Interpretation for Archeologists   2. What is Interpretation?   Distance Learning

Addressing Misconceptions about Interpretation ... and Archeology

Misconceptions about what interpretation is and what interpreters do might keep archeologists from trying it. Whether they are based in different ways of approaching information (remember the interpretive caricatures?), a lack of dialogue about what interpreters aim to accomplish, or reluctance to engage with new techniques, archeologists' misconceptions about interpretation can become a handicap to collaborating with interpreters and communicating about archeology with the public.

Do you recognize any of these misconceptions?

  • Interpreters don’t produce anything.
  • Interpretation is too unstructured and not based in facts to be informative.
  • Interpretation is about acting a part or presenting a single point of view.
  • Interpreters focus on face-to-face interaction with the public.
  • Interpretation doesn’t have a defined role in the National Park system.
  • Interpretation isn’t a “real” profession.
  • Interpretation has no impact on park management.

To the contrary: interpretation is a recognized professional career that is essential to NPS operations. Interpreters take information from many different sources to convey information in an accessible, relatable way. Decisions about how to interpret a site or an object influences exhibit presentations, public programs, cultural resources preservation, natural resources conservation, and more. As front line staff, interpreters are part of the feedback loop from the public to park management. Their insights on public needs and interests impact the ways parks evolve as the interpretation of their themes change. Interpreters not only tell America's stories through archeological resources, but interpretation conveys to visitors and park management why archeologists' work is important. Interpretation, as a concept and as a practice, truly serves park management.

Sound familiar?

Archeologists are no strangers to misconceptions about their profession. In popular culture, archeologists are romantic characters who travel to exotic lands in search of mysterious artifacts. If you have done public archeology or interpretation before, you can probably list several questions visitors ask repeatedly that betray a lack of knowledge about the field.

Archeologists who conduct interpretive programs can replace the public’s misconceptions about their work with accurate information about what they do. Archeologists’ interpretations can go far in imparting information about method, intent, significance, and meaning.

One of the best arguments for archeologists and interpreters to work together is to dispel misconceptions about each other's professions. By working together, archeologists and interpreters can break down the stovepipes that might inhibit the best possible experience for audiences.

Try It Yourself

Talk to the interpreters at your park to find out what they do. What methods can you use to exchange ideas, information, and advice to help each other out?

Use What You Know: Assess Your Knowledge (#2 of 10)

(icon) A ranger's hat.

Answer the following questions:

  • What is interpretation?
  • Why does the NPS interpret archeology?
  • What are the goals for interpretation?

Now add “at your site” to the end of each question and re-answer them. In what ways does or doesn’t your park meet the definitions and purposes for interpretation?

MJB/EJL