I do not share the widespread veneration of Freeman Tilden’s principles of interpretation as timeless truths. Their uncritical embrace over the past 60 years as an almost mystical or magical practice seems to me one of the biggest problems the National Park Service has in its public history work.

Tilden’s work contains some useful ideas, but they do not merit or benefit from the romantic trappings in which he swathes them. Rather than being the unique property of The Interpreter, many are actually quite simple, and have been employed independently by professionals from various backgrounds.

In my view, there are about a half-dozen of these notions–three concerning programs and presentations, and three relating to visitor experience:

  • Programs and presentations
    • should be responsive to visitor interests and needs.
    • must be appropriately scaled in terms of time and level of detail, and interpretive media should be simple, reliable, and easy to use.
    • should have a clear thesis or organizing idea
  • Visitor experience:
    • Inviting visitors to imagine how they might behave in historical situations opens up the past in a new way.
    • There is value in learning at historical places, with historical objects and activities.
    • “Provocation” — sparking a visitor’s interest in learning more or doing something later — is a worthy goal of a public history encounter.

Beyond those ideas, Tilden’s formulation seems very much a product (and indeed, captive) of a certain time and perspective. Like any other foundational text, Interpreting Our Heritage should not be canonized and sacralized, but rather contextualized, analyzed, and critiqued. A “higher criticism” is required, and long overdue. Indeed, efforts to modernize, diversify, and repair the Park Service’s historical interpretive project could do far worse than start with taking a hard look at Tilden’s abiding influence.

To my mind, the problems with Tilden cohere primarily within a handful of untested assertions and assumptions (about universal truths, essences, “the soul of things,” “the whole man,” etc.) woven and repeated throughout the work than they do around the six long-canonized “principles.”

These assertions and assumptions can no longer be sustained if the parks are to be relevant to 21st century audiences. The most troubling of them are:

An assertion that parks exhibit a stable, static, essentialized Thing:

Tilden asserts (chapter 1) that a park presents the Thing itself. “Ideal interpretation,” he goes on (chapter 9) implies, “re-creation of the past, and kinship with it.” And yet, every single National Park site has been fundamentally shaped and reshaped by the actions, over time, of (among others) the National Park Service. Every park is a palimpsest, a conscious and evolving creation, hence a construction. Many (e.g., the Lincoln Birthplace) are outright fabrications, while others came into being based on now discredited information or ideas that are no longer widely shared. Often it is impossible to determine what the “Thing” might be, altered or buried as it is under accreted layers of history that include NPS action.

It does not serve visitors to urge them to understand whatever they are seeing as an unaltered artifact of the past, preserved and presented in a supposed transparent box that is “the park.” Such a standpoint does not encourage (much needed) NPS self-reflection about its own role in historical interpretation. It does not allow an interpreter to account for multiple, layered, or contested meanings at sites. It does not allow honest confrontation of  myths and fabrications. If we assume that there is a stable Thing, it becomes very difficult to talk about how history works at these sites–how the inevitably complicated processes of preservation and destruction, of amplifying and silencing, have produced any site we visit.

An assumption (not always stated, but nevertheless persistent) that the value of parks is primarily to convey American greatness or inspire American patriotism.  

Tilden refers to parks as “shrines” and “treasures,” or “precious monuments of our wise and heroic ancestors” (chapter 5). In chapter 9, he speaks of parks as “places that have been made famous and treasurable by the acts of men and women, where the story is told of courage and self-sacrifice, of dauntless patriotism, of statesmanship and inventive genius, of folkways, of husbandry or of the clash of armed men following their ideals to the valley of the shadow.” He goes on: “An enduring sense of the heritage from our fathers is vital to the future, and this knowledge is to be gained by keeping the past a living reality. There is strength.” The Park System, he notes (chapter 15, “Vistas of Beauty”) “includes scores of historic memorials, the truest interpretation of which is . . .  that our country has possessed men and women of great moral beauty.”

Tilden’s historical parks reflect, moreover, a “great white man” view of historical significance; they are imagined to be places where admirable white men did inspiring things. As Tilden describes it, for example (chapter 6), the (fabricated) Washington birthplace conveys “the staunch character of our hero.” This view is hardly surprising, given Tilden’s elite background and the fact that his work was completed during the Cold War/Mission 66 era.  As a recent thesis about the NPS’s Division of International Affairs (established in 1961) shows, the NPS was at this time engaged in an explicitly patriotic or nationalistic project — of which Tilden’s philosophy can be understood as a key element.

Certainly, Tilden’s assertions about the values that parks reflect is out of step with a post-social history era, and a park system that now includes a much more diverse array sites and histories, such as Manzanar, Sand Creek, Andersonville, Antietam, the African Burial Ground, or Johnstown Flood. Sites of national error, one might call them. Even sites like De Soto that came into the system as “shrines” to Euro-American greatness now must now take account of the calamity that Spanish exploration represented for native American peoples.

Any formulation that assumes that NPS historical sites must impart lessons of “moral beauty,” national noble purpose, or transcendent (American) values is ill-equipped to invite visitors to critically consider the full, sobering realities of American history and reach their own conclusions about what they mean for diverse populations.

Projection of a priestlike Interpreter whose role is to “reveal” the meaning of the Thing, defined in chapter 1 as “a larger truth.”

