Our Services

Interpretive Planning

Download Process Map1. Interpretation in the Museum Setting
Interpretive Solutions in a Planning MeetingA foreign language interpreter is a person who understands a language that someone else does not, and translates what is being said into a common language so everyone can understand.  A museum interpreter does much the same thing for an audience that may not have the background information to fully understand what they are seeing on their own.  However, interpretation in the museum context is more than mere description.  It is intended to help visitors connect with the deeper meanings of what they are seeing.  To quote from the National Park Service’s Effective planning of park wide interpretation programs:

Interpretation provides opportunities for people to forge intellectual and emotional connections to the meanings inherent in the resource.

Formulating an interpretation strategy is the first step toward making detailed plans for a museum’s, historic site’s or a park’s programs and exhibits.  The strategy articulates the site’s significance, identifies primary themes, and sets parameters for interpretive services.  It will ultimately influence the exhibit design process, and help visualize the visitor experience.

Once the significance of the site is described, IS helps the client identify the themes and stories that will best communicate that significance to its various audiences.  The next step is to suggest media options (for example, exhibits, audiovisual presentations, web-based exhibits, publications) for each of the themes.  The completed interpretive strategy then becomes a key driver for creating and describing the desired visitor experience.

2. Significance Statements
Significance statements capture the attributes that make a resource – a site, a building, a collection — important enough to warrant preservation.  They summarize the essence of the contribution of the resource to our cultural or natural heritage.  They describe what is distinct about the resource, including natural, cultural, scientific, recreational, spiritual, and other values.   They answer these questions: “Why should I go there?”  “What is so special about it?”

Statements of significance are the beginning point of the workshops that IS facilitates. The process involves the core interpretation and design team and the museum’s or site’s key stakeholders.  The workshops are critical to the planning process because of the expertise, experience, and knowledge that the key stakeholders bring to the table, along with that of the organization’s own professional design and interpretation team.  The statements of significance are tools that help the project team to formulate primary theme statements and to ensure that desirable visitor experience outcomes are achieved.  The goal is to help visitors connect with the resource intellectually and/or emotionally.

At its most basic and important level, an interpretation strategy links tangible resources (specific objects, a historical structure, etc.) to their intangible meanings.  The intangible meanings create connections.  Visitors connect to meanings in a personal and probably indescribable way.  For example, a mixing bowl is not just a receptacle for bread dough, but a symbol of many things:  a frugal housewife, a loving wife and mother, an era when families strived for self-sufficiency.  A scythe speaks of our agricultural past, of hard, sweaty work, and of the pleasure of providing for one’s family.  A typewriter is not simply an office machine, but a symbol of early opportunities for women in the workplace.  People connect, not with the object, but with what it means to them, both in society and in their own hearts and minds.

Some intangible meanings are particularly powerful.  They are the ones that speak to universal concepts that resonate with almost everyone in some deeply personal way.  Examples of universal concepts include joy, death, renewal, family, service to country, work, the creativity of the human mind … the list goes on and on.  The most successful interpretative strategies will embody some of these universal concepts.

Everyone may not share the meanings of universal concepts in the same way.  A single story can mean different things to different people.  A universal may convey different messages depending on the listener.  It is the same way with interpretative programs.  Visitors will experience the interpretation filtered through their own set of beliefs, experiences, and circumstances.  A good interpreter tries to speak to the meanings behind the objects, but realizes success when the visitor connects the message in his or her own way.

In some cases factual statements are used to serve audiences who are primarily interested in information, and of course, such an approach has its appropriate place.  Art museums will have descriptive labels telling the artist’s dates, and the date, medium, and provenance of a painting.  Knowledgeable visitors will want to know exactly what it is they are seeing, when it was made, who made it, where it was used, and so on.  Less-well-informed visitors are going to want to know “What is it?”  So for some of the audience, some of the time, descriptive labeling is desirable.

However, audiences want something more than description. They seek meaningful experiences.  They seek to understand the link between the tangible object and what it means.  A series of facts or a chronological narrative just doesn’t provide enough relevance to connect people to the place or the object.  A compelling idea does.  Interpretation says something.  It conveys an idea.  All the parts of the program have to work together to develop that idea so the audience can make those personal connections.  Interpretation is not just information, but revelation – not instruction, but provocation.

In sum, the IS team (writers, designer and media specialists alike) work closely with a site or museum to describe the significance of that site.  Each participant brings his own discipline’s perspective to the table.

3. Developing the Primary Themes
Interpretive theme statements communicate a site’s significance.  They are the key ideas through which regionally and nationally significant resource values are conveyed to the public.  They connect the site’s resources to the larger ideas, meanings, and values of which they are a part.  They are the building blocks – the core content – on which the museum’s interpretive program will be based.  In other words, they comprise the stories.

The overarching stories that a site has to tell are constant, no matter who the audience is or what means we use to communicate with them.  The most effective themes link things (the tangible, the objects themselves) with ideas and meanings (the intangible, the things of personal value that visitors are seeking).  They help visitors forge meaningful connections to the collection or the site.

Not every theme that is identified will “make the cut” as planning continues.  After identifying the statements with universal appeal, IS assists its clients to consider which ones are backed up by the greatest narrative potential and the most provocative facts.  Which ones do the collections best support?  Will exploring any of these statements lead an audience toward a greater appreciation for the story of the site?  The theme statements must be pared down to those most evocative and useful.  Only the themes with the greatest potential to strengthen connections and heighten appreciation should be retained.

How do we know if connections have been strengthened?  How do we know if the themes have been communicated effectively?  There is an entire field of study devoted to the scientific measurement of learning outcomes in the museum environment.  But on a more basic level, the museum will be successful if it has increased curiosity in its audiences.  It will allow visitors the satisfaction of asking good questions, of wanting to find out more on their own.

