Interpretive Plans: The Spirit of a Museum

What IS an Interpretive Plan?

Interpretive plans 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, collections policies to community engagements—all functions should embrace the interpretive plan and work cohesively to facilitate its realization.

Visitor experiences are the outgrowth of an interpretive plan. They are the expression of the plan. Visitor experiences are composed of many different things: reading labels, buying a membership, observing a performance, taking a museum class, visiting an exhibition, studying art on a wall, making a community installation. Each of these work toward the crescendo of communicating the interpretive goals defined in the plan. They make 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 cannot be static and so, the plans should be frequently revisited and when needed, adjusted.

What do others say about interpretive planning?

Freedman Tilden, the founding father of interpretive planning, told us in is 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 (or park or visitor center) 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 institution is remaining committed toward excellence in visitor experience planning and interpretation techniques. In essence, it keeps the museum fresh.

While the interpretive plan is the framework—the scaffolding—the 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.

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 an event.  As an event, 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.  It is not the “education”, it is the essence of the experience. 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!

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

Not all museums, visitor centers or historic sites 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.

>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 exactly what are the main messages and/or experiences a 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

Assess your team: Who should be and could be involved?
The best plans are a co-creation of different participants. No two outdoor sites, historic sites, visitor centers or 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:

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

• 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 bering 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 other times we need to get up to speed on the content without the help of staff. This is when historians, naturalists, or representatives of different groups need to be engaged.

• content advisors. Especially important when interpreting someone else’s story—

like Native Americans.

• graphic designers.  This is essential to laying out the final interpretive plan in a manner that is easy to read, understand, and digest.

• representatives of the visiting audience.

• community stakeholders.

• members of the Board of Directors.

Not to be ignored

Do plan for fully integrated design teams. Interpretive 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 coordinates with 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 museum

• the full community of the museum—stakeholders, audience, staff, consultants, members—do not 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, thorugh 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 without considering desired outcomes” (What is it/NPS, 8).

Interpretive planning comprehensively analyzes all interpretive needs and determines a wide array of interpretive services, facilities, and programs to communicate in the most efficient and effective ways. Interpretive planning is a goal-driven process that determines appropriate means to achieve desired visitor experiences and provide opportunities for audiences to form their own intellectual and emotional connections with meanings/significance inherent in the resources, objects, or stories.

Works Cited

What is it? Planning for Interpretation and Visitor Experience. https://www.nps.gov/hfc/pdf/ip/interp-visitor-exper.pdf. Accessed November 7, 2017.

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. 38.

 

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

Berkshire Museum Interpretive Plan

**Case study—Heritage Harbor Museum Interpretive plan

Planned for the Providence waterfront, this museum undertook an very extensive interpretive planning process with a broad team of players that included EXP.   While challenged by fund raising, the interpretive plan is detailed and deliberate.  Excerpts from this plan give a hint as to what a final product can look like.

**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-known 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 Abraham Lincoln!) credit this novel for sparking the Civil War.

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 visit, 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.

**Case study—defining an interpretive plan that tells stories of the past and makes them relevant for the future

Museum L-A is nestled in downtown Lewiston, Maine, the second largest city in the state.  Lewiston, and its neighboring Auburn, experienced a boon in growth during the late 1800s when water power of the Androscoggin River was harnessed and fueled the textile and paper mill industries.  Unfortunately, with human impact came ecological deterioration of the River and it was named one of the 20 most polluted rivers in the country and became one of the inspirations for the Clean Water Act. Today, it still faces environmental issues and continues to be environmentally threatened.  Around the river is a sea of abandoned mills and a city trying to re-define itself through culture, art and science.  

To respond to the history of the region, the Museum began to tell the story of “work and community” in the region.  Operating in an old mill building and with a huge collection and little interpretive underpinning, a small staff, and a tight budget, leadership choose to initiate a formal interpretive planning effort, and to identify the location of a new, permanent home.  Years later, the museum is well underway with tremendous fundraising efforts, has purchased a new permanent home and is actively engaged in architectural renovations and the final throws of exhibition design. 

The promising new future of Museum L-A has largely resulted from the work of the interpretive plan.  We, as interpretive planners, has spent countless hours working with the museum to pour through its collection, assess the condition and curatorial needs of items, and work closely with staff to research stories and content that the museum might explore through the tighter lens defined by an interpretive plan.  In support of this work, we met with numerous community groups to facilitate discussions about the value of different stories and how to connect to the present-day community in order to create relevance to guests.  Audience research was performed in two forms:  surveys on line and in person, and through focus groups, all led by us.  The final interpretive plan has been revisited by us and staff throughout the entire design process and today, is defining the architectural, landscape and exhibition approach.

Timeline
> Interpretive Plan, spring and summer 2017
> Design currently underway. 

fullsizeoutput_34d7*facilitating community workshops at Musuem L-A

Works Cited

What is it? Planning for Interpretation and Visitor Experience.  https://www.nps.gov/hfc/pdf/ip/interp-visitor-exper.pdf.  Accessed November 7, 2017.

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage.  38.

“Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid”. Art News, http: http://www.artnews.com/2010/07/01/your-labels-make-me-feel-stupid/. Accessed November 1, 2017.

 

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