It’s important to think about which interpretive techniques will best suit your collection and site as part of your interpretive plan. You should think about how your objects will work together to provide a wider narrative of your museum or exhibition
Labels are the most widely used form of interpretation. They involve placing text labels close to objects or groups of objects, which contain background or object specific information. Text on a label is the easiest, simplest way to create an interpretive resource. Labels put your objects into context and but are easy to adapt and change in the future. Labels may also contain a “quick response” or QR code which allows museums to direct users to further information online.
Graphic panels are text or image-based boards that are often used to display interpretation information in a larger format. This allows many visitors to read this information at once. They can be helpful to display at the entrance to an exhibition or room to help set the theme of the collection displayed within. The material to produce them can vary, but the require the use of professional designers and print firms to create. This can make them costly to produce and update.
First person or historical interpretation
First person interpretation involves a person, usually in period dress, who act as if they are a person from a particular time. The public sometimes describe them as a “costumed character” and they are commonly used in open air museums and historic houses. First person interpretation is highly popular with some audiences as it helps make stories from the collection relatable and emotive.
Black Country Living Museum are a fantastic example of how first person interpretation can successfully transition to video platforms such as TikTok. Despite its popularity with audiences, this form of interpretation struggles to address challenging attitudes from the past that a person from that time period may have held, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia.
Third person interpretation is like first person, but the person acting as an interpreter openly acknowledges that they are from the same time period as the visitor. The visitor still experiences multi-sensory interpretation and they can interact more informally with the interpreter, and there is no overt ‘performance’. This avoids issues of visitors who attempt to make the interpreter “break character”. It also means that outdated and challenging concepts can be discussed from a 21st century context.
The History Boots website gives more information about both First and Third Person interpretation.
Showing visitors around a set route and communicating pre-empted points is a good way of communicating collections or historic environments in a structured way. It is also efficient for guiding large groups of people around your collection in a set amount of time. This format isn’t appropriate to all visitors. The formal approach can be off-putting and can make visitors feel rushed. Investing in customer training for your guides and understanding the five elements of successful storytelling is key to undertaking this kind of interpretation successfully. Hilary Jenkin’s presentation ‘Tour Guiding Interpretation’ is a great resource to use to find out more.
These function much like a traditional tour, except the visitor responds to information presented to them through leaflets, site maps, or through a pre-recorded audio tour. Pre-recorded digital tours can be provided through audio devices, either provided by the venue or through a visitor’s mobile device. This format allows a visitor to set their own pace and linger in areas which are of particular interest to them.
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 that provides additional interpretive context to objects, landscapes, and buildings. AV technology can be incredibly effective at bringing the subject of an exhibition ‘to life’. However, it can be costly and museums usually have to contract the work out-of-house.
This differs to AV technology as it often employs a digital device that a visitor brings with them, such as a mobile phone. 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 several ways.
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 within your interpretive plan will help you choose the most appropriate interpretive methods for your collection.