

Results indicate clear differences in the interpretation of World Heritage sites. The interpretive material from the case study in the US focuses specifically on two scientific values, while those from the Canadian case study place more emphasis on the social values of the landscape. With only a small set of samples from the Australian World Heritage site analysed in this research, it is difficult to highlight any specific trends. Generally, the North American brochures encourage school and other education-orientated groups to their World Heritage sites, something that has not been adopted in Australia, but which has great potential to increase visitation. By focusing on specific audiences, particularly schools due to the enactment of a new history curriculum in Australia, Indigenous heritage landscapes have the chance to implement a new generation of effective long-term interpretive programmes. These programmes can then be used to ensure that all Australians understand and appreciate the importance that these places have, not only to Indigenous communities, but all sections of society.

Oliver Spiers
Treading a fine line: An examination of interpretive materials from world heritage sites in the United States, Canada and Australia
June 2012
74
116-117
Thesis Abstracts
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