Interpretation for Archeologists   4. Tools For Interpreters   Distance Learning

Interpretive Equation

The Interpretive Equation helps interpreters to remember basic concepts that relate to all interpretive activities. It can be used for interpretive planning, to evaluate and refine programs or products, or to explain how interpretation works. Its aim is to visualize the relationship between resources, audiences, techniques and opportunities, the sum of which moves the public to care about archeological resources and engender a stewardship ethic towards them.

(KR + KA) x AT = IO
(Knowledge of the Resource + Knowledge of the Audience) x Appropriate Techniques =
Interpretive Opportunities

Let’s examine each of these elements in turn to understand how they work together.

Try It Yourself

Choose an archeological resource. As you read about the Interpretive Equation, apply each element to the resource.

Knowledge of the Resource (KR)

Knowledge of the resource is the foundation of interpreters' work. It includes:

  • Comprehensive facts and information
  • Current and past theories and interpretations
  • Administrative and resource management history
  • Past and present uses and issues
  • Current conditions
  • Reasons why the resource is important and relevant enough to be preserved
  • History of attitudes towards the resource
  • Meanings of the resource, including tangible, intangible, and universal concepts.

KR incorporates not only facts about archeological resources, but what makes them valuable and significant, such as the ways they represent human values, conflicts, ideas, tragedies, achievements, ambiguities, and triumphs.

Try it Yourself

Using the KR list, outline your knowledge of the archeological resource. What resources would you recommend to an interpreter looking to build their knowledge of the resource?

Knowledge of the Audience (KA)

Knowledge of the audience involves learning about to whom you are interpreting, in order to help them make relevant personal connections to archeological resources. Components of KA include:

  • Demographic information, such as age, race or ethnicity, sex or gender, or ability
  • Cultural identity, including languages spoken
  • Learning styles and motivations
  • Expectations and interests
  • Pre-existing knowledge and attitudes
  • Location of audience (onsite or virtual/online).

Interpreters aim to understand and respect visitors and meet them "where they are" in what they might know - or think they know - about a resource and its values. By knowing our audiences, we can better meet their needs. When gaining knowledge of the audience, however, it's important to steer clear of stereotypes and be aware of your personal biases.

Try It Yourself

Imagine that your audience is a class of students from a local school. Develop a profile of your audience using the KA list.

For Your Information

Learn more about your audiences by conducting Informal Audience Research (NPS Common Learning Portal).

Explore the interpreter's competency and take training in Self-Awareness and Bias (NPS Common Learning Portal).

Knowledge of Appropriate Techniques (AT)

Interpreters match appropriate interpretive techniques to the resource and the audience. Components of AT include:

  • Medium, vehicle, or format, such as a tour, pamphlet or website
  • Skill in delivering the medium
  • Ways of engaging the audience, including passing artifacts or dialogue
  • Organization of the medium, such as chronologically or thematically
  • Style, attitudes, and enthusiasm.

Interpreters have many techniques available, but which ones they use draws on their knowledge of the resource and their audience. They choose techniques according to the program or product objectives that support the larger resource interpretive themes, goals, objectives, or site mission. They also draw on experience of which techniques are more or less effective in various circumstances.

Try It Yourself

Choose a medium for interpreting your archeological resource. Using the AT list, identify three techniques to organize and deliver the medium. How do the techniques engage the audience?

The Interpretive Opportunity (IO)

The job of an interpreter is to offer interpretive opportunities, with the ultimate aim of encouraging visitors to make their own intellectual and emotional connections to archeological resources, meanings, and significance. Sometimes the IO is structured by a scheduled tour or a panel in an exhibit, other times it might appear in a passing moment. Interpreters aim to be ready with their KR, KA, and AT for whenever an IO appears.

Keep in mind that the effect of an interpretive opportunity may not be immediately apparent; indeed, an interpreter may never see the impact. Oftentimes, an IO has short-term and long-term effects; for instance, a visitor might leave a park with a better understanding of its archeological history, then share their new knowledge with a friend back at home.

Try It Yourself

Recall a moment when you have shared your knowledge about the archeological resource. How did the opportunity come about? What impact did it have?

For Your Information

Further discussion about using the Interpretive Equation for archeological resources:

Blackburn, Marc K.
2016 Chapter 1: Interpretation. In Interpreting Military History at Museums and Historic Sites, pp. 1-13. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham.
Jameson, John J.
2007 Making Connections through Archaeology: Partnering with Communities and Teachers in the National Park Service. In Past Meets Present: Archaeologists Partnering with Museum Curators, Teachers, and Community Groups, edited by John H. Jameson and Sherene Baugher, pp. 339-366. Springer, New York.
Lacomb, Becky.
2003 The Interpretive Equation. In Meaningful Interpretation, edited by David Larsen. Eastern National.
Little, Barbara J.
2004 Is Medium the Message? The Art of Interpreting Archaeology in U.S. National Parks. In Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past, edited by Yorke Rowan and Uzi Baram, pp. 269-286. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek.

MJB/EJL