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Interpretive Themes: Saying Something Meaningful (Legacy)

“The mediocre teacher tells.
The good teacher explains.
The superior teacher demonstrates.
The great teacher inspires.”
—William Arthur Ward

Most interpreters have an affinity for combining their knowledge, enthusiasm, and people skills to tell stories. Some are naturally gifted and intuitively transform seemingly mundane information into meaningful and engaging presentations.

As valuable as natural ability is, interpretive products and services are more powerful with the disciplined application of the tools of the profession.

Freeman Tilden described interpretation as art. Artists use tools to express meaning. A jazz pianist studies musical theory in order to improvise. Sculptors master chisel and mallet to release forms only they can see.

Perhaps the most powerful interpretive tool is the interpretive theme.

A tool that cohesively develops an idea or ideas.

The best way to reveal meaning is through the expression of an idea. An interpretive product must develop an idea or ideas cohesively to be relevant, provocative, and meaningful throughout its delivery. An idea provides a platform for the audience to consider, react to, build upon, appropriate, and transform.

A meaningful idea provides opportunities for audiences to make their own connections to the meanings of the resource. Without the cohesive development of a relevant idea or ideas, interpretive services are merely collections of related information, chronological narrative, or haphazard arrays of tangible/intangible links — they do not accomplish the desired outcomes of interpretation.

A successfully developed interpretive theme emerges from the delivery of the product and the exploration of the idea or ideas. When used well, a theme provides a focus that encourages audiences to consider resource meanings and understand and appreciate the resource in ways they otherwise might have missed.

An interpretive theme helps interpreters affect the audience by providing focus for the audiences’ personal connections. It articulates a reason or reasons for caring about and for the resource. Using a theme, an interpreter hopes to provoke the audience to know the resource is meaningful and feel that its preservation matters.

Interpreters are not the only professionals who use information to say something meaningful. Scientists arrange information in a way that explains how nature works. Similarly, historians research the past and sort and order evidence to understand the relationships of people and events.

A single sentence that expresses meaning.

An interpretive theme statement summarizes, articulates, and distills the interpretive theme. Expressed in a single sentence, an interpretive theme statement forces the interpreter to think clearly about what he or she is saying.

It is the artistic creation of the interpreter based upon the significance of the site. It is the expression of what the interpreter and organization knows to be meaningful about the resource in language audiences can connect to their own experience.

The interpretive theme statement can and usually should be stated in an interpretive product because it can help make the central focus clear to the audience. However, its real purpose and success is as a tool that guides the development and presentation of the whole interpretive product.

Crafting a meaningful interpretive theme statement may be the hardest part of developing an effective interpretive product.

It takes discipline. Successful interpreters frequently draft a theme statement and discover it does not convey the insight and emotion they wish to present — and choose to redraft.

It is equally common to stick with a theme statement and change the program’s tangible/intangible links and opportunities for connections to resource meanings. Most often the process is a struggle requiring repeated adjustment, focused effort, and time.

Links a tangible resource to its intangible meanings.

An interpretive theme statement links a tangible resource to an intangible meaning. That’s what makes it interpretive.

If a statement ties a tangible resource to information and describes or elaborates on the tangible resource, it is a factual or informational statement. Factual statements are used to develop services for audiences who are only interested in information or, perhaps, for safety or preservation messages.

Organizes an interpretive product or service.

An interpretive theme statement is the tool that cohesively develops the central relevant idea or ideas for the audience. It provides an organizational compass that guides the selection of tangible/intangible links that — arranged in an order that “adds up” to the interpretive theme — must be developed into opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections to the meanings of the resource. Each opportunity for connection to meaning can also be stated in a single sentence that ties the tangible resource to an intangible meaning. Each opportunity for connection, in turn, illustrates an element of the theme.

A product or service lacks focus and power if it includes information, links, and opportunities for connection that are not related to the theme or is missing links and opportunities that support the theme. It will then not be cohesively developed. Likely, the interpreter who delivers such a product isn’t sure about the meaning or meanings he or she is attempting to reveal.

An interpretive theme statement might contain more than one idea. These more complicated interpretive themes usually require more tangible/intangible links developed into opportunities for connections to meanings.

Compelling interpretive themes link a tangible resource to a universal concept.

One of Freeman Tilden’s principles holds that all interpretation must be personally relevant to the audience. Interpretive themes that are the most broadly relevant — and the most powerful — connect a tangible resource to a universal concept. The interpretive theme statement, and therefore the main idea or ideas of an interpretive product, should always contain a universal concept.

A universal concept is an intangible meaning that has significance to almost everyone, but may not mean exactly the same thing to any two people. They are the ideas, values, challenges, relationships, needs, and emotions that speak fundamentally to the human condition.

Processes, systems, some ideas, challenges, relationships, and needs — other intangible meanings that are not universal concepts — can and should also be linked to the tangible resource. Interpreters use these links to develop opportunities for connection and build to and support larger and more powerful meaning(s) stated in the interpretive theme’s universal concept.

Expresses significance and meaning but is not a “take-home message.”

The measure of interpretive success is not the audience’s ability to parrot the interpreter’s theme. Rather, it is the audiences’ personal and meaningful connections to the resource.

Interpreters are most effective when audiences understand the meanings being explored and are able to relate them to their own lives — agreeing, disagreeing, adding to, or taking from them. Interpreters use themes to cohesively develop ideas that say something important and powerful so they can provoke and assist personal connections — not merely transfer an idea to another person.


Excerpt from David Larsen’s Meaningful Interpretation, 2003

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