Like many other 21st century public historians, I constantly find myself at the intersection of theory and practice, attempting to decipher what translates from textbooks to real world function. My own work emphasizes controversial topics and themes that bridge history with the “here and now,” introducing audiences to the historical forces that shape the world they live in, as well as their potential to participate in–and potentially alter–history in the making. For instance, my most recent project examines current interpretations of carceral sites and their relationship to ongoing carceral realities and experiences in the United States. Connecting recent and distant pasts to an ever shifting present–and future–requires methodological thoughtfulness. In this contemporary context, the reflections of the great thinkers at times apply, and at others do not. In my own scholarship, Freeman Tilden’s interpretive principles not only apply, but form what can be described as a theoretical consciousness that informs and orients my approach.

Specifically, Tilden’s emphasis on provocation has revealed the purpose inherent in my own professional interests. As Tilden explains, the “chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.”[1] Abandoning the idea of information for information’s sake, public historians instead look at history’s utility and the possibilities of its application. Relevance, the oft-cited objective of historians, public historians, universities, and museums alike, in my mind, requires provocation. So does meaningful work that truly encapsulates the spirit of public history. For interpreters, Tilden explains that, “interpretation is the revelation of a larger truth that lies behind any statement of fact.”[2] But, “interpretation should [also] capitalize mere curiosity for the enrichment of the human mind and spirit.”[3] The concept of enrichment, then, has influenced my perception of the mission of history, and especially public history, as well.

One of Tilden’s most enduring interpretive principles is his directive to “present a whole rather than a part.”[4] This imperative takes on renewed urgency in a contemporary context of partial truths, 140 character limits, and misinformation. However, not all of Tilden’s interpretive principles can necessarily claim timelessness. For instance, in order to better meet the needs of a 21st century audience, public historical scholars and practitioners alike must consider how Tilden’s interpretive principles should be applied when the visitor cannot encounter what Tilden referred to as, “the Thing Itself.”[5] Audiences are increasingly “visiting” historical spaces virtually, encountering images or recreations of real world things and places. Given the new and future possibilities of digital public history (including, but not limited to websites, online exhibits, interactive maps, virtual tours, historical visualizations and more) Tilden’s principles, which take the visitor’s physical presence for granted, must be reexamined.

While Tilden’s interpretive principles continue to resonate with 21st century interpreters, the public historical community must expand upon these original concepts in order to maximize their relevance and effectiveness. Rather than label these new additions “principles,” I would argue that the following interpretive values should also be considered:

1. Empathy. This is an extension of Tilden’s emphasis on feeling or emotional experience (for example, happiness), which he references frequently throughout Interpreting Our Heritage.[6] It also complicates Tilden’s vague explanation of “something within the personality or experience of the visitor,” referenced in his first interpretive principle. Tilden contends that, “the visitor’s chief interest is in whatever touches his personality, his experiences, and his ideals.”[7] The value of relevance, of personal referent and connection, cannot be underestimated. Yet many historical topics and themes are outside of the scope of personal understanding or experience visitors possess. What then? Interpretation, therefore, should prioritize the stimulation of empathy (or relativism) in order to show visitors that their own values, judgments, and experiences do not necessarily need to correlate to certain histories in order to make them valid. Certainly, interpretation can aid this process by emphasizing elements of shared humanity (love, success, struggle, resistance, etc.). However, an emphasis on empathy deepens awareness beyond the self, promoting connectivity, curiosity, and potentially discomfort, which can be viewed as a positive and potentially transformative response.

2. Application. Tilden explains that information alone does not constitute interpretation; I would go so far as to say that interpretation must identify an application–or the utility of information–in order to achieve its true potential.[8] Public history requires the discussion of the role of audiences as active, participatory entities, not merely as recipients of interpretation. Considering the effect of interpretation, and the ways in which visitors carry and implement it moving forward in the outside world, is an integral component of the public historical forum. The best interpretation would arguably have an influence and relevance beyond the site itself

3. Revision. In Interpreting Our Heritage, Tilden stresses the importance of continuing research on historical interpretation.[9] In order for public historians to better promote inclusive, equitable, and accurate representations of the past, new developments and insights must be incorporated into interpretation regularly. Arguably, one of the metrics for interpretive quality is the reflection of fresh scholarly and professional developments; and yet, many public historical sites – especially those experiencing budgetary, time, or staff difficulties – find this a challenging task. What are some solutions to this particular observation of Tilden’s that is often left out of the conversation, in favor of his more recognizable recommendations? The importance of ongoing revision seems to be intrinsic to, and yet not fully realized in, historical interpretation.Tilden’s contribution to public historical scholarship is unquestionable, especially in the context of the National Park Service. His work has provided structure and uniformity to a practice–and art –that can be inconsistent and unwieldy. Yet seemingly, the ongoing question for 21st century public historians is, “what can Tilden’s interpretive principles do that they have not already done?” Deliberating this question requires the application of Tilden’s principles themselves, primarily that of provocation; we must provoke ourselves – and each other – to reimagine the need for and purpose of interpretive imperatives in our own day and age. And yet, my impression is that Tilden himself would approve of our inquiry, perhaps even willing to exchange his trademark wool fedora for something a little more contemporary. I would like to see the Tilden that we all recognize and appreciate, surprise us in a baseball cap.

Megan Cullen Tewell is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the public history program at North Carolina State University. She completed a master’s degree in public history in 2016, and has worked with several museums, historical societies, and archives throughout Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Her research interests are varied, and primarily focus on leveraging public history in order to address contemporary issues, such as the carceral state. Megan can be contacted at:

[1] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 35.

[2] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 33.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 35.

[5] Ibid, 25.

[6] Ibid, 25 & 37.

[7] Ibid, 36.

[8] Ibid, 34.

[9] Ibid, 27.