What is Interpretation?
There are many definitions of interpretation from Freeman Tilden, “Interpretation aims to reveal meanings and relationships through original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information” to the National Association of Interpretation’s “Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource.” After twenty-plus years, I still say, “It depends on who is asking.”
Interpretation is a process of defining communication goals and making goal-driven decisions. But the goals depend on the type of organization and its mission. For me, communications goals need to move beyond what we want audiences to know about the resources they encounter to how we want audiences to be changed by the encounter. I often ask my clients, “What do we want our visitors to become? How do we hope that they increase their empathy, build tolerance or transform their thinking? How are we equipping them to make sense of their world?” These are lofty goals to be sure, but such goals fuel creativity and purpose.
A good interpretive process digs deep to uncover unspoken expectations and assumptions. Even mission-driven organizations have market expectations and economic motivations. All organizations make assumptions about audiences. A comprehensive interpretive process identifies strategies for testing these assumptions.
An interpretive plan documents reasonable expectations and assumptions, provides a variety of creative approaches to connect audiences with objects and ideas, and, most importantly, provides a framework for an organization to prioritize their efforts to build lasting conversations with their audiences.