An overview of Interpretive Philosophy and Principles
John A. Veverka
What is Interpretation?
Many people have heard the word Interpretation. Yet, this word may have a wide range of
meanings for people based on their background, training, or experience in the
interpretive profession. However, I feel that the best definition of interpretation is the
one developed by a task force of Interpretation Canada which set out to develop the
definition that would be used within Canada (1976). That definition has been picked
up over the past 17 years by many other organizations, and is the one most often taught in
university courses in interpretation. This definition is:
"Interpretation is a communication process, designed to reveal meanings and
relationships of our cultural and natural heritage, through involvement with objects,
artifacts, landscapes and sites." - Interpretation Canada
It should be stressed that interpretive communications is not simply presenting
information, but a specific communication strategy that is used to translate that
information for people, from the technical language of the expert, to the everyday
language of the visitor.
Where do the basic strategies, techniques and principles of Interpretive Communications
It is important to remember that the communication process of interpretation did not
spontaneously appear one day. Interpretation (the profession, and the
techniques and approaches) are a wonderful mix from communication principles from many
other professions. Interpreters should have a basic working knowledge
of each of these to include:
* Non-formal and adult education theory and presentations.
* Business management and finances.
* Recreation and tourism planning/principles
* Media planning/design principles.
In reality, we see the use of interpretive techniques and principles every time we see an
advertisement in a magazine or on television.
Understanding the Audience
One of the key areas of knowledge that interpreters must have to be effective in their
presentations is an understanding of how visitors learn and remember information in a
recreational learning environment. A recreational learning experience is one where
the person has self-selected to attend or participate in a program for "fun".
The "learning" that occurs is viewed as fun as well. Anyone that has a hobby,
coin collecting, model making, studying aspects of history, bird watching, etc. is
involved with recreational learning. We learn because we want to, and the process of
learning and discovery gives us pleasure.
Information, Environmental Education and Interpretation -
what's the difference?
I am often asked what, if any, are the differences between the three; information,
environmental education, and interpretation.
Information presented to visitors is just that, straight facts, figures and dates. A field
guide to birds provides "information" about the bird species, but usually no
interpretation. But all interpretation contains information. Interpretation is not what
you say to visitors, but rather the way you say it to them.
Environmental Education (either the formal education process, or the hopeful result of a
program or exhibit), can be presented in either an informational "instructional"
approach or using an interpretive approach. Remember, interpretation is a communication
process. If the process works in presenting and translating the information about the
environment in a way that is meaningful for the audience, then environmental
"education" occurs. I believe that true "education" occurs if the
recipient of the communication: 1) receives the message, 2) understands the message, 3)
will actually remember the message and 4) possibly USE the information in some way. I have
seen many formal environmental education programs where very little "education"
occurred. Participants were presented information, remembered parts of the information,
but probably really didn't understand the answers that they were giving back to their
teachers. I have also seen teachers in formal classroom environmental education programs
use "interpretive" techniques that left their students inspired, motivated, and
excited about learning more.
Interpretation is not topic or resource specific. The interpretive communication process
can be used for interpreting anything, any subject. If the interpretive communication is
effective, then "education" can occur about that subject. Interpretation is a
driven, and market (audience) focused process that looks for results (the accomplishment
of stated objectives). It uses marketing and advertising techniques, journalism
strategies, and a host of other material integrate communication strategies to form our
Interpretive Communications Strategy. Interpretation is also fun - a recreational learning
What is the Interpretive Communication Process?
The communication process used to "interpret" information is based on Tilden's
Interpretive Principles (Tilden, 1954). Tilden's basic communication principles are also
the ones you will find in every first year marketing or advertising text book on
successful communication with your market (audience).
- First, the communication must Provoke curiosity, attention and interest in the
audience. If you can't get their attention, they won't even stop at an exhibit, want to
attend a program, or pay attention during programs. In planning the strategy as to how to
provoke attention, the interpreter has to consider the answer to the question:
Why would a visitor want to know this information? The answer to that questions ends up
being the graphic, photo, or statement that gets the audiences attention.
