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Interpretive Themes: A Framework for Exploring Meaning (Legacy)

Interpretive Themes: A Framework for Exploring Meaning

Richard M. Kohen & Kim E. Sikoryak


Interpreters provide opportunities for people to explore ideas and meanings inherent in natural and cultural resources, and to arrive at their own conclusions about them.

This important concept was articulated years ago when Freeman Tilden established, as one of his six principles of interpretation, that “the chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.”

This concept lives on in current interpretive philosophy, which intentionally respects the individuality and independence of visitors, and works toward providing them with tools for continued personal growth. Thematic Interpretation embodies this idea and implements it through a progressive flow beginning with tangible resources and ending with the interpretive services offered to visitors. (The term interpretive services includes interpretive talks, guided hikes, classroom presentations, brochures, museum exhibits, films, website, etc.)

Natural and cultural resources possess inherent significances.

Attaching relevant meanings to places and things is a fundamental human trait. We ascribe special significance to places and things that rejuvenate our spirits, challenge and strengthen our beliefs, and provoke contemplation and discussion of our past, present, and future. They provide opportunities to explore our shared heritage, and help us define our character as individuals, communities, and societies.

The significances of places and things are embedded in their tangible and intangible characteristics: elements that are so attractive, interesting, and engaging that people choose to experience them time and again. These elements can be identified in a set of significance statements.

Significance statements are factual statements that include enough context to make them meaningful, summarizing the importance of these resources to our natural and cultural heritage. They clearly describe the distinctiveness of a resource’s natural, cultural, scientific, recreational, and inspirational characteristics.

Significances can often be found in enabling legislation, a charter, mission statement, or master plan — and sometimes evolve as a result of discoveries or other updates to knowledge about a place’s resources. Crafting the set of significance statements is the first and most fundamental task toward planning for successful interpretation.

Thematic interpretation explores significances.

Since the desired outcome of interpretation is to provide opportunities to explore the meanings of natural and cultural resources, the development of interpretive themes must flow directly from the significances of those resources. Interpretive themes operate at two levels: primary interpretive themes and subthemes. Primary interpretive themes are the overarching, biggest stories about places and resources, based on their described significances.

They are the largest, most overarching stories of a place or group of resources. Subthemes are the smaller-scale stories within primary themes. Their narrower scope encourages the exploration of specific ideas in greater depth. Subthemes are the specific themes used to develop individual interpretive services.

Characteristics common to all primary themes and subthemes include:

  • Each is based on the significances of resources.
  • Each is the essence of a story used to help visitors explore the multiple significances of resources.
  • Each connects resources to larger ideas, meanings, beliefs, and values.
  • Each is best stated as a single sentence that includes tangible and intangible elements. Single-sentence structure forces theme writers to focus their ideas. An interpretive theme is never stated as a topic. While topics can be useful in organizing a body of work, topics alone do not provide sufficient interpretive focus. Since topics are written in one or several words — such as geology, Southwest history, wildlife architecture, etc. — their meanings are too ambiguous to be useful as themes. Structuring themes as complete sentences ensures a more coherent development of related ideas.
  • Each incorporates universal concepts: big ideas that mean something to everyone, though not the same thing to everyone. The use of universal concepts enables a wide and diverse range of people to find personal paths of connection to the stories of the place and its resources.
  • Each provides opportunities for people to explore the meanings of the place and its resources, without telling people what resources should mean to them.

Primary interpretive themes flow from resource significances.

To provide opportunities for exploration, significances are translated into a set of stories called “primary interpretive themes.” Societies have always relied on the power of story to explore, clarify, and share ideas, meanings, and values that collectively constitute culture. Story is at the heart of human interaction, and at the heart of interpretation.

Primary interpretive themes are the broad, overarching stories that enable people to explore the significances of resources. They are factual significance statements that have been thoughtfully translated into stories. Care is taken to assemble the ideas, meanings, beliefs, and values that seem to best fit together as related groups of thought, anchored to the specific resources of a place. The set of primary interpretive themes is complete when it provides opportunities for people to explore and connect to the entire set of significances.

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The progressive flow of thematic interpretation.

Subthemes flow from primary interpretive themes.

Subthemes are derived from primary interpretive themes, are narrower in scope, and deeper in their treatment of the particular aspects of the resources they address. There is no end to the number of useful subthemes that can be derived from a primary interpretive theme. Like primary interpretive themes, subthemes link tangible resources to intangible ideas and meanings, and include universal concepts to increase interpretive relevance and effectiveness. Subthemes are the ideas that drive the development of specific interpretive services.

