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Freeman Tilden - The Father of Heritage Interpretation: People of the Parks Past Series #8

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Freeman Tilden (August 22, 1883 – May 13, 1980) is known as the Father of Heritage Interpretation and lived to be 97 years old. Tilden was the first author to ever provide a definition for the field of interpretation: “An educational activity 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.” He’s famous for writing the book Interpreting Our Heritage in 1957. In this book he laid down the principles and theories of park interpretation that would inspire interpreters across the world for future generations to come.

Freeman, Tilden 1957

The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. - Freeman Tilden

Freeman was not a trained environmental educator or interpreter, instead he was a writer from a young age. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that he began to write about National Parks which he believed to be a symbol of America’s natural and cultural heritage. Some of his early publications include The National Parks: What They Mean to You and Me in 1951, and The State Parks: The Meaning of American Life.

Freeman, Tilden 1951

Interpretation is the revelation of a larger truth that lies behind any statement of fact - Freeman Tilden

As an employee of the National Park Service his responsibilities included traveling to numerous National Parks so he could observe and record the presentations and habits of Park Rangers as they delivered educational programs to visitors. He complied these notes and began to lay the foundation for interactive, provocative interpretation. In his studies lie the ingenuity of high-quality pioneers, people who were educating in engaging ways before the book was even written. These were his study subjects, he took what he seen that worked, and created a compilation of techniques and principles.

Today Freeman is an icon for interpretation and his book Interpreting Our Heritage is held in high regards, not only by National Park Service, but California State Parks, East Bay Regional Parks and other agencies that provide interpretive services. On page 38 Freeman’s most famous quote can be found, “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”

Freeman, Tilden

Tilden’s 6 Principles of Heritage 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.

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