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Interpreting for your audience

Introduction

Audiences are at the centre of what we do as museums. As we go through the interpretive process, we are aiming to interpret our collections, historic buildings, or landscapes, to our audiences. If we haven’t communicated our collections to these audiences, then our interpretation has been ineffective.

You should identify and be clear about who your primary users are, and develop interpretation with them in mind. If using text to interpret, you should focus on one audience, which will ensure clarity within your message. This rule should be applied for wider interpretation as well.

Interpreting for one audience means your interpretation will be focused. However, whilst focusing on one audience, you must attempt to not exclude wider audiences through the use of exclusive language where more universal language is available. You should consider the different ways people might respond to the collections and how you plan to interpret them.

Defining your audience

Your audience may come as a family on a day out; as tourists with no prior knowledge of the area or subject; or as repeat visitors with a keen interest in their local area. It is relatively easy to recognise that these different categories of audience exist. It is a challenge for museums to meet the differing expectations of these audiences through a range of services, including interpretation. By interpreting for what you consider to be your primary audience, you’re more likely to appeal to a wider group. 

Remember, objects and their stories can be catalysts for people from different backgrounds to come together and connect with one another. How will your primary audience react to the way you communicate the stories and information that are associated with your collection?

Before you begin interpreting your collection, consider:

  • Interest - what objects, subjects, issues are your audience interested in?
  • Understanding - what understanding or perceptions do they have?
  • Attitudes and values - what attitude or values underpin how visitors relate to the subject?
  • Experience - what experiences may they have that are associated with the collections or subject?

Text and your audience

Museum labels and interpretive text can be the most immediate and effective interpretive technique accessible to a museum or gallery. For engaging and interesting text a museum only need have someone enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the collections who can communicate that enthusiasm in a readable way.

However, text, and more broadly the use of language, is not the be all and end all of interpretation. Language in itself can pose a multitude of issues around interpretation and how we present cultural heritage in general. Consider, for instance:

  • Speakers of other languages: Many of your visitors or workforce might not use English as a first language. How are your collections interpreted for these people?
  • Literacy: Similarly, you should remember that there are varying levels of literacy. Interpretation that is too text reliant can be exclusive for some. How are your collections interpreted for a variety of literacy skills?
  • Cultural backgrounds: Have you considered how people from other cultural backgrounds might react or respond to your collections or the way they are interpreted?
  • The languages of Scotland: Although English will be communicable to the widest number of visitors, consider the impact that Scots or Gaelic may have on nurturing a stronger sense of local living heritage, especially if your museum is based in an area of historic or contemporary fluency in these languages.

In interpreting for your audiences, consider how you might encourage visitors to use their five senses - sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste - to grasp your theme or to explore the evidence. This helps you to consider the needs of people whose senses are impaired. In fact, most visitors enjoy the chance to use a combination of senses

Consider using different techniques when appealing to these senses, Audio-Visual or Digital Interpretation might be a boon here, for example, as might the use of exhibition scents, or handling [also called ‘working’] collections.

There are many options as to how best to present interpretation, and the most important thing to remember is to use whichever option works best for your museum, gallery or heritage site, and your users. 

The more you know about your primary audience, the more you can focus your interpretation and your collections to appeal to them. Also, once you’ve identified who your key audiences are, you can target the audiences you are missing; those who are not visiting your museums and/or engaging with your collections.

Learn more

Further information:

Interpret Europe

British Museum-Visitor research. Evaluating exhibitions.

MA Code of Ethics

 

Contact:

If you’d like to discuss any of this further, please contact our Collections and Engagement Manager.

 

Thanks to Michael Hamish Glen, Principal of Touchstone Heritage Management Consultants for proofreading these pages.