Learning Contents – Module 4. Interpretation of the natural environment

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  • Learning Contents – Module 4. Interpretation of the natural environment

Topic 1. Introduction: definition of heritage interpretation. Genesis and history of heritage interpretation. Forms of heritage interpretation

Heritage interpretation for communication

Heritage interpretation is a communication process that offers a wide potential for the successful mediation of scientific knowledge to various target groups on nature tours, in national parks, science centres, museums, or public sites.

Heritage interpretation is a powerful educational concept in short-term education worldwide. The primary aim of this method is to give visitors an understanding of the so-called phenomenon (which could be a tree, a building, or something else) of a place or region by conveying background information. Unlike mere information, this method links phenomena to visitors’ lives, enabling a personal and emotional approach. Through this affective connection, a deeper relationship with the site or nature and landscape can be built up. For locals, this can help strengthen their regional identity and increase their appreciation of the natural and cultural heritage, while tourists experience a more intense relationship with their holiday region. For both groups, raising awareness and broadening horizons can promote sustainable development behaviours, because “understanding and experiencing carefully selected…content” will “raise awareness of the value of the region and insight into the need for protection” (Kreisel, 2003, p. 5). Studies prove that this method can bring about sustainable behavioural changes regarding the protection of the phenomena (Tubb, 2003).

To be interpretive, a presentation must bridge the mental and emotional gap between the visitor in a leisure mood and the original objects or sites. Interpretation is about putting isolated objects or facts into a meaningful and value-oriented context. It reveals the significance of natural phenomena, artifacts, or species to those who are not experts in the topic.

Origins of heritage interpretation

When industrialization was in full swing in the first half of the 19th century and people were moving further and further away from nature, R.W. Emerson and H.D. Thoreau in the US set themselves the goal of intensifying the relationship between humans and nature (Ludwig, 2008). In the early 19th century, mountain guides from Chamonix accompanied adventurers and shared their passion for the mountains, the landscape, as well as the various monuments and castles.

A few decades later, nature guides E. Mills (1870-1922) (Regnier et al., 1994) and John Muir (1838-1914) (Sierra Club, 2022) developed techniques to pass on their own knowledge to visitors. J. Muir travelled a lot and was particularly fascinated by the Yosemite area. He began to write about his travels as a journalist while working as a scientist and was the first to use the term “interpret”. John Muir invited President Roosevelt on a camping tour of several days through Yosemite and was actively involved in the designation of the valley as “Yosemite National Park” in 1906, the first National Park in the world!

From this time onwards, the development of the National Park Service in the USA and the Heritage Interpretation approach were strongly linked. However, today associations can be found in many countries and in addition, there are numerous smaller organizations and private initiatives. Furthermore, heritage interpretation is also established at universities. The term has been in use for decades with a lot of experience and research, particularly in the English-speaking world (Lehnes & Glawion, 2006).

Definition of heritage interpretation

The first definition of the term dates back to 1957 by Freeman Tilden (1883-1980) (Tilden, 2007), who was a US journalist. Tilden traveled to the National Parks, and on one trip, he met the director of the National Park Service in New York. After this meeting, he devoted himself intensively to the National Parks and to communicating the natural phenomena to visitors. In 1957, he wrote the basic book about heritage interpretation: Interpreting our Heritage. That’s why Freeman Tilden is named “the father of heritage interpretation”. His definition, which is still valid and frequently quoted today is: “Interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by first-hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual” (Tilden, 2007, p. 33).

Another definition can be found in the non-governmental organization NAI ‘National Association of Interpretation,’ which was founded in 1988 in the US to promote the professional interpretation of natural and cultural heritage. According to NAI, “interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource” (NAI, 2022).

What is significant here is the alignment with the mission statement of a national park or any organization.

The heritage interpretation approach is also established in Canada and has been defined since 1987 in the non-governmental organization ‘Interpretation Canada’: “Interpretation is any communication process designed to reveal meanings and relationships of cultural and natural heritage to the public, through first-hand involvement with an object, artifact, landscape, or site” (Interpretation Canada, 2022). This definition emphasizes the importance of the interactivity of interpretive offers.

In the university context, Sam Ham, in particular, has been teaching and researching the topic of ‘Environmental Interpretation’ at the University of Idaho for decades, and he characterizes heritage interpretation as follows (Ham, 1992, p. 3): “Interpretation is simply an approach to communicate. Environmental interpretation involves translating the technical language of a natural science or related field into terms and ideas people who aren’t scientists can readily understand. And it involves doing it in a way that’s entertaining and interesting to these people.”

Accordingly, the scientific terminology is transformed by interpretation into everyday language and transported in such a way that visitors can easily absorb the contents.

Lehnes (2006) developed a visual representation of the heritage interpretation approach (see figure below). Here, the communication know-how forms the pillar of a bridge that connects the visitor with the original object – the phenomenon. The central idea connects the individual interpretative aspects and bundles them into a central statement. The expertise together with the profound knowledge of the target group forms the foundation of the bridge.

Source: Patrick Lehnes (2006).

Forms of heritage interpretation

There are many different forms of interpretation at various sites, such as nature walks, self-guided trails, museums, exhibits, bike tours, canoe tours, bus tours, and visitor centres. Beck et al. (2018) note that “professional interpreters work in many locations and facilities. Interpretive work occurs at many levels of ownership, from freelance, private, quasi-public, and industrial, to city, county, state/provincial, and federal. Diversity characterizes the interpretive field. Cultural and natural heritage interpreters use the same techniques and principles, even though they may work in widely different environments. Many interpreters work with both cultural and natural themes.”

Topic 2. Contents in interpretation of nature: The concept and perception of nature. Natural landscapes and their origin. Biomes versus anthromes. Interpretation of natural, cultural and economic landscapes

The notion of the human environment carries with it the idea that people’s behaviour is largely a product of the physical and social conditions in which they live and develop. But behaviour is also a manifestation of each individual’s genetic package, which, in a historical perspective, is subject to adaptation and environmental contingencies. It can be argued that human beings make choices, but they are situational and relational; that is, they have a direct relationship with the environment and with the beings that compose it.

