Environmental interpretation

Interpretation is an educational activity that aims to reveal meanings about our cultural and natural resources. Through various media - including talks, guided tours, and exhibits - interpretation enhances our understanding, appreciation, and, therefore, protection of historic sites and natural wonders. Interpretation is an informational and inspirational process that occurs in our nation's parks, forests, wildlife refuges, zoos, museums, and cultural sites.

Enos Mills was an interpretive guide in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park from the late 1880s to the early 1920s. He wrote Adventures of a Nature Guide and Essays in Interpretation, which was published in 1920. Mills devised a number of principles that laid a philosophical foundation for effective interpretation. He wrote, "A nature guide [i.e., interpreter] is a naturalist who can guide others to the secrets of nature." He believed in the importance of first-hand, experiental learning. Mills observed, "He who feels the spell of the wild, the rhythmic melody of falling water, the echoes among the crags, the bird songs, the winds in the pines, and the endless beat of waves upon the shore, is in tune with the universe."

Mills presented a poetic interpretation of the facts of nature. He sough to make his topics menaingful by compiling material from "nature's storybook" in the form of its "manners and customs, its neighbors and its biography." Mills Developed his principles based upon his own professional experience as an interpreter.

The next landmark contribution to a philosophy of interpretation was Freeman Tilden's Interpreting Our Heritage, initiallty published in 1957. Tilden's six "principles of interpretation" are parallel to those principles championed by Mills. Yet it is Tilden who is far better known and who is often credited with first formulating a philosophy of interpretation.

The wisdom of Tilden's principles continues to be useful; yet, a need exists to relate his work to the present and to enage the issues of the 21st century.

Over the course of the past years, many have contributed to the body of knowledge about interpretation. For example, the 1980s saw publication of an introductory handbook designed primarily for national park interpreters titled Interpreting for Park Visitors by William Lewis. The early 1990s brought Sam Ham's practical sourebook for "people with big ideas and small budgets" titled Environmental Interpretation. Most recent is a comprehensive book designed to cross the boundaries between theory and practice - Interpretation of Cultural and Natural Resources.


The Fifteen Principles of good environmental interpretation

Out of respect for the work of Tilden and Mills, and particularly because of the familiarity so many interpreters have with Tilden's six principles, our framework of principles beings with a re-statement of Tilden's. Note that the principles have been re-worded to better reflect their treatment in the chapters that follow. In addition to these six principles, we offer nine new principles that provide a more elaborate interpretive philosophy. Here, then, are the 15 principles, which are presented in detail in the following chapters:

  1. To spark and interest, interpreters must relate the subject to the lives of the people in their audience.
  2. The purpose of interpretation goes beyond providing information to reveal deeper meaning and truth.
  3. The interpretive presentation - as a work of art - should be designed as a story that informs, entertains, and enligthens.
  4. The purpose of the interpretive story is to inspire and provoke people to broaden their horizons.
  5. Interpretation should peresent a complete theme or thesis and address the whole person.
  6. Interpretation for children, teenages, and seniors - when these comprise uniform groups - should follow fundamentally different approaches.
  7. Every place has a history. Interpreters can bring the past alive to make the present more enjoyable and the future more meaningful.
  8. Technology can reveal the world in exciting new ways.However, incorporating this technology into the interpretive program must be done with foresight and thoughtful care.
  9. Interpreters must concern themselves with the quantity and quality (selection and accuracy) of information presented. Focused, well-researched interpretation will be more powerful tan a longer discourse.
  10. Before applying the arts in interpretation, the interpreter must be familiar with basic communication techniques. Quality interpretation depends on the interpreter's knowledge and skills, which must be continually developed over time.
  11. Interpretive writing should adress what readers would like to know, with the authority of wisdom and its accompanying humility and care.
  12. The overall interpretive program must be capable of attracting support - financial, volunteer, political, administrative - whatever support is needed for the program to flourish.
  13. Interpretation should insill in people the ability, and the deisre, to sense the beauty in their surroundings - to provide spiritual uplift and to encourage resource preservation.
  14. Interpreters can promote optimal experience through intentional and thoughtful program and facility design.
  15. Passion is the essential ingredient for powerful and effective interpretation - passion for the resource and for those people who come to be inspired by it.

What visitors like and do not like:




Information in this section is taken from Interpretation for the 21st Century by Larry Beck and Ted Cable and The Interpreter's Guidebook by Kathleen Regnier, Michael Gross and Ron Zimmerman.