Tilden makes interpretation into an almost religious activity. Among other problems, this sets up an unequal relationship between visitor and interpreter, as the Interpreter is imagined to have almost magical or clerical powers to lead the visitor (parishioner) to some kind of transcendent “truth.” This is unjustified and untenable given the wildly different training, skill, knowledge and perspective among those working in “interpretation.” It also runs counter to a “shared authority” model of historical encounter, in which interpreters and visitors both bring knowledge and engage in a dialogue. The emphasis on “revelation” of “truth” also discourages introducing the messiness of history with its uncertainty, confusion, and multiple perspectives, interpretations, and meaning(s).

A very limited vision of the park visitor and a narrow range of desired visitor responses (either reinforced patriotism or commitment to resource “protection”) to what they learn in parks.  

Tilden’s modal visitor is a white male drawn to parks to associate himself with national greatness and heroism. Tilden’s Interpreter/priests are said to be the “middlemen of happiness” (chapter 2) as they help humble visitors associate with glorious pasts. And when those visitors experience “adequate interpretation,” they go on to value “the very preservation of the treasure itself” (chapter 5).

And yet, with the developed diversity of 400+ parks, park preservation and protection cannot and should not be the only legitimate outcomes of effective interpretation. Diverse sites will provoke diverse responses among diverse audiences. How should visitors react to sites that reflect conflict, exclusion, tragedy, or death? They might go home feeling pain, shame, anger, or confusion. Why might a Native American visitor who learns more about Mt. Rushmore not be moved to deface rather than preserve it? Visitors encountering stories of civil rights activism (Selma to Montgomery, Birmingham Civil Rights) might be nudged toward park protection, but could equally legitimately be moved to stand against voter suppression or police brutality.

Articulating an inspiring and relevant public purpose for national parks that engage many contemporary issues must connect people to those issues, not just inspire them to protect parks as immutable Things. Tilden’s formulation (described as a straight line from interpretation to understanding to appreciation to protection, p. 65) leaves little space for social justice-related missions or outcomes. It makes park protection an end unto itself.

An overweening emphasis on “the story”

In my own work with NPS, I have observed that the “story” focus for interpretation (which Tilden includes in his principle 3 regarding the “art” of interpretation) can be used to blunt interpretation’s analytical range. It can rob historical accounts of their complexity and ability to analyze structures of power, exploitation, systemic racism, or many other topics pertinent to many sites. Not every important history reduces readily to entertaining or cohesive singular/individual narrative, and the glorification within NPS of the “skilled raconteur” (p. 57) has (among other problems) perpetuated the ascendancy of the male military historian telling tales of the battlefield in place of big-picture explorations of social phenomena like racism, slavery or labor violence.

Insistence that “interpretation is interpretation anywhere, anytime” (chapter 5) and “the nature of what is being shown and illuminated makes no difference” (63).  

This anti-intellectual, a-(or even anti-) historical notion has resulted in the ascendancy of technique-focused Interpreters over historians or other research or subject specialists, who are portrayed again and again as presenting “a high tide of facts” at once “perfectly accurate, [and] perfectly ineffectual” (64) at stirring visitor interest. Christopher Crittenden’s introduction to the the original edition of Tilden’s work explicitly denigrated scholarly historians, and his anti-intellectual bias has persisted within NPS in the history-interpretation divide that our team explored in Imperiled Promise (2011). There is simply no reason that a knowledgeable historian cannot use what she knows to spark visitor interest, and there is an at least even chance that she might do it better than some Interpreters.

In place of Tilden I would offer a philosophy for park historical work grounded in the following key actions, initially articulated in Imperiled Promise. Tilden’s philosophy does not mesh well with them, but I urge that it is high time that they be considered in relation to his ideas and the larger public history mission of the National Park Service:

  • Expand interpretive frames beyond existing physical resources.
  • Emphasize connections of parks with the larger histories beyond their boundaries.
  • Highlight the effects of human activity on “natural” areas.
  • Acknowledge that history is dynamic and always unfinished.
  • Recognize the NPS’s role in shaping every park’s history.
  • Attend to the roles of memory and memorialization at historic sites.
  • Highlight the open-endedness of the past.
  • Forthrightly address conflict and controversy both in and about the past.
  • Welcome contested and evolving understandings of American civic heritage.
  • Envision “doing history” as a means of skills development for civic participation.
  • Share authority with and take knowledge from the public.
  • Better connect with the rest of the history profession and embrace interdisciplinary collaboration.

Freeman Tilden’s time has come and gone. For the sake of the parks, and more importantly, for the sake of visitors’ lives and a just and equitable society, it is time for a less romantic, less religious, less nationalistic, more critical and clear-eyed approach to public history work in the National Parks.

Note: Page numbers and quotations are drawn from Interpreting Our Heritage, fourth edition, UNC Press, 2007.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant is a professional historian whose teaching, research, speaking, consulting, and writing focus on public history, digital and geospatial history, and the history of the U.S. National Parks. As of 2018, she is a public historian in private practice, working with her husband husband David Whisnant as co-principal of the public history consulting firm Primary Source History Services, based in Chapel Hill, NC. She was previously employed as a faculty member and administrator at East Carolina University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Whisnant received her Ph.D. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997 and in 2006 published Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History. She is scholarly adviser for Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway, an online history collection developed collaboratively with the Park Service and the UNC Libraries. For ten years, she has taught UNC’s Introduction to Public History course, in which her students have developed a number of digital exhibits related to Blue Ridge Parkway and university history. As a consultant, Dr. Whisnant has been the co-principal historian on several National Park Service projects, with two more presently underway. From 2008-12, she chaired a task force commissioned by the Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service to study historical practice within the Park Service. The resulting report, Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, won the 2013 Excellence in Consulting Award from the National Council on Public History and is helping set a vision for future NPS historical work.