Interpretation for Archeologists   4. Tools For Interpreters   Distance Learning

Thematic Interpretation

Interpretive themes pull together multiple meanings of park resources into a story for people to explore. Thematic interpretation begins with resources and ends with a comprehensive program of interpretive offerings. It cumulatively builds on the significant meanings of the park and explores why its resources make it one of the best places to explore them.

Universal concepts are essential components of both primary interpretive themes and subthemes. Universal concepts are powerful because in just a word—love, family, war, honor, education, sacrifice—so many different meanings are instantly accessed. They are effective in interpretation because they enable a wide range of people with diverse life experiences to become engaged in a place, in a program, or in an exhibit.

Keep in mind that universal concepts are most effective and useful when they are more than just broad words. Context is also an important consideration that should not be overlooked when developing interpretive theme statements. We’ve adapted the discussion of these topics from the 2003 NPS Intermountain Support Office Theme Guide to explore thematic interpretation.

For Your Information

Before continuing, collect the tools your park uses to document its thematic scope. Ask the chief of interpretation or head ranger for a copy of the most recent interpretive prospectus and other pertinent documents for thematic interpretation. These documents indicate the policy decisions for which themes to interpret and frequently outline the methods a park uses. Review them, and keep the themes in mind while reading this chapter. Think, in particular, about how the results of archeological work may tell stories within —or outside—the thematic framework.

Primary Themes and Subthemes

Interpreters find that thematic interpretation draws out provocative and powerful stories from resources. Interpretive themes operate at two levels: as primary interpretive themes and subthemes. Primary interpretive themes are the overarching, biggest stories about the place. Subthemes are the smaller stories that nest within the primary interpretive themes.

Characteristics that are common to both levels of interpretive themes include the following:

  • All interpretive themes are based on the significances of park resources.
  • All interpretive themes are the cores of stories used to explore the multiple significances of the park’s resources to the public.
  • All interpretive themes connect park resources to the larger ideas, meanings, beliefs, and values of which they are a part.
  • All interpretive themes contain universal concepts, allowing a wide and diverse range of people to all find personal paths of connection to the stories of the place.
  • All interpretive themes provide opportunities for people to explore the meanings of the place, without telling people what park resources should mean to them.

Interpretive themes are best stated as single sentences that include tangible and intangible elements. Don’t state interpretive themes as topics, which tends to organize a body of work but is too ambiguous to provide focus.

Developing Primary Themes

Primary interpretive themes communicate the most important values of the park’s resources to the public. They translate factual significance statements into overarching park stories and may be the first elements that people associate with the park. Primary interpretive themes form the foundation of the park’s interpretive program, but are grounded on the park’s values.

Primary interpretive themes are best written as single sentences. Although primary themes are based on park significance statements, there need not be a one-to-one relationship between statements of significance and primary interpretive themes. However, the set of primary theme statements must represent the entire set of resource values. It is important to identify as many resources available for interpretation as possible, and stating themes to link everything together is an important step.

Sometimes interpretive opportunities address one, or even all, of a park’s primary interpretive themes. But when that is the case, the treatment is necessarily introductory in nature (such as a park brochure or general park video), and leads visitors to other services and resources.

Developing Subthemes

Subthemes are the driving elements in the development of specific interpretive services—the actual activities or media available to visitors. Since effective storytelling moves from the specific to the general, interpreters move from the introductory uses of primary themes to subthemes to help visitors connect with a significant aspect of park resources.

Subthemes are narrower than primary themes in scope and deeper in their treatment of the particular aspects of the resources. Like primary interpretive themes, subthemes link tangible resources to intangible ideas and meanings, and include universal concepts to increase interpretive effectiveness.

Subthemes are valuable because they allow specific interpretive services to achieve greater depth. They enable interpreters to guide visitors through the exploration of more subtle and complex aspects of specific park resources. This allows understanding at a more sophisticated level, and helps visitors extrapolate their new knowledge from the specific to the general.

Developing Interpretive Services from Subthemes

When a program is organized around a theme that links a tangible resource to a universal concept, the links must be developed with interpretive methods into opportunities for connections to resource meanings. Those opportunities must be intentionally sequenced to elaborate the theme’s idea. Each opportunity builds on previous opportunities and provides the audience a chance to learn or feel differently. The effect of the arrangement is cumulative and articulates and explores the meaning of the interpretive theme statement.

Interpretive services are always developed from interpretive themes to ensure a direct linkage stays intact from resource values to the story format of primary interpretive themes to the depth and focus of subthemes. Consciously building an interpretive service around the framework of a well-crafted primary interpretive theme also prevents the desired outcome of the service from being overshadowed or deflected by interpretive medium, technique, or personality. Exploring meanings remains the central goal — and maximizes the value of the interpretive service toward fulfilling the mission of interpretation.

Ideas for specific interpretive services flow from interpreters’ familiarity with park resources. Initial inspiration may spring from many sources: an often-asked question, a dramatic viewshed, a new discovery, etc. Regardless of origin, the design and presentation of every interpretive service must be driven by the strategic decision to tell a story that provides opportunities for people to explore meanings.

