Interpretation of nature and culture

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A natural phenomenon as an object of interpretation

Natural and cultural interpretation (English heritage interpretation ) is a concept of educational work in visitor-oriented institutions, which serves the preservation of natural and cultural heritage (English heritage ) and has its roots in the national parks of the USA .

Choice of terms

John Muir (1838–1914), founder of nature conservation in the USA and initiator of Yosemite National Park , used the term interpretation in 1871 in connection with wild nature:

As long as I live I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I will interpret the rocks, learn the language of floods, storms and avalanches. I will familiarize myself with the glaciers and the wild gardens and I will get as close to the heart of the world as I can.

Muir assumes that the phenomena speak a language that humans first have to transfer for themselves in order to achieve responsible action through the direct relation to things thus gained.

History of origin

Brief interpretation

The aim of Enos Mills (1870–1922) is to translate the language of the phenomena for other people as well . Mills, a close friend of Muir and initiator of the Rocky Mountains National Park , lives for a time as a snow watcher in a hut in the mountains of Colorado. There he casually develops a philosophy of nature management that he developed at the beginning of the 20th century in the so-called School on the wayside (English trail school ) mediated and described in his book Adventures of a Nature Guide published in 1920 . The participants in Mills' courses are certified as nature guides initially by the hotels in the region and later also by the US National Park Service . In this context, interpretation is being used for the first time in visitor care.

In the 1930s, the US National Park Service expanded its jurisdiction to include national heritage sites. The historical interpretation (English Living History Interpretation ) emerges, the park rangers carry out their first role interpretations in historical costumes, and the term heritage , which also describes what previous generations have left behind in terms of natural and cultural heritage worthy of preservation, is gaining in importance. Since 1940 the Park Service has officially called its information and educational work Heritage Interpretation .

In 1954, the Association of Interpretive Naturalists (a predecessor organization of the National Association for Interpretation ) was founded, the first interpretation association. At that time, the journalist Freeman Tilden (1883–1980) defined nature and culture on behalf of the Park Service and formulated six principles. In doing so, he accords an essential priority to the relationship to the visitors' world. In his book Interpreting Our Heritage , which appears in 1957 and henceforth serves as the basis for information and educational work in the Park Service, Tilden brings together his practical findings.

In the course of Mission 66 , in preparation for its 50th anniversary in 1966, the National Park Service received the financial means for an independent Department of Interpretation and Visitor Services, 1964, its own training facility for interpretation rangers (Stephen T. Mather Training Center, 1964) and a design center for interpretation boards and publications (Harpers Ferry Center, 1970) in Harpers Ferry , West Virginia. This means that the interpretation of nature and culture - 100 years after the concept was introduced by John Muir - can be regarded as established.

Definition and principles

Freeman Tilden defines the interpretation of nature and culture as an educational measure that - instead of just passing on factual knowledge - aims to reveal meanings and contexts using original objects, through first-hand experience and with illustrative means.

Freeman Tilden

He formulates six principles of interpretation:

  1. Interpretation remains fruitless if it
    does not relate what is to be presented to the visitor's personality or experiences.
  2. Interpretation and information are not the same.
    Interpretation is a form of disclosure that is always based on facts.
  3. Interpretation is an art that requires different skills -
    regardless of whether it is about scientific, historical or other topics.
  4. Interpretation would like to encourage the visitor to think and act for himself;
    it's not about teaching him.
  5. Interpretation conveys wholes, not parts.
    Accordingly, interpretation perceives the visitor as a whole person.
  6. Interpretation for children requires their own programs.
    It cannot consist of a modification of the adult programs.


The interpretation triangle

The interpretation of nature and culture is always based on a phenomenon. The phenomenon is examined for its messages, and the most promising message is developed into a guiding principle. The central idea (Engl. Theme ) is the "deeper truth" (English. Larger truth ), on the interpretation of the same heading a guiding light, and the far (Engl. On the theme topic ) goes. Each central idea is based on concrete statements (facts).

In the practical implementation, the question of the extent to which the phenomenon is meaningful for the visitor in his living environment is particularly important. Establishing this relationship using suitable stepping stones is the primary task of interpretation. Because the audience in visitor-oriented institutions is often very different and every visitor is different, interpretation usually does not refer to clearly defined target groups.

