Throughout my work as a public historian, I have found that Freeman Tilden’s second principle is foremost in my mind as I develop interpretive content for public audiences. Both the distinction and the relationship between information and interpretation are paramount. For example, my first major assignment in an introductory public history seminar during my first semester as an MA student was an interpretive plan focused on a 1919 college yearbook to be included as part of a larger exhibit (and larger interpretive plan) about World War I and the influenza pandemic at North Carolina State University.  As I drafted my individual plan, I repeatedly reminded myself that my responsibility was not just to provide information about the yearbook and its contents, but also offer my insights as to why that information was and remains significant, and to demonstrate how the yearbook related to the “historical whole” the larger exhibit embodied.[1]

A year later, I still find myself consistently returning to Tilden’s second principle when I am struggling to get to the heart of a particular project. I recently collaborated with several other graduate students and local public historians in Raleigh on a project about the history of gerrymandering and voting rights in North Carolina. The research process for this particular project proved tedious because our interpretive team had to wade through legal documents and court proceedings (and all the jargon that comes with them) from as early as the 18th century and as recent as 2016. In short, it was easy to get bogged down in details, which resulted in clunky early drafts that felt more like info-dumps than anything else. When I eventually managed to concisely summarize the key points I wanted my visitors to take away, I reminded myself that my responsibility as well as my goal was to relate those key points to the larger themes illustrated by the project as a whole.

The gerrymandering and voting rights public history project also provides a good example of how Tilden’s third principle has also informed my work as an interpreter. Again, the project was grounded in legal historical research, and my colleagues and I struggled early on to determine how we could craft a story out of what initially appeared to be a series of court cases peppered with occasional high-drama moments. Thinking about interpretation as an art­­–or, at least, as an exercise in storytelling, and remembering the elements that make a good story–helped us construct a narrative from the pieces we assembled. Instead of highlighting the changes in gerrymandering and voting rights as evidenced by legal decisions, we centered the people–community organizers, politicians, and everyday folks–who influenced those changes in the project’s big idea. In so doing, we drew not only on Tilden’s notion that the interpreter’s key skills lie in “the presentation of ideas, adapted to whatever situation is at hand,” but also on his first principle’s assertion that successful interpretive content must be relatable to the visitor; by populating our particular vision of the past with characters at both the grassroots and in the halls of power, the project’s interpretive team created a story that was both accessible and engaging for visitors.[2]

Although not one of the key principles in its own right, Tilden’s emphasis on love may be the most impactful takeaway in my own work and experience as a public historian. I became a public historian in the first place because I fully believe in the power of historical information and interpretation to start conversations within and between various publics. I care about history, and I care about people. I wholeheartedly agree with Tilden’s notion that to love people is to “never cease trying to understand them”[3] However, I wonder if I depart slightly from what Tilden believed that meant. I do subscribe to the idea that interpretive content should be developed with the visitor in mind and based in well-researched historical information. I also believe it is important that visitors feel seen and recognized in the content they consume. In other words, I love visitors in that I want to meet them where they are in their historical knowledge, but I also want to approach interpretation with respect for/to the knowledge they carry with them as a result of lived experience.

Relatedly, in thinking about revising Tilden’s key interpretive principles, adding something along the lines of, “Interpretation should be informed not only by the interpreter’s skills and expertise, but also by the communities likely to be most impacted or affected by the interpretation itself” might be a critical update. Shared authority is one of the guiding principles of my personal public history pedagogy, as it is for so many of the people I have learned from and worked with in the past. I am also in favor of more explicitly stating that historical interpretation should be guided by a love for people, as well as a sense of empathy for historical actors, within the key principles themselves.

Apart from Tilden’s principles, two books come to mind in thinking about the works that have most influenced my praxis as a public historian/interpreter. The first is Amy Lonetree’s Decolonizing Museums.[4] It transformed the way I approach museums and historic sites that interpret Indigenous history in the United States, and provides critical suggestions for combatting stereotypical­–and all too common–interpretation based on museum case studies with a particular eye toward confronting histories of colonialism and historical trauma, as well as recognizing the resiliency of both past and present Indigenous peoples.[5] The second is Antoinette T. Jackson’s Speaking for the Enslaved: Heritage Interpretation at Antebellum Plantation Sites. In particular, she underscores the importance of shared authority in developing interpretive content. A case study on the Snee Farm Plantation community and the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site demonstrates how enslaved peoples’ descendants helped create much fuller, more detailed historical interpretation of African and African American life in antebellum Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

Hanna Howard is a public historian based in Raleigh, currently completing her MA in public history at North Carolina State University. She holds a collections management assistantship with the City of Raleigh Historic Resources and Museum Program. She is a member of Historians for a Better Future, a Research Triangle-based organization dedicated to addressing contemporary problems by drawing on historical knowledge to better facilitate dialogue. Favorite past projects include Free History Lessons, a series of pop-up teaching events about Confederate monuments in North Carolina, and Drawing Democracy, a traveling exhibit detailing the history of gerrymandering and voting rights in North Carolina.

                [1] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 4th ed. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 52.

                [2] Ibid., 58.

                [3] Ibid., 127.

                [4] When friends, public historians or otherwise, ask me about my favorite books, I always name Decolonizing Museums. Seriously.

                [5] This, for me, is something that might be applied to museums and sites that deal with other topics in difficult history–that is, the contemporary can and should be addressed alongside historical interpretation.