Interpretation centers upon an age-old dilemma: How can I explain? Most dictionary definitions of the word “interpret” offer such meanings as “to explain the meaning of, to conceive the significance of, to present or conceptualize the meaning of.”
Interpreters work to explain whatever is the immediate object of the beholder’s attention and curiosity. The art of interpretation differs from academic teaching in that it seeks to shape the intellectual and emotional content of a first-hand experience. Heritage interpretation always strives to enlighten people as to their interesting and significant surroundings. It never merely describes or recites; it reveals. It does not simply ask us to look; it asks us to imagine. Heritage interpretation places past cultural and natural environments before our mind’s eye.
Heritage interpretation is the instructive act of building context around what is sensibly apparent, exposing, in a sense, the architecture of meaning. As naturalist John Muir once said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Context is any setting or set of circumstances that lends interest or meaning to an individual, object, act or event. As intellectual reconstructions, “contexts” continually evolve as better models are better able to explain what is sensibly apparent. Since good interpretation sustains curiosity, it is an open-ended process.
Heritage interpretation employs the skills of storytelling. It communicates through a variety of media and techniques, working to correct and clarify people’s perceptions of what they have come to experience. An interpreter may choose to blend into the interpretive setting, recreating, for example, the dress, language, skills and activities of a past environment. Or an interpreter may choose to join his or her audience as investigators, exploring and conceptualizing the significance of interpretive clues. But good interpretation is always resource-driven; its themes contextualize and explain the resource; it avoids preconceptions in shaping its message.
Good interpretation tries to capture the “big picture,” yet condenses it into an accessible and digestible storyline. Interpretation only succeeds when it engages the visitor’s level of experience and interest. It builds from a statement of significance, conveying useful information on the meaning and lasting value of the resource. Good interpretation offers insights and does not merely impose conclusions or advocate causes. It leaves judgments to the visitor.
We should acknowledge, however, that present concerns continually reshape our interest in the past and draw our attention. In particular, we search history for insights into the human condition that may prove useful in some present or future context. Without a proven method for predicting future outcomes, we can only look to the past for a sense of how humans have reacted to similar sets of circumstances.
Good and sufficient information underlies all good interpretation. A system of research and development hones conceptualization, performance and content. Professional peer review and visitor response build confidence and ensure accuracy and balance.
Culture can be described as a set of adaptations, which a particular group of people make over time to a particular environment and its resource-based opportunities. The relationship is subtle and reciprocal: people shape the land even as the land shapes its inhabitants. We must recognize that New Jersey’s state parks, forests and historic sites preserve cultural landscapes with nary an untrampled acre of true wilderness — every forest is regrown, every stream diverted to human ends, every lake level raised, and every floral and faunal community manipulated by human activities. Both historical and naturalist interpretations arise from a common resource base.
New Jersey compresses every natural feature of the Atlantic slope — from Appalachian mountains to littoral sands — within a relatively short distance. It boasts many scenic works of nature, but few, other than the Delaware Water Gap, that may be described as filling grand vistas with monumental splendor in the way that the Grand Canyon does. New Jersey, however, encompasses many splendid and diverse cultural landscapes, from its mountains to its seashores. And our historic and natural heritage enriches us by its mere presence; the intricate web of life always evokes wonder and demands explanation.
The broad stream of history certainly flows in our midst. Speaking of New Jersey, the English historian Winterbotham, who published a history of the United States shortly after the Revolution, concluded that: “This State was the seat of the war for several years during the contest between England and America. Her proportionate loss of men and property was greater than any other of the thirteen colonies. While Washington was retreating through New Jersey, almost forsaken by all others, her militia were at all times obedient to his orders and, for a considerable length of time, composed the strength of his army, and the military achievements performed by New Jersey soldiers gives this State one of the first ranks among her sister states in a military way and entitles her to share praise that bears no proportion to her size.” And the story does not end there. Out of all proportion to her size, New Jersey also figures prominently in the political, military, cultural, commercial, industrial and technological development of the United States. But many people have come to believe that History is so remote in time and place that it has lost its power to inform our future. That is why it is now more important than ever to rediscover our Past in those places where it yet has the lively power to quicken the intellect and to enthuse the spirit.
Reviewing Interpretation in the National Park Service: A Historical Perspective, Barry Mackintosh writes:
“Generally speaking, historical parks need interpretation more than natural and recreational parks do. Natural parks, typically encompassing spectacular or outstandingly scenic natural features, may be enjoyed aesthetically by most visitors regardless of whether they understand the geologic or biologic phenomena underlying them. Relatively few visitors to parks established primarily for active recreation are receptive to interpretive programs. But although many historical parks have aesthetic appeal and some accommodate active recreation, few can be greatly appreciated without some explanation of who lived or what occurred there. At historical parks, too, altered or missing features are often restored or reconstructed to better ‘tell the story.’ In far greater proportion than at parks established for other purposes, the [National Park] Service's task at its historical areas — indeed, the basic rationale for its involvement with such areas — is interpretation.”
Institutional compression has made forest management and the interpretation of historic sites subsidiary to a system of recreational parks. This may unduly exaggerate the “recreational” aspects of historical interpretation and environmental education. Furthermore, with the advent of mass entertainment through cable television, the internet and “digital realities,” park interpretation competes with sophisticated nature shows and historical dramatizations for viewers’ attention. The advantage of heritage interpretation over both classroom and screen experiences resides in the inherent quality and value of the first-hand experience.
Oftentimes, scrutiny of a specimen or object opens the best approach to conceptualization in an interpretive environment — a specimen, for example, evidences advantageous adaptations to the particular ecological niche it fills. Likewise, an artifact offers insight into the world of its maker and users. The perception of “authenticity,” or “actuality,” powers the viewer’s imagination. Objects, appropriately described in relation to their original context, contribute significantly to our understanding of past persons, places and events. Arminta Neal, author of Exhibits for the Small Museum, knowingly said:
“A museum is the best device our culture has developed for the transmission of ideas to large numbers of people through the exhibition of genuine objects. This is a museum’s strength. This is what it can do better than any other kind of institution yet devised.”
The goals of the a good historical interpretation may be summarized as follows:
• Meeting the highest standards of scholarly research, develop good and sufficient information necessary to the fair, open-minded and inspired interpretation of our historic and natural resources.
• Relying only upon documented facts, interpretation must be accurate and not merely entertaining or agreeable to popular preconceptions.
• Recruit competent interpreters, possessed of the necessary communications skills, background knowledge and enthusiasm for their work.
• Train and equip them to do a professional job.
• Encourage a variety of interpretive strategies, methods and media, to reach the broadest possible audience.
• Address varying levels and fields of visitors’ interest and experience.
• Seek to inform and not to preach.
• Promote respect for the resource and infer the value of its preservation.
• Acknowledge disagreements and different points of view as helpful to the process of understanding.