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Interpretive Planning

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

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.

Prompts to consider ahead of planning

Before you begin interpretive planning, you should be clear on what you want to interpret. Are you interpreting a collection of objects, or an historic building, or a combination of the two? Are you interpreting a specific event, or an individual’s life, or a particular time period? Are the objects that make up your collection connected in any way? Would it be beneficial to interpret this relationship? Is there something special or unique about your collection or site?

It is important to take an open-minded approach and plan what works for your organisation, your users, and whatever you are interpreting.

Before deciding what to interpret consider:

  • The meanings that can be revealed or suggested through different combinations of objects.
  • The stories you can tell through carefully considered combinations of objects.
  • How the resources you are working with will impact on your interpretive possibilities
  • What will be of interest to your primary audience?
  • What else is being interpreted in your local area? How do your plans relate to this?

To objectively determine the above, it’s important to discuss these considerations with as wide a group as possible. This includes your museum’s workforce, stakeholders, and various user and non-user groups. This is important to do at an early stage so that it is not only one person’s interests being interpreted or given an undue weighting.

Creating an 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 geographical 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.

Prompts to consider
  • Be knowledgeable and confident in whatever content you are interpreting, through appropriate collections research or consultation (including actively seeking out lived experiences).
  • 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. Be aware of any areas where particularly popular or interactive interpretation might cause a ‘traffic jam’ of visitors.

Interpretive strategies

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 and represents a framework within which more detailed interpretive plans should be produced.

At an organisational level, an interpretive strategy sets out how an organisation intends to approach interpretation in the longer term. It can also provide the basis for the co-ordinated provision of interpretation at several museum sites managed by a single museum service.

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

Prompts to consider

Interpretation should aim to provoke, relate, and reveal. Think carefully about what pieces of information you include about the object. You should 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?