Chapter 1


--Before NPS

--The Park Service Assumes Responsibility

--Interpretation Institutionalized

Chapter 2

--Branching Into History

--The Importance of Historical Interpretation

--Inagurating the Program

--Historical Challenges

Chapter 3

--New Directions

--Audiovisual Innovations

--Museums, Visitor Centers, and the New Look

--Living History

--Environmental Interpretation

--Women in Interpretation

--Other Agendas

Chapter 4

--Interpreting Interpretation

Chapter 5

--Interpretation In Crisis






--Branching Into History

--New Directions

--Interpreting Interpretation

--Interpretation in Crisis



by Barry Mackintosh



There is a shortage of good interpreters, well grounded in their parks' subject matter and able to communicate skillfully to visitors. Personalized interpretation has declined in favor of canned presentations. Interpreters are out of the organizational mainstream, often overlooked for advancement. Managers consider interpretation nice but nonessential, cutting it first when funds are tight.

Interpretation is in crisis. But interpretation has always been in crisis, it seems. The foregoing could have been said--and often was--at any time during the postwar era. Freeman Tilden's observation to Director Wirth in 1952, when he first proposed his study of interpretation, is illustrative:

Since 1942 I have traveled many thousands of miles, visiting a great number of areas, and my conviction that the Park Service flounders in the Interpretation field has steadily grown. By this, I do not mean that it is bad; on the contrary, considering the lack of a basic philosophy, perhaps it is amazingly good; but I think the entire personnel of the National Park Service would agree with me that it is far from good enough. [1]

That year there was a cutback in interpretive staffing and programs. Many historical parks lacked historians during the early 1950s. Some had guards, guides, and tour leaders whose qualifications were distinctly sub-professional; in 1954 the chief of interpretation, Ronald Lee, recommended "a determined effort...to weed out incompetents" by "raising the grades of these positions and securing better qualified personnel than most of the present incumbents." In 1960 Lee complained that of 261 interpreters in the Service (116 naturalists, 108 historians, 37 archeologists), only 9 were on the promotion list for superintendent--and 4 of these were former superintendents. [2]

The campfire program, inspired by the legendary campfire origins of the national park concept (pages 31-32), was long a favorite interpretive medium in parks with camping or otherwise drawing evening visitation. A doctoral student surveying park interpretation in 1948 noted a decline in the role of such programs below prewar levels. Naturalist Paul E. Schultz expressed concern about the trend in 1955: "to me it seems that to a considerable degree we have 'lost the touch' of vibrancy and informality characteristic of the traditional campfire. The truth is that the intimate campfire program is nearly a thing of the past" superseded by more formal amphitheater programs with amplification and incidental or nonexistent fires. [3]

MISSION 66 funded numerous visitor centers and other interpretive facilities and media, but staffing and maintenance of the new facilities and devices did not keep pace. "[W]ith the emphasis on construction in recent years, I have observed some laxness in standards of personal service--and some disposition to sacrifice quality for quantity," Ronald Lee told a visitor services conference at Williamsburg in December 1959.

To address the problem, he established that month a Committee on Interpretive Standards. Roy K. Appleman, Carroll A. Burroughs, Donald J. Erskine, and Gunnar O. Fagerlund composed the committee, Appleman serving as chairman. [4]

The committee studied park interpretation for more than two years, submitting its report in May 1962. It found an absence of standards for interpretive activities--no clear measurements for their success or failure-and thus a great disparity in quality among parks. Museum exhibits had become stereotyped; there was need to vary their design, simplify labels, and expand the use of new techniques. The quality of seasonal interpreters was lacking. Interpretive training was described as "generally either inadequate or altogether absent." Interpreters were not well deployed: it was too easy to visit the larger parks and not find any. A fundamental shortcoming was insufficient control and monitoring by Washington and regional officials and park superintendents; a system of rigorous inspections by Washington and regional personnel with access to line authority was called for.[5]

The committee's report was not well received by management. "Connie [Wirth] gave it to the regional directors to read over one weekend," recalled Daniel B. Beard, Lee' s successor as chief of interpretation. "They were afraid it would get out and be used against the Service. [Assistant Director] Jack Price...was scared silly. I don't remember that Jack Price was told to destroy the whole lot, but somebody did."[< a href="notes5_interpretation_in_crisis.htm#f_5_6">6]

