Meeting people where they are: Reinterpreting Freeman Tilden

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This is an image of the 50th-anniversary cover of Tilden's book Interpreting our Heritage. It includes a green-toned photograph of Tilden outside, a full-color photograph of Revolutionary war-era soldiers outside near log buildings and a fire in the winter, and the book's title and author information.

Cover of the fiftieth-anniversary edition of Tilden’s “Interpreting Our Heritage.” Image credit: UNC Press.

Editors’ Note: This is one of two posts reflecting on a working group that met at the 2019 National Council on Public History Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut.

In his 1957 book Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden attempted to provide one of the first working definitions of what it means to interpret history and nature to public audiences. Using his experience as an interpreter for the National Park Service as a basis to formulate his views, Tilden established six principles to serve as the basis of effective interpretation. Central to Tilden’s principles was the idea that interpretation was a dynamic, creative process that went beyond the simple conveyance of information. He argued that interpreters were artists who told stories that were relevant and provocative and spoke “to the whole man.” In one example from Interpreting Our Heritage, Tilden passionately asserted that Civil War battlefields were not just places “where regiments moved this way and that like checkers on a board,” but instead places where visitors could learn about U.S. history through the personal experiences of the soldiers who fought on the battlefields.[1]

For the 2019 NCPH Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut, public historian Allison Horrocks and I co-facilitated a working group about Interpreting Our Heritage. Our group tried to place the book within its historical context while also discussing the usefulness of Tilden’s ideas moving forward. The group’s thirteen members offered a range of perspectives about Interpreting Our Heritage. My perspective is that a good amount of the book’s ideas need revising. While the general spirit of Tilden’s emphasis on achieving relevance and establishing personal connections with visitors still resonates with me, I would argue that Tilden comes up short for contemporary public historians because he rarely discusses the perspectives visitors bring to the interpretive experience. Tilden conceived the art of interpretation as a largely one-sided process. In his view, visitors came to historic sites as empty vessels waiting to be filled by interpreters with extensive knowledge. But interpretation—and public history more broadly—is about meeting people where they are in their learning journey, not the other way around.

Historic sites serve as informal learning spaces that are open to people of all ages and backgrounds. While these sites have mission statements and may undertake evaluations to measure the success of their programming, unlike a traditional classroom setting, visitors are not required to take a test or produce a research paper outlining what they learned during their visit. Ten people might take a tour of a historic home and come away with ten different conclusions about the significance of the home and the people who lived there. Sometimes a visitor to a particular site doesn’t recognize the significance of their visit until many years after the experience. For staff members, it is gratifying to hear a person admit that although they have minimal interest in history, they enjoyed learning something new. Ultimately, however, effective public history should change people and the ways they think about the world.

Inspired by Tilden, I propose three ideas for how interpreters might help visitors advance in their learning journeys. I am not the first person to make these recommendations, but they serve as bedrock principles for my definition of what it means to meet people where they are:

Inclusive, Accurate History: Public historians today are taught the importance of sharing multiple perspectives. Whether documenting historical records, creating a museum exhibit, or giving a tour, public historians interpret through a range of perspectives. In the United States, the case for multiple perspectives is often framed as a reaction to or reflection of “changing demographics,” what the Pew Research Center defines as a country that is becoming more “racially and ethnically diverse.” But it’s important to remember that the country’s demographics are always changing, and have done so in one way or another since its founding. Women, people of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people with disabilities have always played a role in shaping American history; the problem is that for too long these perspectives were marginalized and erased from the popular narratives told at historic sites. Indeed, many sites continue to marginalize these perspectives today.

Inclusive history is necessary because it’s more historically accurate. I recently visited the historic home of a Confederate general in a southern city where twenty-five percent of the population is African American. The tour guide proceeded to argue that slavery had nothing to do with why eleven states seceded from the Union and that tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans voluntarily chose to fight for the Confederacy. There was no discussion of residents—white or black—who lived in the city during the war or what they experienced there. The fact that both the city and the state were both Unionist was left out. Reconstruction was portrayed as nothing more than a time of political scandal and oppression of former Confederates. It should come as no surprise, then, that black residents don’t visit this home. Not only was the story exclusionary; it was simply inaccurate. Inclusion and accuracy go hand-in-hand in interpretation.

Dynamic Programming: The Wall Street Journal recently published an article lamenting a supposedly declining number of people visiting Civil War battlefields. In response, pundits claimed that students don’t respect history anymore and that debates over Confederate icons and imagery have kept visitors away. While there does appear to be a declining interest in certain types of programming, such as Civil War reenactments, many sites are actually experiencing steady visitation and, in some cases, a marked increase. More importantly, the types of programming historic sites offer visitors are changing.

To be sure, there’s still room for traditional ranger talks and historic home tours led by a guide. Many interpreters, however, better understand the need for active participation and space for reflection in public history programs. Examples of these types of programs include: a dramatic reading of historical documents with a facilitated dialogue at the end; historical programs that incorporate physical fitness activities such as yoga, running, or biking; and, a cultural festival that invites members of local ethnic groups to share history and culture. Ultimately, there are many creative and inexpensive ways to invite visitor participation in public history programming if we’re willing to share the air with others.

Vigorous Outreach: A colleague of mine grew up a few miles away from the Gateway Arch in East St. Louis, Illinois. She recalled that she could see the Arch from her house, but that she never considered visiting as a child. The Arch in her mind could have easily been considered a foreign country. The staff at the Gateway Arch didn’t necessarily do anything wrong in this scenario. There’s no doubt that the staff was friendly and that the site’s doors were open to all. But the reality is that people won’t visit historic sites if they’re not aware of their presence or if they don’t feel welcomed. Relevance can’t be achieved without a culture of inclusion at historic sites.

Today the Gateway Arch runs a program called “Adopt a School.” During each month of the academic school year, educational staff at the Gateway Arch meet with the fourth graders at an elementary school in East St. Louis. The students participate in programming with Park Rangers at their school, visit both the Gateway Arch and Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, and even ride canoes on the Mississippi River. Through this program, the fourth graders are exposed to the work of the National Park Service and learn about the importance of studying history from a young age. Rather than waiting for people to come to them, the educational staff at the Gateway Arch proactively developed a program that meets these students where they are. By investing in outreach opportunities to underserved communities through programs like “Adopt a School,” public history sites can expand their reach and foster an appreciation for the study of history outside the classroom.

If I could expand upon Freeman Tilden’s interpretive principles, I would stress the importance of accessibility, inclusion, and outreach beyond the confines of a site’s boundaries. I would also stress the importance of better interpretation at historic sites that is informed by the latest scholarship and a strong relationship with historians inside and outside of the academy. These were some of the insights that highlighted our discussions during the NCPH 2019 working group. Ultimately, when interpreters work to meet people where they are on their learning journey, they create opportunities to create new understandings about the past and a chance to make the world a better, more informed place.

[1] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, Third Edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977): 9, 69.

~ Nick Sacco is a public historian who works as a Park Ranger with the National Park Service at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. He holds a master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. The views expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

  1. Freeman tilden 3rd says:

    Way off base

    1. Nick Sacco says:

      Thanks? I’m just now seeing this comment but would certainly love to hear more about what makes my arguments so off base.

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