Museum Educators Next, Part IV: Impact Where it Counts

This post, the fourth in a series on what’s next for museum educators, proposes the mastery of interpretive planning, a process that shapes what is still the central role of most museums – exhibition development and display.

Interpretive Planning on the Institutional Level 

“Interpretive planning” is a fairly elastic term in the museum context.  In its macro sense it can refer to a comprehensive plan for an entire museum or museum complex – its mission, intended audience, activities, budget – a long range plan with a special emphasis on how all aspects of the museum serve its audiences.  It is in this sense that AAM (now the American Alliance of Museums) uses the term.  An extremely thorough example of such a plan was posted recently by Max Van Balgooy on his blog, EngagingPlaces.

Interpretive Planning on the Exhibition Level


When I think about interpretive planning, however, I am almost always envisioning exhibition planning–what might be called the micro level. It’s here that I think museum educators can make a significant and lasting impact in their museums. I first became aware of this museum education skill in 2004 when I visited the recently opened “British Galleries” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. To this date I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exhibition that blended artifact and interpretation so expertly. On returning home I learned that a key document for the exhibition was a meticulously conceived interpretive plan. It was developed by Gail Durbin, then head of education and endorsed by curators, designers, and indeed all who worked on the extensive re-envisioning of a major collection of British decorative arts. I became an instant convert to the process and worked (with varying degrees of success) to incorporate it into the exhibition planning at the museum where I was working at the time.


Visitors to the British Galleries can open the drawers and read the tags on this chest. They can also use the shovel-like tool on the right to look under the chest for clues about materials and provenance. The “shovel” holds a tilted mirror.
Why Is Interpretive Planning an Important Skill for Educators?
–     It places the educator on an exhibition team in a position a role of equal significance to that of the provider(s) of content (whether a curator or an organizer of visitor generated content) and the designer.
–     It validates interpretive processes and the visitor experience as essential aspects of exhibition development.
–     It showcases the expertise of educators about how people learn, about learning at different ages, and about how to develop strategies to make an exhibition engaging for a wide variety of visitors. (This of course begs the question – are educators continuously developing and expanding their knowledge in the area of human learning as applied to designed environments?)
–    It institutionalizes the role of educator in the entire exhibit planning process rather than as simply the developer of teacher materials at the end.


Simple strategies like placing small flashlights near objects displayed in low light, or placing artifacts in drawers or behind doors encourage. look more closely.  The British Galleries. V&A Museum.

After being convinced of the value of interpretive planning,  I looked at the practice at a number of museums (the Canadian Museum of Civilization is another institution that subscribes to interpretive planning) and created the following to explain the process to colleagues:

What is an interpretive plan?


An interpretive plan is a document developed by an exhibition team that describes the approaches that the team plans to use to engage and communicate with visitors. It is an iterative document, growing in scope and complexity as the team outlines exhibition themes, creates an object list, develops a design plan, and creates a script or exhibition labels.  Different institutions have different names for these documents, e.g. Statement of Purpose, Project Definition Document, or Exhibition Brief.
What is its purpose?
The plan serves to articulate and document the intended visitor experience, and the varied means of creating that experience, simultaneously with the development of other aspects of the exhibition such as the concepts, design, and script.  As it becomes a standard tool in the work of exhibition development, it can serve to ensure that best practices for enhancing the visitor experience are part of the exhibition schedule and budget.


What’s in an interpretive plan?  It varies, but most include:


·     Statement of goal(s) for exhibition – how does it fit institutional mission? What is its purpose?
·     Discussion of  anticipated audience(s) and their characteristics
·     Plans for evaluation – front end, formative, remedial, summative
·     Articulation of main idea and key messages; what we hope the visitor experience will be
·     Formulation of  interpretive formats and techniques to be used in the exhibition, including both standard and special accessibility issues to be addressed
·     Development of plans for staffing, public programs, educational materials, a website, and other interpretive resources or activities
·     Description of stakeholders for the exhibition – donors, collaborators, etc.


How does it work?

As mentioned above, the plan grows as the exhibition develops. It can begin as a kind of template and then expand. Some plans are written in narrative form; others use a grid that lines up exhibition sections, messages, formats, and artifacts.  The interpretive planner, exhibit educator, or developer takes the lead in documenting how the plan develops, but it grows through team discussion and interaction.

An Important Process for Educators to Initiate in Their Museums


I think that working through and guiding the development of an interpretive plan enables educators to take on an appropriately influential role in museums as a whole and in exhibition development in particular. It provides a framework through which educators can shape the interpretive aspects of exhibitions, making exhibition planning a tripartite process, lateral process rather than a top-down one.
A Suggested Template
When I first created the template below (not that many years ago!) social media and the concept of visitor contributions to exhibition content and design were pretty new concepts, so they weren’t in the original template, but I’ve added them here. The idea is to make this an expandable and iterative document that grows as the exhibition team works:
   Related to Museum
   Specific to project
Key messages/Visitor experiences
Opportunities for visitor-created content or design          
Interpretive strategies
Staffing/Public Programs/Materials
Social media and website planning

I’m curious to know how many museum educators are already involved in interpretive planning and how many might be interested in introducing it in their institution. What kinds of challenges do you anticipate in making interpretive planning part of your museum’s exhibition development process?

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