There are undoubtedly ambiguous aspects to be considered when discussing human relationships and belonging to the worlds of nature and culture. The extension of the idea of the environment is reflected in the contemporary environmental movement by the concept of holism. It is the perception brought by ecology that “everything is connected to everything.” This holistic ideal echoes in the popular environmentalist slogan: “humans are part of nature.” This slogan is often used to imply that “original sin,” which leads to environmental destruction, is an attempt to separate ourselves from nature. We can get back to having a healthy relationship with nature only after recognizing that this attempt at separation is senseless and destructive.

In environmentalist debates, there is a division between “monists” and “dualists”. The latter see the world through significant distinctions between humans and animals, nature and society, savage and civilized, reason and emotion. The first, in turn, deny that these distinctions are profound and see continuity and uniqueness beyond established categories and the differences they represent. Although monism exerts a strong attraction among environmental defenders, it is difficult to face the ambiguities arising from reflection without passing by a series of dualisms.

When discussing the relationships between natural heritage and cultural heritage, as well as the marks that human cultures leave in natural landscapes, it is possible to establish a “hard” distinction between nature and culture. Based on this distinction, environments can be classified into:

1) city/urban, with a predominance of culture and cultural heritage; 2) countryside/rural, with a mixture of nature and culture, but where nature is predominantly anthropized; and 3) uncultivated or wildlands, with a predominance of nature in a primitive state, areas where human presence is sparse or sporadic, with a predominance of natural heritage. These categories have a practical function, within a broad framework of analysis, and reveal continuities, “blurred” borders, and overlaps.

The gradualism characteristic of the evolutionary process brought the human species to the historical scene, with an emerging property, culture. It wasn’t a sudden appearance. Other hominid primates, before Homo sapiens, learned to use stone tools and utensils, handle fire, organize socially, and communicate through gestures and some kind of spoken language. The use of a structured spoken language, agriculture and animal husbandry, writing, the manufacture and use of metals, these feats of Homo sapiens gradually emerged in different places and times. Gradually, human adaptation became increasingly dependent on culture, which makes humans a product both of culture and of nature.

Another important aspect is that humans, insofar as they produce culture, can affect, impact, and influence the natural environment in a very different way from all other living beings. Humans learned to exceed certain limits imposed by nature. Were humans tied solely to the dynamics of the biological evolutionary process, it would be very difficult for their number to reach 7.9 billion. The human species, throughout history, has used the planet’s natural resources more and more intensively to satisfy human purposes. From megafauna extinctions to global warming, humans have been able to profoundly impact the environment in which they live.

The distinction between culture and nature is therefore instrumental. Ambivalence is part of the knowledge game, and there is no mistake in recognizing humans as both belonging to and being separate from nature. The establishment of distinctions between urban/city, rural/countryside, and wild/uncultivated lands is useful in sharpening the perception of different levels of human intervention on natural environments. They allow for a deeper reflection on the specific characteristics of cultural and natural heritage and on the relationships between them. They also allow for a better assessment of human actions and perspectives on the conservation of these heritages – natural and cultural.

An important question is the following: why value cultural and natural heritage? The simplest and most obvious answer is to ensure the conservation of the human environment, without which human life would not be possible. Depredation of the human environment implies a loss of quality of life for human beings. This is a very pragmatic reason and leads to the perception of heritage, cultural or natural, as a resource to be appropriated or enjoyed by humans. Other less instrumental reasons and motivations can be suggested and deserve a reflective exercise. Therefore, it is important to introduce here the notion of transcendence and establish its connection with the motivations for the conservation of cultural and natural heritage.

The transcendence of the world, in relation to individuals, makes it acquire a value beyond mere utility. Certainly, the world of culture exists for humans, but it is the transcendent character of it that irradiates meaning (objectivity) for individual human lives. In society, or in the world of culture, there are emergent properties, a kind of life of its own, something more than the simple sum of individuals. It is a world that is perpetuated through human individuals, their constructions, their actions, and their relationships, an environment conducive to human life in all its dimensions, and a heritage to be cared for, known, and admired.

Transcendence is also a characteristic related to natural heritage. The natural world was not created by or for humans, although it is the environment on which human life and human societies are established. The natural world, with all its diversity of biotic and abiotic aspects, is the product of an evolutionary process, which has been going on for billions of years. The fact is that humans are neophytes, laggards participating in the spectacle of nature, when one thinks of how recent their appearance on the planet is in relation to the duration of the evolutionary process.

The autonomy of the natural world, at its most extreme, refers to the idea of the wild or untamed. Nature, insofar as it was not created by humans or for humans, and insofar as it is indifferent to humans, has a transcendental character in a deeper sense even than culture or society.

There are several types of value that can be attributed to the natural world: life-sustaining value, economic value, recreation value, scientific value, aesthetic value, genetic diversity value, historical value, cultural-symbolic value, character construction value, value of diversity-uniqueness, value of stability and spontaneity, dialectical value, value of life, and religious value. There are several types of value, from the most instrumental to the most disinterested. It is worth noting the intrinsic value of nature. This, as much as its transcendental aspect, must be understood in its deepest sense, related to its autonomous character. The value of natural heritage, understood as all inherent and constitutive diversity of the natural world, is thus beyond mere instrumentality. It is related to pure scientific investigation, aesthetic appreciation, and the establishment of an ethical conduct of humans to nature.

In this aspect, nature can also play an educational role. Although nature is not a moral agent, neither its creatures nor its ecosystems are moral tutors in the field of ethics among humans, we can often “take a moral” from the reflection on nature: that is, to gain a lesson from life. Nature has a “leadership ability”; it educates, leads us to know who we are and where we are, and what our vocation is. The encounter with nature integrates us, protects us against pride, gives us a sense of proportion and place, teaches us what to expect and what to be content with. Living well is being able to capture certain natural rhythms.

