First, to put my current thoughts in the context of my past experiences—I’ve worked for close to 20 years in public history as a consulting historian, including the last 17 years at HRA. Prior to that, while completing an M.A. and trying to make a start as an independent contractor, I spent ten summers working as a National Park Service interpreter ranger. I have done some interpretive exhibit planning for Mount Rainier National Park on a voluntary basis, while during my time at HRA I’ve written several chapters covering the history of interpretive activities at other NPS units. In terms of our working group discussion, I am most interested in the meandering evolution of interpretive methods and activities, in the NPS and other federal agencies, from the 1920s on, including the role that Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage played in that history. I will be listening keenly to other folks thoughts on the book’s past and present currency in the work of interpreters and public historians.

The years I worked as an interpretive ranger turned out to be a very interesting time for interpretation: my seasonal stints spanned the transition from the typical, though non-formalized interpretive practices of the 1980s and early 1990s, through the initial emergence of the NPS Interpretive Development Program (IDP) in the mid-1990s, to the full utilization of that training model by the end of the decade. However, the individuals who first introduced me to interpretive work harked back to an even earlier era. My first supervisors were all twenty-five-year veterans of NPS employment, whose style and techniques derived from the even earlier generation of park naturalists and historians they had trained under. They represented, for lack of better terms, the folkloric, charismatic genre of park rangers who relied on booming voices, cliched sayings, and sing-alongs to engage their audiences (and they had die-hard fans among repeat visitors). Though these folks gave lip service to Tilden during seasonal training and supervisory comments (“of course, you’ll want to read Tilden at some point”), they certainly didn’t appear to use terms or demonstrate concepts Tilden emphasized in IOH. And once I did read (most? some?) of Tilden one of those first summers, I could not see much of a connection between the key principles in IOH and the type of interpretive programs I saw them offer.

As a result, I appreciated the emphasis on specific planning methods and program objectives that appeared with the beginning of the IDP training. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that those 25-seasons-under-their-brown-NPS-belts guys (and they were all men) looked askance at the new training model. They were team players so they didn’t complain or resist, but the occasional eye-rolling

The conventional wisdom appears to be that Interpreting Our Heritage (IOH) laid the foundation of interpretive methods employed in the field for the decades of the 1970s and 1980s.[1] My experiences above lead me to question that assumption. But it was clear to me that Tilden’s concepts and ideas DID became imbued in interpretive methods in use today. As I witnessed the initial emergence and then official installation of the NPS IDP (Interpretive Development Program) in the 1990s, it was interesting to see how that NPS effort to bring greater professionalization to interpretative services incorporated some of the most central principles that Tilden described in IOH. These strands of Tilden DNA are still readily noticeable in NPS interpretive methodology today (though I cannot completely fact-check that assumption since the NPS webpages are shut down!).

For instance, Tilden stated that “the purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge, and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statements of fact” (33). He also described interpreters as individuals “engaged in the work of revealing, to such visitors as desire the service, something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind what the visitor can with his senses perceive” (3–4). We can hear distinct echoes of these concepts from IOH in the IDP program’s instructions to “Identify intangible meanings,” “identify universal concepts,” and “identify the audience” as the foundational steps in creating interpretive presentations. Of course, the IDP program takes the interpretive planning and preparation process several steps further, building a more coherent structure by writing a theme statement, developing “opportunities for connections to meanings,” and then choosing “a tangible place, object, person, or event that you want the audience to care about.”[2]

Likewise, we see reiterations of Tilden’s descriptions of interpreters as intermediaries who help visitors connect to the inherent (“universal”) meaning and values of a natural phenomenon, historic site, etc., in the National Association for Interpretation’s (NAI) own definition of  interpretation, which it describes as “a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource.”[3] Along the same lines, Tilden wrote that interpreters function at their highest level as “revealers”: “the man or woman who uncovers something universal in the world that has always been here and that [people] have not known.” (5)

One other bit of context regarding my thoughts above. I the value of the public history field’s “big tent” approach to incorporating diverse disciplines and subdisciplines under the common canvas of public history; The complexities and contested terrains of our current society call for approaches other than tightly stove-piped disciplines that preclude sharing of ideas and information. My own project work as a historian have included interpretive planning and writing interpretive histories. But as you might have guessed from my comments above, I think, based on my experiences, that at their core, interpretation and public history are essentially separate professions, though with undeniable areas of crossover between them. I am hoping we might have the chance to discuss that in this session as well.

Paul Sadin is a Project Historian with Historical Research Associates in Seattle, Washington. Paul’s areas of expertise include oral history, litigation support, and writing historical narratives for federal agencies. He is the author of Managing a Land in Motion: An Administrative History of Point Reyes National Seashore (2007) and co-author of Privatizing Military Family Housing: A History of the US Army’s Residential Communities Initiative, 1995–2010 (2012), which won the National Council on Public History’s 2014 Excellence in Consulting Award. He has also been a co-author or contributing author for several other historical studies for the National Park Service and US Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to becoming a historian, Paul worked for ten years as a social worker, and also spent ten wonderful summers working as an NPS interpretive ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. He received his MA in History from the University of Idaho in 2001 and joined HRA in 2003. Paul returns to Mount Rainier to ski or hike as often as he can.

[1] I have wondered though, how much Tilden’s IOH broke new ground, vs. his putting into a coherent narrative elements of interpretive work already engaged in by more competent interpreters in the field. But that’s a moot point for this discussion.

[2] NPS, Interpretive Development Program, “The Interpretive Process Model,” 2002,

[3] National Association for Interpretation, “What is Interpretation,” NAI webpage,