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Interpretation in the 21st Century – Purpose, Philosophy, Principles, and Practice

NPS Interpretive Development Program

Updated Interpretation and Education

Foundations of Interpretation:  Purpose

The primary purpose of interpretation is to enrich people’s lives through meaningful learning experiences and enjoyable recreation; preserve and protect natural and cultural resources through broad collaboration and shared stewardship; and inspire social and environmental consciousness to build community and sustain the health of the planet.[1]

Foundations of Interpretation: Philosophy

Interpretation explores the primary reasons for preserving natural and cultural resources. These resources represent who we are as a society, what we value, where we have been, and—most importantly—inform our shared future. Interpretation also fosters active participation in society by building skills for exploring complex questions and issues to create a more sustainable, free, and equitable world. Through interpretation, participants and practitioners alike develop understanding, empathy, and respect for the perspectives of others.

The reach of interpretation stretches beyond physical boundaries and strict reading of enabling legislation, exploring a resource’s contemporary significances and the perspectives of diverse audiences, thereby helping people view historical, cultural, and environmental legacies as evolving. It analyzes past actions and considers the essential questions these places pose to society today. Critical access to and exploration of authentic sites and their evolving stories help us to understand ourselves and our world.

Principles and Practice

Design and facilitation of interpretation in the 21st century is resource-based and audience-centered. Interpretation facilitates intellectual and emotional connections to the meanings and value of parks—to help audiences care about these places so audiences will care for them. It is grounded in existing interpretive theories, tenets, and practices, and is responsive to evolving 21st century demands. To meet those needs, interpretation today provides a range of opportunities for connection, contribution, collaboration, and co-creation to continuously learn from and with audiences. Audiences are stakeholders and primary contributors to the meaning-making process.

21st Century Interpretation is:

  • Investigative: Exploring multiple perspectives and truths ascribed to resources; synthesizing scientific and historical evidence, national significance, and current context
  • Participatory: Inviting audiences to interact with the resource and each other, enriching experiences through an active exchange of ideas
  • Collaborative: Directly meeting community needs through strong, mutually-beneficial relationships
  • Skills-Focused:  Building skills for a 21st century civil society, inspiring lifelong learning and active engagement

To achieve mutual learning, build new skills and create collaborative relationships, practitioners must adopt an audience centered ethic and practice. The audience-centered ethic is the belief that audiences’ perspectives and contributions add critical richness to the evolving legacy and values of the nation. The practice is to elicit participation and contribution from an audience and community to build skills and mutual learning.

How Did We Get Here?

Audio described version also available.

How to Use these Competencies

The competency descriptions that follow provide guideposts for implementing 21st century interpretation.
They describe the broad categories of knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors needed by interpreters and educators to accomplish the critical work described above. These competencies focus on technical interpretive skills, and are supported by the NPS Universal and key Leadership competencies.[2]

Competencies are just one tool to help meet professional standards in serving the American public and fulfilling the mission of the National Park Service. Competencies outline the skillsets employees need to acquire and demonstrate in order to meet the work expectations and yearly milestones described in Standard Position Descriptions and Employee Performance Appraisal Plans. Standards-based training curriculum and learning plans support the employee in acquiring new skills and honing their confidence and effectiveness to do their job.

The Foundations of Interpretation Competencies for the 21st Century are supported by an expanding suite of learning opportunities and resources which can be located in the Common Learning Portal (CLP). Interpreters and educators are encouraged to add to this collection of learning resources as they develop additional tools and ideas for training and coaching in parks.


[1] The purpose of Interpretation in the 21st Century was collaboratively derived from the Advancing the National Park Idea: National Parks Second Century Commission Report; the Interpretive Skills Vision Paper—21st Century National Park Service and the standard Position Description for the full-performance Interpretive Park Ranger.

[2] These technical competencies apply to all interpretive and educational work in the National Park Service and are grounded in previous interpretive philosophy. These competency descriptions will be reviewed and updated periodically with peer input and participation. Educational practitioners may have additional technical competencies.

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