The appreciation of cultural and natural heritage, as stated above, has a strong relationship with the need to ensure the conservation of the human environment. This motive has a powerful appeal to anyone with a modicum of common sense. On the other hand, the perception of the transcendental character, both of cultural and of natural heritage, implies a sharper perception and a sensitivity to values that go beyond mere instrumentality. Who can say that the possibility of guaranteeing the perpetuity of enjoying the goods we cherish and enjoying the experiences that fulfil us does not lie precisely in the development of a new perception of the environment around us?

The concept of heritage evokes quite heterogeneous universes. One can speak of historical, artistic, or archaeological heritage, or even ethnological, biological, or geological; material or immaterial; local, regional, national, or global. From a broader perspective, this heterogeneity is encompassed by the concepts of cultural heritage and natural heritage, and by the concept of the environment. It is worth noting that the human environment is also the environment of all other living beings and which, therefore, is a heritage shared by humans and non-humans.

The notion of heritage is related to what is transmitted as inheritance. It involves a social process of valuing and choosing what will be transmitted or what deserves to be preserved for posterity, for future generations. It is a constitutive process of memory and identity, as it decides what will be remembered and valued, and what will be forgotten or, at the limit, even cease to exist.

Heritage preservation involves perpetuating the human environment, and the valuation of cultural and natural heritage considers both utility and aesthetic appreciation. This operation also involves elaborating ethical values related to perceptions of identity and the value attributed to what is considered exotic. Science, art, economics, and politics all play important roles in the social process of valuing heritage.

Travel and tourism involve various aspects related to valuing cultural and natural heritage, which are the basis of tourist attractions. To be interesting, an attraction must have relevant natural aspects that highlight the beauty and/or sublimity of what is not the work of humans (fauna, flora, beaches, rivers, waterfalls, landscapes) or cultural aspects that highlight the genius of human artifacts (architecture, urbanism, and immaterial culture). Some attractions mix nature and culture, such as gardens and cultivated land.

Conserving natural and cultural heritage involves contact, experience, and knowledge of what one wants to protect. Interpretation, as both art and science, plays a fundamental role in promoting the direct experience of natural and cultural heritage. Guides and interpreters act as mediators between visitors and the new world unfolding before them. They also train new interpreters, as the experience of tourist visitation is formative. Interpretation shapes the mythical hero, the one who passes on stories and adventures, and it shapes values, expands perspectives of the world, and shapes consciences. Interpretation activity generates empathy towards the environment.

Interpretation is part of a tradition and a new science and craft. Those who choose interpreting as a profession enter an ancestral tribe that includes shamans, poets, historians, and philosophers, as well as the pioneers of this field: John Muir, Enos Mills, and Freeman Tilden. Among the performers who developed and structured the ideas of these pioneers are Dave Dahlen, David Larsen, Sam Ham, William Lewis, Joseph Cornell, Ted Cable, Doug Knudson, and Larry Beck.

Topic 3. Interpretation in the natural environment: Content and main interpretive tools and strategies

Content: Principles of heritage interpretation

The content and main interpretive tools and strategies rely on the 6 principles of heritage interpretation published by F. Tilden in 1957 (Tilden, 2007, p. 34):

  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 upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretations include 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.

These principles were extended and renewed by L. Beck and T. Cable (Beck & Cable, 2002; Beck & Cable, 2011, Beck et al., 2018), but the basic principles remain the same. In the following, six of the principles of those authors are dealt with in more detail, which are of particular relevance for nature guiding and ecotourism.

Main interpretive tools and strategies of heritage interpretation

  • Heritage Interpretation connects the phenomenon with the visitor

To spark an interest, interpreters must relate the subject to the lives of the people in their audience” (Beck & Cable, 2011, p. 1).

The background story about the site, specific objects, artifacts or species should always be related to experiences, concepts, or ideas that the audience is familiar with. This central aspect of interpretation brings the phenomenon closer to the visitor by first establishing relevance between the object and the visitor, as “the visitor’s chief interest is in whatever touches his personality, his experience, and his ideals” (Tilden, 2007, p. 36). By linking the topics to the visitor’s world, it is also possible to convey facts that the visitor may not find interesting, because if the topic is viewed from a perspective that involves the visitor, his or her interest increases. T. Ludwig also refers to this as “stepping stones” for the visitor (Ludwig, 2012c). More methodological stepping stones T. Ludwig suggests are (2014): explanation, description (observation), narrative (adventure yarn, fairy tale, legend, joke), expression in a performing art (poetry, rhyme, song, tune), stimulating sensory perception, exciting imagination (e.g., from rock or tree shapes), demonstration, illustration (photo, drawing, statistics), investigation (experiment), game (also role play).

To bridge unfamiliar topics to the familiar, it helps to use comparisons, similes, or metaphors with everyday-life relations and a personalized style. Very effective is to relate to values that are important to the visitors. More techniques to help visitors are to use first names or self-referencing like “have you ever heard about…,” or labelling: “the friends of nature” (Ham, 1992). Labelling should be used carefully because it can exclude people. Children and also adults like leading characters, who guide through the interpretation (Linne or a mouse or…).

This principle is underpinned by many studies in theoretical educational science and psychology, showing that a person breaks down new information into small units and then classifies them in dependence on already existing information and experiences. This ‘concept mapping’ creates a network of information units that are connected to each other. Brain research has also shown that we are constantly switching back and forth between external events and internal thoughts and interests (‘the external-internal shift’). Heritage Interpretation should, therefore, link new information to previous knowledge and experiences to anchor it permanently (Beck & Cable, 2011, p. 2-3).

D. Knapp used empirical studies to show that three points are important for lasting recall: multiple exposures, relevance to the person, and active engagement with the content (Knapp, 2006).

  • Heritage interpretation is guided by a central idea

Interpretation should present a complete theme or thesis and address the whole person” (Beck & Cable, 2011, p. 43).

