Defining Interpretation

In some respects, interpretation has been around for thousands of years. We have always sought to understand the world around us, and communicate the meanings in our environment to each other. We have always interpreted our heritage: to ensure our survival, to strengthen our bonds with each other, to document our history, to teach our children, to inform our decision making.

The word interpret is broad-reaching and sometimes frustratingly vague.

interpret | inˈtərprət |

  • verb (interprets, interpreting, interpreted)
  • 1 [with object] explain the meaning of (information, words, or actions): the evidence is difficult to interpret.
  • understand (an action, mood, or way of behaving) as having a particular meaning or significance: her self-confidence was often interpreted as brashness.
  • perform (a dramatic role or piece of music) in a particular way that conveys one’s understanding of the creator’s ideas.

Interpretation in our context

One of the first examples of the word “interpret” as it relates to understanding and communicating the meanings and relationships in nature appears in the American naturalist John Muir’s journals:

“I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”   -John Muir, 1871

Freeman Tilden

Freeman Tilden (1883-1980) was an American writer. Supported by the director of the US National Parks Services, Tilden turned his attention from fiction to writing about parks. His most influential work is “Interpreting Our Heritage” (1957); for this book he is widely remembered as the father of the profession.

Tilden’s Definition of Interpretation

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

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