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Interpretive planning

Writing an interpretive plan

When planning an exhibition, the first step is to create an interpretive plan. This includes:

  • A simple statement of the goals and objectives you want to achieve
  • The themes you will use to explore these goals and objectives
  • A list of documents and items you wish to display

You can then use the interpretive plan to decide a layout for your exhibition and act as a guide to writing text for any explanatory panels and captions.

Remember, interpretive planning is a creative process and good ideas can pop up at any time. As you develop your exhibition and discover new items and stories, you may need to go back to the plan and adjust it as you go along.

Setting goals and objectives

Start by thinking about the big picture. Try answering the following three questions:

Why are we preparing this exhibition?

You might stage an exhibition to:

  • Publicise your archive
  • Mark the completion of a project
  • Commemorate a significant anniversary
  • Engage with a particular audience or group (eg a school)
  • Recruit new volunteers
  • Gather new items or information

What do we want visitors to learn from our collection?

When people leave your exhibition, what key message do you want them to come away with? Write these down using bullet points and short statements. These will form your exhibition goals. Sometimes it may feel like you are stating the obvious, but identifying these goals will help you prioritise and focus. For example:

  • Goal 1 - For visitors to understand when and why our village was built
  • Goal 2 - For visitors to learn that many of the buildings in our village are from medieval times
  • Goal 3 - To highlight some of the prominent/famous residents who have lived in our village

Is there anything we would like to learn or get from our visitors?

For example:

  • Goal 1 - To attract new donations to the archive
  • Goal 2 - To collect stories of local families
  • Goal 3 - To collect memories of people who went to the local primary school

You may want to then create objectives for your goals. These are the specific, measurable ways you will achieve them. For example, if your goal is for visitors to learn that there are lots of medieval houses in your village, an objective could be that visitors leave your exhibition being able to identify the village’s oldest house.

Setting out objectives will help give you more focus and will be particularly useful if you are developing a funding application.

In practice, your goals and objectives might look quite similar. It is much more important to understand what you are trying to achieve than to get too bogged down in deciding what is a goal or what is an objective.

Developing themes

Your goals should help you identify the main topics that show what your exhibition is about.

The next step is to use these goals to create themes that you can illustrate with documents from your collections. For example:

  • Theme 1 -  Old houses
  • Theme 2 - Old farm buildings
  • Theme 3 - Prominent/famous residents of the past
  • Theme 4 - Adding to our collections

Drawing up an exhibition inventory

Your group is now agreed on what your exhibition is trying to achieve and what it is going to be about. Draw up a list of the items you want to use for each theme in the exhibition. It is useful to do this in a table.

Exhibition titles

The title you give your exhibition is important. Not only does it tell your visitors what the exhibition will be about, it is also the hook that sparks their curiosity. This will make them want to explore your exhibition to find out more.

Often you'll come up with a title while you discuss your themes and goals. So a useful tip is to choose your exhibition title as late on as possible.

Interpretive planning survey:

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