Heritage interpretation works thematically, with an overarching central idea, according to Ham (1992, p. 33). The theme is expressed in a complete sentence and contains the main message that the communicator wants the audience to remember after their visit. This is defined as “a succinct, central message about a topic of interest that a communicator wants to get across to an audience” (NAI DEFINITIONPROJECT, 2022).

By linking the phenomena to the overarching central idea, the information is better remembered than a collection of disparate topics. Lehnes (2004, p. 55) found that visitors also like to follow several central ideas, meaning that a main guiding idea, or theme, can be broken down into subthemes or subsubthemes.

Lundberg (1997, pp. 14-17) favors the ‘Thesis-Based Interpretation’, which involves expressing an opinion that visitors can actively engage with and comment on, encouraging them to develop their own thoughts.

  • Heritage interpretation tells stories

The interpretive presentation -as a work of art- should be designed as a story that informs, entertains and enlightens.” (Beck & Cable, 2011, p. 21).

The use of storytelling is a very strong method. People remember much more connecting to a story than only to hear about facts. When information is integrated into a story, it stands no longer isolated but in a context of meaning that is more accessible to the visitors and they learn automatically through the story without feeling that they are being lectured. Data and facts alone can be interesting, but they only touch the visitor more deeply when they are embedded in a larger context. For example, if the information is linked to universal values or to immaterial concepts such as peace or happiness or freedom, or love, referred as ‘universals’ or ‘intangibles’. An emotional approach to the phenomenon leads to a stronger connection with the object or the landscape: “The charge of the interpreter is to help make the connection between the tangible and the intangible meanings of the resource in the hearts and minds of visitors” (Beck & Cable, 2011, p. 13).

  • Heritage interpretation works with target group specific methods

Interpretation for children, teenagers and seniors – when these comprise uniform groups-should follow fundamentally different approaches” (Beck & Cable, 2011, p. 53).

Interpretive offerings for children are certainly much more playful and interactive than those for seniors. Children, for example, have a stronger need to experience how something feels (Tilden, 2007) or to identify with a guide, which significantly increases their connection to the site (Megerle, 2003).The depth with which a topic is addressed always depends on the target audience. This must therefore be determined and precisely defined before any conceptualization. Additionally, it should be considered whether the visitors are locals or tourists and how they are traveling, for example, with small children, prams, or in wheelchairs. Offerings should, whenever possible, be implemented in a barrier-free manner.

  • Heritage interpretation is short, entertaining, precise and scientifically correct

Interpreters must concern themselves with the quantity and quality (selection and accuracy) of information presented. Focused, well-researched interpretation will be more powerful than a longer discourse” (Beck & Cable, 2011, p. 91).

It is important to filter out the most important and special aspects of a phenomenon, to make the visitor curious and to get to the point quickly. Tilden (2007) points out that ‘the last tap’ can often be too much and that a too long explanation can dilute what had been said before. The content must be carefully piqued (Beck & Cable, 2011) and always scientifically verified. If facts are simplified, they must still withstand the check of experts.

  • Heritage interpretation shows special features and contributes to their protection

Interpretation should instil in people the ability, and the desire, to sense the beauty in their surroundings … to encourage resource preservation” (Beck & Cable, 2011, p. 135).

If visitors are inspired and have an “aha” experience, they will perceive and experience them more intensively and thus appreciate them more. Tilden (2007, p. 59) argues that “the purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer towards a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge and gain an understanding of the greater truth that lies behind any statement of fact”. Interpretive spaces thus contribute to widening the horizons of visitors and consequently to the protection of phenomena. Studies prove behavioural change in the sense of education for sustainable development (Tubb, 2003).

Beck and Cable (2011, p. 50) believe that “ideally we can help visitors feel they can be a part of a larger solutions”. If the phenomena are embedded in a larger context, or in concepts or systems that also reflect a global context, they give visitors the feeling that they can contribute something to protect nature and themselves. As a guiding principle, Ludwig (2011, p. 159) states: “Through interpretation to understanding, through understanding to appreciation, through appreciation to awareness”.


The goal is that visitors think about themselves and their environment, Lehnes and Carter (2017) pointed out: “But when we engage in true reflective thinking, we are in a soundless dialectic dialogue with ourselves. It is our self who answers, it is our second inner voice who checks the coherence of a thought with our own preconceived concepts and ideas. This is a fundamentally different state of mind. We do not jump back and forth between the outside world and our standpoint, but we are entirely with ourselves. We try to integrate a new or revised concept coherently into our inner cosmos of intangible concepts and ideas, which is multiply connected with our inner treasury of experiences and knowledge”.

Topic 4. Principles of planning of interpretation: Administration and management of experience. The tourist script.

Interpretive planning

Lisa Brochu (2013) suggested a definition of interpretive planning as “a thoughtful decision-making process that blends management needs and resource considerations with visitor desires and ability to pay to determine the most effective way to communicate a message to targeted markets in support of the agency’s mission”.

All interpretation is planned; it follows a defined objective and has a coherent development; there are no isolated and improvised actions. As Masters (2008) said: “An interpretation plan or strategy is rather like an architectural design – an essential blueprint for delivering good interpretation. Plans and strategies are really fundamental building blocks, bringing together all the different elements of a site and its stories to deliver a coherent interpretive experience for visitors”. To plan an interpretive offer there exist different models.

A general model to plan interpretive offers is the well-known 5-M Model (Brochu 2013), which is based on:

  1. Management
  2. First of all the mission, the goals, and the objectives for the interpretative offer will be created. To think about staffing, budget, facilities and equipment, and maintenance is necessary.
  3. Markets
  4. In the next step the question: What you have to offer? should be discussed. Do you offer your interpretation for free or who is supporting you or should the visitors pay the whole price. Your interpretive offer must be visible so: How do people know about it?
  5. Messages
  6. The questions here are: Why is this site significant? What interests’ visitors? and What is management most interested in communicating?
  7. Mechanics
  8. Mechanics includes the site or landscape features and the facilities and buildings and the interpretive stories. Also the accessibility or the programme, the placement, physical opportunities & constraints.
  9. Media
  10. There is always a wide range of media and it is important to choose the right media for the right target group like signs, exhibits, visitor centres, guided tours, demonstrations or Living History elements.

