Interpretation is Information

Professionally speaking, I, like many interpreters, was raised on Freeman Tilden’s second principle of interpretation. It reads:

Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.’ [1]

So when I started my field research, having conversations with visitors at sites in England and Germany [2], I was a bit unsettled when what they were asking for was much more about information than Tilden’s principle ‘allows’. They most definitely wanted information. They wanted facts and markers. They wanted interpretation to state what happened, when, and where, and to physically guide them through these locations. They wanted context and importantly, they wanted balance and transparency through being given all the information available.

That came through quite strongly in Germany, where the interpretation very obviously favours one view. One respondent very angrily pointed out that the interpretation left out facts (and questions) that radically would alter the story that was presented. Others seconded this, albeit less eloquently and with less passion.

And that’s where my real issues with Tilden’s principle began. If interpretation is defined by only partly being information, then what is the other part made up of? Tilden says, of ‘revelation’. He assumes that there is a ‘complete and perfect knowledge that is concealed beyond the horizon of the perception of the senses’ [Staiff 2014, p. 37, see note 3], and interpretation ‘reveals’ this knowledge. I agree with Staiff that this assumption cannot be maintained, for one because ‘reality does not need to be conceptualized as a binary, the visible and the invisible, with the latter somehow more important in the scheme of things’ [ibid]. There is no one, ‘larger truth’, as Tilden (1977, p. 9) suggests, which interpretation can ‘reveal’. There are many truths, and they change over time.

‘Revelation based upon information’ is therefore fundamentally also about the omission of information: interpretation selects facts that will present ‘a whole’ (Tilden 1977, p.40) – we now call this ‘thematic interpretation’. And that’s exactly the practice that respondents in Germany criticised: what they were presented with was one interpretation, and they found this unsatisfactory, and in conflict with why the site was heritage to them.

And then there is of course this idea that visitors do not have, and cannot on their own make sense of information, facts, or material reality. They are seen to need the interpreter to ‘reveal’ the knowledge, supported by ‘specialists’ (Tilden 1977, p. 23). This notion of the ‘ignorance’ of visitors, as Staiff (2014, p. 37) called it, also cannot be reconciled with many findings, including my own. Most of the visitors I spoke to in my study already knew a great deal about the event and the site they were visiting, and they often engaged me in remarkable debates that ranged from the conclusiveness of archaeological evidence to the processes of identity creation [4]. They were far from ignorant [5].

So in light of the above, I want to give information much more credit [6]. In fact, I want to suggest that interpretation is precisely about information [7] – or at least, it should be. It must give the facts – all the facts, not just our selection of them. Interpretation as information acknowledges people’s heritage values, their competence, and their existing connections. It levels the playing field between visitors and interpreters and it reminds us to constantly, and critically, check our own positioning. Interpretation as information provides the balance and transparency that respondents in my study were asking for [8]. To think of interpretation as information requires a different conceptual approach, as shown above, but one that I think is urgently needed [9].


[1] Tilden, F, 1977 (3rd ed). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of Caroline Press, p. 9.

[2] In England, my case study site was 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey, and in Germany, Varusschlacht – Museum und Park Kalkriese.

[3] Staiff, R., 2014. Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation. Enchanting the Past-Future. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited

[4] As it were, I don’t think visitors need to have neither this kind of historical/scientific knowledge, nor the ability to talk as eloquently about it as many of those did with whom I spoke. But it makes the point that if that is the criteria, as it appears to often be the case in interpretation discourse, then there is plenty of evidence of visitors’ knowledge and ability.

[5] Just to point out too that this is not a question of assessing ‘prior knowledge’, and pitching interpretation accordingly. It is also not about giving visitors credit for not being stupid. The way in which we use both notions is still in support of communicating our messages. What I’m talking about here is a fundamental acknowledgement of people’s existing connections to sites, and their sovereign right to that heritage.

[6] In another interesting twist on the critique of Tilden’s principle, Staiff pointed out that, ‘information is interpretation’ (p. 39), and ‘facts…are themselves an interpretation’ (p. 38). He’s absolutely right. And not just in Tilden’s sense that ‘all interpretation includes information’. As Staiff writes, ‘To name is to interpret’ (ibid).

