Give Mr Tilden a rest

The current issue of Legacy (National Association of Interpretation, USA) includes a commentary by Robinne Weiss that critiques the continued reference by modern interpreters to Freeman Tilden.  In his book ‘Interpreting Our Heritage’, first published in 1957 (!), Tilden established the well-known ‘principles’ of interpretation which often are shortened to the mantra ‘relate-reveal-provoke’.

Ms Weiss is quite right.  Interpretation as a discipline has moved on and evolved, and while Tilden’s work shall forever be credited with having in effect birthed the discipline, his intuitive claims and observations can no longer suffice as justification for expenditure and planning decisions.  Like any other discipline, we need research and evidence to inform and justify our practices.

Much of that research already exists, albeit mostly not under the umbrella of ‘interpretation’.  We must look to heritage studies, museum studies, environmental psychology, tourism studies, learning/education/communication theory, etc.  As Ms Weiss rightly pointed out, if we do so, we actually find many of Tilden’s views validated – but carrying much more weight since evidenced.  And evidence is a hard currency in the economic context of heritage management.

Regrettably, many interpreters too often seem to feel they can rest on mere claims alone – just look at some of our specialist publications around, where personal observations and anecdotes still outweigh reflection on research and its practical application.

One reason behind this may be that many interpreters, like Tilden himself, feel that interpretation is an art.  But while Tilden very clearly bases the work of the interpreter on the research of specialists (see his chapter ‘Raw material and its product’), some modern practitioners seem to feel that as ‘artists’ their work is quite beyond the reach of evidence-based planning and evaluation.  We should not be surprised, then, that interpretation departments chronically are the first target for budget cuts, because woolly claims mean nothing to a Finance Director juggling the numbers.  Besides, she may just have a different opinion anyway.

So let us do ourselves a favour.  Freeman Tilden’s work was very valuable and important in its time, but that time has passed.  Now we have research to back us up and to prove that interpretation is a necessary and serious discipline and profession in its own right.  That’s a good foundation for a discussion when that financial red marker next waves our way.


3 thoughts on “Give Mr Tilden a rest

  1. I stumbled upon this (very interesting) blog, and after reading several posts mentioning Tilden that directed me to this page, I couldn’t resist commenting.
    I am astounded that a European, working in Europe, would feel Freeman Tilden has an overweening influence on their field of interpretation (I’m in no position to question your observation — I’m simply surprised by it).
    As someone who has worked in interpretation (in America) for many years, I’ve observed Tilden’s influence to be mostly nominal, as a kind of figurehead, and virtually none of the interpreters I’ve met know anything more of Tilden than could fit on a bumper-sticker. Tilden had a long (50-year) career as a writer before producing “Interpreting Our Heritage”. Do Tilden-quoting interpreters read his novels, short fiction, or drama? No. Even “Interpreting Our Heritage” is rarely read — usually it is simply referenced and quoted out-of-context. Tilden makes it clear that interpretation is about meeting the visitors’ spiritual needs — hence his central principle is “Love”. So of course that is going to be Art, and not a fully quantifiable metrics-driven enterprise. Interpretation is Sacred Art, really, like a cathedral or Socratic dialogue, and just as provocative (Tilden loves to bring in Socrates as an exemplum, whose career was, literally, a sacred mission, and one that eventually gets him killed). It is still possible to approach interpretation like that — but most interpreters never attempt such a thing, or dream that “stodgy” old Tilden would want them to!
    I am afraid that the current generation of interpreters I encounter have not only rejected Tilden (which is their right), but they have rejected him without having ever really understood him (which, as an interpreter, I see as a kind of tragic failure of interpretation-of-Tilden by the schools of interpretation).
    Why do professional interpreters, when amongst themselves, so often interpret so badly? But perhaps things are different where you are.

