Interpreting the History of Technology

PE Interurban Car approaches Oil Jct. Station at OERM (Richard Boehle photo) Museums are generally considered as engaging in five primary functions for the public's instruction and enjoyment: acquisition, preservation, research, exhibition and interpretation. Interpretation is considered the instructional process best suited for museums.

Interpretation is different than typical classroom education. The concept of interpretation of museum objects is similar to interpreting a foreign language. Interpreters figure out what is important about an object, relate it to other objects, persons or places. They convey this information in a way that is honest, understandable and relevant to the people for which they are interpreting the objects.

Interpretation, as defined by Freeman Tilden in Interpreting Our Heritage, is "an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information". Freeman adds two concepts to this definition, first, "interpretation is the revelation of a larger truth that lies behind any statement of fact"; second, "interpretation should capitalize mere curiosity for the enrichment of the human mind and spirit".

The Interpretive Management Associates define interpretation as "the art of translating the language of nature and the voices of history into stories and experiences everyone can understand and enjoy."

Objects Represent the Lives and Acts of People:

Tilden points out that historic buildings and places all point to representing the life and acts of people. In places devoted to human history the objective of interpretation is to bring to the eye and understanding of the visitor real living people. Inventors created and improved the railways; engineers and construction workers designed and built the railway lines, cars, etc.; managers and workers made the railways function; customers traveled and transported food, goods and materials on the railways; people, towns, counties, states and regions benefited by the railways.

The ideal interpretation implies re-creation of the past and kinship with it. Demonstration allows visitors to see and understand how the objects and materials were used by people in the past. Showing historic machinery in use demonstrates how it was used. Participation allows visitors to physically experience use of the objects and to a varying degree experience the pleasure of reverting to a period which is long gone. A carriage ride from one location to another at Colonial Williamsburg, for example, provides such an experience.

Means of Interpretation:

Docents and exhibit hosts are interpretive guides and translators. The goal of docents and exhibit hosts is create understanding of the purposes, functions and contributions of the rail transportation industry by revealing meanings and relationships, and by relating the objects to the people who depended on them in the context of history. As a result, interpretation aims to encourage visitors to learn more about the railways and to have a greater appreciation for them.

The means of interpretation include:

  • Use of original objects, including the railway cars, locomotives, buildings, track, documents and other artifacts allows visitors to see first hand what our ancestors created and used.
  • Use first hand experiences, such as encouraging the visitors to see and compare railway cars, to look at a row of cars through a caboose cupola window, to step inside a Pullman sleeping car, watch track being laid, watch a steam locomotive move, ride aboard a streetcar between different parts of the museum, riding to town on a train allows visitors to experience rail transportation “the way their ancestors did.”
  • Use of illustrative media, including labels, maps, charts, photographs and stories help put the objects and experiences into correct contexts.

Principles Upon Which the Interpretative Process is Based

Tilden identifies six principles upon which the interpretive process is based:

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. Convey understanding to a visitor by relating the information to their own experiences. For example, people can relate to constructing a railroad by hand through their own prior experiences such as digging ditches, etc.
  2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information. Encourage visitors to discover information for themselves, including meanings and relationships, based on basic information. Many steam locomotives burned coal to boil water and create the steam needed to operate. What would it have been like to spend five to ten hours using a shovel to shovel heavy coal into a locomotive firebox?
  3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable. Interpretation is a skill that can be learned through study and practice that can be used to reach a person’s emotions. Techniques can be developed, such as bringing to life the railway workers and passengers through their stories and use of the objects they used to humanize the history of the railways.
  4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. As there is no way an exhibit host or docent can teach a visitor everything there is to know about a subject, the primary aim of an interpreter is to help, to create curiosity and encourage visitors to learn more for themselves. For example, horse cars, exhibited next to the electric railway vehicles which replaced them, have some obvious limitations. Visitors can be encouraged to think of some of the limitations that led to the development of the electric streetcars.
  5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase. Railway artifacts individually are only a part of a much bigger system. Likewise, the railways did not exist in a vacuum, they were a part of society as a whole. Interpretation should, for example, aim to use the artifacts to illustrate the overall picture of a railway or group of similar railways, and how the artifacts relate to the eras in which they were used.
  6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program. To be effective for children, interpretation needs to consider the personal experiences children have had, their maturity, their interest. Children like to be involved and to learn by doing. If they were living in the 1880s, and their parents didn't own a horse or carriage, how would they get around? How might the horse cars have helped them? How would the introduction of the electric cars, or the trains stopping at their town made a difference to their lives?

Do's and Don'ts of Interpretation

Interpretation of historic cars, locomotives and buildings is often ruined if interpreters ignore certain basic do's and don'ts, such as these, which are taken from Interpretation of Historic Sites, by William T. Alderson and Shirley Payne Low. (1985, American Association for State and Local History, Nashville, TN).

  1. Make your talk short and to the point. If you must err, do it by saying too little rather than too much.
  2. Change your interpretation a bit each time you speak to visitors. If you memorize what you are going to say, like the salesman at the door who has to start all over again if he is interrupted, you may be painfully embarrassed if you "forget your lines."
  3. If you make a mistake, say so and laugh it off. Visitors identify with the human qualities of an interpreter who is not infallible. Besides, the heavens won't fall.
  4. Speak confidently, but never with an attitude of superiority. If you are nervous speaking before the group, remember that you probably know more about the subject than they do. After all, you have access to information that they don't have.
  5. Don't preach: leave that to the pulpit. Say what you have to say as well as you can and hope for the best.
  6. Keep some information for questions, rather than immediately telling all you know. Visitors like to ask questions and are often likely to come up with good ones.
  7. Speak in a natural, informal way, never in a singsong. Try to give the impression that you just happened to think of a particular point that visitors might enjoy hearing about it.
  8. Leave yourself and your personal opinions on controversial subjects out of your interpretation. Visitors did not come to hear about you, but about the site [Museum.]
  9. If visitors appear bored or indifferent, do evaluate what you are saying and how you are saying it. Cut it short and bring in a few of the most interesting points you've reserved for such occasions.
  10. Remember that you are the historic site [Museum], so far as visitors are concerned -- the front line. You can make or break visitors' interest in the site [Museum] and in what it has to say to the modern world.
  11. When interpreting for a foreign group, speak slowly and distinctly, resisting the impulse to speak louder than usual.
  12. Give foreign groups extra time to ask the questions that will help overcome language and cultural barriers.
  13. Try to link the culture of your site to that of foreign visitors, if possible.

One additional point needs to be included. Often visitors will comment or ask about other rail transportation museums in the area, heritage railroads or the railroads themselves. OERM and almost all other museums maintains a friendly relationship with each other and with the railroads, working together to find better ways to preserve, research and interpret the history of rail transportation throughout the region. Each of these museums offer different learning experiences for visitors.

For more information about about museums, education and interpretation: recommended reading


Tell me and I'll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I'll understand.
             Chinese Proverb


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