Exhibitions: What exactly is interpretation? Behind the scenes

Image taken in 'Crime Scene', 2018, Sarhan Khan.

Interpretation is fundamental to the way museums develop exhibitions, and to the way visitors experience them. But what exactly is interpretation? As an ‘Interpretation Specialist’, this is a question I am very familiar with. I use it myself to open up discussions with students about the theory surrounding interpretation, and answer it in terms that can be strategized and applied in my capacity as a museum consultant. Beyond academic and professional contexts, I usually just say I am a curator, avoiding the question altogether!

The simplest way to define interpretation is the way that museums engage their audience with collections, information, and ideas. The metaphor of a bridge works quite well too, connecting visitors with museum content. Storytelling is another useful shorthand for interpretation, particularly in relation to engaging visitors’ hearts as well as their minds (Ross 2017). Veverka describes interpretation as a strategy used by museums to translate information ‘from the technical language of experts into the everyday language of the visitor’. I would agree with that in principle, but highlight the importance of recognising experts within audiences, as well as the impossibility of ever knowing the preferred or most relevant language for every visitor. How can one language speak to everyone?

At the University of Westminster in London, I teach a module on the MA in Museums Galleries and Contemporary Culture called Museum Narratives. Favouring discussion-based classes, I start our session on interpretation by asking the students what they understand it to be. Words and phrases including text, labels, access, meaning-making, enabling engagement, revealing significance, and enhancing understanding emerge from the discussion and are added to the whiteboard. We go on to evaluate definitions from theorists who have significantly contributed to our understanding of interpretation within the interdisciplinary field of Museum Studies and as the underpinning of museum practice. Freedman Tilden is widely recognised for defining interpretation in his 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage (Black 2005; Gross & Zimmerman 2002; Veverka 2011; Woolmer 2017):

“An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information”. (Tilden 1957: 8)

Tilden’s principles, centred on provoking interest, relating to audiences, and revealing meaning, continue to be used as the foundation for countless interpretation training courses, and his definition features on sector organisation websites including the Association for Heritage Interpretation. Due to its historic significance and enduring relevance, it invariably features on my slides in both teaching and professional development training.

Addressing the question of what interpretation is within museums is very different. Professionally speaking, interpretation needs to be defined in terms that can be applied in practice. It has to be understood as a process and delivered as an outcome. I work with museums to develop ‘Interpretation Strategies’ that establish guiding principles and an approach to interpretation that aligns with their vision, mission and goals. The purpose and benefits of effective interpretation are essential to define so that what it is, exactly, can be pinned down within policies, incorporated into plans, and realized in practice. Strategies typically start with a definition of interpretation, quoting or drawing on descriptions and standards used by professional museum sector organizations. I usually relate interpretation to established principles of learning, such as those used by the Arts Council England (ACE):

“Learning is a process of active engagement with experience. It is what people do when they want to make sense of the world. It may involve the development or deepening of skills, knowledge, understanding, values, ideas and feelings. Effective learning leads to change, development and the desire to learn more”. (Arts Council England—a)

Writing this article has given me another context and opportunity to define and explore interpretation. With a broad, online audience in mind, who may not be involved professionally or academically in museums, the logical approach is to focus on interpretation from the perspective of the museum visitor. For museum visitors, which every reader potentially is, the development of interpretation is fairly invisible as a process and intangible as an outcome. Curating is ostensibly more glamorous in that sense. Visitors rarely leave an exhibition and congratulate the person who worked on interpretation, and if given the opportunity, would probably ask, ‘What exactly is interpretation?’ Taking you behind the scenes of an exhibition’s development process will reveal valuable insights into some of the lesser-known museum practices and considerations surrounding interpretation that relate to you as a visitor.

Interpretation is both an activity and a product. It refers to what museums and visitors do to make sense of exhibition content (e.g., develop understanding, enhance knowledge, reveal meaning, connect emotionally), as well as what is encountered in the space (e.g., text, graphics, models, interactives, etc.) Museums, like art galleries, heritage sites and increasingly parks and gardens, use interpretation to engage and develop audiences, to communicate their key messages, and maximise opportunities for learning.