Appleman pressed Price to release or permit further work on the report, without success. Some of his committee's recommendations were ultimately reflected in a memorandum from Wirth to the regional directors the following February. Among them: each park would have its program appraised by a regional staff interpreter annually and by a Washington staff interpreter every three years; "each park should afford each visitor the opportunity of having at least one contact with a uniformed Service representative; campfire program speakers were to be upgraded; women were to be used more as interpreters; the training bulletins Conducted Trips, Talks, Campfire Programs, and Information Please were to be used more effectively.[7] Steps were soon taken to improve museum design and training as well.

Personal interpretation continued to suffer criticism, however. Robert G. Johnsson, who came to the Division of Planning and Interpretive Services in 1968, wrote a year later of the prevailing sentiment upon his arrival and since: "The feeling at the time was that personally conducted interpretation had not shared in the general improvement and advances made in our audiovisual efforts, museums, and publications. On the contrary, the opinion was, and remains, that the quality, of personal interpretation is slipping and is in serious need of attention."[8]

The opinion was confirmed in a 1973 study of personal interpretation in the Pacific Northwest Region. In the parks he surveyed there Paul H. Risk of the Department of Park and Recreation Resources, Michigan State University, found poor communications skills, poor morale, lack of employee understanding of Service goals, insufficient training, recruitment and rehire of incompetent seasonals, and inexperienced supervisors. "[O]bserved interpretation represented an average which was just adequate to slightly below," he reported. "There were no programs in the excellent category, a few very good, some adequate, some poor and a few of the worst ever witnessed anywhere."[9]

The Secretary of the Interior's Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments had already expressed its concern about the situation in a 1972 report. "We must conclude generally...that interpretive positions, facilities, and performance are at a low point for recent decades...," it declared. "On a piecemeal basis, interpretation appears to have suffered most in the competition between programs for inadequate budgets and from personnel restrictions of recent years." Citing this report, Director Hartzog detailed Bill Everhart to make another Service wide study of Interpretation. [10]

Everhart formed a steering committee of Pete Shedd; Tommy Gilbert, chief of the Office of Environmental Interpretation; and Tom Thomas, supervisor of the Mather Training Center. They and regional representatives developed a questionnaire to identify problem areas and solicit recommendations. Nearly a thousand employees completed and returned it.

By a wide margin, the respondents agreed that there had been a decline in the importance and professionalism of interpretation in the Service. The decline was attributed to several factors. Among the most significant: organizational changes that had lumped interpretation with resources management in many parks, often removing people with interpretive backgrounds from leadership; the de-professionalizing tendency of the new park technician series; increased park visitation and expansion of the National Park System without commensurate funding and personnel increases for interpretation; and increased emphasis on law enforcement after a 1970 disturbance in Yosemite, at the expense of interpretive positions and training.[11]

The Field Operations Study Team (FOST) of the late 1960s had brought about the organizational and position classification changes now perceived as adverse. Under the FOST concept, chief interpreters in the larger parks were made staff to their superintendents and no longer supervised front-line interpreters. "In most situations he won't be doing much interpretation himself," the NPS Interpreters' Newsletter had said of the chief in his new role. "He will be the truly professional interpreter, unencumbered by the need to respond to daily operational problems."[12]

Most front-line interpreters were placed in the sub-professional GS-026 park technician series under district managers responsible for both interpretation and resources management--often rangers without interpretive backgrounds. College degrees in natural science, history, or anthropology were not required for technicians; communications skills were judged more important than disciplinary expertise. Higher-level interpreters occupied the GS-025 park ranger series and became "rangers"; the titles of park naturalist, park historian, and park archeologist were officially abolished. "When, as a result of the technician program, the interpreter received the title of park ranger, he had some cause to believe that knowledge in depth of his subject matter no longer was considered essential," Everhart reported.[13]

The assignment of most interpretive duties to technicians, who could rise no higher than GS-9, was accompanied by a large loss of professional interpretive positions. The GS-025 series was primarily a career ladder for managers, not interpretive specialists. For those in the series who sought to stay in interpretation, there was less chance for advancement.

