Interpretation for Archeologists   2. What is Interpretation?   Distance Learning

What is Interpretation?

Interpretation is the process of communicating information to audiences so they are engaged, educated, and inspired. Its primary goal is for audiences to form personal and relevant, intellectual and emotional connections to resources and their meanings. As a result, interpretation is a critical profession in the NPS.

Freeman Tilden

Freeman Tilden is considered the “father” of NPS interpretation. Tilden’s most influential book for the NPS was Interpreting Our Heritage (1957). The book came as a reappraisal of the basic principles underlining the nature and history of interpretation programs in the NPS. It 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.

Interpretive Development Program, National Park Service

The Interpretive Development Program continues to revise NPS principles and approaches to interpretation. The foundations of 21st century interpretation (NPS Common Learning Portal) lay out a course for interpreters to meet the challenges faced in current times.

Interpreters aim to:

  • Address evolving interpretive principles, such as actively encouraging civic participation, exploring the changing nature of truth and meaning, and meeting audiences “where they are”
  • Foster self-awareness and overcome bias by uncovering their own expectations, obstacles, and biases in order to help others find and overcome theirs
  • Build relationships with audience and community, by interacting with audiences to invite diverse perspectives and collaborative learning
  • Investigate site resources and evolving content through addressing different types of truth, including factual or forensic, individual or narrative, social or collective, and reconciliatory truths
  • Explore relevant ideas and essential questions by incorporating different kinds of truth into conversations with audiences
  • Integrate engagement techniques such as those that facilitate opportunities for intellectual and emotional engagement, support the exploration of relevant ideas and essential questions, and build civic skills
  • Plan and design effective experiences that partner products' purposes, goals and objectives with potential audiences
  • Implement effective experiences such that programs are planned for and monitored, meet NPS standards, and incorporate feedback.

For Your Information

Larsen, David L.
2003 Meaningful Interpretation: How to Connect Hearts and Minds to Places, Objects, and Other Resources. Eastern National Parks and Monuments Association.
Mackintosh, Barry
1986 Interpretation in the National Park Service: A Historical Perspective. History Division, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
National Park Service
2017 Foundations of 21st Century Interpretation, Interpretive Development Program, Harpers Ferry.
NPS Training Manager for Interpretation, Education, and Cooperating Associations (editor)
1998 Module 101: Fulfilling the NPS Mission: The Process of Interpretation. National Park Service.
Tilden, Freeman
1957 Interpreting Our Heritage. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

MJB/EJL