A Review of Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making

Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke
Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke

At my museum, we are beginning the process to create our first interpretive master plan.  I’ll blog about our experience creating our plan as we move along, in the hope that it helps other museums create their own interpretive master plans.

In order to prepare to create our plan, my professional reading is focused on interpretation.  I just finished Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making, by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke (2013).

There does not seem to be many books available to assist museums in developing interpretive plans.  I was drawn to the title of this book because I believe that visitors are at the center of museum work.  If that is true, then we must ensure that visitor perspectives are included in all of our planning efforts, including interpretive plans.  After all, the people who benefit the greatest from interpretation are visitors.

I found this book to be a helpful as well as an enjoyable read.  The book is well organized, with chapters devoted to:

  • The conceptual frameworks of museums, visitors and interpretation;
  • An overview of interpretive planning;
  • Information about the authors’ Outcomes Hierarchy; and
  • Chapters about interpretive master planning and project planning.

The chapter about the conceptual frameworks of museums, visitors and interpretation is helpful because it reminds the reader about the basis on which interpretation is built.  Before beginning any interpretive planning, we must first understand:

  • How museums operate as learning institutions;
  • How different types of visitors learn;
  • The expectation that museums will provide benefit to visitors and communities; and
  • The principles of interpretation.

The authors provide a good overview in this chapter, with plenty of references to research and resources for those who are willing to further explore these critical areas of influence on museum operation.

Stephen Weil (2003) once wrote “As profits are to a business, so outcomes are to a museum.”  The expectation that museums produce outcomes, or benefits for their visitors and communities, continues to grow.  With this in mind, the authors have created the Outcomes Hierarchy, a helpful tool to help ensure that museum interpretation creates and is guided by outcomes.

There are four tiers to the Outcomes Hierarchy pyramid.  The base, or first tier, is audience data and information.  The second tier is outputs (people, programs, products).

The third tier is outcomes, how visitors are changed as a result of their experience at the museum (Wells, Butler, and Koke, 2013, p. 55).  Outcomes are divided into immediate, short-term and long-term.  The authors further divide outcomes into domains: intellectual, emotional, social, and psychomotor (which relates to behaviors or the senses).

The fourth, or highest tier on the pyramid, is impacts.  The authors describe impacts as the “collective results or effects” (p. 59) of museum experiences.  Impacts are long-term influences on individuals, social groups, communities, economies, and the environment.

In the chapters about master plans and project plans, the authors do not provide prescriptions for creating these plans.  Instead, they offer a general framework and guidance for what these plans include and how to put them together.  The authors note that each master plan and project plan will vary, based on the variables of the museum and the project.

The Outcomes Hierarchy is useful because it helps build visitor perspectives into both types of plans.

The planning chapters include real-life examples from museums and botanical gardens.  Personally, it was nice to see examples from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens included throughout the book.  While the examples come from certain types of museums, the principles the authors explain apply to all museum types.

I would encourage anyone considering undertaking interpretive planning to begin by reading this book.  The overview it provides is a good foundation to begin.

The Outcomes Hierarchy is a strong contribution to the overall museum field and the field of interpretive planning.  It reminds us of the purpose of museum work:  to make a difference in our visitors and communities.  By using the Outcomes Hierarchy, museums can articulate the difference they are trying to make, document how these intentions will influence their interpretive plans, and measure if their intentions and interpretation are indeed making those differences.

Weil, S.E. (2003, November / December). Beyond big and awesome: Outcome-based evaluation. Museum News, 40-53.

Wells, M., Butler, B., & Koke, J. (2013). Interpretive planning for museums: Integrating visitor perspectives in decision making. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.


Lessons for museum advisory committees from the 2016 presidential campaign

Two weeks ago, members of the Black Lives Matter movement met with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.  You can watch a full video of the meeting at the Democracy Now! website.

I was thinking about museums while watching this meeting.  Why?  Advisory committees.  More about them in a second.