6 steps to an interpretive tour

When planning a guided interpretative tour there are 6 important steps to go through (Chatel & Falk, 2021):

1. Analysis of the environment

Before choosing the topic for a tour, an environmental analysis finds out what is already addressed elsewhere in regional museums, nature trails, exhibitions, apps, etc. and the content will be adapted in such a way that it opens a new topic or a new perspective.

2. Definition of the goals and the target group

After the analysis, the main target group is determined, and the experiences of this group, as well as their level of knowledge, mobility, motivation, and main interests, are identified. Afterward, the cognitive, affective, and action-oriented goals of the tour will be established

3. Method triangulation

Method triangulation provides a deeper insight and in-depth research into the topic. It is essential to conduct numerous field visits and select phenomena as well as conduct a well-founded literature research. Expert interviews (including their stories) have proved to be a valuable source for bringing the content to life later. Affective connection is mainly achieved through storytelling, by retelling or telling stories gained from expert interviews or personal experiences. This method has been shown to lead to a deeper understanding of the phenomena (Beck and Cable, 2011).

4. Interpretive strategy

The content obtained must then be sorted, structured, and analysed. The gathered information forms the basis of the interpretation. In the following step, an interpretation strategy is chosen. For younger visitors, a central figure can be developed, or the tour can be done as a role interpretation (for example as Alexander Humbold or Linee) or as a mystery or the tour can be experience-based or …

5. Theme and subthemes

A theme (sometimes more than one) for the tour will be set up that connects all Points of Interest with the aim that the target group will remember the theme in the long term. If too many topics are addressed superficially, it results in a hodgepodge that visitors will hardly remember. The sentence, “After the tour visitors remember…,” helps to create the theme (Ham, 1992; Lehnes, 2007; Ludwig, 2012; Beck et al., 2018). Beck et al. (2018) state that “Themes are those ideas so important that visitors leave with them… Selecting the best, most important, most relevant, most interesting, and most appropriate themes usually requires a narrowing or focusing process. The genius loci—the essence of the place, its character, its special qualities, its significance—should direct the selection of themes.” An example would be “Plants on the top of the mountain fight for their lives with many tricks.” Each point of interest has a subtheme—this is the central message of this point and it is linked to the main theme. The subthemes should be presented interactively, participatively, multiperspectivally, and value-oriented.

6. Pretest, evaluation and publication

In the next step, the tour is first presented to the experts to guarantee the correctness and then to the main target group in a pretest. This tour will be evaluated and afterwards be optimised in the end it is made available to the public.

The 4 aces of interpretation

Ludwig (2014) talks about the 4 aces, which are important to take in mind, when planning a guided tour (see figure below).

For each guided tour the four basics of interpretation must be met, these are:

  1. to promote stewardship of our heritage: A guide should feel like an ambassador and be personal: talk about his or her own connection to the natural or cultural heritage.
  2. to turn phenomena into experiences: Ludwig (2014) suggests different stepping stones, to connect to the visitor: like narratives, stimulating sensory perception, investigation or game.
  3. to enter into exchanges with participants: Most important is to be in a dialog with the visitors, best is to ask open questions rather than closed ones. Interactivity and participation is essential.
  4. to align facts with meaningful themes: Facts are the base of any interpretation, but interpretation tries to go deeper and make facts meaningful, transforming them into a theme which connects to the visitors. Ludwig (2014) suggests the theme to be: a short sentence, gets under the skin, follows a single idea, identifies the point, can be experienced on site, relates to the participants’ world, can serve as a lighthouse.

Other important aspects of interpretive planning

It is important to take the following aspects in mind, when planning an interpretive offer.


Co-creation of the target group is essential when planning an interpretive offer. This means that the target group is involved in all steps of planning the interpretive offer and expresses its opinion. If the first pretest of a guided tour takes place, visitors should be observed to see how they react to different stories or experiences, the content the target group has absorbed best should be chosen.

Positive impact

This is a powerful tool for natural resource conservation, considering and interpreting the specific problems of natural resources, with the aim of protecting the resource and achieving positive, protective behaviour among visitors.

International provision

The offer should be available in the national language and at least in English. So instead of just translating from the local language into English, the site should be reinterpreted to make its meaning clear to foreigners and to include background information that is familiar to local people.


In order to enjoy the interpretation, appropriate infrastructure is required: wheelchair access can be crucial, or sufficient parking for larger groups of buses, etc.. Overall, the offer should always be as barrier-free as possible.

In the end… everybody at the table must be a winner, but the ultimate winner must be the resource

“The planner’s responsibility is to find ways in which everyone can benefit, even if each individual does not always get exactly what he or she wants. The ultimate success of the process and the products that result from it should be measured in continued support and protection of the resource, whatever that may be” (Brochu, 2013).

Topic 5. Interpretation techniques: Verbal and non-verbal communication techniques and tools for effective group management

The qualities of interpretation or the interpretative approach to communication

Sam Ham, one of the essential authors in the field of heritage interpretation, comes from the field of psychology, and he has conducted extensive research on how humans respond to well-done communication. His first conclusion was that communication is successful when it “1) attracts and holds an audience’s attention long enough to make a point and 2) makes the point in a compelling way.” To be a good interpreter, you have to achieve both outcomes, and for this, Sam Ham proposes the EROT framework, which reminds us about the qualities that must always be considered to accomplish successful interpretation (Ham, 1992).

Sam Ham summarized the qualities that interpretation must include in his acronym EROT or TORE, coming from Enjoyable, Relevant, Organized, and Thematic (Ham, 2013). The qualities are the same in EROT and TORE, but in 2013, Sam Ham proposed that the order of the qualities is important, and that the THEME must come first. This is because if there is no theme and interpretation is only entertainment, then there is no longer interpretation.

