Among the many celebrations taking place this season, it’s also the 30th birthday of the National Association for Interpretation! (If you’re attending the NAI conference in New Orleans this week, be sure to stop by the TSI booth and say hello to Betty and Danielle.) In honor of this milestone anniversary, we’re taking time to reflect on a very special tradition at the heart of all the interpretive planning work we do here at Taylor Studios: Freeman Tilden’s Principles of Interpretation.
Widely regarded as the godfather of the interpretive field, Freeman Tilden (1883—1980) was a prolific journalist and world-traveler who wrote extensively about and for America’s National Parks.
His 1957 book “Interpreting Our Heritage” is one of his best-known works. In this inspiring manifesto, Tilden makes an elegant philosophical case for interpretation and offers a wealth of practical advice and insights for those in the field. (Our interpretive staff keeps a recent edition handy as a desk reference!)
For ease of discussion, Tilden defines interpretation as:
“An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.”
He is quick to note, however, that “the true interpreter will not rest at any dictionary definition.” This field is always expanding and evolving, after all—informed by advances in technology and media as well as our understanding of human psychology.
Yet Tilden’s fundamental points—half a century after he first laid them down on paper—are as relevant and useful today as ever.
- Relevance Reigns Supreme
Tilden says: “Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.”
This single principle is worthy of an entire book unto itself (and Nina Simon wrote a great one.) When it comes to interpretive planning and design, the Visitor always comes first—full stop. We have to prioritize the needs and interests of an audience in order to effectively facilitate their engagement with the resource/content. This principle is employed by exhibit designers in many different ways, from writing exhibit text in a colloquial, easy-to-read style to incorporating ample seating areas and moments of visual rest.
- Information ≠ Interpretation
Tilden says: “Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.”
This is a point we really try to drive home during our very first exhibit planning sessions. Successful interpretation requires NOT ONLY good information (i.e. authentic resources and careful, thorough research), but also a robust mix of media and sensory experiences designed to stimulate curiosity, challenge intellect, and appeal to visitors’ emotions. We sometimes refer to this as the “more-than-a book-on-a-wall” rule: that is, an exhibit experience should do more than relate straight facts through text (or any single medium). Combined with rule #1, this principle also cautions us against overwhelming visitors with TOO much information—we have to be both selective of our content and purposeful in our presentation of it.
If you’ve enjoyed soaking up some Tilden’s eternal wisdom, that’s just the beginning! Next week, we’ll take a look at the remainder of his Six Principles of Interpretation.