From Snowden to Dogsbodies: How much ‘relate’ is needed to make good interpretation?

When I reviewed the visitor interviews I did last year for my PhD research, I was amazed at the wide associations visitors made.  They talk about Edward Snowden, the attack on Lee Rigby, the experience of getting chased by a local gamekeeper for collecting nuts in a wood just after the Second World War.  They talk about Iraq, class society, making ends meet, and asylum.

Visitors make these connections in response to events that happened more than 2000 years and nearly 950 years ago, respectively.  More interestingly, the interpretation at both sites does not suggest these connections to them, or any others, for that matter.

This made me think about the ‘relate’ principle that is still the foundation stone of much interpretive practice.  Just to remind you:

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. [1]

For Tilden this was an active ‘relate’: the interpretation has to do something.  His examples are of directly addressing the visitor and her location, as in, ‘The chances are that [prehistoric mammoths] browsed right where you are standing now’ [2].  Since then, addressing the visitor has been one of the key criteria interpreters discuss when they talk about ‘what makes good interpretation’.  Many interpreters will also propose additional practices, such as comparing something old to something modern, as in,  ‘this old thing here is like this thing in (your) modern life’.

However, at neither of my case study sites does the interpretation really make use of this ‘relate’ principle.  The audio guide at Battle Abbey does not address the visitor beyond telling them where to move next.  And yet, it is the most mentioned interpretive device when visitors talk about what helped them connect with the site [my words], along with touching and lifting the weaponry.  Marking place, as I’ve written elsewhere, indeed emerges as immensely important to visitors when it comes to interpretation, and what’s offered, especially at Battle Abbey, is, apparently, perfect: but it doesn’t say ‘where you stand now’, it just literally says, ‘here’ [3].

Tilden’s principle, in theory, predicts that the interpretation therefore is ‘sterile’, and visitors are not able to make connections.  And yet the opposite seems to be the case in my research.  Not only are visitors making wide associations, at Battle Abbey in particular they also make very strong claims on the heritage and its physical site: this is our heritage, our history, our identity.

Of course, there are other factors that may enable these associations, and these still require further examination.   I will share one thought, though: perhaps Tilden, despite his caution to interpreters, himself underestimated the power of visitors’ ability to make connections for themselves. In addition, it may be altogether more sustainable and more inclusive not to suggest to visitors how they should relate to what they see.  As we are expected to make heritage more widely accessible, it seems rather shortsighted to arbitrarily pick a few connections out of the many that are possible and inscribe them into our (permanent) interpretation.  What may be meaningful in one way to one visitor may be meaningful in a completely different way to another– or indeed it may be entirely irrelevant. What visitors’ comments in my research seem to suggest is that other factors, such as presenting a balanced view and using simple language, are more important in helping them connect to a site and make wide associations, or, in Tilden’s terms, to ‘relate’ [4].

[1] Tilden, F., 1957.  Interpreting Our Heritage.  3rd edition.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, p. 9
[2] ibid, p. 13.  The emphasis is mine after Tilden’s own highlighting of these two terms on the following page.
[3] And then proceeds to do a dramatization of what happened ‘here’, accompanied by a very lively, conversational, yet authoritative and balanced commentary.  What this may suggest is that there are other factors at work that make the interpretation successful if measured by connections made.
[4] And note the shift here in who is active in doing the ‘relating’: the visitor, not the interpretation.  Important point, if you ask me.


8 thoughts on “From Snowden to Dogsbodies: How much ‘relate’ is needed to make good interpretation?

  1. Using the simpler language possible is something everyone doing this line of work learn the first week of his job. Something Tilden maybe was not aware of, reading his book.

    1. Hello Guido,

      I imagine what Tilden wrote in his chapter ‘The Story’s The Thing’ is his observation of how to make content accessible, including through simple language – only he doesn’t call it that and he doesn’t elaborate. That’s great that you find in Italy, is it, people learn to use simple language in interpretation on their first day on the job. I’m afraid both the UK, and Germany in particular, are still littered with interpretive panels, leaflets, and guidebooks that are just too complicated for anyone but an expert to make sense of them.