  • Thematic. The theme is the message, point that interpretation wants to make. The theme must be clear and state at the beginning of an interpretative program, develop in the program and restate in the conclusion. Is the thread that articulates the narrative. This quality was identified by Aristotles, and was introduce in Interpretation by Bill Lewis in 1980. 
  • Organised. Communication, to be effective, must be organised. In other words, it must be easy to follow, and not demand a lot of effort from your audience. Basically, to achieve the Organised quality, the following points must always be consider:

a) Introduction: Welcome, presentation (personal and of your organisation); presentation of the program or circuit; presentation of the theme (why is important to assist to this program?); give practical information (duration, bathrooms, etc). Take the time to cover all the points of the Introduction. This first impression is crucial. The introduction can include an anecdote, an inspirational phrase, a joke, etc. If necessary, consider including maps of the visited area.

b) Body: Develop three to five subtopics. These must all respond and contribute to the great interpretative theme treated. Transitions from one topic to another must be planned.

c) Conclusion: It must be inspiring and provoke further thoughts or actions. For this, the conclusion must include the restatement of messages and themes. Leave a moment for final questions. Give clues for those who would like to have further information about the theme or support the cause. The conclusion is the last impression left by the guide. Say goodbye and thanks the visitors. Take the time to finish with enough time to cover all the points mentioned. AVOID: No new themes or points of view should be incorporated in the conclusion.

– Relevant. This means that interpretation must be meaningful to the audience. It must answer the question: How can I make this interpretation more meaningful for my audience? Some answers to consider are: avoiding technical terms or explaining them and bridge the unfamiliar world that could be presented to common familiar things that the audience know. To make it more relevant, the interpreter can use: examples, analogies, contrasts, similes, and metaphors. Example: “the native forest is the supermarket of our ancestors. There they found food, clothes and heating”.

– Enjoyable: Verbal and non-verbal communication are an important part to achieve an enjoyable interpretative program.

Communication techniques and tools

How to get the attention and keep the attention of my audience/visitors? There are many strategies to attract and keep the attention of your audience. Here are some we must not forget:

a) Bilateral communication:

– The power of questions to engage visitors in the interpretive program.

– Response strategies for visitors’ questions.

b) Changes in tone and voice. Is important to avoid being monotonous.

c) Body language (attitude, posture, movements, etc.). Keep harmony between what you are saying and your body language. Avoid distracting movements.

d) Keep yourself creative: An interpretative guide is always searching for self-actualisation and new ways to communicate. Some areas to explore and that can make communication effective are:

a) Demonstrations,

b) Use material (photos, maps, etc) when guiding.

c) Plan activities where the audience can be the focus.

d) Personification or living stories.

Later, two other interpretive qualities have been included by the National Association for Interpretation of USA. These are: Purpose (introduced by the National Association for Interpretation) and You (introduced by Wren Smith, Certified Interpretative Guide).

Purpose”, reminds us that interpretation must fulfil a mission. It has goals and SMART objectives.

You”, reminds us that the individual passion of a performer makes the difference. It is what Freeman Tilden (1977) called “The Priceless Ingredient”. It should also be recognized that “the best style for you is your own style” and that “speaking from the heart is almost always more powerful than speaking solely from the mind” (Ham, 1992).

All these qualities can be remembered in the acronym POETRY: Purpose, Organised, Enjoyable, Thematic, Relevant and You. Interpretation is Poetry!

Topic 6. Interpretation related to activities in natural areas

Interpretation differs from information in two fundamental ways (Hvenegaard et al., 2009): First, interpretation depends on information but seeks to reveal meanings based on that information, so that “visitors increase knowledge and deepen understanding.” Second, the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction but provocation. Such provocation works to develop appreciation, respect, and a sense of responsibility to those protected places being interpreted.

According to Hvenegaard et al. (2009), nature interpretive services should be on-site, emphasizing first-hand experience with the natural environment, provide an informal form of education, deal with a voluntary, non-captive audience, satisfy visitors’ normal expectation of gratification, be inspirational and motivational in nature, aim to expand knowledge, shift attitudes, and alter the behavior of visitors, their understanding of, and their appreciation and respect for, the natural environment, and create experiences based on the constructed values of natural and cultural features.

As an example, in China, interpretation of natural attractions focused on the presentation of scientific information alone was found to be ineffective and ignored by most visitors (Xu et al., 2013). Inversely, guided tours employing an “aesthetic” approach to interpretation, using stories, art, and poetry to emotionally engage visitors with the landscape, appeared more appropriate, culturally relevant, and effective.

Interpretation of the natural environment also aims to change the behavior of visitors in natural areas, but the way to attain this goal is not always obvious (e.g., Tubb, 2003; Munro et al., 2008; Wan Mohamad Ariffin & Goh, 2019). For instance, recent research showed the importance of considering both the use of gamified vs. a non-gamified version of interpretation, as well as the effect of the psychological distance of the visitor towards the visited site. This distinction is important given that environmental interpretation needs to generate certain psychological effects that are impactful: participant enjoyment, autonomy, competence, and relatedness, the combined achievement of these effects giving rise to a so-called “gameful experience” (see Frías-Jamilena et al., 2022). In the same direction, recent research showed that interpretation services could have a positive and significant direct relationship with reflective engagement (i.e., sensory impressions and emotional affinity prompting visitors to reflect on and improve their behavior), which, in turn, was positively and significantly related to the ecotourism behavioral intentions (including pro-environmental behavior, environmentally friendly behavior, adherence to ecotourism guidelines, site-specific ecological behavior, and learning behavior) of wildlife tourists (Lee et al., 2021).

