Some staging posts in the history of interpretation

The early days of interpretation

No doubt the original Adam and Eve explained to their children how snakes defend themselves and why apples have pips. However, John Muir, the inspirational 19th century conservationist, is often credited with establishing the basis for what we call interpretation today. After him, came another American, Enos Mills, who led 'wilderness walks' and helped city folk understand wild countryside.

The US National Parks Service saw the value in programmes which both encouraged people to respect their surroundings and to take care of themselves when visiting their Parks. In 1957, this approach was set down on paper by Freeman Tilden in his Interpreting our Heritage. His six principles, clearly explained, have defined heritage interpretation for more than 50 years.

The development of a profession

From the experience of the USNPS, others quickly learnt and the UK, with Canada, were two of the countries which began to introduce interpretation alongside conservation, first in natural surroundings and later in towns and historic sites. The Countryside Commission for Scotland and its sister organisation in England and Wales produced a two-part guide to Countryside Interpretation in 1975, the year the Society for the Interpretation of Britain's Heritage was founded. It later became the Association for Heritage Interpretation.

Across the Atlantic, what is now the National Association for Interpretation began as two organisations which came together about 20 years ago, and NAI was followed by similar bodies in Canada and Australia with individuals flying the flag in other countries. Names like Mark Sagan in the States and Don Aldridge in the UK were being written into the record books as the spiritual successors of Freeman Tilden. They and fellow men-with-a-mission inspired interpreters in Spain, Italy, Scandinavia and elsewhere to take up the baton and introduce interpretation, often alongside environmental interpretation aimed at children. Today's leading protagonists and mentors include John Veverka, Sam Ham, Ted Cable and others.

Interpretation is now a recognised skill and an essential part of managing special sites and protected areas. In many countries, there are degree and post-graduate courses in interpretation, or that include interpretation alongside other subjects. Courses and programmes are run for professional interpreters and for volunteers at heritage sites, museums and visitor centres.

"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."

Gallileo Galilei

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