From phenomenon to main idea

In addition to building relationships is about to challenge the visitor to the active examination of the phenomenon (Engl. Provoke and new knowledge) exciting to unveil (Engl. Reveal ).

In his principles, Freeman Tilden emphasizes the requirement of holism in three respects

  1. He would like the phenomenon to be placed in a larger context, both in terms of its factual meaning and its meaning.
  2. He understands the visitor as a whole person who receives information not only through his head, but also actively and through his mind.
  3. He sees the artist (Engl. Interpreter ) an artist who succeed take must, different perspectives and to combine different skills in it.

Phenomenon, visitor and interpreter form the interpretive threesome , within which the process of interpretation based on the main idea unfolds.

to form

Since interpretation cannot always take place in personal dialogue, the concept knows not only the personal forms

  • Short interpretation (with the special form of role interpretation)
    Role interpretation
  • Interpretation walk
  • Free interpretation

the medial forms

  • Interpretation element (as a board, audio or action element)
  • Interpretation path
  • Interpretation space.

In the case of the medial forms, elements of interpretation take on the role of the interpreter in the triangle.

If a permanent building is erected in direct interaction with a phenomenon in order to interpret it from there, one speaks of an interpretation center .

Which form of interpretation is best used where, taking into account which guiding principles, is determined in a facility or area-related interpretation plan.


A distinction is made between the interpretation of natural phenomena (nature interpretation) and the interpretation of cultural phenomena (cultural interpretation). However, these two areas are often closely interwoven, so that one can speak more of focus areas. From a conceptual point of view, almost all areas of interpretation are characterized by a high degree of agreement.

In the USA the focus was initially on the interpretation of the national parks in general ( Park Interpretation ). Proceeding from this, on the one hand, from the fundus of phenomena, extremely numerous and z. Some very special areas - such as underwater interpretation or the sky interpretation - have been developed. On the other hand, a distinction was also made according to the approach (e.g. ethnic interpretation) or a broad target group (e.g. interpretation for older people).

In the German-speaking area, sub-areas of nature and culture interpretation that are frequently mentioned are currently the wilderness interpretation, the landscape interpretation and the historical interpretation.


Since 1970, interpretation of nature and culture has found its way into a subject at several universities in the USA. In addition to the US National Park Service , not only other federal agencies such as the US Forest Service , the Bureau of Land Management or the Fish & Wildlife Service , but also numerous state parks, zoos, botanical gardens and (open-air) museums have adopted the concept.

Starting from the USA, interpretation has established itself primarily in the Anglo-American countries. National associations exist in Canada (since 1973), in Great Britain (since 1975), in Australia and New Zealand (since 1992) and in Spain (since 1995). Among the approximately 7,000 members of the national associations, the National Association for Interpretation (USA) with 5,000 members is by far the association with the largest number of members.

In Europe, as part of the Leonardo project TOPAS (Training of Protected Area Staff) in 2001 to 2003 in the Harz National Park, advanced training standards for interpreters in nature and national parks were developed. Until 2009, the Leader + cooperation project Transinterpret, located in Freiburg, aimed to anchor the interpretation of nature and culture on the European continent. The results have been incorporated into the establishment of Interpret Europe , the European Association for the Interpretation of Nature and Culture.

In Germany, nature and culture interpreters have been able to acquire the Europarc certificate based on the TOPAS standards since 2004. As part of the ParcInterp project, the certification system has been expanded since 2008, paying special attention to the aspects of education for sustainable development. The ParcInterp supporting associations are Europarc Germany , the Bundesverband Naturwacht and the working group for nature and environmental education .


Interpretation of nature and culture is an educational concept that emerged from practice for the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage, which has proven to be groundbreaking in several respects for work in visitor-oriented institutions; for example in that it has been around since the middle of the 20th century.

  • focuses on the direct relation to the concrete tangible things
  • pays great attention to the needs of the visitor
  • takes up the idea of accessibility .

