A few words on terminology
We use the term 'heritage interpretation' to identify broadly the educational and communications discipline practised by our members to distinguish it from other meanings of the word 'interpretation', such as linguistic interpretation. However, "heritage interpretation" can also help to explain contemporary issues and topics that are not usually considered as heritage, such as climate change and sustainable development, which are equally important matters.
Terms such as 'environmental interpretation', 'nature interpretation', 'cultural interpretation' and others denote the same concept of non-formal education while highlighting more specialised applications. The common denominator is the process, in non-formal settings, of provoking thought and revealing meanings and relationships to widen and enrich people's minds and spirits. We use the word 'heritage' because it embraces both the natural and the cultural world.
Interpretation was first defined
by Freeman Tilden for the US National Parks Service in 1957.
“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.”
In his book Interpreting our Heritage, Tilden sets his definition in the context of the over-riding aim of revealing the significance of a site to non-expert visitors. These visitors may be, of course, local people at leisure as well as those from further afield, and may often include children.
Since Tilden’s book was published, others have refined his definition in different ways, but his key principles are still widely adopted.
Interpretation and education
Heritage interpretation is, in essence, an educational activity but, importantly, it is a non-formal educational process. It aims to provide new insights and deeper understanding. Interpretation is aimed at people on leisure visits and trips and its informality and personal approach distinguish it from many other forms of education.
Good interpretation arouses interest and broadens horizons even for people who may have thought the place or topic was of little or no interest to them.
In essence interpretation works from the specific to the general while other forms of education tend to work the other way round.