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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

Why We Do Interpretation: Meeting the NPS Mission

Content Outline | Resources | Suggested Developmental Activities | Next

This component establishes the foundation for Module 101: Fulfilling the NPS Mission: The Process of Interpretation, by defining the interpreter as integral to the development of the profession. It provides a set of ground rules to establish a personal interpretive philosophy and articulate ways in which interpretation contributes to resource protection and stewardship.

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

  • Begin to develop a personal philosophy of interpretation connected to the evolution of the craft;

  • Explain his/her personal obligation to establish a professional foundation for day-to-day decisions about interpretive methods and contributions to the NPS mission;

  • Establish a mission-driven approach to interpretation which incorporates both park management outcomes and audience revelation, both of which lead to enhanced stewardship of the resource.

Every interpreter must consider fundamental principles when selecting an interpretive strategy for a program, for a project, or when deciding how an interpretive effort can contribute to resource protection. Important choices are encountered throughout an interpreter's career, and must be effectively articulated to supervisors, managers, superintendents, and the public.

Previous approaches to training for new interpreters included a detailed introduction to significant names and dates, and references to important books. Often this introduction was coupled with an exercise in writing a personal definition of interpretation. This component, Why We Do Interpretation, incorporates many important aspects of the former approach with a strengthened sense of individual responsibility. Interpreters must search for understanding of the process of interpretation, its roots, its purpose in fostering resource stewardship, and the direction which they will take both as individuals and as professionals. Interpreters must be able to articulate the outcomes of interpretation so they can make personal choices in approach and establish the relevance of interpretation for managers making resource decisions. In this way the contributions of interpretation may be added to the other important functions in resource protection. The interpreter needs a clear understanding that interpretation moves beyond a recitation of scientific data, or historical names and dates, or chronologies, or descriptions of how tall, deep, wide or big. Public recognition and support of their resource stewardship opportunities is the larger role of interpretation.

This journey in professional development lasts throughout a career. This component covers the present by laying a foundation for why we do interpretation and by identifying personal and professional obligations of the interpreter. Additional components in this module continue the study of the art by exploring essential elements of interpretation in specific detail. This component may be approached through mentoring, self-study, a detail assignment, or formal instruction.

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Content Outline:

I. Why We Do Interpretation

A. Quick overview of the agency's mission
1. Changes in social/political climate between 1916 and present;
a. evolving concept of stewardship

B. How interpretation helps meet the National Park Service mission (the profession's mission)

1. Perpetuates and represents the heritage of the nation reflected in national park units;
2. Ensures the natural, cultural, and recreational heritage reflected in the national park units is available and accessible to everyone;
3. Provides experiences that strengthen the recognition, understanding, enjoyment, and preservation of the nation's heritage;
4. Creates the opportunity for audiences to ascribe meanings to resources, leading to concern for the protection of the resource. This revelation is the seed of resource stewardship. This is the goal of interpretation, not simply information or facts.

C. How the interpreter helps promote the National Park Service mission (the individual interpreter's mission)

1. Uses the "through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation preservation" process;
2. Meets management objectives through facilitating public participation in the stewardship of the resource
a. Uses established primary and secondary park themes to convey principle resource messages to public;
b. Helps the public understand its relationship and impact on resources;
c. Encourages the public to develop personalized, proactive stewardship ethic;
d. Empowers the public to influence policy to fulfill the National Park Service mission.

D. Personal and professional obligations of the successful interpreter

1. Accountability to the profession
a. Clearly defines the distinctions between orientation/information, education, and interpretation and the role each plays in moving audiences toward stewardship outcomes (an information/ interpretation continuum). All staff, volunteers, cooperating association employees, and concession employees help make or break a visitor's opportunity to move toward those stewardship outcomes;
b. Develops a working knowledge in all methods and modes of delivery, communication, and props, not just in areas of personal preference;
c. Continually improves resource knowledge base and skill levels to be competent in the broad range of interpretive environments;
d. Chooses and uses the appropriate vehicle based on professional judgment, not personal preference;
e. As a representative of the National Park Service, projects a professional appearance and manner at all times;
f. Understands that the profession has evolved over time and that external/internal influences continue to affect that evolution.
g. Understands the principles of professionalism and practice standards indicative of a profession.

