Tilden’s Six Principles of Interpretation

But not with the sheer recitation of facts. Not with the names of things, but by exposing the soul of things—those truths that lie behind what you are showing your visitor. – Freeman Tilden

1. The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

What, exactly, did Tilden mean by provocation? Since Tilden’s time (1957) the word has perhaps taken on a negative connotation:

provoke | prəˈvōk | verb [with object]
to stimulate or give rise to (a reaction or emotion, typically a strong or unwelcome one) in someone

It’s probably safe to assume that Tilden spoke of provocation in constructive way: he intended us to stimulate or give rise to a reaction or emotion. To incite them to to do or feel something (but probably not by arousing anger.)

2. Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

What do we mean by revelation? 

reveal | rəˈvēl |verb [with object] make (previously unknown or secret information) known to others; cause or allow (something) to be seen: the clouds were breaking up to reveal a clear blue sky.

When we look at Tilden’s greater body of work, it seems clear that he intended us to reveal meanings; the whole, rather than the part. “The soul of things,” as he put it. 

3. 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.

In the years that have passed since Tilden’s time, his third principle has proven to be, in some ways, the most important and the most elusive. Tilden’s third principle speaks of relevance. And the more we study how people learn, and how they interact and connect with our parks and historic sites, the more we discover that relevance is a highly individual phenomenon. Interpreters who assume that their subject matter is inherently relevant to all visitors are in for a surprise. 

Much of the art of interpretation lies in creating the right experience for the right audience in the right place at the right time, so that they can find meaning and have a rewarding experience. 

More about this later, when we discuss our audiences and what we know about them.  

relevance | ˈreləv(ə)ns | (also relevancy) noun a : relation to the matter at hand b : practical and especially social applicability


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