Principles of Interpretation

From Interpreting Our Heritage
by Freeman Tilden
Father of Natural & Cultural Interpretation

Text in italics are my own summation of these principles.

1. 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.

Make your site and your persona relevant to the guest through mental or emotional connections. Without this, the interpretation is stale and ineffective. It must be different from what might be considered the same type of program at a similar site. What makes your site different? What was the reason your site was set aside to be protected?

2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

An interpreter can spout information all day long, but while informative, this will not add
anything to the experience of a guest. A common analogy is that of a hose attached to a fire hydrant. Once turned on, the water jets out in a long continuous stream. An interpreter spewing information like this overloads the mind of the guest and very little is retained. Not to say accurate information is bad, but use that information to make a connection. In the process, the question “so what” or “why does it matter” must be answered.

3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is to some degree teachable.

Interpretation IS an art. As with any artistic pursuit, some will have greater aptitude than others, but interpretation IS teachable regardless of the subject matter. What is required of the interpreter is an interest in continual research, a passion for the subject matter, and a desire to relate the subject matter to guests in a personal way to make connections. This will ease the learning process of the art of interpretation.

4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

This is my favorite of his principles. While the sharing of facts is important, it must be done in a context which causes the guest to make a connection. The interpreter should not, and in reality cannot, tell the guest what they should think. The goal is to make the light bulb come on within through their own thought process. The term “provocation” in Tilden’s principle does not carry a negative connotation as might be thought when a person provokes another. Instead, it is referring to the provocation of thought. Through interpretation, the guest must be provoked to thought. Contest myths and challenge stereotypes which have been propagated throughout history. The guest may not always agree, but they have been provoked to thought and hopefully encouraged to dig deeper themselves.

5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole person rather than any phase.

This principle is the one which seems less clear than the others. However, it is rather straight to the point. The interpreter must strive to NOT jump around haphazardly with stories and/or facts. Tell the whole story as it is known. In the process of interpreting a person, historic site, historic house, and other natural/cultural sites or issues, present a complete picture of whatever aspect the guest is interested in discussing. With regard to a presentation on a particular subject, stick with the theme or idea the audience should walk away with, but be versed in other aspects to prepare for questions afterwards which may be off topic to the presentation, but relevant to the experience of the guest. In roving interpretation, a wide variety of specific interests which brought the guests to a site will be encountered. It is necessary to continue research in order for the knowledge base to be well-rounded. Even roving, there is a specific idea the interpreter usually wants to get across. Sometimes, the conversation can be guided back to this if it does not start out there, but be mindful of what the guest wants to talk about and be prepared to throw the selected theme out the window. Even with that, it cannot be emphasized enough how important research is to prepare the interpreter to field and respond to any questions or discussion of topics relevant to the site AND open the mind of the guest to see its relevance to them. One last thing – if you do not know, it is perfectly fine to respond with, “I do not know.”  Follow that with more research so you WILL know the next time. Try getting contact information so that when the answer is found, it can be relayed to the guest.

6. 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.

Children will not be interested in the same things which will connect to adults. It is a definite change of gears to take what the interpreter usually does with adults and change it to reach kids. However, as Tilden states, do not “dumb down” the same methods. Completely different approaches must be used using things which will pique their interest. What did kids do in the era portrayed – chores, games, daily life ? Children seem to be starting younger and younger to be involved with electronics in some way and yet children of the past had chores as soon as they could walk. Stay abreast of current trends with kids so opportunities are not missed. I was reminded of this by a story of another NAI interpreter in a natural resource setting. They were talking about the assorted sounds of animals and birds within nature when a child asked, “What does the fox say ?” At the time, the interpreter had no idea the child was referring to a song. It was a lost opportunity to have a little fun and engage the kids with laughter –something that would have enhanced their experience and made it more memorable.