Interpretation policy/plan: guidelines to writing

An Interpretation policy/plan sets the framework within which the museum presents its key objects and tells its key stories. It should be written with the museum’s stated purpose and collection policy in mind, particularly in relation to significant collections areas and the kind of history the museum aims to present.

An interpretation policy builds upon a collection policy by ensuring that displays and other forms of interpretation highlight the museum’s most significant collections and historical themes.

View interpretation as a process of gathering and adding to information about collections through research, with the end aim of sharing the meaning of those collections with visitors, to enhance their experiences in your museum.

An interpretation policy sets out:

  • the historical stories, topics and themes that the museum wants to present
  • the interpretive methods and approaches that will be used at the museum, including guidelines for ensuring quality of interpretation, involving people and presenting the collection.

Writing an Interpretation policy or plan should be a collaborative effort, where attitudes and approaches to managing interpretation at the museum are shared and agreed on. It may be useful to establish a sub-committee to prepare the policy or, alternatively, one person can be delegated to start writing, with everyone having the chance to comment on the draft.


Using this document

The term interpretation policy is used throughout in place of interpretation policy/plan.

This document is presented as a series of headings and questions and is divided into two main sections. The first section focuses on the significant history that the museum tells/plans to tell and the second section focuses on methods and approaches to interpretation.

The headings can be used to structure the policy.

The questions, and the notes with them, are intended as prompts to guide decision making about the content of the interpretation policy.  Try to write brief statements or lists, as appropriate, in answer to the questions in order to build up the content of the policy.

Museums may choose to work through this document independently, or, on request, the History Trust can facilitate a meeting to guide the process.


Interpretation policy


Telling Significant History

It can be useful to preface the interpretation policy with the museum’s mission statement, as this provides valuable context for the policy.

  • What aspects of history does the museum focus on?

Include a list of ‘must tell’ stories that the museum is either already telling or plans to tell. Ask what is distinctive about local history and consider important changes over time for the museum’s district or speciality.

Remember to include stories about the museum site and buildings if they are of local historical significance.

Consider timeframes and geographic boundaries, especially if these are not already expressed in the museum’s mission statement.


  •  What key messages will be conveyed to visitors?

List the key historical messages that displays, guided tours or other forms of interpretation should cover. A key message (or ‘take home’ message) is something the museum wants visitors to understand about local history or the museum’s speciality.

Key Messages are different from topics or themes. For example, a topic might be The Grain Trade, but the key message might be that your town was the major port for exporting grain for over a century.


  • What are the museum’s most significant collection items/groups of items?

The museum’s key collection areas/items will already be identified by completing the Collection Summary Form. Information can be repeated in the interpretation policy or the museum may choose to reference that form (or a more comprehensive significance assessment) in the policy.


  •  How will these items be linked with the key stories and messages the museum wishes to convey to visitors?

Consider the ways in which significant items in your collection are linked with, or embody, the history your museum is telling. Pinpoint particular groups of objects which might be interpreted to tell different aspects of history.


  • Which displays in the museum are considered to be permanent?

In all museums there will be some types of collection items, main themes, topics and stories that the museum feels should always be included in displays in order to ensure that the key messages are conveyed to visitors. Identify and record them in the interpretation policy.

Permanent displays are not completely static and unchanging.  It is good collection management practice to substitute items on display for other examples from time to time and it is worth incorporating this requirement into the interpretation policy.


  • What temporary or changing displays does the museum plan to have?

Temporary displays are an important way that the museum can highlight different aspects of history from time-to-time. They allow more aspects of history to be told and they provide ‘different things’ for repeat visitors to see.

Consider whether temporary displays will be developed by the museum, sourced from elsewhere, or a combination of both. 

Consider what space/s should be set aside specifically for temporary displays. It may also be appropriate for temporary displays to be located off the museum site, such as at a local library or other community facility.

Include a list of temporary displays that the museum plans to develop in the future.


  • How will the content of interpretation be managed?

While the ideal is to be inclusive and consider all aspects of local history, space and manageability will mean that content has to be limited and focus narrowed down. What subjects/items are selected for interpretation will depend on the museum’s key themes, specialties and collection areas.

