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A good story to tell: interpreting Fremantle’s history

Anne Brake

Brake, Anne 2005, 'A good story to tell: interpreting Fremantle's history', Fremantle Studies, 4: 66-73.

The purpose of this paper is to look at how we can tell a good story - our story, your story, Fremantle’s story, through interpretation. Interpreting the past, however, is not just about telling a story. It is a very vital and engaging part of our cultural heritage, but to be a good interpreter it is important to understand history, and its soul mate heritage. This paper explores why interpretation is important to communities and describes techniques to make the past accessible, interesting, engaging and valued, as well as describing some of the issues which can detract from this understanding. Opportunities for and examples of interpretation in the Fremantle context are woven into the paper.

History has been described as a way of using past experiences to look critically at contemporary life and future visions — it is a way of better understanding the way we live, a way of moving forward by looking back. Many people also refer to a ‘sense of place’, a need for people to situate themselves in a much broader context to give a sense of security through a sense of belonging. An understanding of history also provides the opportunity to better understand the motivations and actions of others and encourages tolerance, support for diversity and a search for equality.

Looked at in this light, it can be seen why history has become a heavily politicised subject. As Ann Curthoys and Paula Hamilton say, ‘all social groups  construct an account of the past that works to authorise their identity as a group’ .1 A community, like other groups, whether they are defined by gender, ethnicity, nationality or politics, seeks to legitimise itself and they often use history to do it. Using historical records or sources, historians work to discover and analyse, to tease out the essence of history. But there is no one story. The very nature and amount of the material that is kept or has survived, the purpose of original creation (for example, official records versus personal diaries and letters) and the extent to which a particular historian is prepared to use material other than archives (material culture, photographs, buildings and oral testimony) will all influence the ‘history’ that is written. Curthoys and Hamilton, in their article ‘What is public history?’ go on to say that ‘what counts as a fact for one historian will be highly contested by another, and even where there is agreement, the significance attributed to a particular piece of evidence or statement about the past will differ enormously’? As many groups try and reclaim or better understand the past, much of what has been recorded as history has come under close scrutiny and has, in some cases, been shown to be seriously lacking.


The bottom Panel of this monument was placed there in an attempt to provide a more balanced story.
Esplanade Park, Fremantle 2004
Courtesy Anne Brake.

Where, then, does heritage fit into this discussion‘? The two words — history and heritage - are often used interchangeably. ‘Heritage’ is often used to describe the physical evidence of history, apart from the archival record. More recently, however, with a shift in the focus away from the fabric of heritage sites to the values which are contained in them, this has become a less useful way of describing it.

The Heritage Council of Western Australia defines heritage as ‘... that which we inherit and that which we pass on to future generations’. 3

As already noted, not everything that has been created in the past can survive. What does survive could be described as serendipitous, although it is probably fair to say that there is a bias towards material relating to the educated, wealthy, dominant culture. This is due in part to the fact that material relating to or created by the educated and/or dominant culture was more prolific than for the uneducated and often illiterate. Similarly, objects used or made by the working classes were probably used and reused until there was little left of them in contrast to the objects of the more affluent which did not need to be recycled and had more chance of being cared for and therefore surviving. It is important for historians, archivists, archaeologists and the like to be mindful of this skewing of the record when analysing the evidence of the past.


Too many words, text too small, too low for people to read.
Courtesy Anne Brake.

In Fremantle, there is still a significant built and cultural heritage stock. David Dolan’s paper in this volume and the constant vigilance of groups such as the Fremantle Society and the Fremantle History Society remind us of the vulnerability of that heritage. Fremantle also has a number of institutions that were established to collect, conserve and interpret its history — the Fremantle Prison, the Fremantle History Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Fremantle Library’s Local History Collection and the City’s own art collection all house precious evidence of our past and make it available to the public. They interpret Fremantle’s history through the collections they hold.

To further explore the idea of interpretation it is important to better understand its meaning. The word is used in a range of disciplines and basically means to set out the meaning of something; to explain or elucidate. Within a heritage context, an easy way to define interpretation is story telling — and hence the title of this paper.

