Welcome back to our mini-series celebrating the legacy of Freeman Tilden, a leading pioneer of the interpretive field. Last month, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the NAI conference, we took a look at the first three of Tilden’s Six Principles of Interpretation. Check out that post here, and then read on!
- Interpretation is Learnable
Tilden says: “Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.”
Sometimes calling something “art” brings a hoity-toity connotation that it’s only attainable to someone with a natural-born talent. But Tilden’s point was quite to the contrary: his notion of interpretation as art speaks more to the idea that it doesn’t have a precise process or an exact set of ingredients—which is likely why he termed these guiding “principles” rather than “rules” or “mandates”; to leave room for creativity on the part of the individual interpreter. After all, every project, every client, every resource is unique.
- Interpretation Prompts Action
Tilden says: “The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.”
This is very important (and empowering!) principle relates closely to #2: if interpretation IS more than mere information, it should DO more than just convey instruction. It should engage visitors intellectually, emotionally, even socially, ultimately moving them to action—whether that means visiting a certain part of your site, learning more about your resource on their own, or changing certain behaviors in their everyday lives.
- Interpretation is Holistic
Tilden says: “Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.”
This principle underlies the importance of thematic structure, which creates a comprehensive framework for an exhibition’s content. It’s why TSI’s design process begins with the “big picture” and works down to the nitty-gritty details by first establishing an exhibit’s overarching Central Theme and then populating a comprehensive Content Outline with all the individual subthemes and storylines that cascade from and support single key takeaway message.
- Kids Are Special (Of Course!)
Tilden says: “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.”
It seems there is new research published every day about how people learn and think—especially children. Tilden seemed to have a lot of foresight in this regard, calling for interpretation to be decidedly more than a “dumbing down” of content designed for adults. Of course, given the inescapable limitations of time and money, it may not always be practical or possible to create an entirely “separate program” for your youngest of visitors. But there are design strategies for appealing to multiple age groups within a single exhibition. Layering content (or unlayering, as it were) and following the principles of Universal Design as much as possible will help engage visitors of different ages, abilities, and learning styles.
What about you? How does (or could, or should!) your site put Tilden’s principles to work in your interpretive projects and programs?
Leave us a note in the comments section below.