By the UNESCO themed aspects of Education for Sustainable Development (Engl. Education for Sustainable Development ) are included in the concept in many parts, and also the considerations in UNESCO in 2003 to a global Convention on the Conservation of intangible cultural heritage have led, have historical interpretation in particular has long been a concern.


As a non-formal educational concept, the nature and culture interpretation unfolds its advantages, especially compared to short-term visitors in the leisure sector. It is the most widespread concept worldwide for visitor-oriented institutions. In the case of long-term events and in formal learning situations, however, the classic forms of interpretation can only unfold inadequately.

While on the one hand successful methods of interpretation are often used separately from the overall concept, on the other hand nature and culture interpreters often use methods that do not belong to the canon of forms of interpretation, for example by using

  • Develop target group-specific programs for school classes
  • Organize future workshops for the residents of national parks
  • hold single-track lectures in front of a large audience.

In both cases, it is not an actual interpretation - although, for example, in the US National Park Service, all visitor support measures are traditionally assigned to the interpretation departments.

The interpretation of nature and culture can contribute to their preservation by increasing the attractiveness of the phenomena and the income that can be generated. The primary aim of the interpretation is not to market the phenomena, but to create a dignified relationship between the visitors and their natural and cultural heritage.

Individual evidence

  1. [1]
    As long as I live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.
  2. Enos Mills: Adventures of a Nature Guide . New edition. New Past Press, Friendship (Wisconsin) 1990
  3. ^ Freeman Tilden: Interpreting Our Heritage . 3. Edition. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1977
  4. ^ Freeman Tilden: Interpreting Our Heritage . 3. Edition. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1977, p. 8.
    [Heritage Interpretation is] an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects,
    by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.
  5. ^ Freeman Tilden: Interpreting Our Heritage . 3. Edition. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1977, p. 9.
    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 teachable to some degree.
    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.
  6. ^ Freeman Tilden: Interpreting Our Heritage . 3. Edition. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1977, p. 8.
    Interpretation is the revelation of a larger truth that lies behind any statement of fact.
  7. Sam Ham: Environmental Interpretation . North American Press, Golden (Colorado) 1992
  8. Thorsten Ludwig: Introduction to the interpretation of nature . in: Alfred Toepfer Academy for Nature Conservation: Announcements 1/2003 , Schneverdingen 2003
  9. Thorsten Ludwig: Introduction to the interpretation of nature . in: Alfred Toepfer Academy for Nature Conservation: Announcements 1/2003 , Schneverdingen 2003
  10. ^ William Lewis: Interpreting for Park Visitors . Eastern Acorn Press 1995


  • Thorsten Ludwig: Course manual for nature and culture interpretation . available online for free - is updated regularly (pdf 1.6 MB)
  • Freeman Tilden: Interpreting Our Heritage . University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1957
  • Barry Mackintosh: Interpretation in the National Park Service . US Department of the Interior, Washington DC 1986
  • Grant Sharpe: Interpreting the Environment . John Wiley & Sons, New York 1976
  • Sam Ham: Environmental Interpretation . North American Press, Golden (Colorado) 1992
  • Lisa Brochu: Interpretive Planning . interpPress, Fort Collins 2003
  • Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman: Personal Interpretation . interpPress, Fort Collins 2002
  • Kathleen Regnier among others: The Interpreter's Guidebook . University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point 1994
  • William Lewis: Interpreting for Park Visitors . Eastern Acorn Press, 1995
  • James Carter (Ed.): A Sense of Place - An Interpretive Planning Handbook . Tourism and Environment Initiative, Inverness 1997
  • Fiona Colquhoun: Interpretation Handbook and Standard . Department of Conservation New Zealand, Wellington 2005
  • Douglas Knudson et al: Interpretation of Cultural and Natural Resources . Venture Publishing, State College, Pennsylvania 1995
  • Larry Beck and Ted Cable: Interpretation for the 21st Century . Sagamore Publishing, Champaign (Illinois) 1998
  • John Veverka: Interpretive Master Planning . Falcon Press Publishing, Helena (Montana) 1994
  • Michael Gross and Ronald Zimmerman: Interpretive Centers . University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point 2002
  • Moritz Detel: The environmental education concept Nature & Culture Interpretation . Publishing house Dr. Müller, Saarbrücken 2008

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