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Fulfilling the NPS Mission 101
Informal Visitor Contacts 102
Interpretive Talk 103
Conducted Activity 210
Interpretive Demonstration 220
Interpretive Writing 230
Curriculum-based Program 270
Planning Park Interpretation 310
Interpretive Media Development 311
Leaning Interpreters 330
Interpretive Research
Other Developmental Competencies


Planning Park Interpretation Curriculum-based Program Interpretive Writing Interp. Demonstration Conducted Activity Interpretive Talk Informal Visitor Contacts Fulfilling NPS Mission IDP Homepage Interp. Media Development Leading Interpreters Interp. Research Interpretive Writing Curriculum-based Program Planning Park Interpretation Interp. Media Development Leading Interpreters Interpretive Research Interp. Demonstration Conducted Activity Interpretive Talk Informal Visitor Contacts Fulfilling NPS Mission IDP Homepage





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Component for Module 101

What Interpretation Is: Tangibles, Intangibles and Universal Concepts

Content Outline | Resources | Suggested Developmental Activities | Next

This component describes the relationship between the resource and the audience and how interpretation, by presenting broadly relevant meaning, facilitates the connection of the two.

Upon completion of this component the learner will be able to:

  • Describe the role of the resource, audience, and interpreter and their relationships to one another and preservation;

  • List tangible resources, intangible resources, and universal concepts of their site;

  • Identify and make tangible/intangible linkages of lesser and broader relevance.

The tangible/intangible linkages and universal concepts (TIU) model should be viewed as a description of effective interpretation. It does not measure or provide a method for developing specific programs.

The TIU model addresses the "so what" of interpretation by describing the content of interpretive products: relevance and provocation, information, and technique. This model is not the only way to describe interpretation, but is suggested as a useful way to get at the "meanings" of the resource.

Effective use of the TIU model requires discipline and ongoing practice. Practice allows the learner to internalize the concepts and more easily identify interpretive opportunities. The learner should be exposed to a variety of real interpretive products and presentations and should identify the tangible/intangible linkages and possible universal concepts for each. The learner should also present several interpretive products exhibiting tangible/intangible linkages for peer review.

Finally, the definitions of the words: tangible, intangible, and universal concepts should be viewed flexibly. Some intangibles that are not real things can be used in very tangible ways to help the audience access broader meanings. Likewise, it is open to debate whether some concepts are truly universal. The learner should not allow that debate to eclipse the fact that some concepts provide broad relevance to a very diverse audience. The actual categorization of a particular resource as tangible, intangible, or universal concept can provoke interesting discussion, but should not be allowed to sidetrack the model. Learners should ultimately be allowed to categorize specifics as they choose to.

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Content Outline:

I. The Relationship Between Resource, Audience, and Interpretation

A. Definitions and Roles
1. Resources possesses meanings and relevance.
a. purpose of resource is meanings - resources act as icons for meanings
b. individuals see different meanings in the same resource

2. Audience seeks the special--something of value for themselves.

a. entertainment and fun are part of it
b. audiences are on their own time
c. audiences are receptive to the special

3. Interpretation facilitates a connection between the interests of the visitor and the meanings of the park.

a. primary goal is not to provide information, but to provide access to meanings
b. interpretation must occur on the terms of the audience -- the audience is sovereign
c. providing accurate and balanced information about multiple perspectives is the responsibility of the interpreter - this is a tool that allows for respect and communication
d. the interpreter must be able to subjugate his or her own passions for and understandings of the resource in order to allow the audience to form theirs

B. Role of Interpretation in Preservation

1. Audiences must care about a resource before they value the preservation of the resource.
2. The primary goal of interpretation is not to preach preservation but to facilitate an attitude of care on the part of the audience.
3. Preservation depends on audiences' access to the meanings of the resource.

II. Linking Tangible Resources to Intangible Resources and Meanings

A. All parks have tangible resources like physical features, buildings, artifacts, etc.
B. All parks have intangible resources like past events, people, systems, ideas, values, etc.
C. All effective interpretation can be described as linking tangible resources to intangible resources in order to reveal meanings.
D. Some intangible anecdotes, events, people, and easily understood concepts can be used in a tangible way.
E. Tangible/Intangible linkages provide varying degrees of relevance for the audience.
F. Tangible/Intangible linkage graph
1. A tool: a graph represented by an x,y axis.
a. horizontal axis = "Tangible: information, narrative, chronology" - further represents the time the audience interacts with an interpretive product
b. vertical axis = "Intangible: meanings" - further represents relevance of the product to the audience
c. The relationship (links) of tangible to intangible or of information to meanings in an interpretive product can be conceptually plotted on this graph.

