Monday, July 9, 2012

Committing to Good Interpretation

A major shift in accepted interpretive practice has taken place over the last decade or so.  Museums have increasingly moved from being collections-centered to audience-centered. Although museums have a great responsibility for buildings and collections, what we do with those objects matters a great deal. Or, to put it another way, we must provide a forum that allows people to experience and engage with museums in a way that is comfortable for them.

Nothing connects with people better than a story they can relate to.  Committing to offer good interpretation is the first major step in doing this effectively.  Interpretation thus needs to be the primary focus stated by the museum. This seems to be intuitive – of course we want to tell people about all the great stuff we have. But too often this focus has not been central for all museums.

The goal of good interpretation is to see that your interpretive focus is reflected in every aspect of your museum operations. The idea of reaching various audiences needs to underpin every facet of a museum’s operations. 

This can be done formally through a policy document or strategic plan that clearly states the importance of interpretation, a Board-approved Interpretive Plan that guides the staff in developing content, and in training staff and volunteers to understand the critical importance of this part of the museum’s work. It can be done informally by instituting and insisting upon an organizational culture that values high-quality interpretation and places extraordinary emphasis on accurate, open communication and interaction.

Each member of the board, staff and volunteer corps needs to be aware of and committed to the overall goal of interpreting your museum.  What is more, this approach can no longer only be restricted to tour guides. A highly-trained guide delivering extensive information in a structured, highly-controlled format the norm is only one way to interpret your museum. 

The commitment to interpretation and public education should be made clear in policy documents, training materials, and in daily operations. There should also be periodic reviews of interpretive goals; at least every five years but more frequently as needed.

A tour begins long before your visitors enter the first gallery or period room.  As fewer visitors experience museums and historic sites through the mechanism of the guided tour, the definition of interpretation has been stretched, as has the sense of who is responsible for it. Visitor experiences will be improved dramatically if commitment to interpretation runs through the entire organization.

Stephen G. Hague is currently the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain Ernest Cook Trust Research Student at Linacre College, University of Oxford, England. His research interests center on architecture, material culture, and social history in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. Previously he worked as executive director of Stenton, a historic house museum in Phila- delphia administered by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He holds a master’s in history from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s from Binghamton University.

Laura C. Keim is curator of Stenton and Wyck, two house museums located in historic Germantown, as well as a lecturer in historic interiors at Philadelphia University. A graduate of the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, she holds a preservation degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s in art history from Smith College. She has published widely on early American material culture and coauthored Stenton’s interpretive plan. 

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