Interpretation - in person vs in print

Interpretation - in person vs in print

“The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.”

In her first class with us this term, Nancy put up a slide with that quote from Freeman Tilden on it, and while I wouldn’t have called it a “theme” prior to reading chapter 7 of Sam Ham’s book Interpretation – Making a Difference on Purpose, I can hardly think of it as anything but now:

As Dr. Ham explains in the beginning of this chapter, a strong theme:

1)   provokes its audience to think,

2)   attracts attention and creates curiousity, and

3)   begs for additional detail and development because of the intrigue it creates (through its relevance to the audience).

(Ham, 2013, p 122)

Sure enough, Tilden’s quote made me think: provocation is often considered a negative result, but here he expresses its potential as a positive outcome. Furthermore, my curiousity was piqued about the person from whom this quotation came, so I did a little digging and, perhaps a bit unsurprisingly, found that in developing his Thematic Interpretation framework, Ham built on the foundations laid by Freeman Tilden’s development of Heritage Interpretation.

Tilden wrote for the U.S. National Park Service in the latter part of his career, after first enjoying much success as a journalist, then novelist and playwright. Although also producing many other publications, Tilden is perhaps best known for Interpreting Our Heritage, which he published at the age of 74 and in which he laid out the following 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 on 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 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

(Tilden, 1957)

I include this diversion into Tilden’s work because I think it’s worth noting not only how clearly one can see his influence in Ham’s work but, additionally, how they both echo the principles of good writing and storytelling, particularly with regard to relevance, provoking thought and including “information” or “facts” in your writing without relying on that “information” to comprise the entirety of your writing (Lloyd Davis often refers to this as “putting science in a bun”). It makes complete sense to me, then, that Ham’s work was influenced by the work of Tilden who had enjoyed a successful career as both a journalist and fiction author.  


Indeed, the steps Ham describes for strengthening a first draft theme made me recall the exercise Lloyd had us do in SCOM 403 for developing the three characteristics of “a focused angle” of a creative nonfiction science piece:

·      Unity – one sentence summary of your article

·      Action – strong action verbs attract editors and readers

·      Specificity – what particularly you will cover that is new and interesting

So in the field of Interpretation, is “a theme” the same as a “focused angle” for writing? It would seem from the development process that the only difference is that one is delivered in person while the other is in print, and so one might have more appeal than the other depending on the audience but…are there other differences? And what about the outcomes – do they differ based on delivery vehicle?

Tilden identified his ultimate goal of interpretation by quoting from an obscure U.S. National Park Service administration manual:

 “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection”

                                                                                                            (1957, p38) 

In 2009, Ham published a paper analysing the validity of that quotation from the perspective of cognitive science and found that the research record does, in fact, support that quotation: although we may not necessarily “protect” the things we come to understand and appreciate in a traditional sense, we do tend to care more about them and that care can take a number of different forms.

Unfortunately, this ultimate goal of interpretation is only briefly alluded to at the end of the assigned chapter, where Ham asks the readers to consider whether a theme that provokes any kind of thought is as valuable as one that provokes certain kinds of thought. He promises a discussion in the following chapter about “how much latitude you should allow” (2013, p143) between the personal themes that develop in the minds of your audience members as a result of your interpretation and the theme you developed/around which your interpretation was crafted. I presume it is these personal themes that feed one’s appreciation for a topic, and thus whether or not it should be “protected”.

The idea that there is the possibility to control the outcomes after the experience gives me pause; I’m not sure a similar mechanism exists in creative nonfiction writing – once it’s out there, it’s out there, no?

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