Posts Tagged ‘Freeman Tilden’

There is a tradition within interpretation that identifies having ‘love’ [1] or ‘passion’ [2] for heritage and/or for people as a desirable, if not necessary quality in interpreters. This goes beyond just a lively, engaging delivery. It is to genuinely ‘love the thing you interpret’, as well as the people who visit it [3]. For Tilden, ‘love’ was even the ‘single principle’ [4], which comes before all others.


Now, here’s my first confession: I don’t generally ‘love’ people. I ‘need’ people as an interpreter, because interpreting anything to the wind is rather pointless. But that merely makes people a necessary element of my job. And in doing my job well, I enjoy the feeling of having supported people in their personal heritage endeavour. Does that mean that I love them, with ‘understanding’ and ‘affection’ for the reasons for their ‘ignorance’ [5]? No. I simply consider it professional as an interpreter to be helpful and respectful toward people, and to not show them when I don’t like them (and yes, that happens too).


And here’s another confession: of all the places I’ve interpreted in my career to date, I can honestly say that I only ever ‘loved’ one. ‘Love’ here is my understanding of the term: as feeling deeply connected to and inspired by a place and the heritage associated with it. By ‘love’ I don’t mean Tilden’s premise that ‘love’ is the prerequisite of all possible ‘knowing’ [6] and that love is ‘reverence’ [7] – I would actually question both ideas.


Traditionalists may well suggest that I must have been a poor interpreter at all the sites I didn’t ‘love’ [8]. And it is true that for some of them, I did not care at all on a personal level. In fact, with a few I even wondered how on earth they could be heritage for anybody.


But. Interpretation is my job. I have respect for other people’s heritage. I care about doing my job well so that they, and others, can continue engaging with heritage, and take inspiration from it and each other to create and re-create heritage (or to discard it, if they so wish). If I’m passionate about anything then it’s that.


And to be honest, I actually think there’s an argument for not interpreting the heritage you’re passionate about. For example, I’ve never interpreted my own personal heritage, and I wouldn’t want to – because I know that my passion for it means it’s personal. That’s bound to either influence or hinder another person’s engagement with that heritage. They may feel overwhelmed by my obvious connection with or ‘ownership’ of that heritage, or they may sense that some lines of enquiry are less welcome than others [9].


For me, interpretation is definitely not a ‘way of life’ [10]. It’s a job that is governed by professional ways of working, and not by what I consider personal emotions like love and passion.




[1] Tilden, F. 1957/1977. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 94

[2] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002. Interpretation for the 21st century. Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd edition. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing, p. 155. See also Association for Heritage Interpretation, nd. What is interpretation? Available online: http://www.ahi.org.uk/www/about/what_is_interpretation/ [Accessed: 28.03.2016]

[3] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 90

[4] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 94

[5] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 91

[6] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 92, quoting Thomas Carlyle

[7] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 93

[8] We actually got similarly high levels of satisfaction and engagement at all the sites – independent of whether I loved them or not. For my practice, therefore, ‘love’ apparently is not a determining factor.

[9] There are arguments too for having people of a certain heritage interpret it, yes. I’ve not quite decided yet where I stand on this, and I’m not aware of comparative research on what works best for ‘visitors’ and other communities associated with that heritage (do send some my way if you do!). From personal experience, I prefer the interpreter to not be a member of one of the heritage communities, although I still think the best (personal) interpretation happens when the interpreter is a non-member facilitating or supporting the exchange between members of the heritage communities and others. A recent issue of Legacy on Interpreting Idigenous Cultures had some really good thoughts and insights around this topic.

[10] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002, p. 158

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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.

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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.

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I spent yesterday at the Battle of Hastings site [1].  They had a big event on to mark the upcoming anniversary of the battle, and at some point during the day, people laid down wreaths at the Harold Stone – the stone marking the place where King Harold is said to have fallen [2].

It made me think again about ‘place’ and interpretation.  We interpreters talk about place a lot in one way or another.  It’s usually about two things: on one hand, we’re concerned about communicating, or creating a sense of place for visitors [3], and on the other, we’re harking back to Tilden and his bit about meeting ‘the Thing Itself’, which we tend to discuss only in terms of siting panels, or getting visitors to look at something.

But place goes far deeper, and is much more complex, than simply being something we need to explain or create, or a visual focal point for an interpretive intervention.  Place is a destination, a pilgrimage, as is obvious for example from roots tourism [4]. It doesn’t even have to be a historically legitimised place in order to become a destination, as war memorials illustrate, or, for a less-obvious study, Mount Rushmore [5].  On the other hand, where historical events are concerned, people do seem to want to know where it happened, as the search for the site of the Varusschlacht in Germany shows [6].  And yet, if there is a strong enough marker at another site, both may continue side by side as a destination – historical authenticity not being all that important to visitors [7]. One reason for this may be that place isn’t so much about place at all as it is about memory and social action, as Byrne has argued [8].