    1. Hello Bryan,
      Thank you for your thoughts, and for bringing me back to a very old post (3.5 years – I hadn’t even realised I’ve been blogging for that long!).
      Actually, most of the field of interpretation in the UK is very much influenced, if not shaped, by American textbooks on interpretation. These regularly refer to Tilden in one way or another, which, considering that they are textbooks, is only right and proper. Most UK-based studies emerge from other fields, not interpretation, leading to a situation where again interpretation sources are predominantly American. Again, these studies tend to refer to Tilden, as is the case in the lead article in the current issue of the Journal of Interpretation Research. In my day-to-day encounters with people who come from an interpretation background (you don’t necessarily have to be an interpreter in the UK to do interpretation) Tilden is also mentioned regularly. So yes, Tilden definitely has an enormous influence on the field of interpretation where I work. Based on this written discourse, I would have argued it does in the US as well? I’m very interested in your experience in the field. In what way do American practitioners ‘reject’ Tilden, as you write? I’d really be interested in hearing more about that.
      You hit on a very interesting point though when you say that perhaps Tilden is quoted superficially very often. I think you’re quite right. Today, I would go much further than what I wrote in this post: I think by superficially quoting Tilden and not engaging with what he wrote on a deeper level, we may actually inadvertently be stifling the discipline’s ability to explore new concepts or shed new light on what we do, why we do it, how we do it, and what it achieves.
      At the end of such engagement, some of us may come back to Tilden and his philosophy of interpretation (we already have empirical evidence that some practices he promoted, and some claims he made are effective and true). For me personally, I think there are a few fundamental things where I just can’t agree with him. Incidentally, many of these things are expressed in his chapter on ‘The Priceless Ingredient’.
      As things stand, I’m actually working on a critique of Tilden as part of my PhD, so hopefully at some point in the future I can do a follow up post to this one.
      Happy New Year,

  2. In posting what I did before on a 3-year old blog post, I really didn’t expect a response, and your response really was kinder than my comment deserved. I had no idea that Tilden was a part of your research, you must know his work better than I do.

    You asked what I mean about the “rejection” of Tilden over here — I’m afraid I have let myself get a bit cynical by listening to some interpretive trainers over the years who liked to name-drop little interpreter “tips” from Tilden while denying the “Big Picture” that for the real Tilden held all those tips and principles together and made the entire enterprise of interpretation worthwhile. That there is little resistance I chalk it up to secularization and a cultural loss of confidence in any attempt at offering a narrative or meaning in history or nature. What’s left is making money, keeping the customer satisfied, and perhaps supporting standardized test education objectives (if working with school groups).

    What’s the use of the skills of interpretation, if you don’t believe there is anything there really worth interpreting? Just to make money, when interpretation is just a job you do to make a living. This is the world of professional Sophists lined up against Tilden’s vision of a vocation of Socratics. That’s the ironic downside to professionalization — a professional doesn’t need Tilden’s “love” — a professional works for money. An amateur works for love — and being “amateurish” is “unprofessional”. And in the pyramid of the professional world a few will make the bigger money, and a large number will work for very little, hoping to move up, although there are so few “up” jobs to be had that most of the seasonal, temporary, no-benefits broad-bottom-layer of employees cannot and will not ever move “up”, not much. So working for money must be a losing game for most, though a winning game for a few. Perhaps the poor artist has his/her art for consolation, but for the poor wage-laborer, what consolation is there?

    Exploitation, using people as means to your ends — I’m speaking of both the visitor and of low-wage staff — was the opposite of everything Tilden envisioned for interpretation. Tilden understood the essential pettiness of capitalism (New England Yankee that he was!) and saw the parks as a vitally needed spiritual counter, and interpreters as, logically, spiritual guides. But if the salt shall lose its saltiness, what then, hey? What remains is only a form without the substance.

    This doesn’t describe everyone everywhere, not at all, but it has happened in some organizations, and can happen anywhere, and losing the ability to recognize what Tilden plainly meant (when quoting Tilden!) is, I think, a warning sign of a dangerous shift in values in an institutional culture.

    There are things in Tilden I cannot embrace as he does — his romanticization of military heroism, for example. This being MLK day, I am obliged to say that there can be a “moral equivalent for war”, in purposeful, self-sacrificial, non-violent action, done for the good of others.

    If you haven’t read it already, there is a good academic paper on the peculiarly American spirituality underlying Tilden’s theory of interpretation available here:

    I hope to read your critique of Tilden some day.

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