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The Architecture of Interpretation

The Architecture of Interpretation

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Published by Nithya Suri

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Nithya Suri on Aug 01, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The root of the word preservation is found in the Latin praeservare - to observe

beforehand. What is interesting in the word's entomology is its connection to observation,

to see through the present some prior stage of evolution. Preservation frames the

perception of history in the middle ground of a state of becoming, of premonition. This

awareness is manifest in an understanding of the larger context that exists beyond the

limits of an individual object or event. The bridge between icon and meaning is

structured through interpretation. Interpretation allows the revelation that is the moral of

a story, the code of civilization. Lacking this link, the awareness of an artifact’s

significance, in terms of its inherent art, may remain undiminished but its cultural

relevance is critically compromised.

As Thoreau observed almost two centuries ago, it is association, rather than the object

itself, that yields comprehension. This emphasis on context is becoming more

pronounced as increasing efforts are directed toward the preservation of significant

architecture of the late 20th century. With the dawn of the atomic age that ended WWII,

world-wide social, cultural, economic, technological and environmental references were

fundamentally altered. Today, as progress is effectively shrinking the world and

accelerating time, one can reasonably argue that the gap between the built environment

and architectural intentions has never been wider. As a result, the art of interpretation is


assuming new standing in an elevated position of importance. For the ability of trans-

generational communication to survive, preservation must successfully accommodate this

new order.

To promote an understanding of the role of interpretation in preservation action, the

Interpretation and Education Division of California's State Parks published the Basic

Interpretation Handbook in 2003, setting out guidelines for landmark interpretation.2


introduction differentiates information from meaning and suggests that the latter is

comprehended through an association of and a perceived relationship between various

disparate elements.3

The idea that interpretation tells the story of interconnections

between resources and the visitor to a historic site has been underscored by Tom Walker

of the United States Department of the Interior. "When done properly, interpretation can

bring about an increased awareness and can influence people's behavior... Interpretation

is done for visitors who choose to attend the program or read the brochure or wayside

exhibit. Therefore, interpretation must directly relate to the visitor’s interest and needs

and is done using varied creative approaches.” 4

The dynamics that Walker implies require engagement for the object of preservation

to transcend through interpretation to a revelation of meaning. It is because of this

essential interaction that interpretation, as a structure of communication, must respond in

dialogue to a distinctively different set of requirements than those fundamental to the

silent language of preservation. These requirements of engagement were first codified by

author and philosopher Freeman Tilden (1883-1980) in his 1957 manifesto, Interpreting

Our Heritage.


The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction but provocation…
[Interpretation] 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...Information, as

such, is not interpretation…Interpretation is revelation based upon

information. But they are entirely different things. Interpretation is the
revelation of a larger truth that lies behind any statement of fact
. 5

Tilden's Theories of Interpretation6

Interpretation is an art which combines many arts whether the
materials presented are scientific
, historical or architectural. Any art is in
some degree teachable

Interpretation addressed to children should not be a dilution of the
presentation to adults
, but should follow a fundamentally different
. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

Tilden's Principles of Interpretation7

1. Provoke curiosity and interest: The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction,
but provocation. Provoke the interest of the audience.

2. Relate to everyday experiences: Any interpretation that does not somehow relate
what is being displayed or being described to something within the personality or
experience of the visitor will be sterile. Relate to the everyday lives of the

3. Reveal a memorable experience: Interpretation is revelation based upon
information. Information, as such, is not interpretation. However, all interpretation
includes information. But they are entirely different things. Reveal the main point
through a unique ending or viewpoint

4. Address the whole story using a unifying theme: Interpretation should aim to
present a whole rather than a part and must address itself to the whole person
rather than any phase. Address the whole; focus on illustrating a theme.

Through his work and in his writings, Tilden sought to define what is essential in the

relationship between man and nature, the revelation of a larger order giving meaning to

everyday concerns. He was a naturalist at heart who felt compelled to express the


structural science of his philosophies through the poetic power of the language of his

writing. He saw interpretation as a communication process, one that provokes, relates,

and reveals a unified message to the viewer. 8

He looked at the world and saw a different

universe; he wrote of the ordinary to describe the profound.

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