Creating interpretation for visitors, be it exhibitions, publications, events or educational resources, often happens on an ad hoc basis, when funding becomes available or when someone has a fantastic new idea. This can result in an array of media and activities with little joined-up thinking. Over time, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, the essence of what makes your place special. Sound familiar? If you’ve inadvertently ‘lost the plot’, what chance do your visitors have?

Creating a master plan to bring your interpretation back on track takes time, logical thought and creativity, but it’s worth the effort and investment. The process will help you to establish a clear vision and method for the future and you’re likely to learn a lot about your ‘place’ and your visitors along the way.

Step 1 – Ask yourself why

Interpretation can be a powerful tool for influencing the way people think, feel or act. What do you hope to achieve by providing interpretation?
Turn your answers into a set of objectives that can be used later to measure if your interpretation is working. Split your objectives down into ‘learning’, ‘emotional’ and ‘behavioural’ outcomes. What do you want people to learn? What do you want people to feel? What do you want people to do?


Step 2 – What’s the story?

Create an inventory of your interpretive ‘assets’. These may be physical assets, such as buildings, objects, landscape, wildlife or archives. They may also be cultural assets, such as human associations with place, former industrial activities or events. Research and consult to gather as much information as possible. Local people may have unique, personal memories or stories that you won’t find in any archive so invite them to participate in this stage of your planning. Use your inventory to guide the development of themes and storylines, or interpretive messages,that you want to pass on to your visitors.

Step 3 – Who is it for?

Your audiences may include existing visitors and people who don’t currently visit, but could be enticed by the right messages and activities. You’ll need to understand their interests, knowledge, abilities and motivations. Don’t second guess, ask them. Visitor surveys and focus groups can yield invaluable information about why, how, where and when people are likely to engage with your interpretation. It will also help to identify physical or cultural barriers that you may need to overcome.

Step 4 – Selecting the right media

By this stage you should know what you want to say, who you want to say it to, where your interpretation needs to go and when it should be available. Now it’s time to think about how to present your interpretation. The variety of media available falls into four main categories:

  1. personal or face to face – walks, talks, performances, workshops etc
  2. printed or graphic– exhibitions, leaflets, panels etc
  3. digital or electronic– apps, audio, websites, touchscreens etc
  4. on-site installations– sculpture, way-markers, trails etc

Each has pros and cons and your choice is likely to be guided by budget, human resources and long term sustainability. By following the interpretive planning process you’ll be making better-informed decisions.

Step 5 – Is it working?

Don’t forget the value of evaluation. Regularly review your interpretation to check if it’s meeting the objectives you set for yourself. This will identify areas for improvement. Evaluation can take the form of observation, satisfaction surveys or focused interviews with both users and deliverers of interpretation.

Don’t forget… good interpretation engages people with our natural and cultural heritage. Organisations, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, can provide funding to help turn your interpretive vision into reality. Your Interpretation Plan could be the start of a new adventure – don’t limit your imagination!

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