To explore the process of interpretive planning we
should begin by establishing a definition of
Interpretation is the name given by museums and historic
sites to all their public programming. At Colonial
Williamsburg we have decided that: "Successful
historical interpretation compels visitors to examine
their images of the past and their current attitudes,
values, and beliefs -- and to continue that
Within the museum staff we often use the term
interpretation to mean oral presentations. However,
interpretation can take many forms: craft
demonstrations, portrayal of historical characters,
guided tours, question and answer sessions, and
lectures. Video tapes, slide programs, trailside signs,
and exhibit labels can also be part of the
An interpretative plan includes more than the content of
the interpretation "the interpretive goals and
objectives." It also includes the "operations plan"
which explains in detail the expected visitor experience
and the environment where it will happen. It embraces
all the furnishings of the site and all the antique or
reproduction objects the interpreters use as props. It
is broad enough to encompass the styles of
interpretation, traffic patterns, size of groups, and
even the dress of the interpreters. In short, creating
an interpretive plan includes both deciding everything
about what is said and how it is presented.
With this definition in mind it is easy to see that
interpretive planning is by its very nature
interdisciplinary. Besides addressing the visitor's
needs, those responsible for planning the interpretation
of a site must look at the body of knowledge assembled
by archaeologists, architectural historians, curators,
and researchers. The planners must consider the concerns
of conservators, educators, and interpreters. All these
people want to have a say in deciding what the message
will be and how it will be presented. And all of them
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation,
A Case Study in Interpretive Planning
In 1977, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation decided that
the interpretations in the historic area should share an
overall theme. In 1985, the booklet Teaching History
at Colonial Williamsburg presented the "Becoming
Americans" theme to unify our interpretive efforts.
Four topics were identified to support the Becoming
Americans theme: Government, Enterprise and Work, Family
and Community, and Cultural Life. The fifty-odd historic
buildings, shops, and programs were each assigned one of
those subthemes as a central focus for their
interpretation and all needed new interpretive plans.
The proposed implementation process was simple: small
interdisciplinary "interpretive planning teams" would be
created for each site and program. Each team's
assignment would be to start fresh and, with the
"Becoming Americans" theme and assigned primary topic
area in mind, "reinterpret" the site.
Before the creation of the interpretive planning team
model, the interpretations on most Colonial Williamsburg
sites had evolved from the sum of individual efforts,
rather than being preplanned. The researchers studied
documents, curators examined and placed objects,
archaeologists dug and studied their finds, tradesmen
redeveloped lost technologies, and interpreters
assimilated all this into their presentations as they
and their supervisors saw fit.
To make the interpretive planning teams work we had to
devise a system that took advantage of the expertise of
the staff, preserved the strengths of the existing
program, and brought the site in line with the "Becoming
Americans " theme. We literally wrote, and then rewrote,
the instruction manual as we went along.
In interpretive planning "editing history" can be an
agonizing process of compromise between experts with
strongly held opinions. This afternoon we will look
briefly at principles and pitfalls, procedures and
problems, and our own differences of opinion about what
works best. Much of what we have learned about
interdisciplinary interpretive planning at historic
sites can be of use to anyone revising or developing an
interpretive plan. (top)
OVERVIEW OF THE REINTERPRETATION PROCESS
The reinterpretation process in brief:
Site or Program selected for reinterpretation
Reinterpretation team selected
Team develops interpretive goals, objectives, and
Interpretive goals, objectives, and topics reviewed
Team develops interpretive/operations plan
Operations plan reviewed and approved
Site manager/supervisor implements plan
THE REINTERPRETATION PROCESS How It
I. Site or Program selected for reinterpretation -
There are many factors that come into play in
management's selection of which sites are next in the
reinterpretation process. Some examples include:
"Targets of opportunity" Sites where other work,
such as repair or replacement of mechanical equipment,
cause closings that provide an opportunity.
"New research" Sites and/or programs where changes
in the body of knowledge (i.e. the discovery of new
documents or artifacts) have proven that the present
interpretive program is seriously out of date.
"Squeaky wheels" Sites and/or programs where
management believes that the present interpretive plan
is not working as well as it could.
II. Reinterpretation Team selected -
When a site or program is selected for reinterpretation
the site supervisor and the directors involved will
appoint an interpretive planning team and assign them
responsibility for the project. Because the
reinterpretation requires a wide range of expertise to
make the many complex decisions, the team includes
representatives from the interpretive staff, management,
and research specialists.
