This component introduces the interpreter to the five
basic elements of the interpretive process through the
use of a formula known as the "interpretive equation."
Upon completion of this component the learner will be
the five basic elements of the interpretive equation
and describe what they mean;
how the various elements of the equation relate
to one another;
how the elements of the equation relate to all interpretive
planning, activities, programs and projects;
the equation concepts to all subsequent interpretive
The interpretive equation is a quick shorthand method
that helps the learner remember basic concepts that
relate to all interpretive activities. It is only a
tool to assist interpretive approach. Whichever approach
is used to present information, it is imperative that
the learner thoroughly understands the five elements
of the interpretive process and how they relate to actual
interpretive work. Other models have been offered to
convey similar concepts. ALL serve to support the interpreter
in understanding basic relationships and the importance
of key elements in being a successful, effective interpreter.
Because this component is meant to give interpreters
a grounding in concepts that they will use throughout
their career, it is recommended that many actual park
examples illustrating the concepts be provided as part
of the learning experience. This will enable the learner
to gain experience in applying these somewhat abstract
concepts to real-world situations and concerns.
(KR + KA) x AT = IO (Knowledge of the Resource
+ Knowledge of the Audience) x Appropriate Techniques
= Interpretive Opportunities
The interpretive equation applies to all interpretive
It is important to keep the equation elements
"Grading" or assessing the desired outcomes
of the equation
The interpreter must regularly evaluate whether
interpretive activities are providing effective
interpretive opportunities (small "o" outcomes),
and whether these opportunities result in
the ultimate desired outcome of a stronger
stewardship ethic in the audience (large "O"
The Five Elements of the Interpretive Equation
Knowledge of the Resource (KR)
Knowledge is more than just the facts about
the resource. Interpreters must identify and
be fully aware of the many different intangible
and universal meanings the resources represent
to various audiences.
Interpreters must possess a very broad knowledge
of the history of the park beyond just the enabling
legislation. They must be knowledgeable about
past and contemporary issues, and the condition
of the park and its resources.
Interpreters should not use their knowledge
of the resources and the intangible/universal
meanings associated with them to offer only
bland recitals of non-controversial "safe" facts.
Interpretation embraces a discussion of human
values, conflicts, ideas, tragedies, achievements,
ambiguities, and triumphs.
Interpreters must accommodate and present multiple
points of view in their interpretation and not
presume to expound what they think is the only
"official" or "true" version of the resources
and their meaning.
Interpreters must be careful to rely on accurate
information when developing interpretive material
and avoid the tendency to exaggerate or slant
information to present a personal or particular
Interpreters should use their knowledge to convey
the park's approved resource-related themes
Knowledge of the Audience (KA)
Important! The definition of audience
includes more than just those individuals
who actually visit a park. We have a professional
responsibility to reach out and provide interpretive
opportunities for those who will never visit
a park, as well as to actual park visitors.
There are many ways to be a visitor to a national
park. One can visit a park in person, electronically
via computer, through a program in a classroom,
or by reading a book about the park.
There is no such thing as the average visitor.
Not every visitor requires an "intensive"
Interpreters must recognize and respect the
specific personal values and interests visitors
associate with resources.
Interpreters should keep in mind the "visitors'
bill of rights." Whether visiting a park
on-site or off, visitors have a right to:
have their privacy and independence respected;
retain and express their own values;
be treated with courtesy and consideration;
receive accurate and balanced information.
Interpreters should recognize the "visitor continuum."
The ultimate goal of interpretation is to provide
opportunities for visitors to forge compelling
linkages with the resources that they develop
an active stewardship ethic. Visitors generally
fall into a continuum in one of the following
five categories, any of which may lead to increasing
awareness of the relationships between tangible
resources and their intangible and universal
interpreter's job is to ensure that visitors have
a positive experience at any of these levels, and
to try to help visitors reach a deeper and richer
level of understanding if possible. No matter where
the visitors are on the continuum, the interpreter
should strive to give them something of value to
C. Knowledge of Appropriate Techniques (AT)
There are many interpretive techniques, none
of which is inherently better than any other.
