21st Century Interpretation: the Shift and the Practice (2017)

Overview – The Shift

National Park Service interpreters are widely recognized as the face of the National Park System. Rangers built a reputation on providing high-quality, well-informed, discovery-guided walks, talks, tours and media at the most iconic sites in the country.

Why shift?

While traditional interpretive practices have been effective at providing enjoyment, increasing knowledge and connections for audiences, new practices reach for the full potential of National Parks in their second century. Social, technological and demographic changes provide a demand and opportunity for developing skills for 21st century citizenry through continuous growth and exploration.

What’s possible if we do?

By employing new audience-centered approaches to interpretation and education, parks can become places where visitors not only learn, connect, and enjoy, but gain skills in:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Communication and collaboration
  • Global awareness
  • Scientific, civic, health, environmental, historical, and financial literacy

Parks can support an informed and active citizenry, prepared to meet the challenges of a globalized and changing society.

How do we get there?

In the past, communication was primarily one-way, and focused on the interpreter as the presenter. A growing body of research shows didactic presentations and static media result in little knowledge or skill gain, and are sought by fewer visitors. Today, interpreters adapt how they conceive, prepare, and deliver interpretive programs and media products to meet the needs of the American public.

While rooted in deep resource expertise, the 21st Century Interpreter is:

  • Participatory: Allowing audiences to share and learn from each-others’ rich experiences and perspectives
  • Collaborative: Directly meeting community needs through strong mutually-beneficial relationships
  • Skills Focused:  Building skills for a 21st century workforce, inspiring life-long learning and active engagement

The Practice

What is Audience Centered Interpretation?

Audience Centered Interpretation is an ethic and practice. It is the belief that audiences’ perspectives and contributions add richness to the unfolding legacy and values of America. It is the practice of eliciting participation and contribution from an audience and community to build skills and mutual learning.

Audience-centered interpretation can infuse any and all park experiences by providing opportunities for audience members to contribute to the meaning-making process, engage with each other, and explore the current social context of national park resources. The interpreter, while still maintaining and sharing subject matter expertise, employs skills as a facilitator using dialogic questions and techniques.

What is Facilitated Dialogue?

Facilitated dialogue is a specific practice for implementing an audience-centered approach. In dialogue, ideas, information, experiences and assumptions are elicited and shared for the purposes of personal and collective learning. The Arc of Dialogue is a strategy that adds intentional structure to interpretive products to build an environment conducive to rich exchange between and among visitors and their host. This advanced skill allows for exploration of issues critical to society that relate to park resources in a safe and respectful way.

How do traditional interpretation skills support an audience centered approach?

An audience-centered interpreter recognizes that, while the interests and contributions of the audience drive the experience, rich park stories and vibrant landscapes spark the exploration. A well-crafted interpretive talk or exhibit provides common ground for deeper contemplation of the values that shape our country.

Traditional skills supported by the previous benchmark competencies informed the evolution forward into the 21st Century Foundational Competencies. When done with care, traditional interpretation provides an entry for audience centered experiences, as the mindset shifts from interpreter as expert to interpreter as facilitator.

Additional Readings

Looking For More on Audience Centered Experiences?

Audience Centered Experience Button - Two Pictogram Visitors talking to a pictogram rangerYou can find much more self-guided learning and all of the materials for making yourself an ACE in the Audience Centered Experience Interpretation workbook.

Interpretive Leadership button - a pictogram ranger leading a group of other rangers higherYou can find links to seasonal lesson plans which support this emerging skill set in the Audience Centered Experience Trainers’ Guide.

Write a Review

  1. I appreciate this short and concise description of why interpretation is shifting. Seem like a good tool for explaining to management and others why interpretation will start to look and feel different that what they may have experienced in the past. My only suggest is if more additional resources could be included in addition to resources created by/for the NPS. The “How do we get there?” section mentions a “growing body of research” – could those research results be included?


  2. Hello,
    Will the author of this very good page add the latest 2018 version of the Foundations of Interpretation: Competencies of 21st Century to the “Further Reading” section. Thanks!

    This page is very useful as a reference in my docent training programs and other presentations. In addition to the references to the research that Kristin mentioned, it would be helpful to have a timeline of how NPS interpretation has evolved from the former competencies to the 21st century interpretation competencies; from Tilden until now.


  3. This page is helpful as a training tool in the 2018 version of the Foundations of Interpretation: Competencies for the 21st Century which by the way, would the author post under the Further Reading section?

    In addition to what Kristin mentioned about posting the research, a timeline of how NPS interpretation has evolved from Tilden to current 2018 competencies. Thank you for the good work here!

    PS – the rating is stuck on 3 stars. I give this page 4-stars!


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