The following two examples of park significance statements and primary interpretive themes are taken from the 2003 edition of the NPS Intermountain Support Office Theme Guide:

Petroglyph National Monument

Set of Significance Statements
  • Petroglyph National Monument contains one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in North America and represents an extensive record of peoples for whom we have few written records.
  • The monument has outstanding research potential because the petroglyphs are numerous, have retained their integrity, are an outstanding example of Rio Grande style, and are close to other associated archeological resources.
  • Places in the monument have traditional and cultural importance to Southwestern American Indians and Atrisco Land Grant heirs.
  • The largely unexcavated Piedras Marcadas Pueblo ruin is one of the largest pueblos of its time period in the Rio Grande valley.
  • The monument's natural and cultural landscape (escarpment, volcanic cones, and surrounding open space) and long vistas are major elements that define Albuquerque's western horizon and provide opportunities to experience contrasts with a growing urban environment.
  • The geologic resources of Petroglyph National Monument (tectonic rifts, cinder cones and lava flows, and dramatic erosional features) facilitates both an understanding of the formation of the Rio Grande Rift and how natural landmarks have been recognized by and influenced a number of cultures.
  • Because of the historical significance of the land base in the proximity of a major urban area, Petroglyph National Monument provides a unique opportunity to interpret the divergent and convergent historical events and cultural viewpoints of the Puebloans and Europeans (Spanish) that led to conflict and resolution.
Set of Primary Interpretive Themes
  • The rich concentration of petroglyphs and the associated cultural landscape at Petroglyph National Monument, recognized as important by the native peoples of the mid Rio Grande Valley and others, offer opportunities to contemplate the meaning of cultural continuity in our world of accelerating change.
  • This geologically active area, formed by rifting, volcanism, and erosional forces including the Rio Grande and its tributaries, has attracted people for thousands of years and powerfully influenced their lifeways, traditions, and beliefs — exemplifying how landscapes shape and influence human societies.
  • The symbols connected to this place — petroglyphs, land grant deeds, Christian crosses, livestock brands, and inscriptions — provide opportunities to explore the ownership, control, and use of land, resources, identity, and ideas in the ongoing history of the American Southwest.
  • The continuity of the Atrisco Land Grant from 1692 to the present provides an opportunity to understand 300 years of land grant ownership in the face of an ever-changing urban landscape and continued use by the heirs of the original Spanish settlers.

Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site <>

Set of Significance Statements
  • The village of Dorchester is a remnant of the global process of European colonization and exemplifies, in microcosm, many elements of colonial and revolutionary era life in South Carolina.
  • Extensive historical records exist for Old Dorchester, adding tremendous integrity to the site.
  • The village site has maintained a high degree of archeological integrity, and in the process provides us with extensive documentation of life during the period 1690 to 1780. It is one of the most intact and protected colonial town complexes in South Carolina.
  • Old Dorchester State Historic Site is one of the few ongoing archeological projects open to the public in South Carolina. Here visitors can observe daily investigations, a source of ongoing discoveries.
  • The fort and village are significant for their association with the American Revolutionary War. The fort is one of only a handful of surviving fortifications remaining in South Carolina that were occupied by both British and American troops.
  • The fort at Old Dorchester is a tangible reminder of the anxiety and insecurity that the French and Indian War created among colonial South Carolinians.
  • The fort at Old Dorchester is the largest, best preserved, and most complete tabby fortification in North America.
  • Old Dorchester documents an important relationship between Anglicans and Congregationalists in colonial South Carolina.
  • Old Dorchester signifies an important link in the migration of Congregationalists from England to Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Georgia.
  • In the time period that Old Dorchester’s church bell tower was built, few existed in South Carolina; this bell tower signifies the relative affluence of the Old Dorchester populace.
  • The oldest continuing schoolboard in America has its roots in Old Dorchester.
  • Old Dorchester, located at the furthest inland navigable point on the Ashley River, served as a strategic commerce center in colonial South Carolina.
Set of Primary Interpretive Themes
  • The social, political, economic, and religious forces that framed the founding and evolution of colonial Dorchester provide opportunities for us to explore how communities survive and prosper through human interdependence.
  • The ongoing investigation of colonial Dorchester’s cultural resources provides interactive opportunities to understand how archeological and historical investigation help us to learn from our past.
  • The Anglican bell tower standing in a community that was founded by Congregationalists is emblematic of the dynamic relationship among the various religious groups of colonial Dorchester.
  • The fort at colonial Dorchester, built as a response to the French and Indian War and adapted for use in the Revolutionary War, exemplifies the need of communities to ensure the safety of their members.

Use What You Know

What are the primary themes and subthemes that archeological research at your park has addressed?

Use your theme statement to organize the opportunities for interpreting your resource into a sequence that cohesively develops the relevant idea or ideas stated in the theme. Plan effective transitions to move from one opportunity to another.