It’s All a Matter of Understanding the Terms

This year marks my twentieth year in NAI. It is not really a remarkable achievement but came about in a round-about-manner. I had been associated with the organization since 1991, having been invited to a couple of regional activities and the Vail national workshop. In working at Colorado State University, then the site of the national NAI office, I became acquainted with the then president of the organization, Cem Basman, who regularly asked me to join NAI. I had met with the then director and found that neither was the organization something that was meeting my needs and, to be blunt, the director was less than welcoming to my field of interpretation, (the director, not Cem). I mentioned these aspects to Cem, and also stated my frustrations on how the organization could call itself “the National Association of Interpretation ( the old name, since changed to the National Association for Interpretation). Cem then challenged to me join and , to quote, “change things.”

Loving a challenge, I joined. My reception by most of the folks I met in NAI was rather tepid, not that I expected a band and a parade, with very few others in the membership specializing in my field; costumed and historic interpretation. I also found some who were, well, were less than welcoming. A few expressed their opinions very openly to me when I attended the Cleveland workshop by stating that they could not understand why I would join NAI since “my people” (yep, that’s a quote) had their own organizations. I stated my opinion again about the organization’s name representation and usually met with a number of discussions about “living history” just being a hobby and not a real field of interpretation and that “we” could not understand the basics of interpretation. I would usually point out that I had studied under Freeman Tilden in the late 60’s, the 1960’s that is and wasn’t his ‘bible’ called Interpreting Our Heritage? That statement regularly created a puzzlement that I would know anything about Tilden, or Sharpe, or any of the standards that were the foundations of interpretation at the time. In truth, many of us who were in the field of historic interpretation were, and are, very familiar with the foundations of interpretive principles and practices.

Needless to state, the first few years of being a member of NAI were frustrating. I did meet others who shared my field of study and who were members of NAI. Our combined frustrations came to a head in 1996 in Billings, Montana when about twenty of us walked out of one of the keynotes, which, to be blunt, in our collective opinion, was not only poor historical interpretation, but was just plain poor interpretation. The group was approached by Deb Tewell, then an officer of NAI and now a member of the staff, who asked us to voice our concerns and encouraged us to approach the issue by starting a section to address our field. We accomplished the required number of petition signatures in a day, submitted our request for a new section to the board , and were approved before the workshop was completed. Thus, in a brief summation, the Cultural Interpretation and Living History section of NAI (CILH) was formed. Some may not appreciate, or approve of the thoughts and frustrations that initiated this action, but, as they saying goes, “the rest is history”.

Since that time I have had numerous conversations within the membership, and with many in the historic interpretive field and museums outside NAI, as to why I am a member of NAI and why I think others should join.

The reason is simple, we are all interpreters, with the same foundations, desires, and hopes and dreams of growth and improvement in our respective fields. We are a family with varied interests, experiences and expertise, but, we are of one family.

About fifteen years ago the term “Heritage Interpretation” began to circulate within the organization. For many of us, in all fields, we were a bit taken aback that the term needed explanation to some of the leadership and the members of NAI, as many of us who had worked in Europe and Canada had heard the term for years and understood its application. I wrote about the term then in one of the NAI publications and within the past eight years the term was being used regularly and was incorporated in our strategic plan and in a rewrite of our mission.

And yet, the term is still misunderstood, not only within our organization but also by so many others. Too often the word “heritage” is the “underminer”, if you will, of understanding the application to interpretation. The word’s old traditional utilization referring to historic and cultural materials only creates a belief that only historic and cultural themes and sites are “Heritage Interpretation”.

However, if one looks for the explanation of the term on the web and through heritage interpretive site materials you will see numerous definitions offered that give a better understanding to the universal term. One, developed by Interpretation Canada in the 1970’s, regularly comes to the forefront and offers a concise and definition,

“Heritage interpretation is a communication process, designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage, through involvement with objects, artifacts, landscapes and sites.”

Further materials in the web sites, literature, and writings of Heritage sites fill in the definition with examples, themes of such locales, and missions of various organizations that are devoted to heritage interpretation, all maintaining the primary theme of the definition.

The interesting aspect of the term is that it does not apply only to historic or cultural interpretation, but reiterates the principles and tenets of Freeman Tilden about the field of interpretation,

“An educational activity which aims to reveal meaning and relationships through the use of original objects, by first-hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information”.

I am a Heritage Interpreter, not because I am an historian and a specialist in costumed historic interpretation, but because I belong to a great and large family of interpreters from many diverse fields of interpretation that collectively contribute to the whole of our world and its experiences. We are a integrative group who regularly offer to others a better understanding of our heritage, natural, biological, historical, cultural, and human experiences, and who continually gain better knowledge in the process.

It is all a matter of understanding the terms.

John C.F. Luzader
Heritage Interpreter
Vice President of Programs

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