Interpretive Planning: what, why and how to do it!

cropped-d8990eba-9565-4a9a-a35e-e9518e7729c6-1.jpgJust what IS an Interpretive Plan?

Interpretive plans are for informal learning institutions and serve as a guide for the development of a visitor experience through the definition of major communication goals.  They should connect and guide all aspects of a museum—from exhibitions to programs, classes to marketing, all functions should embrace the interpretive plan and work cohesively and collaboratively to facilitate its realization.

Visitors experiences are the outgrowth of an interpretive plan. It is the expression of the plan—as if the words on the pages of the plan are brought to life.  Visitor experiences are composed of many different things: reading labels, buying a membership,  walking up a stair case, observing a performance, taking a museum class, visiting an exhibition, studying art on a wall.  Some of these things may not be traditionally imagined as experiential moments, they are. Each work toward the crescendo of communicating the interpretive goals defined in the plan.  This makes up the collective visitor experience which communicates the goals of the interpretive plan.

Interpretive plans are commonly developed around thematic planning.  One might compare the interpretive goals as the preface for a book.  Thematic exhibit zones, educational classes, programs and events are the chapters in that same book.

Interpretive plans are living documents.  They are iterative.  Museums must change and can’t be static and so, the plans should be frequently revisited and when needed, adjusted.

What do others say about interpretive planning?
Freeman Tilden, the founding father of interpretive planning,  told us in his 1957 book Interpreting Our Heritage: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection” (Tilden 38).

The National Park Service today uses this definition: “Interpretive planning is a process that identifies and describes significant visitor experiences in a park, forest, zoo or other resource-based recreation area; and recommends ways to provide, encourage, sustain, facilitate or otherwise assist those experiences” (What Is It/NPS).

Why go through all the trouble and why conduct an Interpretive Plan?

Developing consensus around a long-range vision is key.  It helps the museum’s community track forward toward a common goal.  It ensures that the museum can remain sustainable by identifying how to be relevant in the local cultural landscape.  Perhaps above all, it ensures the museum is remaining committed toward excellence in visitor experience planning and interpretation techniques. In essence, it keeps the museum fresh.

Good interpretive planning ensures that key values and experiences are accessible to visitors and, it serves as a catalyst to facilitate experience and exhibition design that will meet the interpretive goals.

What is interpretation anyways?

While the interpretive plan is the museum’s framework—the scaffolding—that guides the museum community toward the fulfillment of common goals, interpretation itself is an action—it is a verb.  It reveals meaning, makes connections and creates relevance between the content and the visitor.

There are many techniques to make interpretation happen.  Every aspect of the visitor experience works toward its realization.  From the front door to the cafe, the exhibitions and the programs, it is all one holistic experience and should be conceived that way and, developed through a co-collaboration of educators, curators, designers and many others.

It is outdated and incorrect to think of interpretation as the text or copy on a wall.  Interpretation is so much more.  Emotional and cognitive experiences come together to communicate and create interpretive moments.  This, is fundamental.

How to initiate an interpretive planning project?

Start by assessing your needs.  This will help refine the scope of the planning effort, its schedule and the participants.

Assess your needs: Who is your audience, who are you planning for? 

For a new museum this is a harder question to answer.  Community focus groups, interviews and other forms of audience research can help gauge the community and help refine who you are planning for.

Established museums often better understand their audience. Yet, audiences change. The audience you knew seven years ago may not be the audience you have today.  The best audience research never ends.  It is on-going and iterative.  Perform some research and see who you are planning for!

Case study—defining an interpretive plan that responds to audience knowledge
Working with the Josiah Henson Visitor Center in 2013 EXP undertook interpretive planning by first asking who is the audience and what do they know about Henson?

Henson was enslaved at the site of the museum, a former plantation property, in the mid 1800s. For years it has operated as a house museum and was ready to add a visitor center.  Staff have operated under the impression that all visitors know Henson before they arrive and understand his role in American history.  In their view, his name is as well-know as George Washington.  EXP suspected this was not the case and, to bridge the gap between visitors and content, we should use a fairly well-known novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was written as a fictionalized interpretation of Henson by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Some (like Abe Lincoln!) credit for sparking the Civil War with this book.   Determining where visitors are in their knowledge of Henson and his role in history would help us know the audience and develop an interpretive plan.

Audience research showed us that, in fact, the staff did not know their audience as well as they suspected and very few visitors knew the Henson story prior to the visitor while most had read or heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Audience research was vital in this case.  It informed us that Josiah Henson is not a household name.  Interpretation had to be framed to first explain who he was in the context of American history and then go from there.  (link here to a few pages from this interpretive plan)

Assess your needs: What results do you want from the interpretive plan?