According to Sandberg et al. (2020, 7) “nature interpretation is the mediation of feelings and knowledge of nature. The goal of nature interpretation is to create an understanding of fundamental ecological and cultural interconnections, as well as people’s role in nature. Through nature interpretation, positive experiences are created that can increase environmental awareness, both for individuals and for society as a whole”. Therefore, the basic aims of nature interpretation are (i) to contribute to increased knowledge and understanding of the relationship between people, nature and cultural landscapes, and (ii) to promote care of nature, commitment to the natural and cultural heritage, and environmental issues.

Achieving this requires both strong leadership and the ability to use speech, text and pictures, to inspire and create a focus on the values and stories of a landscape. It also requires the ability to engage in dialogue and contribute to a sense of shared ownership.

The values and social role of nature interpretation are connected to the growth of ideas about the need for protection of natural areas, fauna, flora and natural monuments. It has also strong roots in the heritage of Linnaeus’ systematisation of species, the Romantic period’s yearning for nature as well as demands for outdoor recreational activities (Rhode, 2020). Interpretation of nature is based on the diffusion of basic conservation values: Nature has intrinsic value; Nature has utility value; Nature is a source of experiences, belonging and learning; Nature has ecological value.

When the first national parks were established in the USA, a need to create an understanding of basic principles of nature conservation among all visitors developed. The concept of “interpretation” was established as a way of describing the methodology of this type of communication.

Nature interpretation is defined as a means of (Rhode, 2020): encouraging simple outdoor recreation in tune with nature and in accordance with local tradition; counteracting destruction and damage in vulnerable natural environments; increasing understanding of the need to protect nature and the environment; fostering mutual understanding between those who live and work in natural and cultural landscapes, and the general public engaged in outdoor recreational pursuits; generating a better understanding of human use of nature from a cultural history perspective; disseminating knowledge of how human activity influences ecosystems; promoting societal development that is in greater harmony with nature and natural resources.

Thus, nature interpretation aims to: strengthen people’s understanding of nature, biodiversity, environment, and cultural heritage; strengthen people’s access to outdoor recreation; promote people’s direct participation in and influence over the management of the natural and cultural environment; provide inspiration for a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.

Nature-based tourism is a growing industry throughout the world. Thus, experiences involving the natural heritage are often included as part of a package together with accommodation and food, leading to the recruitment of trained nature interpreters as tour and event leaders (Nykänen, 2020). Moreover, in recent years, nature interpreters have also found roles in new areas, for instance, in social care of the elderly or people with mental illness. By combining knowledge of nature and educational skills, the nature interpreter can both work directly with those groups and act as a mentor for care staff, enabling them to use nature and nature interpretation in their day-to-day work.

Being able to rely on first-hand experience is one of the main strengths of nature interpretation (Sandberg, 2020). All landscapes carry stories well worth listening to (Cserhalmi, 2020). Stories can be used to generate interest in the landscape, thereby increasing the willingness to preserve and develop its qualities. This includes the participant’s encounter with phenomena and processes in the landscape, as well as with the nature interpreter and the other participants. Activities such as guiding, dialogue, storytelling, play, and drama provide opportunities for first-hand experiences. These encounters often take place in groups, but the individual participant’s experience is always unique. By helping each participant to discover concepts and words that express their experience, it is transformed into something that becomes a lasting part of their knowledge (Sandberg, 2020).

In addition to direct experience, the following aspects are particularly important in understanding the context of nature interpretation and help to highlight the opportunities and choices we make when thinking about and preparing for interpretation (Sandberg, 2020): how interpreters use the landscape as a space for experience and learning, what interpreters wish for and can achieve in the encounter with the visitor, and the relationship to the participants and their perspectives.

According to the National Park Service, interpretation in the 21st century should be (NPS 2014):

– Investigative – Exploring multiple perspectives and truths ascribed to resources; synthesising scientific and historical evidence, national significance, and current context;

– Participatory – Inviting audiences to interact with the resource and each other, enriching experiences through an active exchange of ideas;

– Collaborative – Directly meeting community needs through strong, mutually-beneficial relationships;

– Skills-Focused – Building skills for a 21st century civil society, inspiring lifelong learning and active engagement.

However, to fulfil those aims, the following factors should be considered (NPS 2014): interpretation is part of a lifelong learning activity; globalisation has huge impacts on interpretation; the digital revolution has huge impacts on interpretation; innovative leadership is fundamental; disciplinary and technical expertise are required.

Topic 7. Content delivery techniques: interpretation and storytelling

Definition of storytelling

Storytelling is one of the core techniques of heritage interpretation, which, according to Lancaster (2001), “has been an honoured tradition of human societies since prehistoric times because it’s a powerful tool for conveying and sharing ideas, beliefs, values, and traditions. Because stories are so effective at explaining the meaning of things, they’re at the heart of interpretation.”

Bruchac (2005) points out the impact it has on listeners: “Storytelling can powerfully convey information about cultural and natural history. Stories have the potential to hold the attention of large, mixed-age audiences. Because the images of stories are vivid in the minds of listeners and help them to grow in mind and spirit, they retain what they have heard.”

How storytelling should be set up is clearly shown by Brochu and Merriman (2008): stories should integrate intangibles like values, descriptions of feelings and emotions, ethical and philosophical concepts, and universal concepts and ideas. Double brainstorming for stories that make a site or a topic worth showing to the public is an effective technique to reveal tangibles and intangibles.

Interpretation should systematically take the different needs of main target groups into account. This can result in the necessity to provide different stories with different media for special main target groups.

An example of storytelling

People often find geology boring, do you? Here are same facts and one example: In the Kandel mountains in the south of Germany, there was a rockfall in 1981 with 6.000 tonnes of rock. A 200-metre gash was cut into the forest due to the geological instability of the rock. There had already been geological reports that explained that the rock was brittle due to frost blasting. More than 40 years later, the forest is reclaiming part of it and the aisle is getting smaller. Many pioneer plants can be found there, and soil formation processes can be observed.