The following questions are asked about the draft interpretive theme statements developed for a project:

  • So what? How is the theme meaningful?
  • Does the theme go beyond facts?
  • Is the theme critical to visitors’ understanding of the resource and the associated collection’s significance?
  • Is the theme based on the museum’s purpose and the collection’s significance statements?

4. The Exhibit Development and Design Process
IS assumes the lead role in thematic space planning and identification of visitor circulation options, given the priorities outlined by the strategic interpretation planning process.  The multimedia team works hand-in-hand with the exhibit designer to assure that thematically the story progresses seamlessly from one interpretive component to the next.  This analysis also refines the exhibit area component of the architect’s programming efforts where new buildings or where adaptive reuse projects are being developed.

The IS team’s designer works with the client to shape the visitor experience for both the exhibit gallery areas and adjacent spaces as well. SFD will produce a thematic plan that delineates a visitor flow and will provide the following key services:

  • Participate in workshops and planning charrettes and assist in formulation of interpretive plans and facilities evaluations.
  • Produce an overall thematic diagram for galleries that will tie in with visitor   The plan will indicate visitor flow, highlight public spaces and exhibit areas, and locate opportunities for linking up with other interpretive services.
  • Conceptualize typical exhibits, graphics and signage and produce color print samples of typical graphics and signage.
  • Produce conceptual renderings of exhibit areas. The renderings display the character of proposed exhibits, and are be suitable for use in marketing and fundraising efforts.
  • Produce detailed thematic exhibit plans that will indicate exhibit space allocations within gallery spaces. The plan is based on goals and ideas identified during the interpretive planning process.
  • Provide preliminary exhibit “order of magnitude” cost guidelines for continued development of interpretive exhibits so as not to exceed the anticipated fabrication budget.

5. Multimedia Conceptualization and Treatment
Museum media installations should be different from the productions that appear on public and commercial television, videos and the internet.  When multimedia experiences are concept-driven and creatively integrated into gallery and theater settings, visitors come away with memorable impressions and a clear understanding of the material.  Today there is synergy between innovative conceptual approaches and new presentation technologies.  IS media consultants work closely within the interpretive planning process to identify the appropriate multimedia technology for each desired visitor experience and to create treatments that are tightly integrated with other exhibit components.

Heritage Areas and Water Trails

Wayside Signage for the Civil War Trails in GettysburgHeritage areas and historic trails serve diverse constituencies, including historic and cultural sites, environmental organizations, students, educators, county and municipal governments, residents, and visitors to a region. Interpretive plans for regions are often tied to a system of place-based interpretive and informational kiosks, waysides and apps that are designed to improve traveler access to heritage sites. Interpretive Solutions’ facilitates the multi-jurisdictional planning process for areawide organizations to help connect travelers and the local community to the region’s cultural heritage and environmental amenities through a unified visitor experience.

Check out a video we made for the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway Project:
River Talks 2014-2015

Museum and Visitor Center Exhibits

Widener Polo ExhibitWe listen carefully to make sure exhibits address your institution’s exact needs. We work with you to develop your exhibit from concept through fabrication and installation. We’ll help you with these individual exhibit development steps:

• Concept development
• Space programming
• Research
• Collection surveys to identify exhibit objects and images
• Script writing and editing
• Front end, formative, and summative evaluation
• Sourcing of graphics
• Exhibit design
• Lighting design
• Production cost estimating
• Fabrication and installation

Click to View The Mounted Cadet video produced for the Pennsylvania Military College Museum at Widener University.

Interpretive Waysides

Visitors want wayside exhibits that focus on what they can see and experience now. They want just enough information to help them understand what they are experiencing, but not enough to overwhelm them, or slow them down. We offer a full range of wayside exhibit development services for parks and trails, including:

• Concept development
• Signage programs
• Research
• Script writing and editing
• Front end, formative, and summative evaluation
• Sourcing of graphics
• Wayside exhibit design
• Production cost estimating
• Fabrication and installation

Wayside Signage at an Archaeological Site

Digital Storytelling

Dreadnought - A digital interview with Dr. Maruta Ray about Latvian Refugees in Post WWII GermanyInterpretive Solutions takes a life story approach to its oral history projects. Interviews are designed to create a record of public memory that is significant at a township, at a county or even a regional level. The IS life story oral history documentation approach helps identify meaning in the lives lived by an area’s residents. For IS, the before and the after are vitally important. Memory is always front and center in the interview projects that we do.

Interpretive Solutions conducted an oral history interview with Dr. Maruta Lietins-Ray called Dreadnought. The account describes the role that a traveling theater company played in the life of Latvian refugees living in the displaced persons (DP) camps of post World War II Germany. The perspective is from a child’s perspective growing up in the camps.

View Video

Media for Exhibits

Electronic media and supporting apps in museum exhibits can provide an effective and attractive way to layer your stories. Our planners and media developers will ensure that your programs – from orientation to historical documentation – are both entertaining and accurate, and that they tie in perfectly with your institution’s interpretive mission.

Evalds Dajevskis Art Exhibition - Latvian PainterWe offer:
• Concept development
• Research
• Script writing and editing
• Front end, formative, and summative evaluation
• Sourcing of graphics, audio, and film footage
• Production cost estimating
• AV production
• Fabrication and installation of AV equipment and casework

The picture is of an exhibit installation at The Liepaja Museum in Latvia that Peter Dajevskis, a Principal of Interpretive Solutions, planned and curated. This gallery showcased the works of Peter’s father, Evalds Dajevskis, a native Latvian artist. Here are some links to check out:
– An app designed to be used while walking in the gallery
– Philly News Article
– Washington Diplomat Article