Consider how different communities and interest groups can be involved in the development of particular interpretive content. For example, include consultation with local Indigenous groups or their representatives, as part of planning the display of Indigenous items and the telling of Indigenous history.


Interpretive Methods and Approaches


  • What forms of interpretation will the museum use?

Consider the many ways that the museum could choose to tell history and decide what methods are appropriate for the museum’s collection, key messages and resources. 

These could include:

  • display panels combined with meaningful arrangements of items
  • folders for visitors which include extra information
  • guided tours or directed tours using maps or audio
  • audio-visual or multimedia components in displays
  • Education kits
  • publications such as books, brochures, information sheets on different topics
  • a website.

How history is presented is linked to who might be reading/viewing it. Consider who the audience for each display or interpretive program is likely to be. Aim to make the history presented accessible to different audiences. For example, the interpretation policy may include the potential for developing extra detailed information sheets for tertiary students or history buffs, and entertaining and educative question sheets or investigative museum maps for school children to follow.

Different forms of interpretation may suit different areas within the museum.  Consider making it part of your policy to provide opportunities for visitors to interact with displays.


  • How will the quality of interpretation be ensured?

Good interpretation requires planning and research.  Include in the policy the requirement that only skilled individuals are responsible for developing the content for displays, tours and other forms of interpretation.

It is a good idea to include the requirement to collaborate with, or at least, consult with professionals such as historians, writers and designers in the development of displays and other forms of interpretation.  

Decide in which cases the museum will develop displays ‘in-house’ and in which outside assistance will be required. For example, a small temporary display of objects and labels may be managed in-house, but major projects should involve relevant professional expertise from outside the museum.

If guided tours are a form of interpretation used at the museum, state the requirement that all guides are to be trained and that consistent and accurate information is to be provided to visitors.


  • What are the museum’s guidelines for coordinating the ‘look’ of interpretive displays?

This is not about all the museum’s displays having to look the same. It means that it is valuable to establish some basic guidelines to ensure that displays in different areas of the museum are integrated into a cohesive whole. The aim should be to make everything look as if it belongs together. To do this, consider the following:  

  • establish rules about size and styles of font that will be used
  • provide guidelines about length and readability of text that can be used to guide development of all written interpretation
  • provide pointers on the consistent and effective use of visual themes such as use of colour or symbols in displays
  • specify methods for producing object labels and interpretive display panels that are suitable for the museum’s display environment/s.


  • What is the process for developing and managing interpretive projects?

Consider 1) steps, 2) personnel, 3) budget, and 4) timeline

1) Outline what planning and decision making needs to be done before each project commences.  For example, choosing the subject area, developing the key messages and identifying appropriate stories.

2) Who will be involved in the development process?  In order to ensure the quality of interpretations allow time and resources for high quality research and design. Seek the input of professionals wherever possible.

3) Consider what funding each project will require. Incorporate all anticipated costs, such as image reproduction fees, recording oral histories, production of text panels and professional fees. Include the requirement of requesting quotations for professional work into project planning.

4) Allow sufficient time from initial idea to completed project, bearing in mind that even small projects may take longer than anticipated. Writing minimum timelines into the interpretation policy can help to form reasonable expectations about the time that is needed to develop good interpretive projects.


  • How will the effectiveness of interpretation be evaluated?

Include the requirement that displays and other programs should be evaluated to ensure that interpretive efforts are effective. Consider the use of visitor books and anonymous questionnaires/feedback sheets that seek comments from visitors on content, style and delivery of interpretation at the museum. 


  • How will museum displays be maintained?

Consider requirements for the ongoing general upkeep of written and visual interpretation. For example, provisions for migrating audio to new formats, replacing labels when they are dog-eared, or replacing interpretive panels when they are faded or damaged.

It is not necessary to include detail about appropriate display techniques and methods of managing ongoing care of items on display in the interpretation policy. Instead, include a sentence to refer people to the conservation section of the museum’s collection policy, where this information should be given.

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