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



During its relatively brief history, much effort has gone into defining the nature and function of park interpretation and guiding its progress. Even while the term "education" was still being applied to interpretation, those involved with it were taking pains to distinguish it from traditional academic instruction. "Our function lies rather in the inspirational enthusiasm which we can develop among our visitors--an enthusiasm based upon a sympathetic interpretation of the main things that the parks represent, whether these be the wonder of animate things living in natural communities, or the story of creation as written in the rocks, or the history of forgotten races as recorded by their picturesque dwellings," a guideline distributed by the Education Division in 1929 declared. It urged simple presentations "that will make even the most complicated natural phenomena understandable to visitors from all walks of life," and communication of concepts rather than data: "beware of merely giving names or introducing a great number of irrelevant observations. Leave your party with natural history ideas rather than with a catalog of facts." [1]

The Committee on Study of Educational Problems in the National Parks (page 15) provided similar advice later that year. "It should be the primary object of the educational work to make possible the maximum of understanding and appreciation of the greater characteristic park features by the visitor, together with the stimulation of his thinking," the committee recommended. "Educational work should be reduced to the lowest limit which will give the visitor opportunity to discover the things of major interest, and to inform himself fully concerning them if he so desires. " [2]

In 1940 Service archeologist Dale King counseled sensitivity in interpretation to the custodians of the Southwestern National Monuments:

We must lead...so [visitors] do not know they are following. We must not herd our charges like a group of cattle. We must present our wares so enticingly that the visitor himself desires to partake of them, and so subtly is he influenced that he does not realize that his action is drawn out by a carefully laid plan. And if there are visitors who wish to make their way undisturbed by formal guides and guiding, we must perfect a technique so that these "untouchables" are unruffled by the little man who is there in the green uniform .... [3]

Like others before and after, King urged interpreters to focus on significance:

Let us try to analyze our monuments in terms of their real meaning and importance. Let us attempt to stress those parts of their story which have some lasting value and significance. We can't expect John Q. Public to go away and remember forever that the compound wall is 219 feet, six inches long, or that the thumb print is to the right of the little door in Room No. 24. We can try to make the people of that vanished historic or prehistoric period live again in his mind. Give him some insight into their troubles and joys, show him that they were human, and underline their differences from us as well as their likenesses to us. In other words, build understanding, and, eventually, tolerance. [4]

During and after the 1950s, the Service made a more concerted effort to instruct its personnel in the techniques of interpretation. In November 1952 Director Wirth approved a proposal from Ronald Lee for a training program "emphasizing the improvement of oral interpretive presentations and the use of new audio-visual equipment." First to be trained were supervisors from Region One the following March 4. In 1957 a Service school covering the range of field operations, including interpretation, opened at Yosemite National Park, where the old Yosemite School of Field Natural History had functioned from 1925 to 1953. It was succeeded in 1963 by the permanent Horace N. Albright and Stephen T. Mather training centers at Grand Canyon and Harpers Ferry respectively. Mather Training Center, specializing in interpretation, opened with a session for advanced interpreters that spring and held its first full nine-reek course for 36 trainees in the fall.

Between 1953 and 1955 the Service published four booklets on interpretive techniques: Talks and Conducted Trips by Howard R. Stagner, Chief of Interpretation in the Natural History Division; Campfire Programs by H. Raymond Gregg, Chief of Interpretation in the Omaha regional office; and Information Please. These training aids, intended principally for seasonal interpreters, were widely distributed and contained good practical advice on their topics.

In October 1954 the Service asked Paul Mellon's Old Dominion Foundation for a $30,000 grant to support a "reappraisal of the basic principles which underlie the program of nature and historical interpretation in the national park system." The grant vas approved the following February, and Freeman Tilden, a creative thinker and writer on park topics, embarked on the project.[5] In the course of it he led tours at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and observed many programs elsewhere. The result was Interpreting Our Heritage, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1957.

