Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage, first published in 1957 by the University of North Carolina Press, is a prominent foundation document for professional interpreters. But while important works of history from the 1950s, such as Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform (1955) or Arthur Schlesinger’s The Coming of the New Deal (1959) are read and taught more as historiographic markers, it seems that Tilden’s work is still revered, with his six principles of interpretation regarded as just as valuable today as they were more than sixty years ago. To me, this makes it seems as though interpretation, a field with a confusing name that can easily make one think of linguistics and limited visibility in the academy, is stuck in a time warp, worshipping at the temple of “St. Freeman” instead of critically engaging his work. That work has value, but it is a product of its time and should not be accepted uncritically.
Tilden has no significant role in my work as a historian. No professor assigned Interpreting Our Heritage in either my undergraduate or graduate career, and the influential volumes on my bookshelves are generally the products of historians of different peoples and periods. Tilden was not remotely in mind when I wrote my book on the Wright Company (published by Ohio University Press in 2014). Though my father, a retired NPS employee, received the old Mid-Atlantic Region’s Tilden award in the early 1980s and I still encounter the print of Tilden that he was awarded hanging in my parents’ house, I professionally encountered Tilden’s work only after I began working for the National Park Service in 2001 by attending an introductory interpretive methods class. That introduction provided insight into how the NPS prefers its employees approach visitor contacts, but as a historian who works behind the scenes, I rarely have had the opportunity apply its teachings and only vaguely recall the course material.
Tilden’s principles strike me as a combination of the obvious and the debatable. Any presentation of any information in any setting is “interpretation.” Historians “interpret” source materials in publications and presentations; they choose what to include and what to leave out. And perhaps Tilden’s sixth principle about interpretation and children is so ingrained today that my reaction is “of course one deals with children differently than with adults.” But that is not unique to interpretation; a presentation of any sort should be tailored to the intended audience. Tilden’s fourth principle, which claims that interpretation’s chief goal is provocation strikes me as misguided; understanding a topic and the reasons that it is worthy of interpretation of any sort takes precedence over provocation, and it is understanding that would replace provocation in my version of Tilden’s list. The “why” of history does not seem to be something valued by Tilden. Demonstrations are nice, but are sterile without understanding why what is being demonstrated was something that was done in the first place. Tilden believed that provocation led to resource protection, but understanding is a calmer route to the same destination.
Tilden’s assumption that interpreted sites commemorate some sort of natural or cultural “beauty” is especially disturbing. Many resources that are significant and worthy of commemoration are not beautiful. There was no beauty in the battle of Gettysburg, a noisy, destructive, smelly, bloody mess. The Sand Creek massacre was just that. Dachau and Auschwitz are not remembered for their beauty – and those providing helping visitors understand them do not have to be in love with the story being told (such love does not pay bills); they merely need to find it worthy of telling, worthy of being understood by more and more people. His beliefs that site visitors are “wonderfully well-mannered” and are “little people” paying homage to “big people” are odd and insulting.
There is no need to cleave “public” historians from the rest of the field of history. All historians should try to produce inclusive, equitable, and accurate representations of the past, regardless of method or audience. Even when discussing a topic at an elementary level to those with little previous knowledge, a historian needs to provide sufficient context to help create an understanding of the interconnectedness that flows through history. By using as broad a base of primary and secondary sources as possible, by providing the necessary context, by recognizing and mitigating personal limitations, and by knowing one’s audience as well as possible, a historian should be able to promote inclusive, equitable, and accurate historical representations. When it comes to the NPS, historians should promote the implementation of the Imperiled Promise recommendations. Awareness and usage of a broad range of sources, and awareness of the expectations and background of the audience are crucial in making sure that history products are inclusive, equitable, and accurate.
As a historian who does not think of himself as a professional interpreter, I am hesitant to recommend works other than Tilden since his work dominates the field. But there are several works that I find to be of some significance in my work as a historian, though none of them are works that I reference daily (or even annually). E.H. Carr’s What Is History? (1961) is an essential read even though parts of it are dated or disputed (such as how, exactly, knowledge is created). Similarly, I find David Lowenthal’s work – especially The Past Is a Foreign Country (1985) and Possessed by the Past (1996) – to be influential. Other noteworthy works include Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft (1954), and John Lewis Gaddis’s The Landscape of History (2002). Some of these pieces are as old, or older, than Interpreting Our Heritage. A significant difference in the contemporary reception of these volumes versus Tilden’s is that they are all challenged and contested.
Interpretation seems to be finding its feet as a scholarly, professional discipline. Its Herodotus is much more recently deceased and still, seemingly, untouchable. There are fewer university-level programs in interpretation than in history, and its principal (only?) academic journal is unabstracted. Critical engagement with Freeman Tilden and his Interpreting Our Heritage, instead of blind acceptance of them, will help interpretation gain greater attention and help it expand further as a professional field with guidance from more than one principal text.
Edward J. Roach is the site historian and resource manager at Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Ohio. Before joining the Dayton staff in November of 2003 he was the site historian at Prince William Forest Park, near Triangle, Virginia. Edward has B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from Moravian College (Bethlehem, Pa.) and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Indiana, Pa.), respectively, and taught English with the Peace Corps in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, before gaining employment with the National Park Service in 2001 through the entry-level Servicewide Intake Program. At Dayton, Mr. Roach has led the park’s efforts to ensure that visitors encounter ranger programs and exhibits based on current historical scholarship and curatorial standards. He also undertakes similar duties for Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument and for William Howard Taft National Historic Site. His book The Wright Company: From Invention to Industry was published by Ohio University Press in 2014. He is an active member of the Organization of American Historians, the National Council on Public History, where he served on the 2008 Annual Meeting Program Committee, and several other historical associations. He is originally from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.