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Planning your interpretation

Overview

Interpretive planning ensures that your collections are interpreted effectively and appropriately. To create a useful interpretive plan, you should first of all be able to sum up (in two or three sentences) the overall message or theme of the exhibition or museum space you are interpreting.

Keep this summary in your mind at all stages of interpretative planning: Write it at the top of any related documents you write, print it out and pin it above your workspace, make sure you and your team are familiar with the summary. This way your interpretation will stay in focus and you’ll be less likely to get ‘bogged down’ by the interpretive process. This means that your interpretation will be more effective and more easily communicable to your audience.

By planning for this initially, you will have reduced the potential for many frustrating issues later on in the interpretive process. Planning will allow you to set clear interpretive aims and work towards them with minimal avoidable issues.

The planning process should result in the creation of an interpretive plan or an interpretive strategy, depending on your scale of operation and what you are planning for.

Interpretive plan

An Interpretive Plan is a detailed document that focuses on a particular project of interpretive work. It can be used in various areas of work, for example:

  • detailing the interpretive content of a single exhibition;
  • guiding a museum-wide re-interpretation of displays;
  • co-ordinating the interpretive work of members of a regional museums forum.

Your interpretive plan should be a detailed document, which clearly outlines how your interpretation will take shape. Having an interpretive plan will help to focus your thoughts on what you are trying to interpret, why, and for whom.

 

Benefits of interpretive planning

A good interpretive plan will:

  • Give structure and direction to individual projects or long-term work, and promote the efficient use of potentially limited resources;
  • Confirm that everyone is agreed on objectives. Having these written down provides a point of reference to keep ideas on track;
  • Ensure that interpretation is relevant, appealing and accessible to your audience;
  • Provide the basis for funding applications or design briefs;
  • Identify and confirm opportunities for change, in an on-going process of evaluation and development.

Before you begin writing

Know your space, know your subject and know your objects. By employing an interpretive strategy which applies to the entirety of the exhibition or gallery, you will develop a uniformity of tone, delivery, and level of information, which is important as it keeps the interpretation focused which therefore focuses the visitor experience. 

Hints:

  • Be knowledgeable and confident in whatever content you are interpreting, through appropriate collections research or expert consultation.
  • Be aware of the physical space you have, and plan how to work within it.
  • Consider the combination of the collections, how you will interpret them, and the spatial relationship to other areas of your museum.
  • Consider how the placing of an object or a particular interpretive technique might affect the overall interpretive narrative of the interpreted space.
  • Consider at this stage if any of the planned interpretation will have a negative impact on the physical accessibility of the museum. In particular be aware of any areas where particularly popular or interactive interpretation might cause a ‘traffic jam’ of visitors.

Interpretive strategies

Interpretation should be referenced in your Forward Plan. However, a new or revised interpretation project would warrant a plan in its own right, as it is all too easy to veer off topic or spend too long interpreting one area, not giving sufficient weighting to another, once the interpretation of the gallery or exhibition is underway.

An interpretive strategy should be produced as an outcome of interpretive planning. It should be a document which focuses on the wider act of interpretation; a statement of intent, highlighting broader ideas around interpretation. An interpretive strategy concentrates on the bigger picture.

At an organisational level, an interpretive strategy could set out how an organisation intends to approach interpretation in the longer term. Or, it could provide the basis for the co-ordinated provision of interpretation at a number of museum sites managed by a single museum service. Interpretation should be a fundamental part of the management of a site. 

At a regional level, museums and other heritage organisations could work together to define a common or complementary approach to interpretation within their region. An interpretive strategy could be a useful tool in defining cross-organisational working.

An interpretive strategy acts as a guide to ensure all interpretation meets the specific and defined needs of one or more organisations, and represents a framework within which more detailed interpretive plans should be produced.

 

Further considerations

You can’t tell the visitor everything about an object. To attempt to do so would jeopardise the tone of your interpretive text, break up any narrative of the exhibition and be at odds with a positive visitor experience. Try to encourage the visitor to read-on by exploring an experience they can relate to. Identify ways in which the object might be related or contrasted to the visitor’s own life or experiences. Interpretation should aim to provoke, relate and reveal.

Think carefully about what pieces of information you include about the object, consider:

  • What new piece of information would you like the visitor to know when they move on from the object?
  • Why does the information you’re conveying to the visitor matter to their lives?
  • Have you shared with the visitor any information they’re unlikely to know already?
  • Is the information readily understandable without being overly simplified?

It is important to begin an interpretive project with a clear understanding of its aims and objectives, which should be based on what the visitor would like to get from the museum visit.

Learn more

Why do you want to produce this interpretation?

What do you want to interpret?

See this useful advice from Scottish Natural Heritage. 

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.