The concept or notion of heritage was forged by Freeman Tildern. In 1957 Tildern published what is still regarded as a seminal text for interpreters across the world, Interpreting our heritage. In the third edition published in 1977, Tildern defines interpretation as ‘[a]n educational activity which aims to bring meaning and relationships through use of original objects, by firsthand experience and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.’4

In 1995, the Interpretation Association of Australia put forward the following definition: ‘Interpretation is a means of communicating ideas and feelings which stimulate and help people to understand more about themselves and their environment.’

Somewhere between these two definitions is for me the essence of interpretation. Interpretation is not about the presentation of factual information. The presentation of endless lists of facts and figures — how tall, how long, what date, what capacity, where from, where to — becomes tedious and dull in the extreme and does little to engage or educate the viewer. One way to overcome this is to create a connection with people, providing a human interest element that the visitor can respond to, can feel empathy with, can nod their head in agreement or disagreement with, or even in wonderment, as they engage with the stories being told.

So interpretation can be described as using material evidence to tell a story that has authenticity and can make a connection with people which may challenge the way they have thought about a particular subject in the past and perhaps even bring about a change of attitude or opinion. There are a number of techniques to accomplish this. There are the more obvious ones that institutions use: exhibitions, public programs, education programs, brochures, publications and the like.


Tony Jones Sculpture of C Y O’Connor; South Beach, 2004.
Courtesy Paul Kloeden.

In these instances the audience makes a ‘conscious decision to seek out the stories that have been told and in many cases pay for the experience by visiting the given institution. Along with this comes a heightened expectation of believability or ‘truth’. There are also other less obvious elements to this kind of interpretation. The visitor’s or potential visitor’s experience begins long before he or she enters the site and is shaped and influenced by a number of factors on entering the place. The advertisements for the site, the stories in the newspaper, the presentation of the place, the uniforms or tone of dress that the staff adopt, the kind of souvenirs that are sold in the shop - all these factors will influence the way a visitor experiences the site and, often subconsciously, will influence how they respond to the interpretation that has been developed.

There are also a number of non-institutional ways that a community can interpret itself where the visitor ‘happens upon’ the experience rather than making a conscious decision to seek it out. This kind of more incidental interpretation can be just as powerful and must also be given the same level of attention and rigour that the more formal or premeditated interpretation involves.


Death Row, Fremantle Prison, 2004.
Courtesy Anne Brake.

This type of interpretation includes but is not restricted to public art, Walk and bike trails, commemorative walls, reconstructions and reinterpretations, revealing evidence of the past (archaeological remains) and interpreting evidence in situ through signage. One of the most common pitfalls with the interpretation of heritage is nostalgia. Nostalgia can be defined as a longing or desire for the past, but usually a past that bears little resemblance to any kind of reality. This was particularly prevalent in the presentation of historic houses almost exclusively of ‘happy’, well to do families living in comfortable lodgings surrounded by beautiful objects in a near pristine environment and seemingly effortlessly. The reality of the servants that allowed for the life style that is represented was not shown. Their living quarters and evidence of the drudgery of their life was seldom portrayed. Nor was the life of the majority of the population who lived in more modest accommodation and / or struggled to provide for large families with few resources. That little material evidence and particularly archival evidence remains of these people has already been discussed, but what little there was has often been neglected because of a desire to portray a celebratory and progressive view of history that has often been used to support a status quo.

Thankfully much has been done to remedy this gap and more everyday buildings which represent a more realistic picture of the struggles as well as the victories of the past have been included in the portfolios of organisations such as the Historic Houses Trust in NSW and National Trusts throughout Australia. Indeed this is a world wide trend.

This move has also seen attention falling on other types of places such as industrial and other work related sites. The retention of industrial heritage sites particularly can create intense debate within communities. Often situated on large pieces of prime land with a variety of issues including, but not limited to, contamination, sites like the South Fremantle Power Station and the Fremantle Silos, both the subject of papers at the 2002 Studies Day, are plagued with difficulties. Maintaining the values of the place, often embedded or at least articulated through the fabric of the building, equipment and other material that remains in situ, can mean compatible future uses are difficult to find.

