So far, this book has covered the practical needs of visitors to the outdoors so that they can enjoy fully the experience of scenery, wildlife and physical activity. It is vital to ensure that the special qualities and the spirit of the place are not overwhelmed by the facilities and artefacts provided for visitors, as well as by the people themselves. Some basic information and orientation will also have been provided to help them find their way around safely and with due respect for the environment. If visitors are to gain a greater understanding about the wildlife, landscape and its heritage that they are visiting, this can be provided through interpretation, which is the subject of this chapter.
What is interpretation?
Interpretation has a recognizable history going back to the eighteenth century, when particular people, mainly in Europe, guided visitors to places of natural wonder or ancient history and told them facts and fantasy about those places. The subject was put on a professional footing in the 1950s and 1960s by the US National Park Service, and it has continued to develop since that time.
Interpretation was defined by Freeman Tilden in 1957 for the US National Park Service as the work of revealing, to such visitors as desire the service, something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind what the visitor can with his senses perceive.
These concepts are embedded in the well-known series of booklets to be found at US national parks: The Story Behind the Scenery.
In Britain, the Centre for Environmental Interpretation offers a fuller explanation:
Interpretation is the art of explaining the meaning
iind significance of sites visited by the public. There ;rre three key elements:
1. A specific site of natural, historical or cultural value is involved and is being, or will be, experienced at first hand by the visitor.
2. The visiting public, whether tourists, day visitors or local residents, are making a recreational visit.
3. The organization or individual interpreting the site aims to generate a concern for its conservation and/or to encourage an understanding of the processes and activities taking place.
In several countries the subject has now gained its own profession of standing, such as the National Association of Interpreters, USA, who define the subject as
A communication process designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and national heritage through first-hand involvement with objects, artefacts, landscapes and sites.
Therefore it is clear that interpretation is a different process from that of supplying information and orientation, environmental education or propaganda. This is frequently misunderstood, to the detriment of the organization, the visitor and ultimately the site, as raising understanding about wildlife and landscape often provides the stimulus for conservation.
Supplying information and orientation is simply providing facts to assist visitors (covered in Chapter 4). It helps them to find their way around the site and avoid getting lost, and it advises them what they can or cannot do in safety.
Environmental education is similar to interpretation except that it deals with a much wider spectrum of the environment and its relationships with people of all ages and background—at work, in the home, at school and during leisure. That is not to say that interpretation has no educational content, nor that interpretation media cannot be used as part of an educational programme. However, interpretation tends to be more concerned with innovative and stimulating ways of explaining the key aspects of a particular site or issue.
Propaganda is the promotion of a particular point of view through the selective use of material that seems to be factual and which is presented in an enjoyable way. For example, visitor centres operated by organizations whose primary purpose is to exploit natural resources may aim to convey a message justifying those activities, even though they may be harmful to the environment.