Thematic Interpretation as an Art and a Science

Many informal educators, and especially outdoor educators in regional and national parks, often call themselves interpreters. We all assume this grew from Freeman Tilden’s 1957 Interpreting Our Heritage, which became a sort of Bible for National Park Service rangers. Tilden’s title and introduction underscored how the English language lacks a good word for what informal educators do:

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. (p. 3)

I’ve always quibbled with Tilden here, though. Is this service really that recent? How is the outdoor educator dissimilar from our ancestors’ grandmothers passing on nature’s wisdom? The parent teaching the child which fruits are safe to eat?

Perhaps the point is that around Tilden’s time, urban families were so detached from nature that they began to require a profession – a class of experts to whom we could go to learn bits of natural wisdom. And since “teacher” meant someone in a classroom, he felt the need for a new term – hence, he borrowed interpreter from the fields of linguistics and literature and applied it to the task of connecting people to grand cultural threads to be found in natural places, cultural landmarks, and curated collections of our human history.

Fair enough. And Tilden’s introduction captures the essence of interpretation better than any other description I’ve encountered:

In most of such places the visitor is exposed, if he chooses, to a kind of elective education that is superior in some respects to that of the classroom, for here he meets the Thing Itself&emdash;whether it be a wonder of Nature’s work, or the act or work of Man. “To pay a personal visit to a historic shrine is to receive a concept such as no book can supply,” someone has said; and surely to stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is to experience a spiritual elevation that could come from no human description of the colossal chasm. Thousands of naturalists, historians, archeologists and other specialists are 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. This function of the custodians of our treasures is called Interpretation. (p. 4)

Meeting “the Thing Itself”

To Tilden, interpretation builds upon classroom learning because it connects learners with “the Thing Itself”; the natural phenomenon, cultural treasure, or artistic wonder is present, right there, in front of us. Sam Ham, a professor, writer, and expositor of Tilden, wrote that “that the main thing interpretation should aim to accomplish is provoking people to think for themselves, and in doing so, to find their own personal meanings and connections” (p. 143). Ham was adamant that interpretation is not merely teaching – it is, at its best, provocation (a word he borrows from Tilden).

So how do we, as interpreters, help our audience “meet the Thing Itself” in our “interpretive encounters” (to borrow another Ham-ism)? Ham and others have a lot to say about that, but like every good educator, Ham boils it down to an acronym. Presentations should be:

Infographic showing: T-Thematic, O-Organized, R-Relevant, E-Enjoyable with the title 'Sam Ham's Elements of Interpretation'

(If you haven’t listened yet, check out the podcast with State park interpreter Elise McFarland – we talk all about TORE and thematic interpretation.)

Of the four elements of interpretation, I think the most often ignored (perhaps because it’s the hardest!) is theme. Many times, we interpreters spend so much energy learning facts that we become what Ham calls “encyclopedists.” I can attest that bulk of the training I ever received at several different institutions was facts and figures. But to make a presentation meaningful and memorable, you must include a theme, a message that becomes the center of gravity around which your learners orbit and make connections. Without a theme, your interpretive encounter descends into information provision – and interpretation has vastly more potential than that.

What’s Missing?

I think it’s important to acknowledge that the very word interpretation implies a power dynamic. The interpreter is the knower and they own some body of knowledge which they convey, artfully, to their audience. Of course, as a teacher, I observe that sort of knowledge transfer. It definitely happens.

But as I get older, I think I realize that education is much more a two-way street than the general public understands. I know a lot about my subject, but I continue to learn from my audiences. I learn by teaching, and in the best situation, I learn from my learners as much as they from me. Native elders often talk about “different ways of knowing.” It’s important, as a teacher, to remain open to those different ways, for my learners’ cultures and life experiences have a lot to show me, too.

I’m not so radical as to suggest we look for a different word; just that teachers, interpreters, educators of all stripes would do well to consider education a give-and-take relationship more than an one-sided presentation.

Further reading...

  • Ham, S. H. (2013). Interpretation: Making a difference on purpose. Fulcrum Publishing.
  • Tilden, F. (1957). Interpreting our heritage (2007, 4th ed., expanded and updated). University of North Carolina Press.
A book cover with the title "Interpreting Our Heritage" and the author "Freeman Tilden."
The book that started it all...?
A book cover with the title "Interpreting Our Heritage" and the author "Freeman Tilden."
The book that started it all...?


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