Heritage interpretation

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A typical roadside interpretive sign for events of the American Civil War. Note the use of a map, photographs, and text to explain the subject, sited at a relevant location.
"Environmental interpretation" and "nature interpretation" redirect here

Heritage interpretation is the communication of information about, or the explanation of, the nature, origin, and purpose of historical, natural, or cultural resources, objects, sites and phenomena using personal or non-personal methods.

Heritage interpretation may be performed at dedicated interpretation centres or at museums, historic sites, parks, art galleries, nature centres, zoos, aquaria, botanical gardens, nature reserves and a host of other heritage sites. Its modalities can be extremely varied and may include guided walks, talks, drama, staffed stations, displays, signs, labels, artwork, brochures, interactives, audio-guides and audio-visual media. The process of developing a structured approach to interpreting these stories, messages and information is called interpretive planning. The thematic approach to heritage interpretation advocated by University of Idaho professor Sam Ham, the National Association for Interpretation, the US National Park Service, and others, appears widely considered best practice.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9]

Those who practice this form of interpretation may include rangers, guides, naturalists, actors (who may wear period dress and do reenactments), museum curators, natural and cultural interpretive specialists, interpretation officers, heritage communicators, docents, educators, visitor services staff, interpreters or a host of other titles.


The goal of interpretation is to improve and enrich the visitor experience by helping site visitors understand the significance of the place they are visiting, and connecting those meanings to visitors' own personal lives.[10] By weaving compelling, thematic stories about environmental phenomena and historical events, interpreters aim to provoke visitors to learn and think about their experiences.

In the United States, interpretation is often used by federal and state land management agencies, including the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and others, with the goal of promoting environmental stewardship of the lands they manage.

Definitions of heritage interpretation[edit]

"Heritage interpretation is 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."

  • Freeman Tilden for the US National Park Service

"Any communication process designed to reveal meanings and relationships of cultural and natural heritage to the public, through first-hand involvement with an object, artifact, landscape or site."

  • Interpretation Canada (see link below)

"Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource."

  • The National Association for Interpretation (see link below)
  • The Definitions Project (consortium of over two dozen federal and non-profit organizations in the United States- see link below)*

"Interpretation enriches our lives through engaging emotions, enhancing experiences and deepening understanding of people, places, events and objects from past and present."

  • The Association for Heritage Interpretation (see link below)

"Interpretation refers to the full range of potential activities intended to heighten public awareness and enhance understanding of cultural heritage site. These can include print and electronic publications, public lectures, on-site and directly related off-site installations, educational programs, community activities, and ongoing research, training, and evaluation of the interpretation process itself."

  • ICOMOS "Ename" Charter for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites 2008 (see links below)

"Tilden's principles" of interpretation[edit]

In his 1957 book, "Interpreting Our Heritage", Freeman Tilden defined six principles of interpretation.

  1. 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.
  2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.
  3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.
  4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
  5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
  6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) 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.

For the past 50 years, Tilden's principles have remained highly relevant to interpreters across the world. In 2002 Larry Beck and Ted Cable published "Interpretation for the 21st Century - Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture", which elaborated upon Tilden's original principles.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brochu, Lisa (2003). Interpretive planning. Fort Collins, CO: InterpPress. ISBN 1-879931-12-5. 
  2. ^ Brochu, Lisa; Merriman, Tim (2002). Personal Interpretation: Connecting Your Audience to Heritage Resources. Fort Collins, CO: InterpPress. ISBN 1-879931-06-0. 
  3. ^ Caputo, Paul; Lewis, Shea; Brochu, Lisa (2008). Interpretation by Design: Graphic Design Basics for Heritage Interpreters. Fort Collins, CO: InterpPress. ISBN 1-879931-25-7. 
  4. ^ Ham, Sam (1992). Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. ISBN 1-55591-902-2. 
  5. ^ Levy, Barbara; Lloyd, Sandra; Schreiber, Susan (2001). Great Tours! Thematic Tours and Guide Training for Historic Sites. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. ISBN 0-7591-0099-3. 
  6. ^ Moscardo, Gianna; Ballantyne, Roy; Hughes, Karen (2007). Designing Interpretive Signs: Principles in Practice. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. ISBN 978-1-55591-550-6. 
  7. ^ Pastorelli, John (2003). Enriching the Experience: An Interpretive Approach to Guiding. French's Forest, Australia: Hospitality Press. ISBN 1-86250-522-5. 
  8. ^ Regnier, Kathleen; Gross, Michael; Zimmerman, Ron (1994). The Interpreter's Guidebook: Techniques for Programs and Presentations (3rd ed.). Stevens Point, WI: UW-SP Foundation Press. ISBN 0-932310-17-6. 
  9. ^ Ward, Carolyn; Wilkinson, Alan (2006). Conducting Meaningful Interpretation: A Field Guide for Success. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. ISBN 978-1-55591-530-8. 
  10. ^ What Is Interpretation?, National Register Bulletin, National Park Service

External links[edit]

Online resources[edit]