Freeman Tilden (1883 – 1980)

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Freeman Tilden

Freeman Tilden

Born in 1883 in Malden, Massachusetts, Freeman Tilden led the way in the field of interpretation. A writer from a young age, he began as a book reviewer for his father’s newspaper and later worked as a reporter for newspapers in Boston, New York, and Charleston. He also wrote fiction and plays until the 1940s when he turned his attention to writing about the national parks and their important contribution to America’s heritage. As an expression of his passion for the parks, in 1951 he published The National Parks: What They Mean to You and Me. His other publications included The State Parks, Following the Frontier, and The Fifth Essence.

In 1957, he published what is considered perhaps his most significant book, Interpreting Our Heritage, which laid out the principles and theories of heritage interpretation. In the book Tilden gave shape to the profession of interpretation. He laid out the six major, enduring principles that have guided and sustained those involved in the practice of interpretation for decades and led the National Park Service (NPS) in shaping the visitor’s experience. He maintained that interpretation should involve much more than reciting the facts about a park but rather it should help nurture and strengthen a direct connection between the visitor and the park. Over past decades, thousands of copies of this slim volume have been printed. It is now in its third edition, and was reprinted as recently as 2008.

Tilden enjoyed visiting parks and was widely revered as a teacher, mentor, and philosopher. He has been described as the “soul” of interpretation. His legacy is rich and his impact on the National Park Service and on the broader field of interpretation remains strong and relevant to this day. One of his often quoted expressions that captured not only the importance of interpretation but also help explain his life-long passion was: “Through interpretation, understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”

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