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.