The makeup of a typical team
Team coordinator - a trained facilitator.
Assistant team coordinator - the site supervisor or
Interpreters - a few (2-4) of the people responsible
for interpreting the site will be members of the team.
Their experience of having actually worked the site is
essential to the development of practical operations
plan. Involving several interpreters in creating the new
plan also helps to get all the interpreters to "buy
into" the change.
Researcher - a historian from Research Department.
Curator - a curator from Collections Department.
Trainer - the instructor who will be responsible for
planning and leading the interpreter training for the
The team may also include representatives from these
Colonial Williamsburg departments:
African American Interpretive Programs -
Character Interpreters -
Religious Studies and Programming -
Coach and Livestock -
Food Programs -
Historic Trades -
With Consultants From:
Archaeological Research -
Architectural Research -
Department of Conservation -
Visitor Aides -
SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS TO TEAM MEMBERS:
Although team members are selected for their expertise,
which is often related to their position at the
Foundation, those selected must abandon their
departmental affiliations to be successful team members.
A common way of saying this is for the team leader to
begin by explaining that "departmental loyalties,
seniority, and rank are left outside the meeting room."
This is the crux of the interdisciplinary nature of
interpretive planning. A team needs expert knowledge but
it does not need experts who are more concerned with
their own departmental issues or professional biases
than they are with the team's mission.
III. Team reviews program and materials -
The existing program is reviewed and evaluated. Visitor
surveys are usually conducted to gather baseline data.
Reinterpretation is not a process of change for the sake
of change. It is important to retain the elements of the
current program that are successful and support the new
IV. Team develops interpretive goals, objectives and
In a series of team meetings, new interpretive goals and
objectives are written that support the sites "Becoming
This step in developing the interpretive goals and
objectives can be divided into five separate tasks:
1. In brainstorming sessions the team lists all the
possible interpretive topics that the site could address
under its assigned subtheme.
2. Like topics are grouped together and, within these
groups, separated into a lose outline format of major
3. An outline of topics is written and missing subtopics
are added. Research needs are identified.
4. Major topics are ranked according to the team's
vision of the site. The interdisciplinary nature of the
team will almost certainly cause differences of opinion
about what is most important. This tests the team
members' willingness to compromise to reach consensus.
The ranking process leads to rewriting the topic outline
as ideas are combined and compromises reached.
5. Once a short list of central interpretive topics is
identified, the team restates them as goals and
objectives. For consistency we have evolved a "standard"
format for these. "Goals" are the three, four, or five
major interpretive focuses of the site. "Objectives" are
the strategies that will be used to accomplish the
V. Management reviews interpretive goals and
objectives as they are developed -
The team coordinator and assistant coordinator are
responsible for regular communication of the team's
progress to management and staff.
VI. Interpretive goals and objectives reviewed and
approved - Management team review and contributions
complete the process of deciding what the content of the
interpretive program will be.
VII. Team develops operations plan to achieve
In a second series of meetings the team will, with
the aid of consultants, develop an operations plan to
achieve the new objectives. All departments that will be
affected by operational changes must be informed and
given an opportunity to offer suggestions to the team.
Experiments with the options being considered are
usually conducted and evaluated.
As before, developing the operations plan is likely to
bring our differences of opinion between the various
specialists on the team. This can be further complicated
by a shift in which teams members have the expertise in
this area. That is, someone who had few opinion son the
interpretive content may be the most knowledgeable in
some aspects of operations.
VIII. Operations plan reviewed and approved by
IX. Site manager/supervisor implements plan -
The teams responsibility ends at this point unless
requested to assist in implementation or evaluation of
the operations plan. Working with his or her department
head, the site manager facilitates the changes needed to
make the plan operational.
X. Review and follow-up -
The new program is examined before and after it
opens to the public by several groups including: HAPO
[Historic Area Programs & Operations] Directors,
Educational Policies Group, Interpretive Development
staff, and Interpretive Education staff. Employees only
open houses may be used to evaluate the new program and
as a time for experimentation and staff training.
Visitor surveys or focus groups will also be used.
XI. Record keeping -
Operations plans are often changed as the new
program evolves and is reviewed. These changes in the
interpretive objectives or operations plans should be
noted (with documentation explaining the reasons for the
changes) in the file copies of the plans.
XII. On Site Management Continues to Fine Tune the