The Civil Society
First, some background.  It shouldn’t seem all that unusual to think about museums while watching this meeting.  Over the last year, the Museums Respond To Ferguson movement has done an excellent job of reminding museums about their responsibility as members of the civil society.  Museums Respond to Ferguson and Black Lives Matter are two movements that are part of a larger movement.

Robert R. Janes (2009) defines civil society as “that part of society lying between the private sphere of the family and the official sphere of the state, and refers to the array of volunteer and civic associations, such as trade associations, religious organizations, cultural and educational bodies, that are to be found in modern, liberal societies” (p. 21).  The civil society also includes activists.

Advisory Committees in Museums
Over the last 30 years, museums have begun to fully understand their place in the civil society.  Museums have realized that they need to provide tangible benefits to the communities they call home.  In our multicultural society, that means being able to serve everyone in the community.

In order to do this, many museums have turned to the use of advisory committees.  These committees are made up of members of a community—those with a disablity, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Hispanics, etc.

The committees advise the museum on a range of issues: exhibition development, repatriation, marketing, physical and intellectual accessibility, etc.

Through the committees, museums give community members a voice in the operation of the museum.  The advisory committee ensures that the museum is accessible to, representative of, and welcoming to everyone in the community.

I believe that advisory committees help museums be of greater use to their communities and I urge all museums to make these committees part of their management practice.

Back to the video of Black Lives Matter meeting with Clinton.  I think this video offers two important lessons for working with communities the museum has not served well in the past.

Members of Black Lives Matter meeting with Hillary Clinton.
Members of Black Lives Matter meeting with Hillary Clinton.

The first goal of the activists is to try and get Clinton to admit to her role in supporting state oppression of African-Americans.  Laws passed under President Clinton, and supported by Mrs. Clinton, have led to a disproportionate amount of African-Americans being incarcerated in this country.

Clinton offers a classic politician-running-for-office response: Not fully admitting guilt (while calling herself a “sinner”) while offering that she can best change the wrong that she helped put in place.  For many, this response is not genuine.

Apologies go a long way.  They are often the prerequisite for a fractured relationship to be healed and are needed before that relationship can move forward.

When starting an advisory committee, museums should acknowledge their failure in not being accessible to, representative of, or welcoming to the community it now seeks to work with.  Museums should apologize if necessary.

The good news for museums is that in seeking out the help of a community goodwill is often created.  Apologies can create even more goodwill.

The most contentious point of the meeting comes when Julius Jones, one of the activists, asks Clinton to talk to white America about the historical white oppression and discrimination against African-Americans, especially how discrimination has been institutionalized in our government and her role in that.

Clinton, however, asks Jones and the activists to provide her with a policy agenda to change the current manifestations of state violence against African-Americans.  In a way, Clinton asks the activists to be a type of advisory committee for her.

The problem for both parties is that they fail to understand each other.  Part of the misunderstanding is a problem of perspective.  Clinton has a perspective of the problem that is much different than that of the activists.

For museums (and for Clinton), it is important to understand the perspective of the community.  The new way forward is not by forcing the museum’s perspective on the community.  That hasn’t worked in the past.  Why would it work now?  It is imperative that the museum understand the community’s perspective for the relationship to go forward.

Final Thoughts
Thankfully, museums aren’t politicians.  But they exist in the civil society, which makes them political.  When museums use advisory committees and better understand the people they serve, they are better equipped to create positive change in society.  An apology may be required to begin the process.  Listening is critical to full understanding.

Finally, it should be noted that communities aren’t monolithic.  Museums should seek out multiple perspectives from the various communities that make up our societies.

Janes, R. (2009). Museums in a troubled world: Renewal, irrelevance or collapse? New York, NY: Routledge.

Image credit: Black Lives Matter Boston

A review of The New Museum by John Cotton Dana

John Cotton Dana
John Cotton Dana

There was one book I wanted to read immediately after graduating with my Master of Arts in Museum Studies and at the beginning my museum career: The New Museum: Selected Writings by John Cotton Dana.

