The Story’s the Thing

interpreting our heritage

Thousands of naturalists, historians, archaeologists, and other specialists are engaged in the work of revealing, to such visitors as desire the service, something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind what the visitors can with their senses perceive. This function of the custodians of our treasures is called interpretation.” — Freeman Tilden

Every visitor to our national & state parks, our historic homes, battlefields, and museums, owes thanks to Freeman Tilden and his slim little volume, Interpreting our Heritage. Now in its fourth updated edition, Tilden’s book has influenced park rangers and interpreters since its publication in 1957.

Tilden was passionate about connecting people to the heart and soul of the special places we seek to preserve — sites as diverse as Colonial Williamsburg, Yellowstone National Park, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Each site has a story to tell, and Tilden’s book shows the way (and yes, that’s Freeman Tilden pictured on the cover of the 50th Anniversary Edition of his book). One of Tilden’s chapter headings sums it up nicely: The Story’s the Thing.

Here’s two more volumes from the Land Library’s shelves that can help unlock the stories behind our nation’s natural and cultural heritage:

glassbergmeaningful
Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life by David Glassberg, and Conducting Meaningful Interpretation: A Field Guide For Success by Carolyn Widner Ward & Alan E. Wilkinson.

In lasting tribute to Tilden’s work, the National Park Service’s annual Freeman Tilden Award is given for excellence in interpretation. The 2009 winner was interpretive park ranger Shelton Johnson. Shelton is especially well known for his Buffalo Soldier presentations in Yosemite National Park — telling the story of African-American soldiers in the early days of the park.

glorylandshelton
Shelton Johnson recently extended the range of his vast interpretive skills with his new novel set in the time of Yosemite’s buffalo soldiers: Gloryland.

shelton on trail

National Parks, for me, provide a doorway into a transcendent experience. A sense of something that’s greater than yourself….I remember one day I was walking in the Cook’s Meadow in the central part of Yosemite Valley. There was a woman there, and she was just looking up and around her, and she just kept saying. ‘Oh, oh my, oh my.’ And I went up to her and I said, ‘Ma’am, are you all right?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I’m just fine. I just …oh, oh my.’ I didn’t have to talk to her about the transcendent experience. She was having one.” — Shelton Johnson, interviewed in Ken Burns’ film The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

PLEASE give yourself a treat and watch Shelton Johnson describe a wintry day in Yellowstone National Park. It’s two minutes of sheer inspiration, and little wonder Shelton won the Freeman Tilden Award!

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