The most common myth about interpretation is that it is just text—labels that describe artworks or artifacts, and wall texts that explain the sections or themes of an exhibition. Text is indeed the longest standing and most widely used tool to interpret collections, with some museums even today using nothing else. However, a lot has changed since 1957 when Tilden emphasised the importance of firsthand experience and illustrative media to reveal meaning through interpretation. Developments in technology have created opportunities for first-hand museum experiences to become immersive or virtually realised, and for illustrative media to become animated, digital, and dynamic, extending beyond the walls of the museum via multiple online platforms. In addition to text, modes of interpretation and display now typically include static and animated graphic imagery, mechanical and digital interactives, the use of replicas, models, and innovatively mounted objects, art installations, and a variety of audio visuals (AV). To slip into professional jargon, interpretation has become ‘multi-modal’. When these interpretive modes come together, within an integrated exhibition design, text is simply one component within a wider more nuanced system for communicating with visitors and engaging with stories. Although, unlike a book, movie or theatre performance, where stories are linear, fixed and presented to a static audience, exhibitions unfold in an interactive, multi-dimensional environment, in which the visitor is present and afforded varying degrees of control over the narrative (Macleod et al. 2012).

It is impossible to separate interpretation from the three core elements of an exhibition: content, learning and design. It provides the structure for content, establishes outcomes for learning, and defines the visitor experience that design facilitates. Although these are not sequential linear processes, I like to think of interpretation as the glue that binds these three interdependent phases of an exhibition’s development. Not all museums have a dedicated interpretation specialist or department, but interpretation is always part of an exhibition. Responsibility for it can sit with a curatorial or learning department, or within a dedicated content team, typically set up at the start of an exhibition development process.

The development of content is the primary role of the curator. The word ‘curator’ originates from the Latin curare, meaning ‘to take care of, oversee or govern’. Words such as ‘keeper’ and ‘custodian’, have also been used to describe the traditional role of the curator, as an authoritative knowledge specialist associated with a museum or collection. Over the last 30 years, museum practices have shifted from collections and specialist knowledge towards audiences and inclusive understanding. This has had a significant impact on the definition and remit of curators. Interpretation was once considered part of ‘curating’, and in some cases still is. However, the increased complexity, modalities and expectations of interpretation today, to meaningfully engage visitors with museum content in ways that are relevant to all, calls for it to be treated as a distinct strand of work. Interpretation is nonetheless an integrated process within the development of exhibitions.

Museums tend to think about learning, in its broadest sense, in relation to experience. This is something that traces back to John Dewey’s learning theory of the 1930s, which was firmly established within the context of museums by George Hein in the late 1990s (Hein 1998). New museum theory redirected practices away from notions of institutional knowledge and expert-to-novice communication, towards a ‘constructivist’ approach. This positioned the visitor as an active participant in meaning-making, able to connect with content and co-produce interpretation by drawing and building on their own knowledge and experiences (see Hein 2000; Hooper-Greenhill 2000; Serota 1996).

The ultimate outcome of effective museum learning—which is the outcome of effective museum interpretation—is change. As museum visitors, this change might be in what we know, how we feel, or what we do. At the beginning of an exhibition’s development process, museums now typically define aspired visitor outcomes. These establish what learning, or changes within the visitor, might look like. Often referred to as ‘Generic Learning Outcomes’, they refer to Knowledge & Understanding; Attitudes & Values; Enjoyment, Inspiration, Creativity; Behaviours & Progression; and Skills (see Arts Council England—b). These outcomes should be achievable, measurable and responsive to the needs of target audiences. In addition to providing a bridge, telling a story, or translating information, ‘scaffolding’ an experience is another common analogy for interpretation, particularly in relation to learning. However, the concept of ‘scaffolding’ a visitor’s learning experience, to support engagement and reveal meaning, has been so overused in academic writing and in professional jargon that the simplicity of this eloquent metaphor is sometimes lost.

Approaches to interpretation are different from museum to museum. They are driven by the nature of an institution’s content and collections, its strategic aims and purpose, and the specific needs of its audience. In addition to an overarching Interpretation Strategy, which encapsulates the museum’s unique approach to communicating with audiences, ‘Interpretation Plans’ are produced for each exhibition. These explain how content is to be structured, presented, and engaged with by visitors. There is no set template for an Interpretation Plan. Different exhibitions, even within the same museum, may call for different approaches. Interpretation Plans should be practical working documents, to which content and learning teams contribute, but they are primarily used by exhibition designers.

