Interpretation for Archeologists   2. What is Interpretation?   Distance Learning

What is Interpretation?

(photo) Bent's Old Fort NHP.

An interpreter at Bent's Old Fort NHP talks with the public. (NPS)

Interpretation involves a set of tools and techniques to facilitate opportunities for people to form relationships with archeological resources. It helps them to realize the relevance of these special resources to their own lives and to make intellectual and emotional connections with their meanings.

Interpretation has come a long way since the National Park Service began offering interpretive programs. Over the history of the NPS, interpreters have developed methods and skills to help visitors realize the meaning of natural and cultural resources and the importance of stewardship practices. Many different approaches have been developed and tried. Creative thinkers continue to inspire interpreters as the field becomes increasingly professionalized. A few of their influences are discussed below:

Use What You Know: Assess Your Knowledge (#1 of 10)

(icon) A ranger's hat.

Before you begin:

  • What is interpretation?
  • What is your experience in interpreting archeology to the public?
  • What do you hope to gain from this training course?

For Your Information

Why do you want to be an interpreter? Your colleague said:

“I love the story! The chase of the story, experiencing the story, knowing the story, and then having the story’s meanings change unexpectedly. Interpretation enriched my life. I’m willing to exchange my life energies with this profession to give others the opportunities to find, experience, create and recreate their own stories.”

Freeman Tilden

(photo) Freeman Tilden

Freeman Tilden. (NPS)

Many interpreters in the NPS consider Freeman Tilden a “hero” who gave “soul” to the field of interpretation. In the early 1940s, this former author of fiction began to write about the national parks with the encouragement of Director Newton B. Drury. Several books were the result: The National Parks: What They Mean to You and Me, The State Parks, Following the Frontier, and The Fifth Essence.

Tilden’s most influential book for the NPS was Interpreting Our Heritage, published in 1957. The book came as a reappraisal of the basic principles underlining the nature and history of interpretation programs in the NPS. In the process of writing it, Tilden led tours at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and observed many programs elsewhere. The publication effectively gave form and substance to the profession of interpretation and was widely read within and beyond the NPS. It is still considered a classic discussion of interpretation.

Tilden based Interpreting Our Heritage on six principles:

  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 on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.
  3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is to some degree teachable.
  4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
  5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole person rather than any phase.
  6. Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

Fun Fact

In 1940 NPS archeologist Dale King advised the custodians of the Southwestern National Monuments. Like others before and after, King urged interpreters to focus on significance:

Let us try to analyze our monuments in terms of their real meaning and importance. Let us attempt to stress those parts of their story which have some lasting value and significance. We can't expect John Q. Public to go away and remember forever that the compound wall is 219 feet, six inches long, or that the thumb print is to the right of the little door in Room No. 24. We can try to make the people of that vanished historic or prehistoric period live again in his mind. Give him some insight into their troubles and joys, show him that they were human, and underline their differences from us as well as their likenesses to us. In other words, build understanding, and, eventually, tolerance.

In "Scope and Function of the Interpretation Program of the Southwestern National Monuments," in Report of Meeting of Custodians, Southwestern National Monuments, Feb. 14-16, 1940, History Division, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

Case Study

Charles Pinckney National Historic Site

In 2002 over 29,647 people visited Charles Pinckney NHS. Twenty-eight acres of a 715-acre plantation called Snee Farm are preserved in the park. In its open spaces are exhibits describing the existing house, archeological excavations, agricultural history, and the ways neighboring water and wetlands contributed to the plantation. Consider the number of interpretive opportunities for visitors to learn about archeology, or for the interpretation of the site to be informed by archeological work!

Interpretive Development Program, National Park Service

Freeman Tilden’s work responded to a changing sense of the purposes of national parks. The NPS and its partners identified education to be a primary purpose of the national parks and even set out preliminary terminology that persists in interpretive programs today, such as “parks as classrooms.” Since then, national parks have tested a variety of interpretive methods but, of them all, personal interaction with the public has never fallen as a priority.

For over a decade the Ranger Careers program has testified to the significance of professional interpreters to the national parks. The Interpretive Development Program (IDP) aims to develop effective interpretation in NPS employees through training courses and standards. Conceived, reviewed, and refined by over 300 field interpreters, this program enables an employee and supervisor to tailor professional development efforts, increase efficiency, and demonstrate interpretation at a national standard. Grounded in "Ranger Careers," the IDP identifies essential "Benchmark Competencies" (knowledge, skills, and abilities) for every interpretive ranger in Ranger Careers positions. However, the program is widely applicable to anyone who does interpretive work or manages resources.

For More Information

Interpretive Development Program: Professional Standards for Learning and Performance

This web site presents the Interpretive Development Program, designed to foster professionalism in interpretation in the National Park Service. This site provides you with immediate access to the latest curriculum, resources, contacts, FAQs and other information you need to develop your personalized training program for interpretive excellence.

Harpers Ferry Center

HFC designs and executes many of the exhibits, waysides, and other interpretive material for national parks. Examples on the site can inspire the creation of materials.

National Association for Interpretation

Visit the NAI web site to find out more about the profession of interpretation and efforts to develop it. The NAI is one professional organization for interpreters. Its mission is to inspire leadership and excellence, and to advance natural and cultural interpretation as a profession.

MJB/EJL