During the same period, opportunities for field interpreters to become involved with research, interpretive planning, and media production were largely withdrawn as these professional functions were placed elsewhere. Previously, a long-range planning group had rediscovered the old problem of research interfering with interpretation (see pages 24-25); its 1964 report, Road to the Future, called for "conduct of programs by professional interpreters...with full-time responsibility for planning and executing interpretive programs." After George Hartzog paid an unannounced visit to Minute Man National Historical Park in late 1965 and found a historian there engaged in open-ended research, responsibility for most historical research activity was pulled from the parks and assigned to the chief historian's office in Washington. Biological research had previously been a major duty of park naturalists; during the 1960s it was shifted to professional biologists reporting to the newly established chief scientist's office. When the Harpers Ferry Center was activated in 1970, a memorandum to the field had proscribed local production of exhibits and audiovisual programs. Such productions had sometimes been amateurish, but the directive dampened field initiative and wounded morale. "Few policy statements have stimulated such bitter opposition," Everhart found.[14]

Since the reorganization of the Washington office in 1970, there was no division or branch there identified with interpretation. There was a similar diffusion of responsibility in the regional offices, the regional chiefs of interpretation having been abolished soon afterward. Everhart's report, issued in March 1973, called for "an identifiable center of decisions and authority, both at the regional and Washington level, with responsibility to insure that all interpretive activities are directed toward accomplishing the mission of NPS."[15] This recommendation was carried out in Washington later that year with reestablishment of the assistant director for interpretation position. But interpretation was downgraded to division status in 1976 and again fell off the Washington organization chart altogether in 1983, when it was lumped with several other functions under the Visitor Services Division.

Another of Everhart's recommendations was to "place responsibility for the quality and substance of the interpretive program with the park superintendent; establish as a staffing goal a professional interpreter in each park; give line authority over the interpretive program to the park interpreter." In June 1974 Associate Director John E. Cook told the regional directors that each park should have at least one professional interpreter in line authority, meaning that the interpretation and resources management combination would be abolished except in very small or special-situation areas.[16]16 But many parks continued to operate with the "I&RM" organization.

Between 1970 and 1974 there was a 73 percent increase in attendance on conducted tours, a 103 percent increase in the average number of visitors per tour, and a 134 percent increase in attendance at interpretive demonstrations. At the same time the number of permanent interpreters in the parks rose from 525 to 600, a 14 percent increase. "Authorized increases in numbers of seasonal interpreters and greater reliance on volunteer interpreters through the Volunteers-in-Parks program have been insufficient to meet accelerating demands for interpretive services," Bill Dunmire reported in 1975. "Gross overcrowding at these presentations is the rule, and supervision by permanent interpreters has become increasingly inadequate, resulting in a deteriorating quality of the presentations."[17]

That year interpretive services were cut for budgetary reasons--a discouraging development after the recent attention focused on interpretation, but hardly unprecedented. "Interpretation is always vulnerable during budget crunches, because de-emphasis in interpretive services does not have the striking effect upon visitors that closing a restaurant, a campground, or a gas station would have," Everhart had noted in his report.[18] And as the quality of personal services had fallen, there was probably less reluctance to cut them.

In 1976 a distinguished state park administrator, William Penn Mott, Jr., of California, expressed his concern about the contemporary thrust of interpretation:

Interpretation must be taken out of the realm of entertainment. It must become the serious business of education. I am not suggesting that we eliminate entertainment, but all too often interpretive programs have as their primary objective entertaining people. Entertainment should not be the end product, but should be a means toward the end product, which should be education.[19]

Responding to scrutiny from interested congressional committees, the Service held a conference on cultural resource preservation and interpretation problems at Harpers Ferry in January 1979. The conference report reiterated complaints often heard during the decade:

The Service is receiving active criticism of its interpreters in historical and archeological areas. Knowledgeable people have been critical of living history programs, both as to accuracy and appropriateness. Others have pointed out misinformation being disseminated and the lack of depth in knowledge by interpreters of the park story.
Some parks emphasize secondary interpretive themes and neglect or give short shrift to the park's primary theme. Often the park uses expensive and complex technological visual devices requiring technicians to maintain to interpret a relatively simple park story that could be more effectively told with less complex devices or through personal interpretation ....
Many of the problems in park interpretation can be traced to the adoption of the communication-over-content concept, whereby the Service decided that an interpreter did not need knowledge, but rather needed communication skills.[20]