Determination of the appropriate technique
results from analysis of the resource themes
and audience profile. The interpreter should
never choose a technique without first identifying
the theme, goals, and objectives and the prospective
audience to determine if it is an appropriate
"fit." Choosing techniques willy-nilly or
because the interpreter personally enjoys
them may mean that programs are only reaching
a small portion of the audience.
Whichever technique is chosen, whether personal
or non-personal, on-site or off-site, interpreters
should ensure that it addresses the tangible/intangible/universal
linkages of the resource.
Interpreters must stay current on communications
and delivery techniques and new media possibilities,
and use them as appropriate. However, beware
of adopting new techniques simply because
they are new. See #1 above.
Interpreters must regularly evaluate the effectiveness
of the techniques used, and replace and update
them when they no longer achieve the desired
The Interpretive Opportunity (IO)
To provide interpretive opportunities to the
widest possible array of audiences, the interpreter
must be proficient in as many techniques as
possible, and should ensure that the overall
park interpretive program offers the interpretive
themes through as many different techniques
as are appropriate.
The effect of the interpretive opportunity
may not be immediately apparent to either
the interpreter or the visitor. Interpretation
may have both a long-term and/or a short-term
effect. Interpreters should not always expect
to see an immediate reaction in the visitor.
is a seed, not a tree.
The Interpretive Outcome
Outcome evaluation must be visitor-based.
Evaluations should examine both short-term
and long-term outcomes. Evaluations of short-term
outcomes focus on whether an effective interpretive
opportunity was offered to the audience (i.e.,
was the information correct, was an appropriate
technique used). Evaluations of long-term
outcomes focus on whether the larger NPS mission
goals of perpetuating the nation's natural
and cultural heritage and promoting a stewardship
ethic in the public are met. (See Module 101
component "Why we do Interpretation, section
Although outcome cannot always be measured
immediately or quantitatively, the interpreter
still has a professional responsibility to
measure the effectiveness of the various interpretive
opportunities being offered to the public
to see if they are successful or need revising
Interpreters must seek feedback from the audience
to gauge the effectiveness of the interpretive
theme, content, program, etc. The degree to
which the audience forms effective linkages
to the resources, not the amount of information
conveyed, audience applause, or the personal
satisfaction of the interpreter, is the measure
of an effective outcome.
Evaluation of interpretive outcomes can occur
through a variety of mechanisms such as focus
groups, visitor "report cards," and visitor
III. A Final Thought
Although not specifically included in the interpretive
equation, the interpreter's attitude is a vital
element in ensuring that the equation works properly.
The interpreter must care about both the resource
and facilitating interpretive opportunities and
outcomes if he or she wishes to inspire caring
in others. In short, those who appreciate resources
Park legislative histories, records of Congressional
hearings related to the park, records of public meetings,
newspaper articles, local governmental, press, and
community group archives. Current and historical park
correspondence files. (These sources can provide good
insights into how the public, particularly the local
community, views the park and the types of values
and meanings they associate with the resources.)
the Icon: Exploring the Meanings Visitors Attached
to Three National Capital Memorials by Theresa L.
Goldman, W. Jasmine Chen, and David L. Larsen. Journal
of Interpretation Research. Volume 6, Number 1, 2001.
Part I (PDF, 1295KB) Part
Craft and Concepts of Interpretation: A Look at How
National Park Service Interpreters Reveal and Facilitate
Opportunities for Connections by W. Jasmine Chen.
Doctoral dissertation, 2003. West Virginia University.
Interpretive Process Model, NPS Interpretive Development
Program, 2002. The Interpretive Process Model provides
a framework for the development of interpretive programs
and products. It consists of a sequence of activities
that guide an interpreter to develop opportunities
for their audiences to make emotional and intellectual
connections to the meanings of the resource, as well
as cohesively develop an idea or ideas that are relevant
to the resource and the audience.
Achieving Excellence in Interpretation: An Introduction
to Compelling Stories, National Park Service, 1995.
