Designing an Interpretive Strategy for Museums

A few weeks ago I put together an outline for designing an interpretive strategy for museums. I am taking a museum education course this semester, and it has been excellent so far. I created this outline for a class assignment, but I’d like to share it with readers of this blog because I think this document could come in handy for museum practitioners (or teachers or librarians).

Beverly Serrell argues in Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach that an interpretation “is more than presenting information and more than encouraging participation. It is communication between a knowledgeable guide and an interested listener, where the listener’s knowledge and meaning-making is as important as the guide’s” (10). I think this is a wonderful definition of what public historians and museum practitioners do when they interact with visitors to their institutions (although I wonder if a “knowledgeable guide” is really necessary for an interpretation to take place). Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage expands on the definition of interpretation through six principles that are still used by the National Park Service and similar institutions today:

  • Any interpretation that doesn’t relate to the content being displayed or described is sterile.
  • Information is not interpretation, although information is necessary for interpretation.
  • Interpretation is an art (as is communication).
  • The chief aim of interpretation is provocation, not instruction.
  • Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part of given topic.
  • Interpretation to children under 12 should not dilute the presentation to adults. Tilden recommends that children under 12 participate in an alternative interpretive program, but this is not always possible

An interpretive strategy is important for determining how an institution is going to communicate with its visitors. What type of learning theories will be utilized? What objects, artifacts, exhibits, and/or programs will used to deliver content? What argument will be made in the process of interpreting objects, ideas, and information to audiences? What boundaries will be set through the interpretive strategy?

Here’s my outline of what an interpretive strategy can accomplish:

  • WHY?

– Ensures that exhibits are relevant and accessible for target audiences
– Provides framework for planning, decision making, and funding applications
– Integrated approach, shared ownership of strategy
– Establishes common understanding of Museum’s Mission

  • What Does it Cover?

– Short, Medium, and Long Term Goals
– General principles and aims of communication
– Detailed strategies for individual exhibits
– Resource inventory: Accesses availability of time, money, staff, space, and equipment
– Methods for evaluation before, during, and after museum experience

  • Content Guidelines: Physical Context

– Individual characteristics of museum: Size, Structure, Space
– Nature of collections: Size, Appeal, and Environment needed for display
– Display Methods: What types of media are available, and how are they displayed?
– Accessible spaces that promote inclusiveness and social interaction
– Orientation Aids: Signage and floor plans that stimulate curiosity
– Health and safety of visitors and staff

  • Content Guidelines: Learning Objectives

– What are the learning needs of our audiences?
– What is the content/storyline to be discussed? Can it be broken into themes or sections?
– What are the Museum’s learning theories, objectives, and desired outcomes?
– Is the exhibit providing a variety of breadth, depth, and learning levels?
– How are staff being used in Interpretation?
– What is the Museum’s target audience?
– What is the Museum’s Mission Statement?

You can download the PDF here.