This important book was published jointly by the American Alliance of Museums and The Newark Museum (almost 20 years ago!) to ensure that Dana’s voice would continue to influence the philosophy and management of museums.  Dana is one of the founders of the modern museum movement, the new museology.  His thoughts and writings should be easily accessible to us today, and this book makes that a reality.

I first encountered Dana in my Introduction to Museum Education class.  We read his essay “The New Museum.”  It’s a manifesto of sorts that all museum professionals should read and keep close by.

Dana was writing 100 years ago, but his thoughts about museums and American society remain fresh and relevant to us today.

The core of Dana’s philosophy is that museums should be useful to people and their communities.  In order to be useful, Dana believes museums should:

Be educational institutions.  We all agree at this point that museums educate.  “Schools and Museums” is another essay included in this book, and one of Dana’s most important writings.  He believes that museums should not compete with schools in educating the public, but should rather support schools in education.  The best way to do this is by supporting teachers in making lessons more interesting and instructive for students, day in and day out.  “If a museum is used by pupils to the extent only of a visit or two each year, it is not a museum that can be properly alluded to as an aide to schools,” he writes in this essay (p. 190).  So much for thinking that hosting those yearly school trips to the museum is getting the job done.

Be of service to their communities.  There are a number of ways Dana says museums can do this:

  • By helping industry create better design and workmanship (p. 111).
  • By helping communities develop skilled labor (p. 187).
  • By exhibiting the work of local artists and industry. Dana believes museums should increase the understanding and appreciation of local products, and that exhibition of these products could aid “Buy in America” campaigns (p. 154).
  • By promoting international understanding and relations. Dana notes that a Newark Museum exhibition about Colombia helped reduce tensions between that country and the United States (p. 160).
  • By promoting the appreciation of the heritage and skill of immigrants. Immigration remains a heated political topic in our day and Dana suggests museums can help create understanding within our own communities (p. 161).
  • By making the life of the community “more gracious and livable” (p. 174). Dana’s ideas that museums can contribute to a community’s health are now very much in vogue.

Be in centrally located, welcoming buildings.  Dana says that museum buildings should be useful, not ornamental.  The temple-like neo-classical building, located in a remote city park, is no place for a museum.  Dana says that museums should be located in the same place as department stores:  where they will get a lot of traffic.

Dana would probably not care for the “vanity” architecture that is in vogue in many new museum buildings.  He expects museum buildings to be inviting and flexible spaces and thinks the majority of a museum’s budget should be in the staff, not in buildings and collections.

Be bold about advertising.  An idea that has been widely embraced by museums.  Dana understood that museums would get more support if people understood the value of the work our institutions perform.

So, how can museums be useful?  Dana has thoughts on that as well.

Invest in staff over collections.  The staff should be large (p. 68), well-paid (p. 103), and constantly learning.

Experiment.  “The museum that does things because it is quite sure that they are the only right things to do is quite harmful to museum development.  In a new and largely unexplored field, only the inquirer who is not only bold but is also fully conscious that the field is unexplored can give us useful data for mapping that which is as yet unknown” (p. 192).  Ninety-seven years after this was written, we still have much to learn about museum practice.

Get out into the community.  Dana believes that museums should operate like libraries and have large collections that can be lent to teachers, businesses, and individuals.

He also promotes the idea of branch museums.  These are complete teaching museums and as much as possible “fitted to the character of its neighborhood and to the degree of education and the occupation of its residents” (p. 91).

Why did I want to read this book as a bridge between my academic training and professional work?  Because I knew Dana’s ideas were important, and that I will come back to them again and again during the course of my career.

There is, of course, much that I have not been able to mention here.  I hope I have convinced you to read this book and let Dana’s ideas challenge and inspire you.

What do you think of Dana’s ideas?  Which of his ideas should museums use today?  Should museums of the 21st century reject any of his ideas?

