What is the essence of a good interpretation? I couldn’t give anything close to a coherent answer to this question when I arrived to work my first day as a student intern with the National Park Service in 2010. Originally trained to teach history to high school students, the concept of public history was completely foreign to me. I had a lot to learn about interpreting history for a range of audiences beyond the classroom when I started my internship that year.

When I first met with my supervisor, she handed me a piece of paper with six interpretive principles written by Freeman Tilden. I was told that these principles provided the foundation of the National Park Service’s work in interpretation. When millions of people visit the NPS’s natural and cultural sites throughout the United States and its territories, Tilden’s ideas were the ones that provided the basis of the agency’s many education programs. My supervisor gave me a few other resources to look over, but Tilden’s six principles were the only ones that really influenced me and stuck in my head after that first day of training.

Written in 1957, Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage has endured for more than sixty years as the most popular and well-respected resource for interpreters. Emerging interpreters like myself are still regularly assigned readings in Interpreting Our Heritage regardless of the site they work for. As Tilden described in one part of the book, interpretation is vital to the survival of significant natural and cultural resources because “through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” An updated, fiftieth anniversary version of the book includes a foreword from no less than Russell Dickenson, a former director of the National Park Service, demonstrating the continued significance of Tilden’s ideas to the field of interpretation.[1]

While Tilden’s entire book is worth reading, his six interpretive principles stuck out to me because they pushed to make interpretation something more than just a recital of facts. A guiding theme among the principles lies in the idea that interpretation is artistic, informative, and provocative. Facts do not gain their relevance simply because they exist; instead, they gain their meaning and relevance when placed within a larger context of human activity and thought. When facts collaborate with interpretation, they can be put to use in making the world a better place. The job of the interpreter, then, is to use knowledge and communication skills to create personal meaning, inspiring a lifelong journey of curiosity, creativity, and discovery among all participants.

It is only appropriate that Tilden’s ideas about interpretation now receive their own reinterpretation. More specifically, I believe the time has arrived for a complete reappraisal of Tilden’s sixth interpretive principle about interpretation and children. The principle reads as follows:

Interpretation addressed to children should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

Within the context of 1957, Tilden’s ideas about children make sense. Interpretation was seen as the transfer of knowledge from interpreter to participant in a one-way process. The differences in learning ability between children and adults were so fundamentally different in Tilden’s mind that he believed it was best to separate the two groups during interpretive programs. One might say that yes, children should not receive a diluted interpretation, but what exactly is the “fundamentally different approach” required to reach children at their stage of cognitive development? Why should children and adults have to be separated when doing interpretive programs (which paradoxically implies that one must receive a diluted presentation)? Moreover, who’s to say adults can’t learn anything from a program oriented towards children?

Tilden’s advice contradicts both the scholarship and the practical realities of working at natural and cultural sites of interpretation over the past sixty years. A 2007 journal article points out that grandparents and grandchildren visit museums because they want to enjoy the experience together, promoting “intergenerational learning” and social interaction among family members.[2] Another book by museologists John Falk and Lynn Dierking argues that intergenerational families visit these sites to meet “identity-related leisure time needs” in a social setting that can be enjoyed by all.[3] In other words, cultural sites provide rare opportunities for entire families to learn and interact with each other in a welcoming environment. Cutting out these important moments of family time and experiential learning isn’t practical nor reflective of recent studies of family experiences at museums.

Larry Beck and Ted Cable’s 2002 book Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture attempted to remedy Tilden’s ambiguous language by dedicating an entire chapter to “interpreting the lifespan.” That chapter, however, only focused on how to interpret nature to students, completely omitting any discussion of how to interpret history and culture to young people.[4] These omissions are symptomatic of a larger problem within interpretation, however. We as a field continue to struggle with how to best address the needs of children in our interpretations, particularly at historic sites. How do interpreters present the realities of slavery, genocide, and discrimination in a humane, respectful, and accurate way? What are examples of great interpretive programming that appeals to both children and adults in a blended environment? Equally important, what can interpreters learn from their colleagues who teach in a k-12 setting and address these issues on a regular basis?

The time has come for interpreters to have a sustained conversation among themselves and with other educators about a new interpretive principle that addresses the needs of children. And perhaps even more importantly, the field needs an interpretive principle that addresses issues of accessibility at natural and cultural sites, something sorely missing from Tilden’s perspective in the 1950s. What strategies can interpreters use to ensure that all people, regardless of age, disability, or other background factor, have the ability to thrive in an interpretive setting? These are the sorts of conversations I hope to have during our working group at NCPH 2019.

Nick Sacco is a Park Ranger with the National Park Service at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a Master’s Degree in history with a concentration in public history from Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Nick is also on the Board of the Directors for the Missouri Council for History Education and co-chair of the Professional Development Committee for the National Council on Public History. In his role as a Park Ranger, Nick has designed numerous educational and interpretive programs for people of all ages, but particularly enjoys working with students in a k-12 setting. He also regularly writes about public history and nineteenth century U.S. history for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog, Muster.


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

[2] Camilla Sanford, Karen Knutson, & Kevin Crowley, “‘We Always Spend Time Together on Sundays’: How Grandparents and Their Grandchildren Think About and Use Informal Learning Spaces.” Visitor Studies 10, no. 2 (2007), 136-151.

[3] John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, The Museum Experience Revisited (London: Routledge, 2012), 35-100.

[4] Larry Beck and Ted Cable, Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture (Urbana, IL: Sagamore Publishing, 2002).