I started out hating Tilden. As a brand-new interpreter, I found him stuffy, boring, stilted, and obtuse. It was not until I had been working for the National Park Service for almost two years, sitting at a visitor center desk in the dead of winter, that I gave Tilden a second try. That time, something clicked. Tilden became pithy, commonsensical, insightful, and, if antiquated in style, delightfully so. Since then, returning to my battered 1977 edition of Tilden always renews me and returns me to why interpretation is so powerful and why training interpreters is critical. As I reflect on how I train interpreters, instilling Tilden’s principles remains the core of my efforts. In this case statement, I want to outline why I think Tilden remains relevant, highlight the importance of training, and reflect on the cultural moment of both Interpreting Our Heritage and 21st century interpretation. I argue that the desired outcomes of interpretation have changed little since Tilden and that instead of proposing new principles, we need to return to the basics with a greater awareness of new audiences and meet them with a flexible interpretive approach.

Tilden is fussy, nearly to a fault, about definitions. Yet the longer I thought about this piece, the more I realized they offer an important foundation for argument. For this essay, I use Tilden’s own definition of interpretation to represent his views and offer my own definition of 21st century interpretation, compiled from both experience and texts on the topic.[1] I define 21st century interpretation as a focus on inclusive presentations that includes multiple perspectives, particularly those previously marginalized, and uses techniques that require participation through demonstration, dialog, or audience generated content to connect the program to current issues. 21st Century Interpretation also places an emphasis on self-mediated experiences and there is a strong focus on getting young people and individuals of diverse cultural and economic backgrounds to historic sites/parks. While 21st Century Interpretation techniques are clearly different from Tilden, I suggest that both have the same desired outcomes, as stated by Tilden: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”[2] Interpretation remains the way we insure the continued existence of important natural, cultural, and historic sites by helping people understand why they are worthy of preservation and involving them in the continued care of these places.  Recognizing these shared desired outcomes, are differences in interpretive technique or outreach significant enough to call for a new set of principles?

Reflecting critically on my own readings of Tilden, I find that the principles remain a distillation of the foundation for any successful program: experiences connected to the “real thing,” opportunities for both emotional and intellectual connection, provocation to think critically, and a respect for different audiences. I am convinced that we do not need a new set of principles, but we do need to pay significantly more attention to Tilden’s principle three, “Interpretation is an art; any art is in some degree teachable.” That is, anyone can be trained to provide decent interpretation, and there are no excuses for bad interpretation. Therefore, I suggest that our turn towards new interpretation methods reflects a failure to teach proper classical technique; we move towards audience centric programming because we think they will solve the perceived problem of engagement that stems instead from poorly presented programs that do not reflect audiences’ interests or motivations for visiting. Instead of focusing on rewriting principles, I suggest that we focus our attention on better training in the basics for all interpreters and recognizing that all interpreters can be at least generally successful by understanding their audiences.

To better understand audiences, I turn to another work that has had a strong impact on my approach to interpretation: John Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Falk proposes six types of visitors and corresponding motivations/desired outcomes for a visit and argues that providing programming and/or exhibits that meet these needs will create the most impactful experiences within a museum. Critically, Falk suggests that offering different levels of experience to meet visitor motivation is not a missed opportunity nor dumbed down content; rather, it is likely to create a meaningful experience, more possibility of return, and a perceived sense of value for the museum.[3] While National Parks and historic sites are not necessarily the same as museums, I argue that they share the same key aspects of a free-choice learning environment which is at the center of Falk’s arguments about museums. For me, Falk’s work is critical because it offers a way to respect the sovereignty of the visitor that 21st Century Interpretation calls for while still honoring the sound principles of interpretation set forth by Tilden. By training our interpreters to better understand their audiences, I believe we can successfully retain the core principles of Interpreting Our Heritage, even in world quite different from Tilden’s.

A final area I wish to consider is the cultural moment that created Tilden and the current sociocultural climate. Tilden opens Interpreting Our Heritage like this, “The word interpretation as used in this book refers to a public service that has so recently come into our cultural world that a resort to the dictionary for a competent definition is fruitless.”[4] Tilden was writing in response to a growing National Park System, vast increases in visitation, and a sudden need following World War II to fully staff National Parks. In some ways, I think that we may be eager to redefine interpretation because there is a sense of an opposite cultural moment—a fear that younger generations and individuals of diverse backgrounds and income levels are not visiting parks and historic sites. If Tilden wrote in 1954 to give a road map for giving visitors flocking to National Parks a positive experience, in the current moment we are trying to get people to these places by rewriting the narrative. Yet, as Tilden memorably describes visitor motivation to attend a program: “He may be there for the explicit hope that you will reveal to him why he is there.”[5]  This simple directive seems as true today as it was in 1954—visitors want to know why, on a deeper level, they are there and gain deeper meaning to their visit. If we can recognize that both visitors’ goals and our own goals for interpretive experience still reflect that desire to “reveal why he is there,” we can build from Tilden’s strong foundation to experiment with and explore what that revelation means in the 21st century.

Sara Patton Zarrelli is the site manager at The Old Manse, a property of The Trustees. Fascinated by historic houses, she has worked at a variety of properties managed by local historical societies, the National Park Service, Historic New England, and The Trustees. Through all her positions, she enjoys training interpreters to rise to the challenges each historic home presents. Sara holds a BA in history from Carleton College (Northfield, MN) and a MA in history with certificates in Public History and Cultural Landscape Management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

[1] Tilden defines interpretation as: “An education activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experiences, and by illustrative media, rather than simply communicate factual information.” Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 8.

[2] Tilden, 38. Tilden himself is borrowing from an anonymous NPS manual writer.

[3] John H. Falk, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2009), 237.

[4] Tilden, 3

[5] Tilden, 45