Interpretation is about how we communicate our collections to our users. As museums or galleries, we should use our collections to tell stories and to convey identifiable meaning. Interpretation enables museums to communicate the wonder of their collections, connect with their users, and engage with diverse audiences. For interpretation to be effective, careful thought should be given to how your collections are communicated, the individual needs of your users, and the messages that you wish to convey.
There are a wide range of interpretative techniques and schools of thought, and what works for one museum or collection may not work for another. However, regardless of which interpretive route your museum takes, it’s important to plan your interpretation, be clear about your audiences, and pay special attention to the nature of your collection(s) and how these could affect your interpretive aims and objectives.
Interpreting your collection
It's important to consider which interpretative techniques would best suit your collection or site. You should consider carefully how your objects will work together to provide a wider interpretive narrative of your museum or exhibition.
Does the nature of your collection lend itself to a particular interpretive technique? Subject Specialist Networks might be of assistance here, as you can use them for sharing and receiving collections-specific knowledge and experience.
There might be an interpretative technique which appeals to a certain audience. Identify your audience and plan your interpretation with them in mind.
You should work within the confines of your museum's resources. You don’t need to throw money at an exhibition for it to be interpreted effectively; well thought-out interpretive labels supporting carefully selected objects can be emotionally moving and an excellent tool of communication. Basic labelling has the added bonus of being able to be produced and written in-house.
In order to make sure this interpretive communication process is a success, it is important to plan. Some reference to interpretive work will probably appear in your Forward Plan and interpretation might also form one element of an exhibition plan. However, such is the importance of interpretation it should also be planned in its own right.
Some interpretation techniques
This involves placing text labels close to objects or groups of objects, which contain supportive background or object specific information. This is possibly the most easily attainable interpretive resource, and is really the backbone of interpretation. Labels put your objects into context, and give room for a good level of adaptability. See our 'interpretive text' page for more information on this.
This can take the form of a member of your museum’s workforce interpreting a collection or site as if they are from a particular time period. Often a favourite of open air museums and historic houses, first person interpretation is a superb way of interpreting objects or historic sites in a multi-sensory way.
This is similar to first person interpretation, with the difference being that the interpreter openly acknowledges that they are from the same time period as the visitor. The visitor still experiences multi-sensory interpretation, however they can interact more informally with the interpreter, and there is no overt ‘performance’.
The Living History Academy's site gives more information about both First and Third Person interpretation.
Showing visitors around a set route, and communicating pre-empted points, can be a good way of communicating collections or historic environments in a structured and more formalised way. This might not be useful to some visitors, as the formal approach might be off-putting. With this technique, appropriate customer training needs to be provided for guides.
Hilary Jenkin's presentation 'Tour Guiding Interpretation' is a great resource to use to find out more.
These function much like a traditional guided tour, except the visitor responds to information presented to them through leaflets, site maps, floor plans, for example. A benefit of this technique is that a visitor can set their own pace and linger in areas which are of particular interest to them. See the Wikipedia page for more information.
Audio Visual (AV)
This can involve numerous interpretive media; introductory videos, immersive visual experiences, sound loops, background noise, or oral history, for example. These can be used as standalone interpretive tools, or as media of support to objects, landscapes, and buildings. When done well, AV technology can be incredibly effective at bringing the subject of an exhibition ‘to life’. This interpretive technique is great if there are fewer objects, although it can be costly and museums usually have to contract the work out-of-house.
Share Museums East has a fantastic resource on AV interpretation.
This differs to AV technology in that it is often employing the visitor’s technology. By using digital technology, interpretation can be brought into the hand of the museum visitor: before, after, and/or during a museum visit. Digital interpretation can also reach the visitor at home, and can be achieved in a number of ways. Please see our Digital Interpretation page for more information.
See this YouTube clip for some inspiration.
These are only a few examples of more traditional interpretive methods. There are numerous methods which may suit your museum or gallery. Setting clear aims and objectives for what you want to achieve in interpretation within your Interpretive Plan is a good way of ensuring that you choose the most appropriate interpretive methods.
The Association for Heritage Interpretation
Museums Association: Code of Ethics
If you wish to discuss any of this further, please email our Collections and Engagement Manager.
Thanks to Michael Hamish Glen, Principal of Touchstone Heritage Management Consultants for proofreading these pages.