Heritage education and interpretation


Tool No. 7: Heritage education and interpretation

Heritage education and interpretation

Usefulness of this tool

Heritage Interpretation (HI) is used to:

  • Planning and managing the heritage resources of a territory for public use.
  • Generate interpretative media (panels, visits, audiovisual, digital media, etc.) forheritageassets and theterritory.
  • Raise awareness of heritage protection among the non-captive public and the local population.
  • Investigate and value cultural and heritage spaces and resources relevant to the population.
  • Involve the population in the planning and research work of the territory and heritage, as well as in the training of indigenous specialists in interpretative techniques.
  • Participatory delimitation of the territory and its heritage dimension.
  • To make visible other (or new) narratives, discourses and interpretations about the territory and cultural and heritage assets.

Description of the tool

HI is a discipline that navigates between different disciplines and methodologies and aims to generate interpretative media and communicational messages between heritage resources (natural and cultural) and a non-captive audience. Its definition has evolved since its birth almost a century ago.

Heritage interpretation refers to all the ways in which information is communicated to visitors to an educational, natural or recreational site, such as a museum, park or science center. More specifically it is the communication of information about, or the explanation of, the nature, origin, and purpose of historical, natural, or cultural resources, objects, sites and phenomena using personal or non-personal methods. Some international authorities in museology prefer the term mediation for the same concept, following usage in other European languages.

Purposes of Heritage interpretation: Fascinating, not explaining. Wonder, not illustrate. Involve, not teach. The process is: to provoke, to correlate, to reveal.

We have selected the two most widely used in the professional and academic field:

  1. Association for Heritage Interpretation (1996): “The art of revealing in situ the significance of natural, cultural or historical heritage to the public visiting such places in their leisure time”.
  2. National Association for Interpretation (2000): “Interpretation is a communication process that produces emotional and cognitive connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource”.

Freeman Tilden (1957), one of the fathers of interpretation, formulated a number of interpretative principles, which remain the basis of the discipline:

  1. Any form of interpretation that does not relate the objects it presents and describes to something in the experience and personality of the visitors will be totally sterile.
  2. Information, as such, is not interpretation. It is revelation based on information. They are two different things. However, all interpretation includes information.
  3. Interpreting is an art that combines many arts to explain the subjects presented; and any art form, to some extent, can be taught.
  4. Interpretation aims to provoke, not to instruct.
  5. It should be the presentation of the whole and not of the parts in isolation, and it should address the individual as a whole and not just one facet of the individual.
  6. Interpretation for children should not be a mere dilution of what is delivered to adults, it requires a radically different approach. It will need specific programmes.


HI has two types of objectives. On the one hand, general objectives are directed at the resource. These are the objectives related to management, quality and enjoyment of the view, appropriate use of the resource, and social, cultural and economic profitability. On the other hand, the specific objectives are those aimed at communication, i.e. they are directed at the visitor. These objectives are divided into three (Morales, 2001):

  • Educational objectives – what we want visitors to know.
  • Emotional objectives – what we want visitors to feel.
  • Attitudinal objectives – what we want visitors to do.

Target group are members of local community, organizations, heritage interpretation professionals. It is convenient to invite several and diverse stakeholders to the process in order to get different perspectives. It is advisable to work on two levels: training in heritage interpretation and taking advantage of what heritage interpretation specialists in the community can contribute.

This tool can be applied at any level of the existence of the ecomuseum, either in its project phase or in an existing and consolidated ecomuseum, since the work with the interpretation of heritage is an always valid tool both in the conformation of the project of the ecomuseum as in an existing ecomuseum.

Guidelines to apply the tool

Interpretive Planning:

Any interpretative action must be previously prepared with a methodology and specific goals. Planning is a process of analysis of means, services, programmes, resources, personnel and any other variable conducive to transmitting messages. It allows us to communicate meaning in an interesting and effective way, to contribute to the satisfaction of the visitor’s needs, to protect the resource, and to improve the quality of life of the local inhabitants. In other words: Planning. It allows us to analyse and make decisions; ultimately to manage identity, heritage and economic development. From this planning will emerge the interpretive plan which is the document resulting from the planning process.

Illustration 1. Phases of Interpretive Planning.
Source: own elaboration based on Morales, 2001.