- Continuing with the answer to the question Why would a visitor want to know this? the
interpretation communication must find a way to relate the message to
the every day life of the visitors. In advertising, it's the answer to the question
"why do you need this product or service?". This part of the communication gives
people reasons to continue with the exhibits, programs, or media - gives them a reason to
pay attention and want to learn/learn more.
- The final part of the process is Revelation. Tilden says that we should reveal the
ending or answer of the communication through a unique or unusual perspective
of viewpoint. Save the answer to last. The reveal tells the visitor why the message was
important for them, or how they can benefit from the information that was interpreted to
- Strive for message unity is another principle for interpretation. It means that when we
plan or design our program, service, or media, that we use the right colors,
costumes, music, designs, etc. to support the presentation of the message. Think of
message unity as the stage setting and props for a theatrical presentation.
- Address the whole. This final principles means that all interpretation should address
some main point or theme - "the big picture" of what is important about the
historic site, tourism site, etc. that the visitor is at. The main theme is best
illustrated by your answer to the question "if a visitor spends time going to
programs, looking at exhibits, etc. while they are visiting my site, by the time they are
ready to go back home if they only remember or learned one thing about why our site is so
special, that one thing better be__________________________! The answer to
this question is "the whole." An example of such a theme might be "We are
using state of the art land restoration techniques to improve this site for people and
In short hand, we can summarize the basic principles of interpretation as:
Address the Whole
Strive for Message Unity.
In addition, interpreters must ask two questions to help them plan and design their
interpretive program, media or service.
1. Why would the visitor want to know that? If you can's answer this question, you are
going to have trouble "marketing" the program or service. We don't want to
be in the business of giving answers to questions no one is asking.
2. How do you want the visitor to use the information you are interpreting to them? If you
don't want visitors to use the information you are interpreting, then why are giving it to
There are not any "right or wrong" answers to these questions. It does help the
interpreter focus on interpretive something relevant to the visitors.
The Model of Interpretation
There is a basic model of the total communication process (Figure 1).
Figure 1 -- The model of the Interpretation Communication Process. (This figure
didn't scan very well, if you would like a better copy let me know and I can send you one
In this model of interpretive communications we can see several different components.
First, we must have some message (WHAT) that we want to convey - what is the story that we
want to tell? Then we must have specific objectives that we want the message, program or
service to accomplish. We have interpretive techniques that we can use to actually present
the message (Tilden's principles), and services in which to use the
techniques (self-guiding trail or auto tour, live program, exhibits, publications, etc.).
We are communicating our message to visitors, so we need to know as much as possible about
them (visitor analysis). We will only know if our message as received and understood by
the visitor if we evaluate the program or service to see if our original objectives were
accomplished. If not, we need to go back to make some adjustments. Note the I&O box.
This is for Implementation and Operations considerations, such
as costs, staffing needs, material needs, etc. to actually plan, design, build, etc. the
interpretive programs or services (such as exhibits).
The box that surrounds the model called "Interpreter" is each individual program
presenter or planner. We each bring our own unique perspective to any project or
program. We have our unique personality, background, and presentation style. So each
program or service will have the individual fingerprint of the interpreter who planner or
The big box around everything is managerial realities. These are administrative issues
that can/do influence programs or services. Some of these can include:
- Agency policies and goals for interpretation.
- Program or services demands from the public.
- Management issues that interpretation needs to help with.
- Available budget for programs or services.
- Time constraints and project deadlines.
- Political pressures for certain programs or services.
- And more...... what are yours?
This brief paper has focused on the basic presentation of what is interpretation.
Interpretive Communication principles have evolved from a variety of other communication
professions. The basic principles of what makes a presentation interpretive vs information
is not so much on what you say, but rather how you say it.
For the communication to be interpretive, it must Provoke, Relate, Reveal, Have Message
Unity, and Address the Whole. The model of interpretation shows how the total
communication process works, and becomes the basis for developing a philosophy and
strategy for Interpretive Planning.
Lewis, William 1980. Interpreting For Park Visitors. Eastern Acorn Press.
Tilden, Freeman. 1957. Interpreting Our Heritage, The University of North Carolina
Press, Chapel Hill.
Veverka, John A. 1994. Interpretive Master Planning. Falcon Press, Helena, MT.
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