The conference recommended "the identification, recruitment and career development of interpreters with academic backgrounds in American history"; subject matter training for interpreters in need of it; reallocation of funds from programs portraying minor themes to those portraying major themes; critical reevaluation of "complex media programs, the furnishing of historic structures, and other such costly efforts"; and the assignment of a historian to the Division of Interpretation in Washington to provide policy guidance and monitor historical publications and programs throughout the Service.[21]

In 1980 another study by Paul H. Risk blasted personal interpretation in the Service's North Atlantic Region. Conditions in the urban parks were especially bad:

Interpreters as well as their supervisors seem at a loss to comprehend what they are there for .... Basic communications skills were glaringly lacking .... [F]ar too many of the interpreters observed were merely parroting raw information. They were all too often warm-blooded tape recorders utilizing only that portion of the brain which deals with cold facts.

Of the shift from subject matter experts to "communicators," Risk wrote:

It has been said by some that the pendulum may have swung too far. Interpreters are entering the field able to interpret almost anything--excellent communicators--but knowing too little about any specific subject to have anything upon which to exercise their skill. In some cases this is true. But, it was certainly not an outstanding problem in the sites visited. Rather, the experience was to find many interpreters who had neither the subject matter expertise or communication ability.[22]

That February Dave Dame, chief of interpretation in the Washington office, shared his view on the status of interpretation with his regional counterparts:

We all know that interpretation has never been fully utilized, funded and supported as a major management tool. At no time is this more apparent than during a period of severe fiscal constraint like we are currently experiencing .... Somewhere along the line OMB, the Department, WASO and/or Regional management, and many park superintendents have decided that there is a lot of fluff contained in this thing called interpretation.

Dame saw the best hope for increased support in programs tied closely to resource protection, enabling interpretation to be justified to management as essential.[23]

Dame repeated this call in his 1982 paper, "The Role and Responsibility of Interpretation in the 1980's" (see pages 71-72). Like Mott, he thought that too much stress had been placed on entertainment, especially in some living history programs slightly related to park themes. Interpretive objectives were often poorly coordinated with other management objectives, indicating that interpretation was still on the periphery in many parks' operations. In transmitting Dame's paper to the field, Director Dickenson ascribed the decline of interpretation to the growth of the National Park System combined with budget cuts, position cuts, inflation, and a "series of special emphasis programs and initiatives. As a result, he wrote, "our visitors are no longer receiving either the quantity or quality of service they have a right to expect from the National Park Service."[24]

Dickenson's complaint implied that there had once been some golden age when visitors were receiving interpretation of ideal quantity and quality. If there were, it apparently passed unremarked as such by contemporaries in the business. Interpretation seems to have been perpetually under siege, perpetually underfunded and short of personnel, perpetually missing the mark in one way or another.

It is worth noting that interpretation's greatest critics have been its practitioners. Good interpreters tend to be idealistic and articulate --qualities conducive to vocal self-analysis. Interpretation is also, by its nature, a very public activity, one in which any shortcomings are clearly apparent. Thus, even when it is doing no worse than behind-the-scenes program areas, it attracts more critical notice.

In the 1980s the criticism is doubtless influenced by the stiffer competition that park interpretation faces. Visitors to park programs once could not expect equivalent experiences elsewhere. Now there are popular television series like Nature and Nova on scientific subjects and occasional historical productions of high quality--all done with professional polish not easily matched by the park interpreter. Today's more sophisticated audience is less likely to be impressed with a merely competent performance, and those looking critically at interpretation tend to apply a higher standard of judgment. Even if park interpretation is no worse than it used to be, its position has probably fallen somewhat relative to other interpretive opportunities available to the public.

Is interpretation worse than it used to be? From recent critics, one would think so. From a historical perspective, one is less sure. It is well, in any event, that the criticism continues, stimulating that improvement for which there is always room.



Last Modified: July 9, 2000 09:35:00 pm PST

parknet1.gif (1913 bytes)