Do you need a new interpretive plan?

gull in flight

If you’re a manager at a park, historic site or other heritage attraction, I’m guessing you know where your old interpretive plans are. Almost every site has them, gathering dust in a cabinet or stacked up on a shelf like geological strata going back decades.

Is it time to get a new one done? Here are a few things to consider.

Two terrible reasons to commission a new interpretive plan:

  • You had one done five or ten years ago and it’s probably time
  • You put it in your budget a couple of years ago and need to spend that money now

Five great reasons to have a new interpretive plan:

  • Your evaluations show that your visitors aren’t connecting with your site and its stories the way you’d hoped (or the way they’d hoped, or the way your mission hopes)
  • Your visitor feedback is meh, or your attendance has decreased or flatlined
  • Your environment has changed and what worked five years ago is no longer working for you. (By environment, I mean your publics, your competition, your physical landscape, your stakeholder base, your financial picture or your administration.)
  • The world has changed and things that seemed less important ten years ago (climate, species at risk, Indigenous reconciliation) are very important now
  • Everything is going ok, but deep down you know it could be much better. You have a vision or a dream for your site that involves connecting people with their heritage in new, exciting and rewarding ways.

What does a good interpretive plan look like?

It’s a blueprint for change.

All good plans are; the problem with interpretive plans in the past is that they ended up being overly-conceptual scrapbooks of themes and ideas, with precious few practical end products. If your plan doesn’t detail a series of tangible, measurable innovations that will help you meet your goals within a foreseeable time frame, you’ve got a useless plan.

Good plans start with objectives and end with discrete products (programs, media, apps, signs, merchandise, tours, etc) all laid out and ready for action. And for bonus points, each of those products should have a preliminary budget attached to it.

The latest trend—and I think it’s a good one—is to dovetail the interpretive plan with schematic design. That is to say, at the end of the plan, each of your media or products could have its look and feel sketched out by a professional designer.

It’s bigger than signs and panels. It’s holistic and comprehensive.

An interpretive plan is not limited to interpretive exhibits and programs. A modern interpretive plan encompasses virtually every potential visitor experience from arrival to departure and sometimes beyond. Every touchpoint your visitor has with your staff and your resource becomes an opportunity for discovery and connection.

This is perhaps the greatest new trend in interpretive planning:  visitor services, amenities, comfort areas, food and beverage offers, gift shops… virtually everything can be crafted with an eye to creating emotional and intellectual links with your visitors. A good interpretive planner can help you forge those connections, and create a fully integrated, seamless, satisfying visitor experience that sets you apart from every other destination on earth.

It’s collaborative and consultative.

If your interpretive planner has traditionally sequestered her/himself in an office for three months to emerge with a finished plan for you, it’s probably a weak plan. Modern interpretive planners are equal parts facilitator and planner. They should lead you through a process where you, your staff and your stakeholders are free and welcome to participate with the full breadth of your experience and your creativity. And when it’s written and delivered, each of those stakeholders should see a bit of themselves in it.

It takes a market-based approach.

If your interpretive plan doesn’t accommodate clearly-defined market segments, it’s about 25 years out of date. And by clearly-defined, I mean it should have a detailed description of each market’s demographic, geographic, and psychographic profile, plus each market’s typical group dynamic, group composition and patterns of visitation. The more specific the better. If your planner is faffing about with terms like “general publics” or “tourists” and “locals”, you’re not getting your money’s worth.

Target market, like goals, are the backbone of your interpretive plan. Each theme should be matched to its target market; each new product should be matched to its target market; expenditures and task lists should be aggregated and analyzed by target market. Your plan should tell you how much time, money and energy you’re investing in each target market, and how you’re going to get (and measure) the results you want with each.

It answers questions.

This is a particular bugbear of mine: I keep seeing finished interpretive “plans” where the author muses about things like, “What if there were a theatrical encounter here?” “What kind of dynamic can we create by exploring Indigenous themes in this area?” and so on. Excellent questions, yes… but the interpretive plan is what you write once you’ve answered them.

It’s clickable, dammit.

This seems like a minor point, but why on earth are planners still churning out static paper documents? At the very least, it should be an interactive PDF with a live and clickable table of contents, an executive summary that clicks through to each section that it summarizes, and live links to relevant resources on the web. In my imagined perfect future, interpretive plans will be entirely web-based, all laid out in elegant, interactive, updatable HTML5 or something similar.

So what do you think? Is it time to start a new interpretive plan? Can you envision your site five years from now, with satisfied, abundant, engaged visitors, connecting with your stories and your landscape in innovative and exciting ways?

A good interpretive plan should be your road map from here to there.


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  1. Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you for another excellent article.

    And, dear god, enhanced e-books and clickable PDFs were talked about commonly 5-10 years ago. We really do need to catch up with the times! Thanks for the swift boot to the rear.

  2. Rosanna Strong

    Thanks Don, for a succinct response to the question. One I am having to answer with a couple of clients who want to put up signs, but have no interpretive plan or clear understanding what the process entails before you get to actual fabrication. I have passed on this article to them.

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