6 principles of heritage interpretation

24 01 2011

It is always interesting to look at parallel fields when looking for inspiration and advice: don’t reinvent the wheel as they say. Science presenting shares a great many similarities with the field of Heritage Interpretation and in 1957 a man called Freeman Tilden wrote a classic book called, Interpreting our Heritage.

Heritage Interpretation refers to the activities carried out by guides whether they be in stately homes or state parks. “In most [heritage sites] the visitor is exposed, if he chooses, to a kind of elective education that is superior in some respects to that of the classroom, for here he meets the Thing itself- whether it be a wonder of Nature’s work, or the act or work of Man.” Tilden explains.

The similarities with live science presenting are striking for science presenters also aim to demonstrate “the Thing itself”- live science- in a way that is “superior in some respects to that of the classroom”.

So what can we learn from Tilden? Well, the prime motivation for this blog is to promote the idea that presenters and presentations can improve through reflective practice. We can all get better at what we do and we should all be striving so to do. I have written about this explicitly in a post called: Evaluating Shows

Tilden tells us in 1957 Interpretation has been performed- excellent, good, fair, and unsatisfactory- with only a vague reference to any philosophy upon which Interpretation could be based. This mirrors live science presenting in 2011. Most science presenters do not give much thought to why and how they present their science- and why should they as this is generally not encouraged or practised in their field?

Tilden “wish[es] heartily that there were some teachable principles, and perhaps some schools for interpreters.” He suggests 6 principles of heritage interpretation that I think can be applied to what we do as science presenters. And 5 of the principles fit beautifully into the three questions model I have proposed: where’s the science? who’s the audience? and what’s the story?

Tilden’s 6 Principles of Heritage Interpretation (source)

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. (who’s the audience?)

2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information. (where’s the science?)

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. (what’s the story?)

5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase. (what’s the story?)

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. (who’s the audience?)

I think we can learn from all of the principles and I encourage you to think about what each means in terms of the shows you present. I find it gratifying that 5 out of the 6 closely mirror what I have written about having been inspired by conversations with other science presenters- we are obviously onto something even if we are over half a century behind Tilden. But it is most encouraging to read the principle that doesn’t fit into my three questions: number 3.

Here I think we can read a very encouraging message. Tilden believes that science presenting and Heritage interpretation are both arts that we can get better at performing as long as we take the time to evaluate what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are going about it. What we do is a “teachable” skill. Whether we choose teach ourselves or get taught by others there is lots to learn about science presenting and we can all improve.

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