The Fremantle Prison is a good example of this dilemma, although one where very positive steps have been made to find suitable uses for a number of areas. The Women’s Prison which currently houses a TAFE campus is a prime example of this, but there are other issues which are more difficult to solve.

Like many heritage sites, the Prison needs to develop a level of economic sustainability and like many heritage sites it has large running costs and even bigger conservation and maintenance costs. New Division has been run as a small business enterprise centre for some years. Start up businesses are charged modest rent for a space, which was originally a prison cell, and are given training and advice to assist them in building their future viability. The main entry for the centre is through ‘death row’, arguably one of the more significant and contentious areas within the prison. Capital punishment is one of the more volatile and emotive areas of criminal justice and there are few places, apart from the media, which in Western Australia is notoriously sensationalist about all areas of criminal and social justice, that the public can gain reliable information on the subject let alone engage in a critical debate on the issue. The prison has the potential to give visitors a less biased or more neutral view of these issues and, along with the gallows themselves, death row provides one of the few opportunities for visitors to come face to face with the reality of capital punishment. It is almost impossible to engage with the stories of the place now softened and almost made unreadable by the placement of fumishings and other items which welcome clients to the businesses housed in it. The tug of war between economic viability and maintenance and interpretation of values is fraught.

Another fatal trap for interpretation is to fall into the entertainment trap. Visitor comfort and basic facilities are important to the overall experience but the notion that a person has to be having a ‘good time’ no matter what, leaves many interpretation programs lacking integrity and power. Some of the most important heritage sites in the world are sites of major conflict and sorrow. They are places that embody inequality and prejudice. They are places of deep significance and sorrow and provide powerful opportunities to give visitors a better understanding of another person’s point of view.

At the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, visitors are given a classification card on buying their tickets. Groups are arbitrarily divided into ‘Whites’ or ‘Non-Whites’ (not just white and black). Visitors enter only through the steel gate allocated to them by the race card. Bars separate them from their companions. Wire cages containing enlarged identity documents constrict their view. These are the documents that explain how to live under the rules of racial superiority or inferiority. Then the corridors diverge, leaving visitors wondering when they will next see the friends or family that they came to the place with. And that is only the start. According to a report in the World Press Review the effect is chilling. 5

Physical as well as theoretical issues can also affect the power of the interpretation. While some designers forget that the story and not their design is the central purpose of interpretation, both interpreters and designers are tempted to believe that more is better and so the more words you put on a sign the better the sign will be. Often people are daunted by what can sometimes be described as ‘books on walls’ and simply do not bother to read labels and signs that contain too many words or multiple ideas. Well written signs with a hierarchy of language and a limit to the number of ideas supported by web sites, brochures and other publications which can be read at the visitor’s leisure are more affective. Attention to detail with regard to the placement of signs, catering for the visually impaired or people with mobility issues will also ensure better access to the story being told.

In summary, there is more to interpretation than just telling a good story, although that is a vital part of the process. If you value heritage and want others to value it too, take the work seriously, apply rigour, consult with relevant professionals and most importantly the community or group whose history is being interpreted. Look carefully, think carefully, be holistic in your approach and be passionate about your work. Do not, however, be too didactic or overzealous. More is not better; leaving people with things to think about long after they have moved on is better than bombarding them with facts and figures which are instantly forgotten. Engage their emotions. Let them feel empathy.

The interpretation of our past is a complex and often political act and should not be taken lightly. Clear vision, good communication and consultation and the ability to connect with and inspire your audience will ensure that you tell a good story.

Fremantle Studies Day, October 2004


1 Ann Curthoys and Paula Hamilton, ‘What makes public history?’, Public History Review, vol 1, 1992, p 8

1 Ibid, p 9

3 Heritage Council of Western Australia

4 Freeman Tilden, Interpreting our heritage, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1977, p 8

5 World Press Review, 18 October 2004

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