The online resource for the historic environment

4.13 Promotion, understanding and interpretation

"Understanding the contribution of a particular historic building to the wider historic environment allows significance to be taken into account when making decisions.”
BS 7913: 2013. para 6.2.5


For an asset to be valued it must be interpreted, understood and its worth clarified, not only to those who might already be aware and knowledgeable about the significance of an asset but also to the general public who, once empowered by knowledge, become amongst the best advocates for protection.

“In this respect, methods such as public meetings, exhibitions, opinion polls, the use of the mass media and all other appropriate methods should become common practice.”
The Declaration of Amsterdam. 1975.

The general public, in recent years, has become involved in and enthused by the heritage – they recognise its value to their community in gaining an understanding of their historical development.

Nonetheless, the public need to be made aware of and awakened to the value of the heritage through information provided with the express purpose of raising that awareness.

Television programmes such as ‘Restoration’, ‘Cathedrals’, ‘Britain’s Best Buildings’; the Fred Dibnah series of programmes and many more are good examples of how the public might become empowered and enthused by understanding their historic environment. These programmes did a lot to promote the importance of the heritage and provide the general viewing public with tools of recognition about why the built heritage is so important as a facet of history, how it developed, was constructed and why.

“In 2001 there were 114 series and 68 single programmes on heritage on terrestrial television.”
English Heritage 2002.

Pavilion and Garden, Buxton on a sunny, spring day.

“There were 3.1 million viewers to the final programme of the second series of Restoration television show in 2003.. contributing £500,000 to the winning project.”
English Heritage & Heritage Lottery Fund 2004.

“…public opinion prepares the way for legislation. No Acts for the defence of monuments can be passed and no funds created …unless there be in the background in the mind of the people a certain force of intelligent belief in the need for… [conservation and preservation].
Baldwin Brown. The Care of Ancient Monuments. 1905

Identify, in your area of the UK, where the preservation of a local asset was undertaken under pressure of popular local opinion.

You should consider how that popular local pressure was stimulated and encouraged.

Accessibility is a vital factor affecting the promotion and understanding of the heritage. People need to be able to visit an asset to be able to gain an understanding of it and its history. If they cannot visit it they need to be able to source information about it from other locations - the internet is a great facilitator in that regard so; as we have considered, is the media, together with other published material. Information about SMEs must be made easily accessible if the historic narrative of the built heritage is to be appreciated by the general public. The promotion of the heritage may take many forms:

  • TV and radio
  • Internet
  • Books and publications
  • Talks and lectures
  • Involvement of influential figures such as politicians and local dignitaries
  • Displays and distribution of promotional material

You will need to demonstrate that you have undertaken promotional and informative exercises in respect of projects with which you have been involved.

The downside to increased understanding and access is that the asset might suffer the effects of increased pedestrian throughput. Significance might be placed at risk and measures to reduce such risks will need to be addressed. You will also need to demonstrate how you have assessed such risks and how you have addressed them.

Promotion is a vital part of the management of an historical asset and assists with understanding and interpretation through appreciation. Assessment of cultural significance is a vital pre-cursor to the process of promotion. We all need to be aware of what is there, why it is there and why it is important. Evaluation of an asset together with projection of that knowledge to the public conscious, at a level that clarifies understanding, must be an important focus of you the conservation practitioner.

The impact of visual advertising media – especially when in close or direct contact with the asset can, in itself be visually damaging. You will need to be aware of the way in which such material is used and displayed at a site of importance. Simply covering the site with advertising material will do a total disservice to the asset and must be avoided. The use of appropriate means of promotion is, therefore, essential.

Careful consideration needs to be given to the design, method of display and siting of promotional and advertising material. Display cabinets and other paraphernalia of sale or display should be well designed, must be appropriate and not distract from the general ‘feel’ and ambience of a site. Signage should be well sited, appropriate in scale and unobtrusive.

You will need to demonstrate an ability to evaluate best methods of promotion creating minimal damage to an asset’s significance. This will not only relate to the use of on-site promotion but also to divorced methods and means, particularly in respect of their content and format. The design of the promotional material should reflect the nature and meaning of the asset’s history and value.

The presentation of information should be accessible and easily understood by the general public. It should be factual, informative, brief and accurate.

Children and young people are, obviously, the influencers of future response and respect for the historic environment and promotional material aimed at schools and colleges is a very useful vehicle to improve understanding not only of the asset but also the principles and attitudes of conservation.

“The architectural heritage will only survive if it is appreciated by the public and in particular by the younger generation. Educational programmes for all ages should, therefore, give increased attention to this subject.”
The Declaration of Amsterdam. 1975

Each method of promotion will have its place within the palette of means available to you. You should be able to demonstrate that you have knowledge of such methods and how you have matched your chosen method(s) to suit the SME whilst creating minimum damage to significance.

You will need to demonstrate that you have successfully engaged your community in becoming involved with their historic environment and have assessed the effect of those methods for adoption, or modification, for future projects.

Useful publications:

ICOMOS. (1995). Historic Cities and Sustainable Tourism: the protection and promotion of the world’s heritage.
ICOMOS. (1998). Sustaining the Cultural Heritage of Europe. Achieving the Balanced Development of Tourism Increasing Public Awareness & Community Benefit.