Interpretation Policy

Bush tucker garden at WA Museum Albany

Bush tucker garden at WA Museum Albany
Image copyright WA Museum 

Image from the bush tucker gardens at the Western Australian Museum - Albany

A museum’s interpretation policy provides directions for the ways in which it will communicate and exhibit information and objects for the purpose of study, education and enjoyment.  Combined with the collection policy it will complement the goals set out in the museum’s mission statement.  It is an umbrella under which exhibitions and public programs can be conceived, planned, designed, delivered and operated for the benefit of the museum's visitors and other clients.  In larger museums separate exhibition, education, public program and publication policies might be developed. Effective interpretation does not simply convey factual information; it gives meaning to the objects on display.

What should be covered in an interpretation policy?
  • Statement regarding establishment of an interpretation plan subject to review every 2-3 years encompassing areas such as:
  • Commitment to a budget item for specific recurrent interpretation programs (e.g. display maintenance, changing displays, annual show day, programs for groups such as schools or seniors) and any special projects (new major exhibitions, major local events such as centenary activities);
  • Statement of commitment to utilise ongoing evaluation for all facets of interpretation programs;
  • Identify facets of the interpretation program (e.g. exhibitions, special events, off-site activities, activities structured for schools or other bodies);
  • Statement of interpretation themes;
  • Statement of interpretation program priorities;
  • Statement identifying current and potential target audiences including any special groups (e.g. special communities or cultural groups with links to the museum’s focus, broad community, schools, youth, young offenders etc);
  • Clear and concise statement of interpretation goals and objectives;
  • Definition of terms such as interpretation, education, community education, extension, outreach;
    • Exhibitions
    • Travelling displays
    • On-site interpretation programs for casual visitors
    • Scheduled community education activities for special groups
    • Outreach activities
    • Staff training necessary for delivery of quality programs

The interpretation policy needs to be realistic and the collections should adequately support the interpretive themes including use of permanent collections for exhibitions.  Quite separate reserve/study collection duplicates or (non-collection) disposable/consumable items should generally be identified as being set aside for hands on activities.

The interpretation policy needs to be based on a realistic assessment of the museum’s capacity and the audiences’ interests and should be consistent with the mission statement, the collection policy and the conservation policy.

The benefits of interpretation are to:
  • Create a greater appreciation and understanding of the display
  • Foster enjoyment of exhibitions and maintain good public relations with the museum’s audience
  • Meet policy objectives by encouraging thoughtful use of the resources of the museum
References and further reading:

Parama, D (1990) Standard Practices Handbook for Museums, Alberta Museums Association, Edmonton

Museums Australia Inc (NSW), Museum Methods, A Practical Manual for Managing Small Museums, Section 6.1 The role of public programs

 Interpretation Australia Association, What is Interpretation? 2005