In the absence of a simple, five word sentence to help my family and friends out, here’s a good working definition. I expect they’ll stop reading at around paragraph two.
Interpretation is not simply writing or communication. It’s making a good story out of all the possible facts, themes and ideas and all of the available objects. This means editing; not having to talk about everything or be comprehensive. And it means looking for interesting stories, which are quite often personal, subjective, and particular to a particular site. It might not mean producing some exhibition text, though if it does it should be well written with short simple sentences, only one idea per sentence and clear themes.
How do you know where to start with looking for these stories? Freeman Tilden wrote the first book on interpretation and he defined it as ‘the work of revealing something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie beneath what the visitor can with his senses perceive’.
That is, if we think something is special, we want other people to see why we think its special; we want to convey our enthusiasm. It’s similar to explaining to someone why you love a book or a piece of music. You wouldn’t tell them absolutely every fact about it. Instead, you’d think of the things you particularly liked and choose from these some things that you think they would like too, and you’d tell them in a way that you’d hope would interest them and inspire enthusiasm.
This means that writing is a form interpretation can take, not what it is. For instance, a sculpture could help convey the beauty of a landscape, or a film could help convey something of the reality of a political situation that might be difficult to get across in words.