  2. I believe the relevance factor becomes more essential depending on what you’re interpreting. Many visitors already come to Battle Abbey with a sense of the importance of the Battle of Hastings, and they may have already thought about how their lives today could be different because of what happened there. But when I interpret the traditional agriculture of the Hidatsa tribe to visitors at the North Dakota Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, most visitors have little to no idea who the Hidatsas are, and many have little connection to agriculture outside of the food they eat. Therefore I do use self referencing quite often. (“Have you ever seen Great Northern Beans in the supermarket? Those were originally bred by Hidatsa women,” or “Just like how we today might appreciate the different flavors of Riesling, Burgundy, or Merlot grapes in our wines, Hidatsas appreciated the different flavors of their many corn varieties.”)

    And actually, I’d be very interested to experience the audio guide at Battle Abbey, because I bet it does mention powerful concepts that all humans can relate to, such as fear for your survival, hatred of “the other,” physical exhaustion or pain, defeat, exhilaration, and so on–what I think Beck and Cable call “universal intangibles.” The fact that your visitors went on to associate what they experienced at Battle Abbey with events in their own lives might suggest that those universal intangibles helped them link and personalize those experiences with essential parts of their own lives, helping them form a relationship with the site, its interpreters, and its stories.

    1. Hi Robert,

      You’re quite right that visitors’ pre-existing relationship with a site is one of those factors that are likely to have an impact on how much active ‘relating’ is required to make interpretation ‘good’. The main point of my observation is really that it seems that ‘relate’ on its own cannot serve as a criteria for ‘good’ interpretation.

      As for actively mentioning ‘universal intangibles’ – no, actually the audio guide at Battle Abbey doesn’t specifically do that either. What it does do, and excellently so, is draw visitors into a story. It’s very much a step by step, dramatized account of what happened, complete with battle sounds, and visitors seem to really appreciate that it combines factual neutrality with a simple, exciting, and narrative format. That is not to say that they don’t use means to help visitors further emphathise with the event, but they do so within the historical context, i.e. (I don’t have the exact wording to hand right now) something like ‘7000 men died, as many as would have lived in a large town at the time’. Anyway, it seems to work very well for visitors, just as I am sure that in the context of your site your level of actively relating the Hidatsa history to visitors’ modern frames of reference is just what they need. It sounds like an intriguing place and if I’m ever in the area I’ll certainly stop by.

      Happy interpreting,

  3. Very interesting reading the comments on this post.

    I’ll only add that I completely agree with Nicole’s critique of the kind of “bumper-sticker” Tildenism that would create a “theory” of interpretation from a single sentence taken out-of-context from a much larger and more nuanced book!

    In “Interpreting Our Heritage” (Chapter 2) Tilden explicitly shows how “relating” need not involve addressing the visitor directly with “you” language. In fact, Tilden warns that direct address “you” language should not be “overworked”, and “would become offensive” if it was. Tilden writes: “There are plenty of ways to effect the same end.”

    He then demonstrates with the example of an exhibit text at a historic site that does not directly address the visitor at all — the text is a reproduction of a historic document — a telegram, sent announcing the birth of (future) President Roosevelt in the room where the visitors are standing. This choice of using a historic text facilitates “relating” not by directly telling the visitor how to relate to the site (a historic family telegram does not acknowledge the existence of future history tourists), but by offering intrinsically expressive content which (Tilden believes) visitors themselves are likely to generate their own connection with, due to the widely shared human experience of excitement over a new birth.

    Tilden’s points: (1) that visitors can relate themselves directly to historic content, and (2) that “interpretation” can exist in the choice of what to display (all historic documents and artifacts are not equally relate-able to a non-specialist, and interpreters should consider this carefully to avoid a sterile, un-relate-able display).

    Those points may not fit in “bumper-sticker” Tildenism, but that’s why I’d say the most common “interpretations” of Tilden have failed to capture the real man’s work.

    1. Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for your insightful comment. I think the issue with Tilden’s legacy is how it’s been treated by the field. He was a pioneer, one of the first to sit down and write something like a philosophy and theory of interpretation (the NPS had done some of that already but not, to my knowledge, published it widely). He challenged those that come after him to keep working on this, being very aware that his was just a first step, as he wrote. Instead, the field has taken him literally in so many ways, although he – as you rightly point out – modified himself what he’d written elsewhere in the book. I’ve come to appreciate Tilden more as I’ve gone back to carefully re-read IOH, but my critique of uncritically quoting him in the field remains the same – in either direction.


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