So what does this mean for interpretation?  Well, first of all we need to think about the above a little more when we talk about planning, or ‘doing’ interpretation.  If place is a social action with multiple layers of meaning, then we cannot pretend that interpretation is (just, or maybe even at all?) about explaining to visitors what is special about a place [9].  In other words, we can no longer treat place as the neatly defined physical object of interpretation. It does not do to assume that ‘visitors’ come without meaning, and will not already, for example by their very act of visiting, participate in ‘narrating place’, as Byrne has called it.  For many sites, meaning, and a desire to perform place, will already exist for people – as is the case at the Battle of Hastings [10].  Some interpreters may feel that by considering prior knowledge, existing attitudes, and a whole range of other segmentations, we’re already addressing this.  But I would advise caution here: for as long as the proclaimed objective of interpretation is to ‘explain’ something, to ‘change attitudes’ and to ‘evoke support for conservation’, we’re still falling into the trap of wanting to somehow change visitors – and that, I feel, too often means disenfranchising people, disrespecting their right to their heritage, ignoring their part in creating heritage.

The above makes me think that interpretation is very much about marking place, much more so perhaps than it is about anything else – at least in some places.  If I look at what visitors tell me at Varusschlacht in Germany, for example, that’s what they say: they want interpretation to state this is the place where.  Their favourite interpretation is the recreated Germanenwall, the turf wall from behind which the Germans attacked the Romans.  And some interpreters wouldn’t even call such reconstructions interpretation! Similarly, the Harold Stone at Battle Abbey literally just states the fact: Here is where traditionally Harold is said to have fallen.  But it is arguably the focal point of the entire site.  Is it interpretation? [11]

So finally, and this is contentious even to my mind, I wonder how much interpretation as a marker of place must actually be about stating facts, giving information, and not about explaining (or revealing, as Tilden called it).  Is this where facilitation lies? The giving of facts that visitors in Germany have requested, so that they may make up their own mind?  I don’t know.  I hope as I embark on analysing my visitors interviews over the next months, I’ll get an answer.  Watch this space.


[1] 1066 Battle of Hastings and Battle Abbey is one of my research sites for my doctorate research.
[2] This wasn’t a ‘scheduled’ laying down of wreaths, so unfortunately I missed the act itself.  The notes that went with the wreaths suggest that they were put down by the re-enactment societies involved in the event.  I actually think someone should do a proper study on re-enactment societies and what they do for the people involved.  There is a scheduled wreath-laying ceremony on Monday, 14 October, the actual date of the anniversary.
[3] That is in a nutshell what the interpretive handbook ‘A Sense of Place’ sets out to do. Here, as with other definitions of interpretation, the objective is, in my own words, to foster appreciation of place so that visitors may support its conservation.  Hello Tilden again.
[4] Paul Basu’s book Highland Homecomings (Routledge, 2007) is a good read on this topic.
[5] see Pretes, M. (2003). ‘Tourism and Nationalism’ In: Annals of Tourism Research 30(1), pp. 125-142.
[6] see for example Henige, D. (2007). ‘”This is the place”: putting the past on the map.’ In: Journal of Historical Geography 33, pp. 237-253
[7] see for example Hoffman, D. (1994). ‘Der Teutoburger Wald und andere Orte der Erinnerung.’ In: Fansa, M. (1994). Varusschlacht und Germanenmythus: eine Vortragsreihe anlaesllich der Sonderausstellung Kalkriese – Roemer im Osnabruecker Land in Oldenburg. Oldenburg: Staatliches Museum fuer Naturkunde und Vorgeschichte Oldenburg, pp. 87-107
[8] Byrne, D. (2008). ‘Heritage as Social Action’. In: Fairclough, G. (2008). The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 149-173
[9] This being the definition used in the above cited ‘A Sense of Place’ handbook.  Variations of this definition can be found in all definitions by our professional organisations, and the classic interpretation literature.
[10] There is a discussion to be had about where that meaning comes from.  School education is certainly one aspect, which comes through very strongly at the Battle of Hastings.  But there’s also something else, for at Culloden Battlefield, and indeed at Varusschlacht, there is a public association with the site that is in direct opposition to what has been taught at school.  This is interesting, but outside of my study, so for the moment I’m not aware of any studies that have been done on this.  I expect it’s something around public memory.
[11] Before you say it: yes, the rest of the provision, from the sheer tourist sign along the motorway to the café and finally the exhibition, also play a role.  What kind of role I haven’t established yet, and may not be able to either in my research, the focus being on something else.

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I spent the start of this week in Pisa at the annual Interpret Europe Conference.  Possibly the greatest inspiration that I took from it was the forming of a group of like-minded professionals with an interest in ‘closing the gap’.  Talking to each other, we found that there is a discrepancy between how interpretation is currently presented from within the field, and what many of us are asked to do in our professional roles.

Like myself, many of these colleagues are having to use their interpretive skills for projects that go far beyond interpretive planning and implementing an exhibition or trail.  As one Australian consultant reported of a recent project, the client didn’t just want an interpretive plan.  They wanted public outcomes, processes, and engagement.  In Scotland, the Centre for Interpretation Studies encounters similar demands, especially from Local Authorities.  Here, heritage is seen as a means to deliver policy outcomes such as increasing community capacity or providing routes into learning for young people.

