Interpreting Our Outdoor Heritage

Dr Bill Bevan, MAHI. 

Bill is Secretary of the AHI and runs inHeritage, a heritage interpretation and community heritage service. -

Visit almost any countryside property or heritage site and you will have come across some way of telling that place’s story to visitors and local communities. Interpretation panels, welcome leaflets and self-guided trails are now common in today’s British countryside.

Heritage interpretation is the way property managers explain the nature, origin and use of their natural, cultural or historical sites and objects. Interpretation goes beyond the dry communication of information, using creative techniques borrowed from journalism and communications theory to engage people about the place they are visiting or the object they are looking at.

Outdoor Interpretation Panel © Athene Reiss
Outdoor Interpretation Panel © Athene Reiss

Freeman Tilden, of the US National Park Service, published the first principles of heritage interpretation in the 1950s. He summed up interpretation as 'Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection,' Interpreting Our Heritage, 1957. He outlined six principles on which much of today’s interpretation is still based. You can read them on Wikipedia1.

Planning Interpretation

The best interpretation is produced based on a good interpretive plan, which outlines aims and objectives (intellectual, behavioural and emotional), key messages, target audiences and appropriate media. It is important to get all four elements right to give a good, clear focus to why you are creating interpretation and to avoid trying to either tell everything you know about a site or just end up with a list of rules. Good interpretation welcomes people to a site, evokes a sense of place, and encourages visitors to actively explore the property.

Guide tour of Tower of London by a Yeoman Guard from Wikimedia Commons
Guide tour of Tower of London by a Yeoman Guard from Wikimedia Commons

Ways of Interpreting

There are many ways to interpret a place. Each has its own benefits and may appeal to different audiences, making the choice of media an important decision. While we might first think of words as being the prime communication tool, people, images, sculptures, audio and video are also important and may reach certain audiences more effectively. Interpretation can be semi-permanent, with a potential life of 10 years or temporary, to tie in with an event or change with the seasons.

Face-to-face live and participatory interpretation can have the most lasting impact on visitors. Nothing beats the experience of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable ranger, warden or volunteer showing you around. We also remember more information by doing an activity, such as hands-on craft, over any other form of experience.

You can combine panels and leaflets together © Bill Bevan
You can combine panels and leaflets together © Bill Bevan

As not every organisation can have live interpreters on site 24/7, the interpretation panel is here to stay for a long time. A well-located and thought-out panel can welcome visitors to your site and inspire them to understand it better. The key is to get the right balance between numbers of panels, their positions, size and materials so that they reach visitors while not distracting from the landscape. Art can be a good alternative in places where the traditional panel is not suitable.

Leaflets may be the first piece of communication a visitor, or potential visitor, comes across; can be widely distributed beyond the site and can form handy self-guided trails. Trails are a great way to encourage people to visit different parts of a site and look for some of its more hidden aspects. They encourage an active engagement with a place and can help give structure to a visit for those people who need it. They can also encourage families to explore together and interact with each other. As well as leaflets, you can produce them as waymarkers, downloadable PDFs, audio tours and geocaches – or a whole range of formats once you have the content.

Digital media – new opportunities

Audio and geocaching brings us on to digital media. This offers a whole range of new possibilities for providing interpretation in different media to help break away from the traditional printed text and image combination. You can harness the equipment people often carry around with them, from mp3 players to smartphones and satnavs, to deliver such things as audio tours and apps, the latter with rich and interactive content. Geocaching is a popular activity that works well when the caches are sensitively located – you probably have at least one on your site already. Some uses of digital media require the visitor to plan in advance, others can deliver content on-site if there is network availability via QR codes and near-field-communication tags or where you can install and power a wi-fi transmitter. Before going down a digital route, it is worth finding out from your visitors whether they would use their smartphone during a visit or prefer to leave them in their pocket. The readability of screens in sunlight is another issue needing to be overcome to make digital visual interpretation workable outdoors.

Site guides and maps can be interpretive too © Lisa Key
Site guides and maps can be interpretive too © Lisa Key

Whatever you do should be accessible to a wide range of people so that your interpretation meets guidelines under the Equality Act 2010. Panel height and location, size of text, audio, tactile areas and braille can all be employed to widen accessibility.

Who is an interpreter?

Anyone with a good knowledge of a site and communication skills is a heritage interpreter. Outdoor interpretation practitioners range from wardens, rangers, naturalists and archaeologists to crafts people, heritage interpretation specialists, educators and visitor centre staff.

The more staff are trained in interpretation skills, especially face-to-face live interpretation, then the better an organisation can communicate the intrinsic values of a site. It is worth having a heritage interpreter to guide or help with interpretation, perhaps with major new projects, as this should make sure what you produce has a greater chance of reaching your visitors creatively and effectively.

Guides to Interpretation

There are a number of publications and online resources to help guide interpretation. Freeman Tilden’s 1957 Interpreting our Heritage is still relevant and a great place to begin. Sam Ham’s Environmental Interpretation: A Pactical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets from 1992 introduces sound interpretive concepts anyone can produce. James Carter’s A Sense of Place2 is a concise and insightful guidebook which balances visitor needs, conservation and the desires of those who produce it.

You can also find a range of useful resources on the website of the Association for Heritage Interpretation ( Most are available solely to AHI members, which is a great incentive for any organisation or individual involved in interpretation to join. The AHI is the UK’s professional body for heritage interpretation so offers support and professional development for interpreters. It organises a vibrant annual conference, a range of training and other events, a bi-annual journal, a regular e-bulletin and hosts a lively LinkedIn discussion group open to non-AHI members, which is a great source of ideas and information3. The forthcoming issue of the Interpretation Journal is on the subject of the Philosophy of Interpretation so will have a range of articles by experienced interpreters on the why and how of interpretation. If you would like to find out more about joining the AHI visit





Updated information January 2017:

Dr Bill Bevan is now Chair of AHI and can be contacted at

To contact the Association for Heritage Interpretation email or call 01634 853424

First published in CJS Focus on Visitor Management and Engagement in affiliation with the Association for Heritage Interpretation on 10 June 2013

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