2. Sensitivity

a. Is sensitive to the fact that resources have multiple intangible meanings;
b. Approaches audiences from multiple points of view;
c. Acts as a facilitator and motivator;
d. Makes interpretive connections that are broad based and accessible both intellectually and physically. Efforts are designed to touch a broad audience intellectually and/or emotionally, and crafted in a way to allow physical access.

3. Analytical / evaluative

a. Constantly evaluates the effectiveness of programs, and audience needs and capability, and adjusts them as needed to maintain professionalism;
b. Engages in ongoing, constructive self-evaluations.
c. Incorporates influences of past leaders such as Tilden, Muir, Mills, Lewis and others.

4. Teamwork

a. Actively participates in park operations beyond the interpretive division;
b. Takes responsibility for integrating the interpretive program into park operations;
c. Actively solicits and uses the input of others (both NPS and non-NPS) in all aspects of the interpretive operation;
d. Does not become territorial to the detriment of overall park operations.

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Adventures of a Nature Guide, Enos Mills, New Past Press, 1990.

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.

Environmental Interpretation, Sam H. Ham, North American Press, 1992. Chapter One compares instruction to interpretation, and discusses audience discretion.

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

Interpretation in the National Park Service - A Historical Perspective, Barry Mackintosh, NPS publication, 1986. This document summarizes the development of the agency's interpretive efforts, its media approach, and threats to interpretation through the years.

The Interpretive Journey, essay by Cynthia Kryston, 1996. Curriculum essay.

Interpreting for Park Visitors, William Lewis, Acorn Press, 1989. This is a quick reference from one of the contemporary leaders in the field. Easy reading, yet thoughtful and well written.

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

The Interpretive Process Model, NPS Interpretive Development Program, 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.

Interpretive Skills Lesson Plans: "The Role of Interpretation in Park Operations" by Maria Gillett, 1992; "Advanced Interpretive Philosophy" by Jack Spinnler, 1982; "History and Philosophy of Interpretation" by Tom Danton, 1988.

Interpretive Views: Opinions on Evaluating Interpretation in the National Park Service, Gary Machlis, ed., a collection of 24 essays by interpretive professionals on how to evaluate the effectiveness of the interpretive opportunity for visitors.

NPS Strategic Plan, 1996, Mission Statement, p. 5.

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
1. Learner should read at a minimum the texts listed above by Tilden, Lewis, and Mackintosh, and read the curriculum preface essay by Kryston.

2. Learner should carefully research the authorizing legislation of her/his site, including the congressional reports and supporting documents for the legislation. Learner should also study the management plans for the site, including the primary and secondary themes, principle preservation issues, and the desired futures.

3. Learner must identify site's primary sources which support the development of interpretive ideas, and become thoroughly conversant with these sources before planning their programs. This is an ongoing process.

4. Each learner should write a personal contract for interpretation. This contract should be brief, and include commitment to subject matter, dedication to audience, perfection of skills, and personal desired outcomes of his/her interpretive efforts. This is not a definition of interpretation, but a statement of what he/she stands for and wants to accomplish through interpretation. (At its best, such a contract should start, "I believe. . .") This contract should explore the concepts of interpretation in the context of resource preservation and stewardship. Without a personal grounding in what they stand for or represent, and why they do interpretation, interpreters will be hard pressed to explain how their contributions to help meet the mission of the agency.

5. Learner may lead a discussion of interpretive views, outcomes, and the contribution of the "team" to meet the mission of the agency and/or specific site. This discussion can be conducted with other divisions, with partner organizations, or within interpretive division.

6. Learner may visit other sites to identify three interpreters whom he/she considers effective in creating meaning through use of tangible to intangible to universal linkages. Afterward, learner should write a summary of why those individuals were selected, and identify key interpretive attributes of these individuals. This list should be updated when appropriate. Learner is encouraged to establish a mentor relationship with at least one of these individuals to help develop professional abilities through discussions, comparative examples of their work.

Next Component

What Interpretation Is: Tangibles, Intangibles, and Universal Concepts

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Editor: STMA Training Manager Interpretation

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