What is interpretation?

Recent discussions – online and offline – as well as my current work of pulling together the different aspects of a heritage/community site have had me think about the existentialist question: what is interpretation [1]?

As one sets out on the journey to find an answer [2], one must naturally begin with Freeman Tilden, the man most often credited with having fathered the discipline of interpretation [3].  He defined interpretation as follows:

“An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” [4]

Of course Tilden wrote this in 1957, and he wasn’t himself trained in the disciplines that today we acknowledge to have an influence on interpretation, such as the psychology of learning and communication theory.  His social environment also was different from what we find today: disengaged youth and the poverty gap were not concepts Tilden needed to reflect on in relation to interpretation.

However, Tilden’s definition is still the yard stick by which others measure their own understanding of interpretation. From my point of view, it is therefore worthwhile to critically examine Tilden’s definition more closely before moving on:

  • ‘An educational activity’ (1):  A recent study by the Welsh Assembly Government found that there was a generally negative reaction to the term ‘education’ [5].  People associated it with school, a place that for many held negative memories and experiences.  When working as a Training Liaison Officer in the Scottish Highlands, I encountered the same phenomena: people were weary of taking up further education because they were intimidated by the term.  To place the concept of ‘education’ at the heart of any definition of interpretation is therefore not the right starting point in my opinion.
  • ‘An educational activity’ (2): The other side of this coin is the interpreter’s attitude that this evokes.  The term ‘education’ suggests a one-way process: from the learned (the teacher) to the learner.  One knows, the other doesn’t.  However today, even schools have recognised that participatory and self-guided learning produce the best results [6].
  • ‘through the use of original objects…’: Few will dispute that encountering ‘the Thing Itself’, as Tilden called it, beats any remote experience thereof.  But we mustn’t forget that Tilden very much wrote in response to the interpretation he encountered at the time and on site.  Today, our media capabilities have far moved on, as have our spheres of reality and interaction.  I strongly feel that interpretation as a medium does not need to use nor be in sight of ‘the Thing itself’ [7].  In other words, an online activity to my mind is interpretation also.
  • ‘to reveal meanings’: I have already pointed out elsewhere that interpreters must take care not to impose their own meanings on others.  This is the danger I see in incorporating the concept of ‘meaning’ into the definition of interpretation in this fashion.  As we shall see below, it can be done much more elegantly and with added democratic ethos.

    On the positive side, I would whole-heartedly endorse Tilden’s statement that interpretation is not just the provision of factual information.

    The next definition of interpretation must come from the National Association of Interpretation who can claim to be the oldest association of interpretation worldwide.  They write:

    “Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource.” [8]

    I like several aspects of this definition:

    • ‘mission-based’: this places interpretation in the wider context of heritage management where it belongs.  It also hints at the fact that interpretation serves a purpose, and this purpose will depend on the organisation’s mission and goals.
    • ‘communication process’: by introducing the term ‘communication’ this definition acknowledges that interpretation is subject to all the laws that govern any other communication [9].  Using this term also makes the receiver visible, although in my opinion it could go even further in suggesting a two-way activity.  Finally, the term ‘process’ makes it clear that interpretation doesn’t happen in one piece: it is an ongoing event that involves the audience.
    • ’emotional’: hurrah for the acknowledgment that we value heritage not simply for its factual merit but also for the emotional meaning it has for us.
    • ‘connections’: beside the term ‘communication’ this to me is the crucial improvement on Tilden’s definition [10].  ‘Connections’ imply a lasting relationship that has been forged between the visitor and the resource.

      If recognising interpretation as a communication process has been a huge step forward from Tilden, then Sam Ham’s definition of interpretation must seem revolutionary:

      ‘Interpretation is meaning-making.‘ [11]

      Granted, this definition does not serve us well when trying to explain the benefits of interpretation to the uninitiated.  However, it encapsulates both the process and the outcome of interpretation: interpreters try to establish the meaning of a resource, they make a selection of what to relate and they strive to communicate that selection so that visitors will gain an understanding of the meaning of a resource.  To me, this definition is also an excellent reminder of the responsibility and power an interpreter holds in creating meaning.

      James Carter’s definition goes even further.  He leaves Tilden’s one-way scenario far behind and places visitors right at the heart of the experience:

      ‘At its best, interpretation is a whisper in the visitor’s ear.  It suggests ways of looking, plants seeds that may take root in the field of a visitor’s own thoughts, while leaving them free to explore for themselves.’ [12]

      Again, for the novice this definition may not provide the nuts and bolts of interpretation required to gain a quick grasp of what it is, but as far as I’m concerned, this definition goes a long way.  It highlights what I think is the mark of any good communication: it is subtle, and it recognises its own limitations.  But interpretation, of course, is not just any communication, it is communication about heritage.  And this definition underlines the fact that the visitor has as much claim to and as much freedom to connect with this heritage as the interpreter does.  We may have a few more facts and they may be important to facilitate understanding, but the ultimate experience lies with the visitors themselves.