Planning is a continuous process of analysis that is not closed and is open to change for its evolution and improvement (Morales: 2001, 171). It is made up of 8 phases that encompass what can be considered strategic planning, from the first contact with the territory and the resources, the documentary and field work, the analysis of the environment and the weighting of the variables that will delimit the interpretative messages, to the execution and evaluation of the interpretative plan (Illustration 1).

Inventory and compilation of information, since the inventory will have an accumulative phase, but in its evolutionary phase it will be selective, using the most relevant information for the fulfilment of the interpretative objectives; and 4. Analysis, since this is where the information compiled is sifted, selecting that which most helps the knowledge of the public (current and potential), the essential or interesting concepts and assets for interpretation, the existing spaces and infrastructures or those with possibilities. Likewise, weight is given to those assets that are the most representative or that allow obvious opportunities for interpretation.

Interpretative means:

The way to apply this tool is with the creation of personal interpretative media and/or non-personal interpretative media.

Brands and panels Information sign, interpretative sign, preventive information signor beacons Clear and relevant information
Reduced cost
Minimal maintenance
You are often the target of vandalism
Possible visual impact
Publications Brochures, guides and posters Speed reading
Reduced cost
Collects information on services
Serves as a souvenir
It can be consulted at any time
They produce waste
It is outdated.
Automatic audiovisual mechanisms Videos, projections, soundposts, etc. Quality information
Generate or complement the atmosphere
They motivate the visit.
They provide specific information
High cost
They require infrastructure and power supplies.
Need control and maintenance

Non-personal or unassisted means are those that do not require the presence of the interpreter; the interpretative message is transmitted through other mechanisms and elements, such as signage, publications, self-guided itineraries, automatic audiovisual mechanisms, etc. Personal or assisted means pick up interaction between visitors and the interpreter, such as guided tours, staff-operated audiovisual devices, animations, workshops, etc.

Specialised staff Games, workshops, creative activities, toy libraries, sensory explorations, etc. Supplementary information.
They motivate the visit and the experience.
They promote awareness and empathy.
They need qualified professionals.
Require specialised conditions and materials
The visitor must be motivated (duration)
Staff-operated audiovisual media Videos, projections, soundposts, etc. Quality information
Generate or complement the atmosphere
They motivate the visit.
They provide complementary information
The interpreter can interact, answerquestions, etc.
High cost
They require infrastructure and power supplies.
Need control and maintenance
They need specialised staff.
Visit Guided tours, spontaneous services, tours in motorised or non-motorised vehicles Personal contact.
Motivating experience
Skills required (tours with vehicles)
It cannot always be adapted to all groups.
They depend on the weather.
Specific securitymeasures.
Animations (living history) Passive (audiencedoesnotinteract) or active (audienceinteracts) The interpreter can comment, make clarifications, etc.
It motivates the visit and the experience.
Not recommended for large groups.
It needs specialised staff and volunteers.

Support materials

The way to apply this methodology is through workshops. These workshops must be given by an HI specialist and will be adapted to the interpretive media to be generated. The duration of the workshops is from 8 to 16 hours.


Ham, Sam H. (2014). Interpretación – Para marcar la diferencia intencionadamente. Sevilla: Asociación para la Interpretación del Patrimonio.
Mateos Rusillo, S.; Marca Francés, G .; y Attardi Colina, O. (2016). La difusión preventiva del patrimonio cultural. Gijón: Trea.
Mateos Rusillo, S. M. (Coord.) (2008): La comunicación global del patrimonio cultural. Gijón.
Morales Miranda, J. (2001). Guía práctica para la interpretación del Patrimonio: el arte de acercar el legado natural y cultural al público visitante. Sevilla, Junta de Andalucía.
Tilden, F. (2006 [1957]): La Interpretación de nuestro Patrimonio. Sevilla: Asociación para la Interpretación del Patrimonio. Sevilla.
Valdés Sagüés, Mª. C. (1999). La difusión cultural en el museo: servicios destinados al gran público. Gijón: Trea.


Lisa Pigozzi, Nunzia Borrelli, Raul dal Santo, Silvia Dossena, Lucia Vignati 

Scientific Coordinators