Interpreting Our Heritage, distributed throughout and beyond the Service, remains the classic treatise on its subject. Tilden based it on six principles:

I. 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.
II. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.
III. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is to some degree teachable.
IV. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
V. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
VI. 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. [6]

Tilden continued his own interpretation of the parks, written and oral, and made inspirational presentations to the Service's interpretive trainees for years thereafter.

In 1962 the Service developed ten interpretive objectives. Couched in positive terms, most reflected shortcomings perceived in existing conditions and programs. Among them:

Seek, develop, and test new methods, new interpretive tools, and new techniques. Adapt those which prove effective and are appropriate to the concept of National Park interpretation, but resist the temptation to promote the novel for the sake of novelty. Raise the standards of recruitment and selection so as to obtain men of high competence and high potential as interpreters, with special emphasis on broad training in natural history, history and archeology,. . .coupled with great communications skills.
Provide a progression of interpretive opportunities--in addition to, and above the common denominator level--to meet the needs of the better informed, more experienced, and the more seriously interested visitor. . . . [7]

The last suggested that the pendulum had swung too far in response to earlier criticism that interpretation at some areas was overly addressed to specialists (pages 25-26). Tilden recognized that interpretation for children should be separate from that for adults, but he did not make a similar distinction between the "intelligent but uninformed" adults composing most audiences and adults who were both. Balance in serving these two equally different populations would be difficult to achieve, and "the more seriously interested visitor" continued to receive less attention in most cases.

The audience issue was addressed again in 1965 by a committee reviewing interpretive plans and development at the Service's western forts. Its statement on the subject could have been taken as a prescription for all interpretive programming, natural as well as historical:

The term "visitor" represents in effect an illusion. There is no typical visitor. He is everything from a casual passerby to an avid buff, a scholarly historian, a professional military man, or a devoted antiquarian. He is all ages, from cradle-borne to escorted senility. His range of "experience" during a visit may be anything from indifference or boredom to mild curiosity, and on to a craving for even obscure detail of the story associated with the area. Any program may exceed the desires of the least interested; no program can satisfy the insatiable want of a small minority. But interpretive development need not pander to the former, nor seem impoverished to the latter. It is necessary to shape a program that strikes a middle course between the extremes. The questions of judgment and decision come into play and have to be resolved in a way that will result in an overall development which will appeal to, and be comprehensible by, the indifferent and poorly informed, as well as instructive and stimulating to the eager and more learned. The more capable will be introduced to avenues of further information and learning which they can pursue on their own. This is as much as Service responsibility need attempt. [8]

In April 1967 the Division of Interpretation and Visitor Services in Washington inaugurated a new communications medium for interpreters, the NPS Interpreters' Newsletter. William L. Perry was the editor; Ronald Greenberg assisted and later took over the job. The first issue of the quarterly contained news of the Washington office's interpretive organization and personnel, reprints of New York Times articles on Marshall McLuhan, word that Interpreting Our Heritage was coming out in paperback, and bibliographic information. The second issue informed interpreters about the new thrust for costumed interpretation, mentioned the first minifolders to be published, and complained about the lack of contributions and constructive criticism from the field.

The newsletter was published monthly by 1970 but was discontinued with the December 1970 issue in a general cutback of Service publications. In April 1974 it was reborn as In Touch, subtitled "Interpreters Information Exchange." Roy Graybill of the Interpretation Division was "coordinator"; Keith Hoofnagle handled design and contributed outstanding cartoons. In keeping with the announced intent that In Touch would be "the voice of the park interpreter" rather than an organ of Washington and Harpers Ferry Center officials, Pete Shedd of the Southeast Region served as guest editor of the first issue.

By the third issue Graybill was permanent editor. A year after its beginning he noted an absence of field contributions and urged more if the publication were to continue. It lived on until the beginning of 1981, when the contributions shortage proved fatal. In Touch nevertheless served a valuable purpose during its existence, communicating advice and inspiration on the hows, whats, and whys of interpretation and airing a healthy degree of dissension and disagreement with prevailing fads. Excerpts in the preceding chapter of this survey give some indication of its scope.

In Touch was revived in 1986--an indication of Director Mott's personal interest in interpretation.



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

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