[7] Yes, that information has to be presented in an accessible way (as Staiff also pointed out, p. 38). But communication isn’t – or at least should not be – the distinguishing foundation of interpretation as a heritage practice. Lots of disciplines are based in communication: presenting information and messages in an accessible or persuasive way – like marketing, or journalism (it’s no surprise Tilden was a journalist). This focus on communication as the conceptual foundation for interpretation leaves out a lot of things that to me seem much more important to interpretive practice. I’m sure I’ll come back to this on this blog at some point.

[8] More research is needed to test whether my findings will be replicated at other sites.

[9] Of course, there is a lot more to this: how do we go about capturing ‘all the information’? How about the conflicts between information? And what about the differences in sites? What about those visitors whose heritage it is not, and who have no other connection to the site than having read about it in their guidebook (or worse, just having stumbled across it)? What about foreign visitors, or people that are not even on site? What does ‘information’ do to the power balance – can it really fix it? I do have some thoughts on all these questions and will surely blog about them at some point too. But I’m conscious this is a blog, not an academic monograph.

5 thoughts on “Interpretation is Information

  1. I interpret Tilden’s principle in a different way. His reference to “revelation” is precisely what opens, in my opinion, a number of different possibilities. The “larger truth” is one that embraces different truths. Interpretation, like all communication, takes two to happen. One might know nore than the other on a given subject, one might know something different than the other on a given subject, one might add something etc. The interpreter needs to assume that he/she is transmiting one version, his/her own, which can reveal different things to different people. The interpreter is most probably leaving many things out, because it is not possible to transmit all facts during a short encounter. The good interpreter will pull from the wealth of his/her knowledge on a subject the elements that might be more relevant for the other. And this takes great knowledge and talent. This is excatly what Museum Hack has been able to do. Instead of telling people “This statue is made of yellow jasper” they say “In a scale from 1 to 10, where marble is 3 and diamond is 10, yellow jasper is a solid 8”. Revelation! 🙂 So, I am very much fond of Tilden’s principle but I interpret it precisely according to the points you defend in your post.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Maria. You highlight a few further questions that need to be considered, for example the context of an interpretive encounter, the media… Personal interpretation has the luxury of facilitating a real two-way conversation, in ways that non-personal interpretation simply cannot. What I’m keen to highlight is my deep discomfort with unreflected selection of facts, the casual way in which interpretive textbooks touch on the ethical implications and then proceed to advocate selection nonetheless, very often with justifications that are dubious – like organisational mission, or conservation as an assumed moral good that is above question. I think we need much more examination of what visitors’ existing knowledge and connections mean for interpretive practice, what heritage is, and the power relationships that are at work, including within interpretation.

      On a side note, I think it would be helpful for the entire field if we could just stop referring to Tilden, arguing over how he should be ‘interpreted’ and what he meant. Sadly, he keeps popping up, and I feel obliged to respond to him, and chart how he’s been referred to throughout our discourse. But maybe I’ll grow up soon ;-). That would be nice.

  2. I agree entirely with your reasoning – but in your conclusion, I feel that you mistakenly assume that information can be complete and that it is somehow neutral. Of course, presentations of information and ‘facts’, however complete, are themselves acts of interpretation, as many have said, such as EH Carr in What is History. Then again, on the other hand, if we are entirely relativistic, we are perhaps failing to take any moral responsibility…

    1. Thanks, Maurice. Far from it though, I don’t think information can be complete or neutral, even though you’re right in pointing out that I’ve banished my thoughts on this into the end notes – including Staiff’s absolutely correct observation in response to Tilden that all information is itself an interpretation. And I’m glad you raise the point about moral responsibility too, which is something I do grapple with. I’ve blogged on numerous occasions about the moral responsibility of interpretation, and of museums – to take a stand. I think there is a place for both, information/balance and taking a stand, and in fact the clue may lie in transparency: showing where our stance comes from. I can live with that.

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