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Tilden’s Six Principles

The History of Meaning Making

In his 1957 book Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden tried to define the craft of interpretation: “Heritage interpretation is an educational activity,” he wrote, “which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” To help interpreters make those meanings, he defined six principles of interpretation:

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
  2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.
  3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.
  4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
  5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
  6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

For the past 50 years, Tilden’s principles have remained useful to interpreters across the world. Even the roots of the newest interpretive revolution in audience-centered experience reach back to Tilden’s definition of the craft.

 Additional Reading

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.

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  1. Tilden’s Six Principles form the foundations of our practice of interpretation. Today, as interpretation embraces the philosophy and practice of creating an audience-centered experience, Tilden’s principles continue to be just as relevant and applicable.

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  2. As interpretation evolves and Audience Centered Experiences become a critical part of our discussion about interpretation, I am reminded of Tilden’s Six Principles. We are not throwing out Tilden! I see hesitation about ACE from some fellow interpreters because I think that’s what they think ACE intends to do. But all those principles still apply. And the first principle is what ACE is all about. For as long as I can remember, in the NPS we have decried the fact that our staff and our visitors do not reflect the population of our nation at large. I really believe that by employing ACE, we will listen more, and we can learn from our visitors what is important and meaningful to them. When we talk of diversity, that must also include a diversity of opinions and values. We aren’t giving our visitors their voice; they already have that. ACE means for us to listen to those voices.

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