Muzzleloading Season
Guns & Recreation
Priming Horns?
Editing History
Craft Apprenticeship
Wallace Gusler Retires
Who would dare "edit history?" We all do.
Deciding what to say, and how to say it, is the process we call interpretive planning.


To explore the process of interpretive planning we should begin by establishing a definition of interpretation:

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 examination."

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 interpretation.

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 can. (top)

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1985-1992

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)

The reinterpretation process in brief:

 Site or Program selected for reinterpretation

 Reinterpretation team selected

 Team develops interpretive goals, objectives, and topics

 Interpretive goals, objectives, and topics reviewed and approved

 Team develops interpretive/operations plan

 Operations plan reviewed and approved

 Site manager/supervisor implements plan  (top)


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 manager.
 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 new plan.

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 -

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. (top)

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 objectives.

IV. Team develops interpretive goals, objectives and topics -
In a series of team meetings, new interpretive goals and objectives are written that support the sites "Becoming Americans" theme.

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 and subtopics.

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 goals. (top)

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 objectives -
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 Management

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 operations Plan