National Park Service
US Department of the Interior
National Park Service
Interpretive Development Program

About Interpretation

When most people hear the word interpreter, they think of someone who translates the meaning of one language into another. In a museum, zoo, or park setting, interpreters "translate" the meanings of artifacts, collections, events, and physical resources into a language that helps visitors understand these resources.

Another term for interpreters could be visitor experience specialists. They provide information, orientation, and inspiration in the right amounts and at the right times, so that visitors will have more enjoyable, meaningful experiences.

While many definitions exist, the National Park Service defines interpretation as "a catalyst in creating opportunities for the audience to form their own intellectual and emotional connections with the meanings and significance inherent in the resource."

Building from the work of early contributors (John Muir, Enos Mills, Freeman Tilden), the National Park Service has provided a venue for collegial debate and discussion to define the elements of successful interpretation. Putting theory into practice added to the NPS evolution of the profession though watershed events.

Skills team group of 44 interpreters outside Mather Training CenterThe Interpretive Skills Teams trained hundreds of interpreters in the importance of professional delivery skills and the effective use of themes, goals and objectives.
Interpreter sitting with school children around a tableAn Interpretive (R)evolution was launched, paving the way for a complete rethinking of interpretive training and philosophy, and the beginning of the NPS Interpretive Development Program (IDP).
The "Compelling Stories" training booklet encouraged interpreters to move beyond the presentation of straight facts and information, to explore and interpret the intangible meanings of tangible resources.
Group of interpreters sitting around a table at Mather Training CenterA group of 40 interpreters met at the Stephen T. Mather Training Center in West Virginia to begin developing a rigorous peer review program and defining professional standards. This initial watershed conversation grew to include feedback from over 400 field interpreters and laid the groundwork for establishing national standards for each of the essential interpretive products and services NPS interpreters provide. From those efforts, IDP theory established the idea and core standard that successful interpretation provides visitors with opportunities to form their own intellectual and emotional connections to the relevance and significance of the resource. Additionally, three tenets of interpretation were defined:


  • Resources possess meanings and have relevance
  • Visitors are seeking something of value for themselves
  • Interpretation facilitates a connection between the interests of the visitor and the meanings of the resource
Image of Meaningful Interpretation book coverThe theory and tenets of the IDP were presented in the publication, Meaningful Interpretation: How to Connect Hearts and Minds to Places, Objects and other Resources, edited by David L. Larsen.

Screen shot of the entry page for the Training website The IDP embarked on a new project to continue the Interpretive (R)evolution—revising the entire NPS training curriculum and developing new training tools and resources, such as the suite of on-line interpretive courses found at


To continue exploring your professional development needs and opportunities go to “Getting Started