• Pages 224
  • Language English
  • Publishing date 2007
  • Cost $45.95

Interpreting our Heritage


Interpreting our Heritage Book Review

While many people have heard the names John Muir, Henry Thoreau and Ansel Adams in connection with outdoor life is the USA, unless you are in the heritage interpretation field most will not be familiar with the name Freeman Tilden. Tilden is considered the ‘father of heritage interpretation’ and this may be an odd connection with hiking. Tilden’s work has rippled throughout the field of outdoor interpretation, not just in the USA but also worldwide, with many of his concepts filtering into how to interpret and interact with our outdoor spaces.

Tilden’s first book titled The National Parks: What They Mean to You and Me was published in 1951 and in 1957 he released the first edition of Interpreting our Heritage which has now become a seminal text for anyone working in national parks and recreation areas, and for those interested in how we interpret them. While Tilden passed away in 1980 at the age of 96, the book Interpreting our Heritage continues to be reprinted and sold.

While essentially a foundational text for outdoor interpretation, Interpreting our Heritage it is not written as a textbook. Tilden’s early writing was in the field of fiction and given his philosophy on interpretation listed below, it’s not surprising this principles show through in this book in the same way being an enjoyable and interesting read as text books go.

In the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s, museums and cultural institutions were all about glass cases and stuffed animals with minimal context. I can remember visiting a number of these institutions even in the early 1970s and many of them appeared to be on death’s door with sleepy guards and dwindling visitation. It wasn’t until they started to provide relevant context and tried to connect to us as humans,  did visitor numbers increase. Tilden’s philosophy can be boiled down to the follow six principles.

Freeman Tilden’s six principles of interpretive communication

  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 to 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 person 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

These principles while aimed at national parks and nature reserves are also a cornerstone of bricks and mortar institutions. Certainly Tilden wasn’t by any means to be the first person to connect the dots in this manner but his writings were the first to gain any serious traction.

The opening pages of the book Interpreting our Heritage provides an introduction to Tilden before setting out the six interpretation principles. The first section of this book is dedicated to expanding on these principles.

Part two proceeds to a more theoretical slant with one quote that really caught my eye when Tilden talks about interpretation. His view is rather than starting at the point of ‘what do I want to say‘ (as the interpretation expert), but rather ‘what does the reader want to see and hear‘! The interpretation materials that really resonate with me are the ones that come across as having been written for me personally rather than those that just regurgitate facts and figures without context.

The lasts section of the book refers to some of Tilden’s later writing beyond the original concepts.

While the original releases of this book were solely Tilden’s work the current version has an introduction and forward by contributing writers. This book is firmly aimed at those working in the area of interpretation of parks and recreation areas and can’t really be classed as a light and fluffy read. But if you are into the theory of how interpretation material should be developed for recreation areas, then this is a good option.

Chapter headings

  • Part 1
    1. Principles of interpretation
    2. The visitor’s first interest
    3. Raw material and its product
    4. The story’s the thing
    5. Not instruction but provocation
    6. toward a perfect whole
    7. For the younger min
  • Part 2
    • The written word
    • Past into present
    • Nothing in excess
    • The mystery of beauty
    • The priceless ingredient
    • Of gadgetry
    • The happy amateur
    • Vistas of beauty
  • Part 3
    • Mindsight: The aim of interpretation
    • The elderly schoolma’am: Nature
    • The constructive aspect of inaction
    • Two concord men in a boat
    • An interpretive ideal
  • Index

We Like

  • While originally printed in 1957, the material in this seminal book is still relevant today
  • Not a light and fluffy read but as theoretical books go, it’s not a difficult read

We Don't Like

  • For heritage interpretation buffs only

Buy One

You can purchase the  Interpreting our Heritage Book from Amazon Australia or Amazon USA

Disclosure:  We may earn a small commission, at no additional expense to you, if you click through and make a purchase. Please note that our affiliations do not influence, in any way, the independence of our reviews. If we don’t like a product, you’ll hear about it from us!


AUD$45.99 RRP.    Purchasing from Amazon USA is often the cheaper option as this book has become expensive to purchase

Interpreting our Heritage – book cover view

What’s inside


This review was done with product purchased by Australian Hiker

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