A workbook designed to help interpreters discover
the compelling stories and intangible and universal
meanings associated with the resources.
Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen
Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture,
Larry Beck and Ted Cable, Sagamore Publishing, 1998.
Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden, University
of North Carolina Press, 1957. Excellent discussion
of the concepts represented by the interpretive equation.
Interpretive Views: Opinions on Evaluating Interpretation
in the National Park Service, Gary E. Machlis, ed.,
National Parks and Conservation Association, 1986.
Collection of 24 essays by interpretive professionals
on how to evaluate the effectiveness of the interpretive
opportunity for visitors.
Islands of Hope, William Brown, National Recreation
and Park Association, 1971.
On Interpretation: Sociology for Interpreters of Natural
and Cultural History, Gary E. Machlis and Donald R.
Field, eds., Oregon State University Press, 1992.
Twenty essays discussing the wide variety of visitor
needs and reactions to interpretation.
Personal Interpretation: Connecting Your Audience
to Heritage Resources, Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman,
National Association for Interpretation, 2002. This
book shares the traditions and trends of developing
interpretive programs. Several elements of NPS IDP
philosophy are discussed, including the tenets, interpretive
equation, tangible-intangible links and universal
Training Program for Interpreters, vintage 1976 NPS
training package, available for loan from Mather Training
Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields, Edward
Linenthal, University of Illinois, l991. An intriguing
look at some of the intangible meanings (religious,
political, social, and personal) associated with American
military sites. Includes chapters on Lexington, Concord,
Gettysburg, Little Bighorn, and USS Arizona.
Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, Oxford University
Press, 1949. Includes a wonderfully personal account
of how the author moved through a similar "visitor
continuum," coming to recognize wildlife as more
than a hunter's prey.
The Fifth Essence, Freeman Tilden, National Park Trust
Fund Board, 1950. Short narrative exploring the intangible
essence which makes parks unique.
The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal, Cambridge
University Press, 1985. Excellent scholarly examination
of what cultural resources represent to people and
why. Full of examples from around the world. Particularly
strong on exploring why people adopt a nostalgic view
Focus Groups: A Tool for Evaluating Interpretive Services,
Nancy Medlin and Gary Machlis, Cooperative Park Studies
Unit, University of Idaho, l991. A videotape and manual,
a practical step-by-step guide to evaluating interpretive
services using the focus group technique.
Self-Critique: A Tool for Evaluating Interpretive
Services, Nancy Medlin, Gary Machlis, and Jean McKendry,
Cooperative Park Studies Unit, University of Idaho,
1993. A training video and manual on how an interpreter
can assess the effectiveness of interpretive programs.
1. Prepare a list of ten things you will try to do
in the next two months to enrich the interpretation
at the park and enhance your skills as an interpreter.
Meet with your supervisor at the end of the two months
to review the progress of your efforts and to prepare
a new list for the next six months. Projects should
not be part of assigned work duties, but small extra
things which will help you to try out and evaluate
ideas and concepts presented in the component.
2. Attend a Compelling Stories workshop or complete
the Compelling Stories workbook.
3. Prepare material for the park's home page on the
Internet which goes beyond information and explores
the resource's intangible meanings for off-site visitors.
4. Begin a "life list" of interpretive techniques,
observing others and recording what you think are
the advantages and disadvantages of each.
5. Write your own personal contract for interpretation,
describing your personal philosophy of interpretation
and how you will strive to help others forge personal
connections with the resources you interpret. If you
have done this in the past, revisit your contract
and consider its intent with this component in mind.
6. Actively participate in a Visitor Services Project
or a visitors' focus group.
7. Review your park's entire interpretive program
and try to determine at which level of the visitor
continuum the programs and projects are aimed. Help
the programs and projects if you find they are all
aimed at one audience or if they are all aiming at
levels below the "connections/linkages"
8. Review your park's interpretive programs and projects
to see if they reveal, either directly or indirectly,
some of the intangible and universal meanings associated
with the resources. Help to enhance programs or projects
which are weak.