Why We Need Good Interpretive Planning Processes

Two things recently have made me think again about what should be included in a ‘good’ interpretive planning process.  One was hearing at a meeting that first should come the decisions about the content, and then we’ll ‘add on’ the interpretation, suggesting an understanding of interpretation as, well, an add-on, a media solution.

The other thing came up in the paper that I’ve been writing for the last month for my PhD studies.  In one of my case studies, staff responsible for creating the interpretation actually considered interpretation to be misleading: essentially a ‘making up’ of narrative that is unsubstantiated.  Consequently, they preferred what I’ve previously called ‘the history approach’, and what they saw as scientific distance.

Ironically, both in my MSc research and in my current research it emerges that such interpretive planning approaches sail right past what is important to visitors.  While visitors ‘get’ the interpretive messages [1] these don’t capture why the site is important.  In fact, in my current research, data at the moment looks like the interpretive messages might actually be preventing visitors’ engagement.  And if that’s the case, then the interpretation is in real trouble.

So here are a few thoughts that I’d like to share about the interpretive planning process:

1.    Be clear about what interpretation actually is

I was frankly gobsmacked hearing these views on what interpretation is by people involved in the process.  It is not an add-on – that’s just poor practice.  It is also not a forced narrative, misleading visitors as to the completeness of substantiated knowledge – that’s not even poor practice, that is just plain unprofessional.  I could get into definitions of interpretation now, but actually I don’t think that’s even necessary here.  What is important to understand is that interpretation encompasses the whole: the content, the visitor, the site, the science, the management, the policy framework and only at the end, the media.  In that sense, Lisa Brochu’s 5M model is as relevant today as it has ever been [2].

2.     Grapple with the complex issues that interpretation deals with

Interpretation isn’t an easy thing.  We can’t just present ‘scientific facts’, especially not when it comes to history.  Not only does it not work, as several studies have shown, but it’s also plainly not possible.  Scientific facts, if they exist at all, never exist in isolation.  People always have a response to them.  History always means something to someone, has affected their life or that of their ancestors.  Nature, biology always touch emotions.  And it’s these emotions, these existing relationships that interpretation needs to account for.  Now what do you do?

3.     Start with people, not content

It goes without saying that without content there is nothing to interpret [3].  But to start with the content, as selected by the specialist content expert, is to miss several key points.  Firstly, this content is likely to be someone’s heritage.  We have to understand what that heritage is.  It’s unlikely to be the material thing.  If we don’t understand that heritage, and interpret it, then we’re interpreting something irrelevant to most people.  Secondly, we have to take people into account when selecting content.  This is an Interpretive Planning 101 classic: What are people interested in?  What excites them? What connects with the heritage value they already hold?  It’s not about specialists making their scientific selection [4].

4.     Do not, under any circumstances, impose a preferred reading

Ironically, in my case study where interpretation was rejected as misleading in favour of ‘scientific fact’, there is a clear preferred reading or message within the interpretation provided.  To me, that is not acceptable.  People, visitors, are autonomous beings with as much right to their own opinion as any interpreter – even more so at sites that are their heritage.  It is not up to anyone to sanction one view and reject another.  I’m afraid it’s that black and white for me.



[1] Should they though?  Is it about ‘messages’?  This is something that I asked here.

[2] I think the 5M model is excellent in reminding us of all the aspects we need to consider.  The only thing I would add is that we need more guidance in interpretive planning models on how to deal with heritage value and significance, and the danger of interpretive bias.

[3] just on an aside, the concept of ‘content’ is usually understood as a material content – as with the person in my example.  Many times that may be so – we have some material – but that material isn’t the heritage for most people.  It’s how it makes them feel.

[4] Just for the sake of completeness: I do appreciate that in some areas, visitors do want to and need to be guided by specialist knowledge.  But even in say, art history, people’s sense of heritage and interests should take precedent over the curator’s assessment.


2 thoughts on “Why We Need Good Interpretive Planning Processes

  1. Hi Nicole, this is a really interesting post – the idea of choosing the ‘scientific facts’ over ‘making up stories’ to create interpretation seems to entirely miss the point – interpreting something is not an exact science and visitors are savvy enough to ask questions and disagree. The idea that there is simply a list of facts to be transmitted to people makes sites/museums sound incredibly boring to me!

    1. Hi Philippa,
      I quite agree – visitors are definitely smart enough to ask questions and more importantly disagree! And museums that strive to just tell ‘facts’ are indeed boring.

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