All of these activities fall outside the traditional view of interpretation.  Interpretation is no longer asked to merely provide an explanation in the form of a media solution.  Traditional interpretive outputs such as panels become much rarer in what is required by clients.

And yet, our discourse doesn’t reflect this.  In many ways, the conference, while truly enjoyable, provided a good example for this.  The opening keynote speech argued in favour of interpretation as an end in itself based on Freeman Tilden [1].  While it included an interesting discussion of the discipline’s philosophical connection to Humanism and the enlightenment, the sheer fact that we still open interpretation conferences by quoting a writer of more than fifty years ago shows a worrying degree of orientation to the past.  It also shows an obsession with defining what interpretation is, based on parameters that are no longer relevant for present circumstances.

This in particular seems something of an issue with many practitioners.  When in one presentation the suggestion was made that interpretation is also marketing I felt a noticeable unease sweep through the audience.  But why?  Why are we so precious about not wanting to associate interpretation with marketing, for example? I suspect the closing keynote of the conference contained some clues to this conundrum.  The speech was filled with immensely inspiring and motivational quotes about what interpretation and interpreters do: we care, we share passion, we protect what cannot be replaced.  Don’t get me wrong: I subscribe to all of these.  And yet, is it this moral definition of our work that makes us look with disdain onto more practical effects, such as marketing?

It seems to me that as a discipline we cannot afford such ivory-tower thinking.  In practice, what interpreters are asked to do, and what we want to do more of, is to provide a comprehensive ‘product’ that unlocks the practical potential of heritage.  I don’t think that in order to achieve this we should ditch the term interpretation (I wrote a little about this here).  But what we need to do is to widen its application.  Only then will we be able to present the picture of a strong, responsive and more importantly, relevant discipline that is crucial to delivering outcomes from heritage.

Alas, it is this discourse that this new informal group wishes to move forward. I can’t wait to see the discussions start.


[1] I’ve already explained here why I think we need to move beyond Tilden.

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During my readings I have come across this interesting quote by West and McKellar [1]:

‘By definition, interpretation as a heritage practice is a western discourse that has become necessary because official heritage has become disconnected from everyday understandings.’

It is a statement worth thinking about in greater depth.  Most interpreters would readily agree that the primary purpose of their work is to help people ‘understand’ a site.  It is such a worthy cause that I have never actually heard or read it questioned at interpretation conferences, in interpretation books or in interpretation articles.  Indeed, more often than not, when pressed for a definition of interpretation, practitioners still quote Freeman Tilden’s famous principles: to interpret is to ‘reveal’ the meaning of a site to visitors and to ‘relate’ it to their own lives.  The former assumes that people don’t recognise the true importance of a site without assistance, while the latter believes that the site has nothing to do with people’s lives to begin with.

If it’s heritage interpretation we’re talking about, one question immediately jumps out at me: if it’s their heritage, why should people need interpretation to understand it and relate to it?  Isn’t heritage heritage precisely because it means something to people and it is an intrinsic part of their lives? [2]

The next issue arising from Tilden is one of hegemonic meaning: are we really suggesting that there is only one meaning to a site, and we alone have it ready to be imparted to those not in the know?

What lies underneath Tilden’s definition of interpretation shares many characteristics with what West and McKellar criticise as ‘official heritage’ in the above quote.  ‘Official heritage’ is heritage prescribed by experts.  It is categorized, labelled, protected and managed, denying anyone else’s ability to appropriately understand and care for it.  In this theoretical framework interpretation indeed becomes necessary to educate the masses.

Of course, like West and McKellar, other writers have also criticised the expert claim to heritage for some time [3].  In short, they want to see a community’s heritage values placed back at the core of heritage assessments and management.  Heritage begins and ends with the communities whose heritage it is.  Heritage can change, it is in constant flux, and everyone can participate in it.

Once heritage is seen in this light, interpretation can also no longer be taken as ensuring people gain the right understanding.  Indeed, I have argued for some time that interpretation itself is part of a social process.  We know that visitors bring all sorts of experiences and knowledge to a site which shape what they take from it [4].  Interpretation is only part of that engagement.  As a practice it should serve as facilitator: not conveying the truth, but enabling everyone at a site to find their own truth and establish their own relationship with it.


[1] West, S. and McKellar, E., 2010.  Interpretation of heritage. In: West, S (ed), 2010. Understanding heritage in practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 166 – 204, here: p. 198

[2] see for example Millar, S. (1999) ‘An Overview of the Sector.’ In Heritage Visitor Attractions.  An Operations Management Perspective. Ed by Leask, A., Yeoman, J. London: Cassel

[3] for example Waterton, E. (2005) ‘Whose Sense of Place? Reconciling Archaeological perspectives with Community Values: Cultural Landscapes in England.’ International Jounral of Heritage Studies 11, (4) 309 – 325

[4] for example Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (2000) Learning from Museums.  Visitor Experiences and the making of meaning. Lanham: Altamira Press

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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

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      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.

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