2. Interpreters can use the graph to describe intended tangible/intangible linkages as well as identify information and interpretive techniques that support the effective delivery of an interpretive product.

3. Audience reception of interpretive products can also be graphed.

a. differences between interpreter and audience graph should be expected
b. as long as audience accesses meanings and comes to care for the resource, the audiences linkages do not have to mirror the interpreter's intended relevant content
c. interpreters must realize interpretive intent, technique, and presentation remain a critical element of effective interpretation

4. The graph is only one description of interpretation and should not be viewed as an inflexible structure.

5. An alternative illustration: a wheel

a. hub = tangible
b. tire or rim = intangible
c. spokes = information and interpretive techniques

III. Universal Concepts
A. Universal concepts provide the greatest degree of relevance and meaning to the greatest number of people.
B. Universal concepts are intangible resources that almost everyone can relate to. They might also be described as universal intangibles.
C. Not all people will agree on the meaning of or share the same perspective towards a universal concept, but all people will relate to the concept in some significant way.
D. Universal concepts make meanings accessible and the resource relevant to a widely diverse audience.
E. The implications of and techniques for presenting universal concepts (universal concepts don't necessarily have to be explained to be experienced or understood) will differ from resource to resource. However, all interpretation seeks to place the visitor in relationship with broad meanings.
F. Tangible/intangible/universal concepts can be captured and illustrated well by the theme of the interpretive product. The cohesive development of a relevant idea or ideas within an interpretive effort of any kind is enhanced by making links between tangibles, intangibles and universals.

Example: The rocks (tangible) of Yosemite tell many stories of beauty, danger, and mystery (intangible).

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Achieving Excellence in Interpretation: Compelling Stories Thinkbook, Rudd, Connie, 1995. A workbook designed to help interpreters discover the compelling stories and intangible and universal meanings associated with the resources.

An Interpretive Dialogue, Larsen, David, 1996.

Clicking 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 II (998KB).

The 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. [On-line]. Available.

Generic Lesson Plan: "What Interpretation Is " David Larsen, January 1997

Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture, Larry Beck and Ted Cable, Sagamore Publishing, 1998.

The Interpretive Process Model, National Park Service, 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.

The Interpretive (R)evolution, brochure, Mayo, Corky, 1996.

Interpreting Our Heritage, Tilden, Freeman, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1957. Long considered the standard. Tilden's words have found resonance in this module of the curriculum.

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 concepts.

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Suggested Developmental Activities

Tangible/Intangible Linkages

1. Learner should compile a written list of the reasons why people do and should care about their sites. Then learner should identify an object or place, a tangible, that represents their site. Learner should make a list of six events, systems, values, ideas, universal concepts or other intangible resources that can be linked to their tangible. Do the links reveal meanings? Will those meanings help people care about the site as described on the first list? Learner should discuss this assignment with fellow interpreters and/or supervisor--do they see meaning in the linkages?

"An Interpretive Dialogue" and Freeman Tilden

2. Learner should read "An Interpretive Dialogue" and Freeman Tilden's "Interpreting Our Heritage." Learner should write down thoughts that compare one or more of Tilden's six principles to the tangible/intangible model. Are they compatible? What might Freeman Tilden say to Harold Durfee Nedlit?

Tangible/Intangible Graph

3. Learner should graph a current interpretive product. Learner should identify linkages, the information that connects the linkages, as well as the interpretive techniques used to present the product. Click here to see an example.

4. Learner should create a new interpretive product using the graph model.

5. Learner should graph interpretive products created by other interpreters and then, if possible, compare their own graph with the observed interpreter's graph.

6. Learner should have other interpreters graph one of their own interpretive products and then compare their graph to the graph used to develop the product.

Universal Concepts

7. Learner should create a list of universal concepts and then study each item on the list and determine what it means in the context of human history and culture versus what it means in the context of Nature. What are the differences? What are the similarities? Will the conclusions allow for more fully integrated universal concepts in interpretive products?

Tangibles, Intangibles, Universal Concepts

8. Learner should make a list of tangibles, intangibles, and universal concepts specific to their resource. Learner should choose items from each list and try to connect them to the other two lists? Do any ideas for interpretive products emerge?

9. Learner should keep the three lists handy as they research or physically explore their site. When the learner is provoked or finds personal relevance or meaning in the resource, the learner should identify the tangible, intangible, and universal concepts involved in their own provocation. Do any ideas for interpretive products emerge?

Next Component

How Interpretation Works: The Interpretive Equation

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Editor: STMA Training Manager Interpretation

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