Freeman Tilden

Freeman Tilden - Father of Heritage Interpretation

Father of Heritage Interpretation

The heritage interpretation work we do at HDC International is based on the inspirational writings of the father of heritage interpretation, Freeman Tilden.

Freeman Tilden was born in Malden in Massachusetts in 1883. He began his writing as a book reviewer for his father's newspaper. Later, he worked as a reporter for newspapers in Boston, New York and Charleston before settling down to write novels and plays.

As a writer Freeman Tilden was able to travel around the world, however in the 1940s, Tilden tired of writing fiction, and with the encouragement of director Newton B. Drury, began to write about the National Parks in the USA.

His first book "The National Parks: What They Mean to You and Me" was published in 1951. Publisher Alfred Knopf called it "....the best book ever written" on the subject". Other works included, "The State Parks, Following the Frontier", and "The Fifth Essence".

Arguably Freeman Tilden's most important and influential work was "Interpreting Our Heritage", published in 1957.

In 1962 Freeman Tilden received the Pugsley Medal, “For providing through his discerning observations, penetrating analyses and distinguished writing, a nationwide understanding of the purposes and objectives of national and state parks and the principles relating to their selection, establishment, use, and management.”

The citation went on to say, “Through his studies and writings, Freeman Tilden has exerted an exceptional influence on the park conservation programs of this country.”

With the publication of Interpreting Our Heritage, he gave form and substance to the profession of heritage interpretation. In that slim volume, Tilden articulated six timeless fundamental principles that have guided and sustained the art of heritage interpretation ever since.

Freeman Tilden's six principles of interpretive communication

  • 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.

  • Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

  • Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is to some degree teachable.

  • The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

  • Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole person rather than any phase.

  • 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.

Freeman Tilden was widely revered as a teacher, mentor, and philosopher. Many of us have heroes; people who, through their words and deeds have enriched our lives; people whom we strive to emulate. To countless interpreters Freeman Tilden is such a person. To many he is the “father of interpretation” and with the dedication and love of a "happy amateur," Freeman Tilden has enabled generations of interpreters to add the dimensions of provocation, meaning, and relevance to the experience of millions of visitors.

Thank you Freeman!

Freeman died on May 13, 1980, at the age of 96.