Best Practice Report: Interpretive Planning

Why is strong interpretation so important for sharing maritime stories? Maritime Washington partner Dalva Church shares what she learned at a National Association for Interpretation workshop, including top takeaways and ideas for other partners.

By Dalva Church, Executive Director of Island County Historical Museum

What is Interpretation?

If you explain to visitors what your site is about, or tell them the history and significance of places or objects, then you are doing interpretation. The National Association for Interpretation trains people from parks, nature centers, historical sites, aquariums, zoos, and anywhere that people come to learn about places to tell cohesive stories. NAI defines interpretation as “a purposeful approach to communication that facilitates meaningful, relevant, and inclusive experiences that deepen understanding, broaden perspectives, and inspire engagement with the world around us.”

The week-long Interpretive Planning Class that was at Deception Pass State Park in September 2023, taught attendees from national parks, zoos, museums, and historical sites how to figure out the story they wanted to tell, how to motivate visitors to take desired actions, how to put together a plan, and how to create meaningful media to accomplish these goals.

Top Takeaways

1. Value your visitor’s time and effort

There was so much good information in this training that we will be putting to use at the museum right away. It began with information on effective communication strategies. A really important aspect of this was the fact that people feel that their time and effort are a cost to them. So, if they look at a sign, and it is just a lot of words crowded together, they will feel that the cost of reading that sign is too high, and they will pass it by, unread. Instead of this, using headings and clear titles, larger print and fewer words, and pictures or graphics, helps people to feel more willing to “pay” for the information with their time and attention. Similarly, if you are talking, telling a story is much more likely to keep attention than just reciting facts.

2. Do more than share information—answer the “so what?”

Another important fact to keep in mind when planning is that your goal has to be more specific than just telling people information.  Instead, you have to decide what you want people to think, feel, or do, based on what you are sharing. Then, you target the information to meet that goal. Some people love to learn facts just to know things, but most people want information to tie into their lives in some way. A great way to get people to care about the information that you are giving is to help them see why the information affects them. Imagine that they are asking you, “So what?” and answer that question.

For example, if you want people to help keep water clean to preserve wildlife, then tell them how their own health suffers when the water isn’t clean.

3. Tie interpretation to what your visitor is seeing

Finally, I learned that it is crucially important to tie any interpretive materials to what is actually in front of people as they are in a space. If you want them to know about a ship, either put your information right in front of the ship, or if you can’t do that, put a picture of the ship with the interpretive materials. It is confusing to people if they aren’t sure what they are reading or hearing about, and then they are less likely to pay attention.

Putting it in Practice

After this class, I came back and looked at what we had in the museum about maritime history with new eyes. A lot of our maritime interpretive panels are huge, with lots of words. They aren’t tied well to objects or images. As a result, people tend not to read them.

I now have plans to tell the story of maritime exploration of the island in a new way, tying together our collection with the information, and breaking up the stories into more manageable chunks. I also want to tie in our maritime story to the lives of our visitors.

For people in the USA, maritime history touches all of us. Many of us have ancestors who came to this country on ships. Migration happened via the ocean, and it is still happening that way today. Goods moved around the world via the ocean then, as they do now. If we understand what happened in the past, it can help us to have a greater understanding of people and systems today. It can also help us to navigate the future.

If you are hoping to create a narrative that ties together an exhibit or a collection, I strongly recommend the resources that the NAI can offer. It can help you to tell stories in a way that catches and holds the attention of your audience. I was inspired by the creative ideas of many people in our class and will be using what I learned there for many years to come.