Interpretation is closely related to education and practiced at each of Delaware North’s properties in Parks and Resorts.  Part one of this three part series is to introduce and provide a brief history of interpretation so that we may establish a foundation and expand upon our existing programs to tell the stories about the Special Places where we operate.

Let’s start with a definition to explain the difference between interpretation and education.

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.  ~National Association for Interpretation

Education is defined as the process of developing an individual’s knowledge, values, and skills and encompasses both teaching and learning.


Ranger In the Classroom Program

Interpretation is not a new concept and includes many people, too many to include in this brief history.  Interpretation in the National Park Service: A Historical Perspective is a primary resource for this article, visit this link for more detail.  A historical perspective helps to understand the past, where we are today, and how we can influence the future.

1871.  John Muir (1838-1914), America’s famous and influential naturalist, conservationist, and wilderness explorer who founded the Sierra Club.  Muir’s use of the word “interpret” set the precedent which was later adopted by the National Park Service (NPS).  In his own words he wrote in his notebook, “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”. 

1872.  Yellowstone becomes the world’s first National Park. At the same time and long before the establishment of Yellowstone, early concessioners and others living and working in these areas promoted, communicated, and connected people to this place.

1886.  U.S. Army soldiers (who administered Yellowstone National Park prior to the formation of the National Park Service in 1916) communicated unique features and resources with park visitors.

1901.  Enos Mills (1870-1922), an adventurer, author, photographer, nature guide, innkeeper, and lecturer.  Mills is known as the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park” and was an American pioneer in “nature guiding” focused on the appreciation of its natural values.

1905.  Frank Pinkley (1881-1940) custodian of the Casa Grande Ruin Reservation (later Casa Grande National Monument) in Arizona Territory, pioneered interpretation using pre-historic artifacts recovered from archeological excavations.  His display of artifacts was recognized as the prototype for national park museum exhibits.

1911.  Laurence F. Schmeckebier, the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) clerk in charge of publications, requested material from the larger National parks to be used for a series of park handbooks.  These actions supported the DOI’s efforts to gain support for the national parks and a new bureau to manage them.

1915.  Stephen T. Mather began to advance these objectives full time as special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior for national parks.  Mather hired Robert Sterling Yard, to manage park publicity including “See America First” a campaign to encourage affluent vacationers to travel at home rather than abroad.  The same year, a museum at Yosemite Park headquarters exhibited a specimen collection of flora and fauna.

1916. The National Parks Portfolio is distributed, this was the first publication to promote and advance educational purpose of the national parks.   Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane wrote in its introduction, “It is the destiny of the national parks, if wisely controlled, to become the public laboratories of nature study for the nation.”

1916.  Congress passed the National Park Service. Also, that year, Robert Sterling Yard is appointed Chief for the educational division of the NPS.

1917. Yard published the second edition of The National Parks Portfolio with additional information including smaller/lesser parks and monuments.

Yosemite Mountaineering School_1140_2995

Yosemite Mountaineering School

1918.  Horace Albright constituted the Service’s first administrative policy statement and restated the concept of the parks as educational media: The educational, as well as the recreational, use of the national parks should be encouraged in every practicable way. University and high-school classes in science will find special facilities for their vacation period studies. Museums containing specimens of wild flowers, shrubs, and trees and mounted animals, birds, and fish native to the parks, and other exhibits of this character, will be established as authorized.  Despite the fact that educational activities were evolving, Congress was reluctant to provide financial support, external sponsors made major contributions during the first decade of Park Service.

1918.  Charles D. Wolcott, secretary of the Smithsonian, organized a National Parks Educational Committee.

1919. The National Parks Association (now the National Parks Conservation Association or NPCA) is formed as an advocacy group for the NPS.

1920. Yellowstone and Yosemite were the first with comprehensive interpretive programs directed by the Park Service.  The same year, Mather’s annual report declared for “the early establishment of adequate museums in every one of our parks” for exhibiting regional flora, fauna, and minerals.”

 1930’s. Many understood the importance of interpretation to the mission of the NPS.

1929-1933. Horace Albright promotes and supports the recognition of historical areas in the NPS.

*Jumping ahead in time, the NPS made a concerted effort to instruct personnel in the techniques of interpretation.  Between 1953 and 1955 the Service NPS published four booklets on interpretive techniques for seasonal interpreters: Talks and Conducted Trips by Howard R. Stagner and Campfire Programs and Information Please by H. Raymond Gregg.  These served as training resources primarily for seasonal interpreters.

1956. Mission 66 was approved; the scope of this 10 year program was to expand NPS visitor services.

1957. The NPS opened a school in Yosemite National Park for rangers that included field operations and interpretation.

1957.  Freeman Tilden (1883-1980) was tasked with assessing the basic principles of nature and historical interpretation for the National Park Service.  Tilden wrote Interpreting Our Heritage which established principles and theories for heritage interpretation.  Tilden’s six principles of interpretation continue to inspire people across the globe.

  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 to some degree teachable.
  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 man 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
  7. 1963. The Service established Horace N. Albright and Stephen T. Mather training centers at Grand Canyon and Harpers Ferry.

1963. The Service established Horace N. Albright and Stephen T. Mather training centers at Grand Canyon and Harpers Ferry.

1964.  George B. Hartzog, Jr. appointed a Museum Study Team to review museums narrative approach to tell their stories using exhibits, text, in a sequential format.  Hartzog indicated that “the narrative story should, generally, be presented through publications and audio visual means.” The intent was to engage park visitors using visual materials such as artifacts, artwork, and photographs in unique displays. New Visitor Centers created under Mission 66 were developed to be the focal point of the park interpretive programs.  Trained staff, exhibits, and interpretive media were to connect visitors with the meaning of the park so that they could appreciate and protect it.

1980. William Lewis publishes, Interpreting for Park Visitors which serves as a resource today for park interpreters and guides.  Lewis stated that, “One thing we know for sure is that every one of us sees the world uniquely.” He also referred to the interpreter, visitor, and resources as the “interactive threesome.” An interpreter must master knowledge of all three elements.

1992. Sam Hamm publishes, Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets.  Ham credits William Lewis as his inspiration to teaching “thematic interpretation.”

Today. Interpretation continues to have many challenges much of which is derived from a lack of funding and understanding.  That being said, interpretive fore founders have blazed the trail for change, research, resources, and technology provide many opportunities to create meaningful connections between people and places rich with natural and cultural resources.

In next month’s article, we will expand upon interpretive methods, concepts, and planning.  In part three, we will share specific examples from a variety of our operations with the intent that they will inspire and generate ideas for 2015.  Please submit examples to Debbie Friedel at

For more information visit:

National Association for Interpretation

Eppley Institute


Heritage Destination

PBS – The National Park’s: America’s Best Idea