Not all museums undertake interpretive planning for the same reason.  Some want to expand the annual visitation, modify the content in the exhibition, respond to a shift in collections policies or other reasons. Define what yours is.

Case study—re-framing the interpretation due to audience interests

In 2016 at the Berkshire Museum interpretive planning was undertaken to examine how to re-position the visitor experience.  As a first step, EXP conducted 400 interviews with community members (potential and actual visitors) and learned that the visitor experience was no longer compelling enough to be a top pick when planning a museum outing.  Different content and stories were desired than those offered in the museum.  Folks felt things were dated, while beloved.  The story was tired and needed a refresh and reframing. Without the benefit of audience research interpretive planning would be done in vain—with no real idea of what visitors wanted and needed.

(link here to a few pages from this interpretive plan)

Assess your needs: What results do you want from the interpretive plan?

No two interpretive plans are alike.  Some are very detailed, others involve pages of text and still some, have loads of preliminary exhibit ideas and drawings.

What is common to all is the following:

> a facilitated process that convenes stakeholders to discuss interpretive planning

> identification of best practices in interpretation that the museum would like to adhere to

> an open dialogue about messaging and guiding principles

> brainstorming about what exactly are the main messages and/or experiences the museum would like to reveal to the visiting public

> a written description of the main interpretive goals and how to achieve them

> a written and diagrammatic description of ways and means to achieve the main interpretive goals

> an assessment of current physical and organizational conditions as they relate to executing the interpretive plan

> description of the planned visitor experience, themes in the experience, and, the resources that may be drawn upon.

> vignette visualizations of what the experience might look like

Case study—Heritage Harbor Museum Interpretive plan

(link here to a few pages from this interpretive plan)

Assemble your team: Who should be and could be involved? 

The best plans are a co-creation of different participants.  No two museums have exactly the same resources or staff and so, there is no formula for who to bring to the table.  This is a guide:

> an experienced interpretive planner. This person should serve as the facilitator and lead. This one point person will write the final plan.

> exhibition designers. These are often part of the interpretive planning team.  At EXP we bring exhibition designers to the table, along with interpretive planners, to consider just how to tell the story?  These individuals might represent media, graphics, environments, landscape, or more.

> experts in the content.  Sometimes this is on the museum staff.

> content advisors.  Especially important when interpreting someone else’s story—like Native Americans.

> representatives of the visiting audience

> community stakeholders.

> members of the Board of Directors.

Not to be ignored
Do plan for fully integrated design teams.  Interpretative plans cannot be fully realized in design  if planning teams are diced up into silos.  The interpretive planning facilitator needs to have a strong voice in all aspects of museum planning in order to execute the plan.

Experience tells to avoid the following recipes for disaster and a disconnected final product:

> the architects plan the new building and circulation, the lobby, and the classrooms but never speaks to the interpretive planner, education staff, or exhibition designers.

> the exhibit designers plan the galleries but have no collaboration with the interpretive planner, education staff or the object curators.

> the interpretive planner writes the text but does not work hand-in-hand with the exhibit designer or the curator.

> interpretive plans are initiated without the opportunity for audience research

> the full community of the museum—-stakeholders, audience, staff, consultants, members—collaborate and iterate on the plan during the planning phase.

What should the final product look like?

Interpretive plans are the final outcome of the facilitated process that may extend a few months or rarely, years.  Interpretive plans provide a clear overarching goal or goals for a museum. It becomes the spirit of the museum from which layers of the museum are scaffolded onto.

Often interpretive plans identify exhibition themes to support the core interpretive goal.  Theme-based learning is an effective way to support, through exhibition, the primary interpretive goals.

“One purpose of working within a goal-driven frame- work is to make sure that consensus has been reached on the results to be achieved. Then discussion can focus on the best ways to achieve those results. This approach helps avoid the trap of automatically designing one’s favorite medium or program with-out considering desired outcomes” (What is it/ NPS 8).

Interpretive planning comprehen- sively analyzes all interpretive needs and determines a wide array of interpretive services, facilities, and programs to communicate in the most efficient and effective way the park’s purpose, significance, and themes. Interpretive planning is a goal- driven process that determines appropriate means to achieve desired visitor experi- ences and provide opportunities for audiences to form their own intellectual and emotional connections with meanings/significance inherent in the resources while protecting and preserving those resource

Themes should be complete thoughts; it is helpful to write them in complete sentences. Their emotional or evocative content can vary. However, to be effective, themes need not be Αgrabbers≅. Themes tell us what to interpret, not how. It is more the task of interpreters and media designers to make them compelling. (What is it/ NPS

Works Cited

What is it? Planning for Interpretation and Visitor Experience.  Accessed November 7, 2017.

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage.  38.

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