Interpretive Planning – Part 1

Having put together the first draft of my literature review a few weeks back, I’m plugging some of of the gaps. One of the biggest gaps is about interpretive planning, where much of what I know comes from my first degree, back in the early nineties. Interpretive planning is more of an art that a science, and one can argue very well that you learn about it by doing it rather than reading about it. But I feel still feel I need to catch up with what people have written on the subject more recently than (it seems) I read anything about it. So the next few posts will be looking at the last ten years or so of writing on that subject.

Hugh AD Spencer runs Museum Planning Partners, and once worked at Lord Cultural Resources as their Principal in Charge of Exhibition Development. While he was there he wrote a chapter on Interpretive Planning for The Manual of Museum Exhibitions, so that’s where my efforts to catch up on the theory start.

Spencer describes the interpretive plan as “a component-by-component description of all exhibition and programme components in terms of:

  • Thematic area
  • Communication objectives and experience aims
  • Exhibit media options
  • Special requirements and opportunities”

In the book, he gives an example of a plan he developed with client S.Y. Yim, curator of the Hong Kong Heritage museum for a gallery of artefacts associated with Cantonese Opera. The gallery is comprised of four components: Introduction and Entrance; Heritage and Study Precinct; Performance and Participation Precinct; and The Living Experience. The introductory component’s objectives include:

  • To make a powerful first impression of the cultural impact of Cantonese Opera, its creative diversity and its expressive character
  • To transport visitors into the traditional setting for Cantonese Opera
  • To communicate that the study of Cantonese Opera is a rich and informative means of studying change and continuity in Chinese cultures worldwide – with particular relevance to the Hong Kong region,
  • To communicate [how the gallery is organised]

Two the of the “media and means of expression” for that particular component that he outlines are:

  • “Fushan Theatre Lobby/gathering place – modelled after a traditional venue for Cantonese Opera in the region. The theatre theming for the ceiling, floors and walls will prvide an environmental context for all exhibits within the hall.
  • The Great Mask – a large scale monochromatic face relief. Constantly changing images of faces in Cantonese Opera make-up (based on the characters made famous by important Cantonese artists) are continually projected onto the mask – illustrating the rage of design, expression and human character of this medium.”

He also presents, as a case study, the Earth Galleries at the Natural History Museum, London. In particular he focuses on the impressive threshold created and opened in 1996, with the expressed intention of meeting the “need to place the new galleries on the London visitor map pf ‘must-see destinations’ aspiring to the status of the blue whale of the Natural History Museum, or the mummies of the British Museum.”

Spencer doesn’t dwell much on how the story fits into the spaces, but he does offer an example schema (from the American Royal Museum and Visitor Center in Kansas City). It feels as though his illustration of the themes of that exhibition was intended to accompany text that didn’t make the final edit, but the venn diagram of three sub-theme intersecting around a central theme feels familiar. Broadly speaking its my starter for ten when anyone asks me (as somebody did a couple of weeks ago) about how they might start breaking the story for exhibition.

The important thing to note is that his thematic approach tends towards a non-linear model of interpretation, and that in turn relies on the introductory component of the exhibition to do most of the heavy emotive lifting, as the “wow” moments in his examples (the journey through the centre of the earth at the Natural History Museum, and the Great Mask in Hong Kong) illustrate.

But that’s not the end of the story – there’s a new edition of the Manual of Museum Exhibitions out, and next time, I’ll look at what’s changed.

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