Image credit: Wikipedia

The Franciscan Museum

Saint Francis of Assisi in Tomb PAINTINGS Zurbaran, Francisco de Spanish, 1598-1664 1630-34 Oil on canvas 80 3/8 x 44 5/8 in. Purchase (M1958.70)
Saint Francis of Assisi in Tomb
Zurbaran, Francisco de
Spanish, 1598-1664
Oil on canvas
80 3/8 x 44 5/8 in.

I participated in Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum, a recently completed massive online open course (MOOC) presented by the University of Leicester’s Museum Studies department and Future Learn.

Week three of this course explored the role of our emotions in museums.  At the conclusion of this lesson, Dr. Sheila Watson made three important observations.

First, some research has discovered that people who feel pity or sorrow are not as likely to want to change something as people who feel anger or rage.

Second, calling emotions good or bad is too simplistic.

Finally, if people are inspired to feel anger or rage at injustice and thus inspired to act, then anger and rage can be positive emotions.

This reminded me of a Franciscan blessing that is not as well known as the Peace Prayer of St. Francis.

What if our museums were more Franciscan?

May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart. 

Our museums should never provide easy answers or half-truths to our visitors.  We should have deep and meaningful relationships with our guests.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom, and peace. 

I’m intrigued that the research Dr. Watson cites agrees with this blessing.  We need our anger to inspire us to act when confronted with injustice.  Too often, museums have tried to remain “objective” when dealing with controversial subjects, which is actually an impossible thing to do.  Museums are part of civil society, and play a role in correcting injustice.  To do so, our museums need to make people angry so they will be more likely to do something.

May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy.

A blessing of tears should not be about pity or sorrow.  The research Dr. Watson mentioned says that these emotions don’t inspire action.  The blessing of tears is about compassion.  More importantly, it’s about understanding the experience of another human being.  Through our objects and the personal stories we tell, museums are powerfully equipped to help people understand each other.  Feeling understood is one of the most profound ways that our pain can be turned to joy.

And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.

What good is a museum if it does not work to make a difference in the world?  It can seem like daunting work sometimes, as we work to change the world with limited resources.  But, with our holy foolishness, we press on, in the faith and hope that our work really will make a difference.  Many times, we do succeed and often do what others claim cannot be done.

Here is my prayer for you and your museum:  that you bravely bring more justice, beauty, and understanding into the world.

Image credit: Milwaukee Art Museum

#MuseumsrespondtoFerguson: Systemic racism, representation, and museums as peaceful congregant spaces


Museums entered the national conversation again last week when Dylann Roof massacred nine African-American members of the Emanuel African Methodist church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Many people began calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from Southern statehouses and state flags.  President Obama and others noted that the only place for the flag in our society is in a museum.

It seems that one of the few positive outcomes of the massacre is that these flags will finally be removed from official government involvement.

Violence against African-Americans, racism in our society, and museums.  Once again last week, the #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson discussion that has been taking place over the last few months became even more urgent.

It’s been perplexing to me that some museum professionals have expressed resistance to this conversation.  Some museum professionals hesitate to think that it is the business for their museum to respond to Ferguson.  An art museum is about art—what does that have to do with Ferguson?

Others refused to sign the Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events because the statement called on all museums to respond to contemporary issues, “irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”

I encourage you to read recent blog posts by Gretchen Jennings and the Incluseum for clarification on what #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson is all about.

In addition, I offer the thoughts below to add my voice to the conversation and give clarity to this movement.

It’s not about Ferguson or police violence
Some of the confusion comes from the hashtag #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson, which implies that this is only a response to the police killing of Michael Brown.  Tragically, police killings of African-Americans across the country makes headlines with regularity, including after the hashtag was coined.  But this movement is not about violence.  It’s about the underlying conditions that lead to the violence.

It is about systemic racism
African-Americans are dying at the hands of police officers because there is systemic racism in our police departments.

Systemic racism is when an organization takes discriminatory or prejudicial action against people of a certain race.  The racism is systemized because it becomes part of the working operation of the organization.  In police departments, this means that African-Americans are stopped more frequently than other drivers or are arrested after making eye contact with a police officer and then running away.

