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Introduction to Interpretation


Museum interpretation is how we communicate information about our collections, and their stories and meanings to our audiences. Effective interpretation requires careful thought about the experience individuals and communities will have with your collection.

There are a range of interpretive techniques and schools of thought. What works for one organisation may not work for another. Regardless of which interpretive route you take, 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.

This introduction is the first in a longer series of advice guides on interpreting your collection and it will provide an overview on the basics of interpreting collections. These advice guides include:

Check list before starting Interpretation Planning

Audit your resources

You need to work with the resources available to you. This applies to more than a financial budget. 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. Using basic, text based labelling means the interpretation can be produced and written in-house.

Understand your collection

It’s important to have a solid understanding of the history and context of your collection before you begin to plan. Once you’ve considered your resources, would a particular interpretive technique better suit the type of collection you have?

If you are looking to reinterpret your collection, the Revisiting Collections guide by Collections Trust is an excellent starting point. The guide was last updated in 2011, but it provides a basic introduction to the methodologies and principals needed to support opening your collection up to community groups.

You may wish to consider contacting a relevant Subject Specialist Network as you can use them for sharing and receiving collections-specific knowledge and experience.

Know your audience

Understanding who your core visitors are and who doesn’t currently visit your venue is important for developing your interpretation, particularly if you are looking to diversify your audience. There might be an interpretative technique which appeals to a certain audience group that you should prioritise. Identify your audience and plan your interpretation with them in mind.

To ensure the interpretive communication process is a success, it’s important to make a 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, interpretation is important enough to have a plan.