HDC Library & Resources

History of Heritage Interpretation

How the art and science of heritage interpretation began...

How did it all start and where do the strategies, techniques and principles of heritage interpretation communication actually come from?

The field of heritage interpretation communication, both as a technique and as a profession began back in the 1950s in the US National Park Service.

The guiding principles of heritage interpretation communication were originally conceived by Freeman Tilden in his ground-breaking book "Interpreting our heritage" in 1957.

Tilden, following in the footsteps of John Muir and Enos Mills, developed the principles of heritage interpretation. His inspiring principles soon became the basis of the visitor engagement strategy used by the US National Park Service in conducting their public tours and educational programs.

Today heritage interpretation communication strategies are used by educators, interpreters, and communication professional working in a wide range of visitor contact areas such as museums, zoos, botanical gardens, parks, historic sites, reserves, industrial heritage sites, scenic byways – any place we want to impart the story or essence of a site to visitors.

Heritage interpretation professionals translate the story of an artefact, site or other related message from the language of the expert to the language of the visitor. This is where the role of heritage interpretation communication and its key importance to heritage tourism really begins.

Where do the strategies, techniques and principles of heritage interpretation communication come from?

It is important to remember that the heritage interpretation communication process did not spontaneously appear one day and it is not limited to visitor centres, museums and hiking trails!

Most of the fundamental principles of the heritage interpretation process were conceived by Freeman Tilden in the 1950s.

Today we are touched by those same heritage interpretation communication principles and techniques every time we watch a documentary on TV, read a good novel, see a magazine, radio or TV advertisement or attend a stage play!

Heritage interpretation communication is a wonderful mix of communication principles borrowed from a variety of other professions. Anyone wanting to seriously work in heritage interpretation communication should have a good working knowledge of the following disciplines:

- Journalism
- Tourism
- Marketing
- Psychology
- Teaching and learning principles
- Non-formal & adult education theory
- Public relations
- Advertising
- Presentations
- Copy writing
- Destination management
- Business management
- Human resource management
- Visitor research
- Planning
- Academic research
- Finance
- Media planning
- Graphic design principles
- Economic development
- Customer relations

Quite a list!

However it is this mix of skills that equips today’s heritage interpretation communication professional with the tools to deliver objective based heritage interpretation that achieves results.