Friday, March 22, 2013

Thinking Beyond Tilden

I think sometimes there are those who think the interpreter's job is easy. "Oh, you just tell stories and point visitors towards the directions of the bathrooms, right?" Uh, no.

I also think sometimes there are those who have no comprehension of everything that goes into "interpretation" or "interpretive programming" or "interpretive media." Research, reading, planning, synthesis, synopsis, design, understanding, audience awareness, public relations, perception, even anticipation and anxiety. Those complexities grow exponentially when various interpreters understand the content or presentation differently, especially at historic sites. "Do it this way" or "No, this is better." We have opinions on the "best" way to do what we do, right? Heck, my ramblings on this blog are just my opinions of history and interpretation based on my limited experience in the field and understandings of scholarship in action.

Last week, I followed The Future of the Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th conference long distance. And by "long distance" I mean "on Twitter." I used #cwfuture to follow along the best I could. Many ideas struck me and provided food for thought, but this minor conversation stayed with me:

If you aren't familiar, Freeman Tilden is kind of like the "Godfather" of interpretation, especially in the National Park Service. I would bet his "Interpreting Our Heritage" is assigned reading for easily 85% new front-line interpreters and seasonal interpreters (and I would bet that number is low). It's just how we do. In this selection of tweets (there are more in the conversation, I just highlighted some), Tilden's work gets called into question and some front-line interpreters engage.

I have been thinking a lot about "why we do what we do" recently. Since I now work for myself, I wonder about what it is I "do." And why I do what I do. I still consider myself an interpreter, though I work for a private industry rather than the federal government. I still want to promote historical awareness and even conservation/preservation, but I don't work at one specific site anymore. I operate with many of Tilden's ideas and then some.

I would love to hear back from those who work in history, education, interpretation, or a combination of those things. Why do you do what you do? What principles serve as your foundation? Ultimately, what do you want your visitors, guests, students, listeners, etc., to walk away knowing, understanding, thinking, or doing?

[Cue responses via "Comments" below and thanks in advance for what you have to say]


  1. Ok - since I'm in the twitter feed conversation that's referenced above I suppose I'll ruminate in more than 140 characters.

    I dislike any formulaic "how" to do something. Tilden presents a "how" to do interpretation that I personally like, but but I'm wary of anything that can create a "Well this is HOW we do this" mentality. It inevitably leads to a "Well this is how we've always done it." What if someone writes another book on historical interpretation or presents another theory. Will we shoot it down because we say, "Well this is how we do it over here?" As a southerner, one of my favorite southernism bumper stickers says, "We don't care how you do it up there."

    Each park, story, and interpreter is different. And strict adherence to a set "how," no matter how good it seems, fails to account for, or embrace, this diversity.

    The "Why" is a totally different story. "Why" do we interpret this place, this story, these people, is a powerful framework under which to operate. It gives the individual interpreter to embrace their own passions & personalities and fuse it with that of the audience before them. For me, no two programs I give are exactly alike. A "Why" do we interpret allows for this. A "how" do we interpret this story does not.

    Lastly, isn't part of interpretation about engaging the audience and allowing them to be a part of the conversation? To tell somebody, "No, you're wrong - Tilden rules!" would be to violate the very principles that Tilden advocated for. Our job isn't to tell people what to think, but rather to provide an environment in which they can engage in conversation, and for us to facilitate and participate in that conversation.

  2. I think conversations like this exist so graduate students have something to write a thesis about, but, I'm a bit of a newbie. Maybe that's beneficial in a conversation like this where people have years of interpretive education behind them, I think people forget that the basics of "why" in interpretation are important questions that need discussing. Tilden's book was very helpful for me personally and I took a lot out of it in terms of the "why" as opposed to the "how".

    I think connecting with the visitor on any level that brings meaning for them and therefore stewardship is a pretty universal ideal. If this is something that isn't being practiced in various interpretive environments then perhaps they themselves have been buying too much into their own message instead of the reason FOR the message. But that's just a newbie speaking.