Interpre-what?

I have a confession. Until today, I’ve never actually read “Interpreting our Heritage” by Freeman Tilden from cover to cover. I’ve read bits and pieces, I know his six principles of interpretation (more on those later) and I was aware that he is something of an authority on interpretation. He wrote that book in 1957 and some would consider it to be a rather dry text. Freeman Tilden is often called “The Father of Interpretation” he was one of the first to put down solid ideas and principles in this new and ambiguous field of work.

However, having spent the last three days sailing through this short book I found it to be interesting, colorful, inspiring and affirming of my own values and principles, not just in interpretation but in life as well. The book is just full of delightful gems and revelations, I’m not sure however if someone who is not an interpreter would appreciate this or not, I would hope so!

I take my job as an interpreter very seriously. I am in the unique position to have an impact on people, to challenge them, to share new things with them, to get them thinking about something new, to spark that inherit curiosity. Tilden wrote a “dictionary” definition of interpretation as follows: “An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects by firsthand experience, by illustrative media, rather than to simple communicate factual information.”  He then goes on to explain that this definition is objective, that “The true interpreter will not rest at any dictionary definition. Besides being ready in his information and studious in his use of research, he goes beyond the apparent to the real, beyond a part to a whole, beyond a truth to a more important truth.”

It all sounds rather philosophical doesn’t it? In a way that’s exactly what interpretation is.  Lets use the Beaver for an example; The North American Beaver is one of the largest rodents in North America, they can weigh up to 60 pounds, they use their big front teeth to cut down trees for lodges, dams and food, they have clear eyelids so they can see underwater, and big flat tails to use as a propeller and rudder, they were once highly sought after for their furs, but are now often considered a pest.

The information I just gave you may be interesting to some, especially if you’re already interested in wildlife. But imagine that you went to a park and attended a nature program, that was held indoors during the rain and the interpreter stood in front of you and said more or less exactly what I wrote. They told you a string of facts. Are you asleep yet? Because I would be. Interpreters are often frustrated and confused when visitors don’t appear interested in the information he has so carefully researched and assembled, they forget that most people don’t specialize in the life and times of mr. beaver. Further more, they forget sometimes that they must provoke not inform, they must tell the whole picture not just a part. What more could there be you ask? How do you take that list of facts and make it interesting? How do you get the business man from the city, the suburban soccer-mom and technophile kids excited, or at the very least interested, about beavers?

Techniques and principles aside, there is one key ingredient that can make or break an interpeter. Love.  What does love have to do with beavers you say? It really has nothing to do with beavers, but everything to do with interpreting. “If you love the thing you interpret, and love the people who come to enjoy it, you need commit nothing to memory, for if you love the thing, you not only have taken pains to understand it to the limit of your capacity, but you also feel it’s special beauty in the general richness of life’s beauty.” Love is what sets apart recordings and scripted talks, from true interpretation which is based on revelation. Love will bring the beaver and his role in the world to life. If you ever been to a museum or park or living history site and listened to the uninspired, unpassionate interpreter you know how terrible it can be, on the other hand have you ever listened to someone who is so passionate about what they are talking about that you can’t help but start to feel passionate about it too? At least for a little while.

Allow me to set the scene, it’s a warm sunny day and you are gathered in a small clearing in the woods to learn about the beaver from a park naturalist. Rather than droning on and on about all the “interesting” facts about beavers in a talk laden with scientific and technical terms, the interpreter might open his talk with a question, or a very exciting fact; “Did you know that beavers, second only to humans, have the biggest impact on their environment?” well that’s amazing! He would then go on to tell you a story about how beavers find their mates, build dams to create ponds so they can build lodges that have underwater entrances. He might explain how they stockpile saplings and branches in underwater pantries, if you will, so they have a ready food source come cold weather. He would talk about them raising their kits (baby beavers) until they’re about 2 years old who then embark to start their own family. He would probably explain to the anatomy of a beaver, we’ll need a volunteer for that. The technophile kid is called up and as the interpeter explains all the different parts of the beaver he begins to dress the kid. A pair of flippers are put on to represent the webbed feet of the beavers, a raincoat for their waterproof fur, goggles for the clear eyelids and a nose-plug because the beaver can close his nostrils to keep out water, a paddle is held comically behind the kid to represent the beavers tail. And so through those simple acts the interpreter is able to illustrate effectively the different elements of the beaver that gives him the greatest advantage in his environment. The human-beaver is then relieved of his accessories and given a warm round of applause and will probably always remember that time he got dressed up like a beaver. With any luck the interpreter also has a few beaver pelts or maybe a stuffed beaver and might talk about how the fur of this small animal shaped the development of North America, how traders and trappers pushed into the wilderness seeking these furs to sell them back to the east coast and Europe where they were turned into the extremely fashionable beaver felt hats. Entire communities and towns were founded on the fur trade, millions of dollars crossed hands as furs were sold and exchanged, all because of one little animal.

That is just one small example of interpretation based on revelation, I hope that begins to illustrate for you some of the ideas and principles behind interpretation. Tomorrow marks the first day of the work season for me, which is in fact one of my favorite days. “Interpreter training.” We spend the whole day talking about what makes good a good interpreter, we go over techniques, principles, examples of good and bad interpretation, I always thoroughly enjoy it.

Next time I’ll talk a bit about what’s involved in getting our seasonal historic sites ready for the public!

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3 thoughts on “Interpre-what?

  1. When we went to the small historical village near KC, the “grocer” was an interpreter like you described. he loved what he did and the era he “lived” in. I could have spent hours talking and learning from him, but your mom made me leave. Don’t you wish all teachers would have the same passion?

  2. darn mom! Yes, I think we’d have a very different education system, and students for that matter, if all teachers had at least an ounce of that kind of passion!

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