The job of the exhibition designer is not solely to create a space for presenting curatorial content, it is to create a multimodal narrative environment that facilitates learning and engagement with that content. This increasingly requires expertise from graphic, digital, 3D, software and experience designers. Interpretation Plans should provide guidance and measurable objectives for the way text, graphics, models, interactives, multisensory activities, immersive exhibits, and AV are designed, with a consideration for how they all work together towards shared interpretive goals.

Successful interpretation uses all the tools at its disposal, across museum departments and increasingly beyond them, to overcome barriers to access and engagement. Barriers can be imposed by attitudes and feelings associated with the museum building, or the idea of visiting an exhibition more generally. Elaine Gurian coined the now commonly used phrase ‘threshold fear’ for feelings of anxiety that can be induced by imposing, complex or unfamiliar museum entrances (Gurian 2006). For museums to operate as welcoming spaces that enable inclusive, fulfilling encounters within exhibitions, a close working relationship between interpretation and design teams is a particularly important factor.

Saving my favourite definition for last, ‘interpretation will always be a work in progress’ (Luckett 2007). Effective visitor experiences are infinitely variable and constantly evolving. They can include being captivated by intrigue and curiosity, or struck by awe, wonder and beauty. They can be deep connections with stories that resonate and inspire our own lives or profoundly enhance our capacity to relate to others. They may enrich understanding at the early stages of a child’s development or uniquely enhance specialist knowledge acquired over a lifetime of academic learning. They develop skills and compassion, make you laugh and cry, confirm doubts and renew hope. Such responses are the very essence of the museum experience. As an interpretation specialist, it is my job to ensure that museums don’t just ‘present’ information, collections, stories and ideas, but bring them to life, for everyone. Because that is interpretation.

I would like to thank Lyla El Shamy, from whom I learned a great deal about what interpretation can and should be in our time working together. I would also like to thank Peter Ride for giving me the opportunity to teach, which has undoubtedly enriched my understanding and application of interpretation in practice, and my students, who endlessly challenge and enhance my ability to define and redefine interpretation.

Arts Council England (ACE), a www.artscouncil.org.uk/defining-learning

Arts Council England (ACE), b https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/inspiring-learning-all-home-page

Association for Heritage Interpretation, www.ahi.org.uk

Black, G. (2005) The Engaging Museum: Developing museums for visitor involvement. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gross, M. & Zimmerman, R. (2002) 'Park and Museum Interpretation: Helping Visitors Find Meaning', Curator 45(4), 265–276.

Gurian, E. H. (2006) ‘Threshold Fear’, Civilizing the Museum—The collected writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian, Gurian, E. H., ed. London: Routledge, 115–126.

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2000) ‘Exhibitions and interpretation—Museum pedagogy and cultural change’, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hein, G. E. (1998) Learning in Museums. New York: Routledge.

Hein, H. S. (2000) ‘Transcending the Object’, The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective. Washington/London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Luckett, H. (2007) ‘Seven Wonders of Interpretation’, Engage, 20. https://engage.org/journals/engage-20/?id=21

Macleod, S., Hourston Hanks, L. & Hale, J., eds. (2012) Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions. Abingdon: Routledge.

Ross, C. (2017) ‘Sophisticated Exhibition-Making: When is a Story not a Story?’ Museum iD [blog post], https://museum-id.com/sophisticated-exhibition-making-story-not-story-cathy-ross/

Serota, N. (1996) Experience or interpretation: the dilemma of museums of modern art. London: Thames and Hudson.

Tilden, F. (1957) Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Veverka, J. A. (2015) ‘Interpretive Philosophy and Principles’, Interpretive Master Planning: Strategies for the New Millennium‚ Philosophy, Theory and Practice. Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc.

Woolmer, M. (2017, 3 July) ‘You’re a what? Interpreting Interpretation to Non-interpreters', Museums and Heritage [blog post], https://advisor.museumsandheritage.com/blogs/youre-interpreting-interpretation-non-interpreters/


  • Author credits

    Claire Dobbin

    Claire Dobbin is a museum curator and interpretation specialist. She has worked for museums in London, Taiwan, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia, specializing in exhibitions, programs, and learning resources that increase access to collections. As a Deputy Director at Qatar Museums, she contributed to the curatorial direction and strategic planning of a new museum (2012–2016). Prior to this, as Senior Curator at London Transport Museum, she developed exhibitions and publications on the Underground’s art and design heritage (2006–2012). She is a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster in London, and was the interpretation specialist for The Media Majlis exhibition Arab Identities, images in film (2019).