The most dangerous part of systemic racism is that it is often not thought about.  Museums can also be places of systemic discrimination.  Examples would be:

  • An art museum that has a collection that is overwhelmingly by artists who are white and male.
  • Guards that follow or intrude upon visitors of a certain race.
  • Natural history museums that present people outside of European traditions as exotic others.

Systemic racism can exist in museums when these types of issues are not considered.

Museums are places of white culture
Many of the museums in our country were created by people of European descent.  Often, what happens in an organizational culture is that people unknowingly seek to work with people that look just like them.  This extends to collections and operations as well, where the objects or point of view is representative of the culture of the museum staff.  Museums created and maintained by European-Americans become places of white culture.  This is part of the reason why there have been so many calls in our field for the diversification of museum professionals.

Museums as peaceful congregant spaces for community health
The United States is about to experience the most radical racial demographic shift in our country’s history.  In a 2010 report titled Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums the Center for the Future of Museums notes that sometime between 2040 and 2050 the U.S. will shift to a “majority minority” country, meaning that the number of non-Hispanic whites will fall below 50 percent of the population (Center for the Future of Museums, 2010, p. 9).

2040 seems like a long time from now but museums need to help our society prepare for this future today.

Our society is already becoming more multicultural.  The shift to greater diversity could come with tragic implications.  Consider that our government has failed to address our immigration laws and that “illegal” immigrants are still caught in an area of heated political tension.  Roof wanted his massacre in Charleston to start a “race war.”  In announcing his presidential bid, Donald Trump said he wanted to build a wall at the Mexican border and force Mexicans to pay for it.

In her essay A Savings Bank for the Soul, Elaine Heumann Gurian (1996/2006) calls for museums to be places that encourage peaceful congregant behavior in order to sustain our communities through change and catastrophe.  It’s clear from the state of this country that we need museums to perform this function more than ever.

In order for museums to become peaceful congregant places, they need to represent or welcome everyone in the community.  To do so, museums may need to take a hard look in the mirror.  Do the museum’s collections, exhibitions, and programming make everyone feel welcome, or does the museum come across as a place of white culture?

Many of us come to museum work for altruistic reasons.  It can be uncomfortable for us to consider that our museums may be excluding some people in our community, especially when that is not our intent.  But good intentions that cause harm aren’t good enough.  A police officer may think he or she is protecting the community, but if in doing so that officer is engaged in discrimination then the community is actually put at risk.

We cannot allow the same thing to happen in our museums.  We have an important role to play in our society, and our society needs us to encourage peaceful congregant behavior.  We can only do that if we include everyone, and that is what #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson is reminding us to do.

Center for the Future of Museums. (2010). Demographic transformation and the future of museums. Washington, DC: American Alliance of Museums.

Heumann Gurian, E. (1996/2006). A savings bank for the soul: About institutions of memory and congregant behavior. In E. Heumann Gurian (Ed.), Civilizing the museum: The collected writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian (pp. 88-96). London: Routledge.

Image credit:  Protesters gather at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, on Nov. 14, 2014, to protest the grand jury decision not to indite police officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown.  Photo by Stephen D. Melkisethian (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thoughts on beginning a museum career, the visitor experience, and positive word-of-mouth marketing

This week, after years of thinking about making a career move into museums, and two years of intense graduate study, I begin my museum career.  I couldn’t be more excited!

This is an exceptional time to begin working in museums.  Our field has recognized that in the 21st century it is the visitor that is at the center of museum activity.  However, in many ways museums are still adapting to this shift.

Understanding visitors and meeting their needs is not easy.  It’s also work that never ends.  As the demographics of our society changes, as new communication methods are created, and as we continue to refine our own practice of serving visitors, we must continually change and adapt.

My museum career begins as a Guest Experience Manager.  I’ve noticed that many museums are starting to create roles around the guest or visitor experience, and I think this is an important development.  If our field is serious about serving visitors then we need someone in each of our institutions who is responsible for managing and refining the visitor experience.