A subtheme, because of its narrower scope, is essential to providing a more useful focus for an exploration of ideas via a given interpretive service. Since effective storytelling moves from the specific to the general, interpreters routinely use subthemes to help visitors connect specific aspects of resources to bigger ideas.

Subthemes are also valuable because they allow specific interpretive services to achieve greater depth. They help the interpreter assist visitors in exploring more subtle and complex aspects of specific resources. Because all subthemes are derived directly from primary themes, all of the interpretive services offered to visitors foster increased understanding and appreciation of resource significances — the intended outcome of interpretation.

Interpretive services flow from subthemes.

Each subtheme lends itself to specific kinds of expression and specific types of interpretive services. Interpretive services developed from interpretive themes ensure an uninterrupted and direct linkage from resource significances, to the story format of primary interpretive themes, to the depth and focus of subthemes.

Intentionally building an interpretive service around the framework of a well-crafted theme also prevents the desired outcome of the service from being overshadowed or deflected by interpretive medium, technique, or personality. After all, it isn’t about the gadget. It isn’t even about the interpreter. Interpretation is about resources and meanings. Exploring meanings remains the central goal.

Ideas for specific interpretive services flow from an interpreter’s familiarity with resources and visitors. The initial inspiration may spring from many sources: an often-asked question, a dramatic view, a new discovery, etc. Regardless of origin, the design and presentation of every interpretive service should be driven by the strategic decision to tell a story that provides multiple opportunities for audiences to explore meanings.

Interpretation facilitates more meaningful experiences.

Providing opportunities for people to forge deeper connections to meaningful places and things is the mission of interpretation. Thematic interpretation, an outgrowth of the most fundamental of human communication systems (storytelling) is the most effective method for successfully, consistently, and systematically facilitating these connections — connections that often last a lifetime.

Significances and Primary Interpretive Themes:
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Set of Significance Statements

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park features Mauna Loa and Kilauea, two of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Mauna Loa — measured from its base deep beneath the surface of the sea to its peak — contains more material by volume than any other mountain on Earth.

The unusually high degree of approachability to the park’s active volcanism affords opportunities for fundamental and detailed research not duplicated (or even approached) in any other park in the world, offering relatively safe experiences with lava flows, fountains, and other products of active volcanism.

The long history and collaborative nature of the research performed by the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory and others at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have made Mauna Loa and Kilauea among the most studied and best understood volcanoes in the world.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park provides critical living space in a wide variety of ecological zones for the highly endemic native biota, much of which is threatened or endangered, requiring active management of native and non-native species.

The diversity and importance of the cultural resources in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — and the protection of natural features and processes afforded by national park status — combine to make Hawaii Volcanoes critically important to the perpetuation of traditional native Hawaiian religion and culture.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park encompasses the largest expanse of Hawaiian natural environment managed as wilderness, with the associated wilderness values of natural sounds, lack of mechanization and development, natural darkness, and opportunities for solitude.

The park’s resources are so rare, valuable, and inspirational to all the people of the world that the United Nations has declared the park an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park protects the most extensive tract of protected montane tropical rain forest in the National Park Service.

The structural complexity and isolation of the Hawaiian Islands and their active volcanic setting makes them a world-class living laboratory of biogeography and evolution. The protected status of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park lands offers important opportunities for this work to continue.

Set of Primary Interpretive Themes

The approachable, active volcanoes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park allow first-hand discovery of and connection with one of the most fundamental forces of our world — in both its creative and destructive roles.

The journeys of the Hawaiian people, who continue to inhabit these rich and diverse lands, include cultural clashes, adaptations, and assimilations that provide enduring lessons about human resourcefulness, interdependence, and respect for the life of the land.

In Hawaii, active volcanism created an isolated home for a few immigrant species that gave rise to a rich yet fragile endemic biota; due to the accelerating change brought about by human actions, much of that unique heritage continues to be lost to extinction, challenging all of us to learn from the past and work together to preserve the remaining native plants and animals.

Kilauea, the home of Pele, is sacred to many Native Hawaiians: it is a place of birth and the well-spring of many spirits and forces; the active volcanism, the features of the terrain, and the plants and animals that live there are all important to Native Hawaiian sense of identity, unity, and continuity.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park provides an opportunity for people to experience the values of Hawaii’s diverse wilderness; the park’s designation as a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve attests to its importance as a benchmark for monitoring environmental change.

Theme SheetSee a Full Example of a completed Theme Matrix


Excerpt from David Larsen’s Meaningful Interpretation, 2003

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