U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
IV. WHAT IS INTERPRETATION?
Historic places have powerful stories to tell, but they cannot speak for themselves. They do not communicate in a language that most of us are trained to understand. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the images of wealth and sophistication that owners sought to project using architectural styles that are no longer fashionable. We cannot retrieve the excitement of going "downtown" in the 1920s and 30s, complete with hat and gloves. We don't remember when train stations had separate waiting rooms, toilets, and even drinking fountains for black and white passengers. If we are to remember the stories of our past, we need to tell them in ways that everyone can understand. We need to help people gain an "empathetic understanding of the past." That is the goal of all good teaching about history. Because it seems to parallel the process of translating from one language to another, telling the story of a place is often called "interpretation." This is the term that we will use throughout this bulletin.
While there are many definitions of interpretation, they all center around the concepts of meaning and relationships. William Alderson and Shirley Payne Low, authors of Interpretation of Historic Sites, define interpretation as the communication of the "essential meaning of the site and of the people and events associated with it" and see it as an obligation on those who preserve historic places as trustees for present and future generations.3
Paul H. Risk, of Yale University, defines interpretation as "the translation of the technical or unfamiliar language of the environment into lay language, with no loss in accuracy, in order to create and enhance sensitivity, awareness, understanding, appreciation, and commitment." For Risk, "the goal of interpretation is a change in behavior of those for whom we interpret." 4
Interpretation in the National Park Service is based on three tenets, or general principals, that together constitute still another definition:
"Tenet 1 - [Historic] resources possess meanings and have significance.
In his early and influential study, Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden defined interpretation as "an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by first-hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information." 6
Tilden explains that interpretation begins with facts and information, but then goes on to explore what those facts mean and how they relate to our everyday world. It uses spoken, written, and visual language to help the public see more clearly. Interpretation clarifies, explains, and even decodes and deciphers so the observer can begin to understand another time or generation. For Tilden, the goal of interpretation is "provocation." Good interpretation raises questions and encourages visitors to seek for themselves the information they need to understand what they are seeing. He emphasizes that understanding leads to appreciation, which, in turn, leads to protection.7
For purposes of this bulletin, we will assume that interpretation is a form of education that seeks to make connections between historic places and history, between the lives we lead today and the lives that once filled these spaces. While the ultimate goal is to encourage an appreciation of the importance of historic places and a commitment to preserving them for future generations, there probably will be as many intermediate goals as there are readers of this bulletin.
Case Study 1. Noble Hill School, Bartow County, GA (listed in the National Register July 2, 1987)
In the early 1980s, the Noble Hill School, in the small community of Cassville, Georgia, was a near ruin. Windows were missing, siding was warped and falling off, floorboards were rotted. But members of Cassville's African American community who had gone to school here treasured the small building, built under the sponsorship of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which helped construct almost 5,000 schools for black children in the South between 1914 and 1932. In 1983, these former students and their supporters created a foundation dedicated to saving the building so that it could be used as a history museum and cultural center.
Working with the Georgia state historic preservation office, the trustees of the Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center listed the school in the National Register in 1987. They then used that listing to apply successfully for a series of grants which were used to restore the building and open it to the public in 1989 as a museum. Visiting school groups learn about the school's history and restoration and study historic artifacts and photographs documenting the school and the Cassville community from 1923 to 1955. They then move into one of the two classrooms for a simulated classroom experience, sitting at period desks and writing on the original blackboards, which still survive.
The Center also holds an annual Labor Day homecoming event. Each year 80 to 100 people get together for a picnic. Some only come for brief visits, but others sit and chat. The oral histories provided by former students and teachers at the school, who are specially invited to the picnic, have provided much of the information on the school's historical importance. Just as contributions of money and labor from the local community helped build the school, local commitment saved it so it could tell its story to today's young people.
3 William T. Alderson and Shirley Payne Low, Interpretation of Historic Sites (Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1976), p. 6
4 Paul H. Risk, "Interpretation: A Road to Creative Enlightenment," CRM Vol. 17, No. 2 (1994), pp. 37, 40.
5 National Park Service, "Fulfilling the NPS Mission: The Process of Interpretation," Module 101, Interpretive Development Curriculum, from Interpretive Development Program Web site: http://www.nps.gov/idp/interp.
6 Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), p. 8.
7 Tilden, op. cit., pp. 33, 38.
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