      I should perhaps leave it at that, but there is one more definition – or rather, philosophy – of interpretation that I feel I must add.  Interpreters often talk about their own passion for heritage, and this is equally often considered to be a prime condition for becoming a good interpreter.  However, interpretation is not about us, it is about visitors and their connection with heritage.  And there is one man who has expressed this more beautifully than anyone else.  At the 2007 Vital Spark Interpretation conference in Scotland, community activist and writer Alastair McIntosh said this in his keynote speech:

      ‘That is why we need interpretation, above all, for cultural regeneration….That demands deep leadership, even eldership, from our national institutions.  We must reclaim history that tells our past and vision that tells our future.  And there is a performance indicator to be applied as the measure of all we do.  It is the only one that ever really mattered:  ‘Does it give life?” [13]


      [1] I should make it clear at this point that I think there is a time and place for definitions – and then there is a time to move beyond them.  Particularly at the early stages of establishing a discipline it is useful to mark the boundaries, both in order to distinguish it from existing but less applicable disciplines and in order to wrap it up in easy bite sizes that foster understanding in a novice audience.

      However, once the groundwork has been laid, being too precious about definitions can unnecessarily confine the development of a discipline and make it fall out of step with the evolution of the outside world.

      My final word of caution about definitions is that by their very nature they need to artificially focus on one aspect of the thing to be defined, for example the end product.  This leaves out the other aspects which are, however, equally important.

      [2] I’m not setting out to provide a historical overview, however.

      [3]  He didn’t, though, it was the US National Park Service that had interpretive programmes in place and invited Tilden, a journalist, to be the first to write about interpretation formally.  See Merriman, T. and Brochu, L. (2006) The History of Heritage Interpretation in the United States. Fort Collins: The National Association of Interpretation, p. 19

      [4] Tilden, F. (1957) Interpreting Our Heritage. 3rd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 8

      [5] Welsh Assembly Government (2010) Qualitative Research with seldom-heard groups [online]. Accessed 03/10/2010.  Here: p. 44ff.

      [6] See for example the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence.  For more evidence of this from a learning theory point of view, you may also wish to look at Jarvis P et al (2006) The theory and practice of learning, 2nd edition.  Oxon: Routledge Falmer

      [7] Unless, of course, it is on-site interpretation.  I am absolutely not advocating to erect any more panels that talk about the splendid plasterwork that is just around the corner.

      [8] National Association for Interpretation [online]. Available from: http://www.interpnet.com/about_nai/mission.shtml. [Accessed: 14/09/07]

      [9] Other organisations also use communication as an intrinsic point in their definition of interpretation.  Among these are Interpretation Canada and Interpretation Australia.

      [10] Although, in all fairness, Tilden did call for interpretation to ‘relate’ to visitors’ own experience.  In fact, this was his first principle of interpretation.  However, his is still a one-way process as I see it.

      [11] Ham, S., 2002. Keynote speech at the Scotching the Myth Conference. Edinburgh.

      [12] Carter, J (2010) ‘A Way with Words’.  Interpretation Journal Vol. 15(1), 12-13

      [13] McIntosh A. (2007)  Sparking the fire of regeneration (Keynote Speech at the Vital Spark Conference, Aviemore). Interpretation Journal Vol 12 (3), p.4/5

      5 thoughts on “What is interpretation?

      1. Hi Nicole,

        That was a nice blog entry on interpretation and showing that the field, or at least their namesake term, has opened to become more versatile and culturally responsive.



      2. I’m a little late to this blog, but I still want to thank you (Nicole) for posting it. I would have to suggest a small correction to your characterization of my advice that interpretation is meaning making. I have to say that I never intended it to be taken the way it sounds here. As readers will see in my new book, Interpretation–Making a Difference on Purpose, I think it’s impossible for interpreters to make meanings for anyone else (or to decide which meanings should be made). On the contrary, I believe only the individual is capable of making meanings inside their own heads. A skilled interpreter, like any constructivist teacher) can simply orchestrate and facilitate a process through which individuals make their own personal meanings about things. It makes plain sense that the only caring any of us is even capable of doing will be based on the meanings we ourselves make between our own two ears. This is what Tilden was telling us when he wrote those famous words: “Not instruction, but provocation.” That’s my $0.02 contribution to your excellent blog.

        Sam Ham

        1. Dear Sam,

          Thanks so much for your comment and clarification of your position on ‘meaning-making’. I will readily confess that at the time I did interpret it as ‘making meaning for someone else’, mostly because the whole introduction of ‘meaning’ rather than ‘conveying significance’ struck me (as a then newly graduated interpreter) as truly eye-opening. A few years of practical experience and PhD research later and I’m completely with you that we cannot ‘make’ meanings for others, but merely, as you write, ‘orchestrate and facilitate’. Facilitation is actually how I now ‘define’ interpretation for myself.

          I really look forward to reading your new book, and no doubt I will be blogging about it too :-).

          All the best,

          1. Thank you, Nicole. I think your blog serves an important purpose. I’ll see what I can do to help you publicize it. If at the IE conference in Sweden in June, I’ll see you there!

          2. That would be brilliant, many thanks! Yes, I’ll be in Sweden (really looking forward to it; they’ve also accepted a paper that I will present so I can’t wait to hear international views on it). See you there!

            Best wishes,

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