Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Developing Interpretive Plans

Thoughtful planning is essential in the creation of effective interpretation.  Once your organization has accepted root and branch that interpretation is your primary focus, you are ready to move on to planning what that interpretation will be. Having done the hard background work to position your institution to interpret its collection, it is time to decide on the best ways to do that. 

A good interpretive plan offers key concepts and a structure that is designed to spin a web of connections for the visitor between what they are seeing in the museum and their own experiences and lives.  Strong connections strongly will capture the visitor’s imagination on a deep level.  Although we cannot in every instance do this explicitly, the more connections that visitors can make to the story of your museum, the more often they will want to visit and become engaged.

Interpretive Planning is a process that takes time.  First, all in the organization must be on board knowing that the plan will ultimately generate new ideas and approaches.  It can be helpful to emphasize that the plan may only codify messages that are already part of the museum’s current offerings. 

While an Interpretive Plan can be a wholesale change in how a museum approaches itself, it does not have to be.  If you do not want to lose existing stakeholders while you consider strategies for building relationships with new ones, it is helpful to think of the plan as one that will include existing messages or aspects of your interpretation you already do well.

All interpretation must rest on bedrock of good scholarship, so do involve scholars and other experts early and often.  Engage actively with scholarship, reading new material in your field regularly.  When developing interpretive planning documents, staff and volunteers should conduct their own research and build their own knowledge foundations.

At the same time, remember that you have an obligation to convey scholarship to a wide public.  Academic research should support what you do, but do not let it take over.  Although the post-modern discourse related to the “liminal space of the dining room table’s social topography” (as one scholar opaquely commented in a planning session) may sound impressive and contain some really good nuggets of academic research, you need to play the translator. 

This does not mean “dumbing down.”  Just the opposite.  You want to challenge your audience, engaging fully with difficult topics and complex ideas.  As discussed in the chapter on “Interpreting Difficult Issues,” topics related to race, ethnicity, war, violence, immigration, enslavement and class all belong in museums.  Complicated issues or problems can have great resonance for visitors.  These topics are made more tangible and meaningful when you can rely on solid, up-to-date research in crafting your interpretation. 

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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