Use storytelling for a geology tour could end after some more research telling people about the Kandel Rockfall like that:

A witching hour that ends in disaster

Witches liked to gather at the Devil’s Chancel for wild nights of dancing – or so legend says. The Devil’s Chancel was a massive block of rock that once sat on top of Kandel Rock. Every year, on Walpurgis Night, it’s said that witches celebrated with particularly wild parties here. On 1 May 1981, the incredible happened. Shortly after midnight, the Devil’s Chancel collapsed. It crashed into the depths with an ear-splitting noise and flattened 200 m of forest in the process. Hours later, the air still smelled of sulphur, and someone found a broom among the rubble!


It wasn’t really the witches’ dancing that caused the Chancel to collapse. It was just rainwater which had been seeping into the cracks of the rock. When water freezes, it expands by 9%. Anyone who has left a bottle of water in the freezer will know the result: the ice splits open the bottle.

Destructive water

On Kandel Rock, this happened on a much bigger scale. The Devil’s Chancel that crashed weighed 6.000 tonnes, about the same as 550 city buses! Over time, and with more than 140 days of frost every year, the cracks in the foot of the rock expanded. It became brittle and eventually unstable. Water is not as harmless as it might seem – it can make a huge block of rock collapse. Given time, it can even destroy entire mountain ranges.

This example shows that facts are the basis for storytelling, facts embedded in a story, makes it much more enjoyable and people remember it better.

Basic aspects of storytelling

Storytelling is a key aspect in interpretation because it is a very effective tool. People forget facts, but they remember stories. Strauss (1996) already shared practices for interpretive storytellers: “It is important to start simply —tell anecdotes of your own experiences and observations. It is helpful to use legends, folk tales, fables, parables, myths, and fairy tales as they fit. The art is to create images and depict simple actions to add life, feeling, and meaning and broaden the ways something may be shown”. More aspects mentioned by Strauss (1996) are the following:

  • Show relationships and context—create a sense of journey.
  • Engage all the senses.
  • Frame any interpretive talk with a story related to the theme.
  • Use a flexible voice, gestures, and movement.
  • Practice, practice, revise, and practice again—tell your good stories often.


There are many approaches to writing a storyline, but they are all designed to help you create a single sentence that says something important about your resource. First, you should identify several things you’d like visitors to know about your resource, and combine them into a single idea, and start with a general topic, narrow it down to a more specific topic, and turn it into a statement (Lancaster 2001).

Lancaster (2001) also suggests that a storyline should:

  • Explain something significant about your resource and be written as a complete sentence focusing on a single message you’d like visitors to remember;
  • go beyond a mere description of facts;
  • link tangible things to intangible ideas (explain how different aspects of your resource reflect ideas, meanings, beliefs, and values);
  • allow visitors to decide for themselves what the resource means and give visitors an opportunity to discover a few things on their own.

All story elements should be linked to the central idea and the story keeps them all together providing direction.

The best what could happen already was written by Tilden (2007) in clear words:

“The interpreter who creates a whole, pares away all the obfuscating minor detail and drives straight toward the perfection of his story will find that his hearers are walking along with him – are companions on a march. At some certain point it becomes their story as much as his”.

Topic 8. The importance of the tourist profile in interpretation

Interpretive programs must be developed for a particular public profile and audience. If we review the six principles of Freeman Tilden’s interpretation (Tilden, 1957), he emphasizes that different programs should be created for different audiences and groups (see principle VI). This idea is also included in the 15 principles of Cable and Beck (see principle VI).

Finally, Sam Ham (1992) adds to these ideas by developing an equation that reminds us that the most important thing is to have a balance between resource information, visitor profile information, and adequate technique. For this reason, it is not enough to only know about the resource we are interpreting, but also about the visitors. In this way, we can adjust the interpretation to the needs and motivations of the audience.

The interpretive equation proposed by Ham (1992) is the following one:

(CR + CV) x TA = IO

CR= Knowledge of the resource

CV= Visitor Knowledge

TA= Appropriate Technique

IO= Interpretive Opportunity

This interpretive equation reminds us that the most important thing is to have a balance between information about the resource, information about the visitor, and the appropriate technique. Therefore, one key question that emerges is: What information should we know about our visitors?

The ideal is to have as much information as possible: where they come from, what interests them, level of education, etc. The more information we have, the more appropriate our interpretation will be according to the interests of our visitors. When we do not know anything about our visitors, conducting informal research before starting the program can be a good possibility.

Other interesting aspects to consider in relation to our tourists are:

a) Our two brains. The interpreter must address both hemispheres of the brain of their audience.

b) Ways of learning of the visitors. People learn in different ways. Some people are more visual, some more auditory, some more verbal, and some more kinaesthetic. In general, we are a bit of everything, but we may have some tendencies towards a learning style.

In the interpretive guide, activities that aim at the different forms of learning should be considered to ensure that the entire audience feels challenged. Another important aspect is to consider visitors’ needs. According to the widely accepted theory of Abraham Maslow (1954), people have hierarchies in their needs. First are the basic, physiological needs (air, water, sleep, security, etc.); then there are the social needs (identification with a group, being accepted and recognized); finally, there are the needs of spiritual growth. Taking this hierarchy into account, it is interesting to consider how an interpretive guide can ensure compliance with the needs proposed by Maslow.

John Falks (2007) established a classification of visitors according to their motivations. According to this approach, visitors can be classified in the following groups:

  • Explorers
  • Facilitators
  • Professionals
  • Experience seekers
  • Spiritual pilgrims

Therefore, any interpretive activity should consider the type of visitor we have in front of us and adapt it to that specific profile.

Finally, apart from that, there are also some more aspects of the visitors to take into consideration when carrying out an interpretive activity. These aspects include:

  • The group type: alone, as a couple, families with children, small groups, larger groups…
  • The origin: local, day trip, domestic tourists, tourists from abroad…
  • The previous knowledge: no previous knowledge, interested laymen, experts…
  • Restrictions: Stroller, wheelchair, handicapped, blind, deaf…
  • Locomotion: Footpath, bicycle, canoe, diving, bus tour, car tour…