Our task in this group is to look anew at a well-known, oft-cited text: Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage (1957). Tilden’s guidebook has served as an important first draft of interpretive principles for many working in the field of interpretation in the United States. This group convened to consider whether these ideas are still relevant and what repairs are now required. Rather than focus on specific principles, this case statement considers two essential concepts critical to both Tilden and the craft of interpretation: authority and dialogue.

Whether one’s copy of Tilden is easily found on the shelf, dog-eared and well-read, or it has long ago been discarded, this name alone remains evocative for many interpreters (historical or otherwise).[1] A working interpreter may have only a fuzzy recall of Tilden’s principles, but they are sure to know Tilden on some level. Unlike other authors and texts in the field, Tilden has taken on an almost mythical role as subsequent interpreters endlessly copy and paste his ideas. Tilden’s powerful, omniscient authorial voice in Interpreting Our Heritage might partially explain why his writing still prevails. In a period when interpreters are often told not to be “the sage on the stage,” perhaps Tilden’s confidence and status are especially alluring.[2]

Interpreters tend to be critical people, and yet Tilden also presents interpretation as a rather blissful experience. At various points, Tilden calls interpreters ‘middlemen of happiness’ and refers to visitors as “happy amateurs.” Of course, there is something profound about the joy that can be sparked through interpretation. But Tilden’s polished prose can lull the reader into an idyllic vision of interpretation as a blissful exchange. When done well, the energy of an interpretive program is unlike other experiences that the intellectually curious tend to seek out in life. It is not the same as a lecture, or a debate; being part of interpretation should not feel like being in a classroom. An interpretive program is something altogether different, largely because of the delicate interplay of authority between the person or persons doing the interpreting and those who are there to experience it. First-time readers might find this authoritative text rather lacking when it comes to bigger questions about the power and authority of the interpreter.

When he first wrote his principles, public history as such did not exist; the degree creep and extensive professionalization of the field would come later. Thus, the bar for entry in the field of interpretation more generally was both lower, in terms of formal training, and more discriminatory, in terms of access to the profession and higher education more broadly in Tilden’s time.[3] Though they have generally received more formal education in both subject disciplines and interpretation itself, many interpreters working now do not find authority as easy to come by as Tilden suggests.[4] An unacknowledged but critical element of authority in Tilden’s worldview can be attributed to the fact that heritage sites in his time were the domain of a homogenous workforce and visitation pool.[5] To a degree, establishing one’s authority is something that can and should happen during a program, but it would be unwise today to ignore that other identity politics are involved in how people listen and converse. Before one can be seen as an interpreter, one must first be believed, and that kind of cultural capital is not automatic in our society.

Interpreters today may also take issue with the notion of the visitor as “happy amateur,” especially in relation to programs on complex and difficult topics.[6] Striving to only tell an amiable story about the past to a group “in love” with the history is not typically in service to the broader mission of interpreting a site.[7] Tilden wrote Interpreting Our Heritage at a time when struggles over global wars and domestic civil rights saturated daily papers. Reading his guide now, it is evident that Tilden saw the “happy” Civil War visitor (to take just one example) as coming to a heritage site to escape such conversations, not to engage in them. This in turn explains the more “pleasant,” if potentially superficial gloss that can be found in some parts of Tilden’s writing about interpretive programs. It is possible now to see almost a hint of a disdain in this conception of visitors.

Today, interpreters are more often trained to acknowledge and understand that each visitor brings not only a perspective but their own knowledge.  It is notable, then, that the word dialogue never appears in Tilden’s guidebook. He explains that a visitor “does not so much wish to be talked at as to be talked with.” However, “this is not directly possible. It cannot be a round-table conversation.”[8] Many interpreters (and particularly those trained to do facilitated dialogue) might find this terse conclusion surprising. Tilden took for granted the general authority of the interpreter to speak and suggests here that dialogic practice was unnecessary and impractical. Though public history practitioners often have to work rather diligently to secure their places as experts and authority figures, many are far more inclined to share their speaking space and to do precisely what he advocates against in creating round-table discussions. A genuine respect for another person’s expertise, however it is obtained, is far more useful than a patronizing view of a visitor’s passion for a subject. This, too, may be a reflection of how the world has changed since Tilden first wrote. Groups that previously were disenfranchised and experienced segregation from cultural heritage may be more inclined toward democratic inclusivity.

These matters of authority and dialogue are bound up in one another in a kind of tangled web.  Along with honoring what each visitor brings to a discussion, it is critical to remember the importance of content. Most reading Tilden today would likely still agree with his notion that “Information, as such, is not Interpretation.” Contemporary visitors do tend to want “revelation” more than information, the latter of which can often be found rather easily almost anywhere else. In response, the turn toward “audience-centered” techniques has left some practitioners embracing technique perhaps to the detriment of knowing the content. One need not pore over endless documents with information, but a deep and rich understanding of the material remains essential to good interpretation. At many institutions, there has been a push toward a messier view of truth and a focus on learning with and from various publics. These are essential practices, but so too is the work that earns one the authority to stand as an interpreter. Without glorifying the position of the interpreter as a font of knowledge, it is imperative that the interpreter know what they are talking about, particularly as we embark on more complex programs centered on dialogue.

This initiative came about in part because of a respect for the lasting authority of Tilden’s principles and in a way, from a desire to be in conversation with a model in the field. Without advocating that we throw Tilden or any other early leaders in the field into the dustbin of history, it seems as good a time as any to suggest a far more wide-ranging set of models. It is significant that the near-deification of Tilden has taken place along with the glorification of figures such as John Muir, whose racism has been deliberately minimized in favor of his romantic views of nature.[9] Yet with these and many other figures, the context in which they wrote matters and ought to shape how we read their principles. In recent years, many public historians have worked ardently to point to the ways that various monuments, forms of heritage tourism, and public lands were tied to white supremacy. This internal professional story is one that we all must continue to grapple with–not as ‘middlemen of happiness’ but as figures with some authority who still have much to learn. If interpretation is an art, as Tilden suggests, then we are right to question the authority of the maker. In the end, is that not what all good interpreters do?

Allison Horrocks, Ph.D. is a public historian who works as a Park Ranger at Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, MA. Since answering a local newspaper advertisement seeking  volunteer guides more than a decade ago, Allison has worked as an interpreter in a range of historical sites and house museums. Her primary areas of interest are women’s history, education, and public service. In addition to her work with the National Park Service, Allison has been involved with a range of local historical projects, including lecturing at teachers’ workshops, creating a women’s history trail, and in 2017, curating an exhibition on agriculture and the homefront during World War I.

[1] See also Larry Beck and Ted T. Cable, Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture (Champaign: Sagamore Publishing, 1998).

[2] This phrasing is used in interpretation and higher education, where there have been parallel shifts toward “student-centered” and “audience-centered” techniques for learning. See Alison King, “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side,” College Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Winter 1993), 30-35.

[3]  Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006).

[4] Any Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[5] Glenn Nelson, ‘‘Why Are Our Parks So White?’’ New York Times, July 10, 2015. Important research on the origins of many parks and historic sites shows that early laborers were more diverse than many assume. See, for example: Agnes Constante, “How a Chinese cook helped establish Yosemite and the National Park Service,” NBC News Online, July 22, 2018.

[6] Carl L. Becker, Everyman His Own Historian (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1966).

[7] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017).

[8]  Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 36.

[9]  Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2006).