All museum professionals and staff—guards, curators, educators, directors, human resources managers—should have the visitor experience top of mind.  However, putting someone in charge of the visitor experience helps the museum coordinate its efforts and resources to create a seamless experience.


Positive experiences at the museum promote return visits; the cultivation of visitors into members and possibly donors; and encourage positive word-of-mouth marketing.  Thanks to the internet, we live in a world in which we can all be reviewers and have the ability to see what other people think of their experience before we try it out ourselves.

Gone are the days when we rely on this information only from family or friends.  Before I travel for leisure, I always check websites where people review hotels, restaurants, and places to visit.  I don’t know any of the people whose reviews I read and yet I trust their opinion and make choices based off what they’ve said.

We place much trust in those who do not have a stake in the marketing of a service or product because we perceive that the person giving us their opinion is unbiased.

This is ultimately why a visitor or guest experience manager is so important.  When people have good experiences at our museums, they will become our advocates and tell others.  It helps us advance our mission by giving us the potential to reach more people.

What people are saying about your museum to others is one of the most important indicators of whether or not your museum is successful.  A visitor or guest experience manager can focus on creating outstanding experiences and maintaining a high level of visitor satisfaction.  This work is bound to have a positive impact on the museum.

What are people saying about the experience at your museum?

Image credit: 212 Media Studios

Earth Day, the letter, and David Koch: Museum governance and reputation in the 21st century

Today is Earth Day, a day that seems to become more vital and important each year as our planet continues to warm.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last month was the hottest March ever recorded, and the first three months of 2015 were the hottest start to any year on record.


Today is a good time to remind the museum field about the Open Letter to Museums from Members of the Scientific Community, which was released about a month ago.

The letter reminds museums of their ethical mandate to use collections and knowledge to serve the public interest.  It voices concerns that special interests opposed to the health and well-being of our environment are trying to influence the information museums provide to the public.

The letter calls for museums to cut all ties with fossil fuel industries and funders who deny climate change, such as David Koch.  Koch is a head of Koch Industries, which includes fossil fuel businesses.  Koch is also one of this country’s most significant philanthropists, giving his financial support to many museums and serving on the boards of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, and an emeritus trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He is also a climate change denier.

Elizabeth Merritt of the Center for the Future of Museums wrote a good blog post in response to the open letter.  Merritt says that the current standards for museums draw lines between those who fund museums and those who create programs and exhibitions, and between the governing board and the staff.  She says these standards can guide museums in ethical situations such as this.  She’s right, but these standards only mean something as long as museums enforce them.

We live in a world where special interests seek influence, from how things are covered in the media to the outcome of public elections.  On the latter, Koch emerges again, as he and others look to spend almost $900 million on the 2016 elections.  The public knows less about museum standards than they do about Koch seeking influence.  In this way, his board membership becomes a public perception problem for the museums he’s associated with.

Merritt’s blog quotes Chris Norris, past president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.  Norris says that it’s better to have people with contrary views on the board of the museum rather than to exclude them and the museum appear impartial.

I disagree.  I believe there are issues that are so important that we can no longer allow those who disagree or deny that there is a problem to have a position of influence.  Climate change is one of these issues.

This isn’t a perfect analogy, but can you imagine what the reaction would be if the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had a board member who funded groups that denied the Holocaust?

In Museum Administration: An Introduction, Hugh Genoways and Lynne Ireland (2003) write about corporate sponsorships in museums:  “The museum must remember that as the corporation benefits from the museum’s reputation, so the reputation of the corporation, for good or bad, will reflect on the museum” (p. 285).

Today, with museums under intense public scrutiny, the reputation of anyone or anything associated with a museum will reflect on the museum, including and especially board members.

Twenty-first century museums need to consider board members’ impact on the museum’s reputation, especially in issues where the public will not trust or tolerate a board member who disagrees with the information provided by the museum.


Genoways, H. & Ireland, L. (2003). Museum administration: An introduction. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Image Credit:  absolutebodo.com