Interpretive Planning – An Ongoing Process

Over the past seven years, Dumbarton House has, in one way or another, been developing an interpretive plan for our museum. I am fortunate as the Education Manager to inherit this project at a stage when we have funding and much of the groundwork has been laid by my predecessors. I like to think that I get to do the fun part, though perhaps others will see it a the hard part.

What is an Interpretive Plan?

So what is an interpretive plan? I feel it is safe to assume that if you are reading this, then you have been to a museum, national park, or interpretive trail, yet the term interpretation may be new to you. There are several definitions of interpretation, but there are two main ones I look to when working on Dumbarton House’s interpretive plan. First, from Freeman Tilden of the National Park Service “Heritage interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.”[1]  The National Association of Interpretation (NAI) defines interpretation as “a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource.[2]

I see my work with interpretation as creating a plan that intersects the wants and needs of the public with the resources of the museum, while maintaining the historic integrity of the site. An interpretive plan includes what you hear and see on the tours, but also includes your experience from the moment you walk on site. Some might even argue it starts virtually when you visit our website or social media pages. Creating an interpretive plan does not happen overnight and it is never done. When I first mentioned that we would be creating a new interpretive plan, a volunteer said to me, Didn’t we just do that? Why do we have to change again? I now say, We are working on the next phase of our interpretive plan. The reality is that interpretation it a process that you continually refine based on the desires of the public and the resources you have available to you, both of which are fluid.

The Current Phase of Interpretive Planning at Dumbarton House                 

For this phase, Dumbarton House Museum received a planning grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities as well as a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to assess and refine our interpretive plan allowing us to improve the visitor experience. These grants gave us new resources to launch the next phases of our interpretive plan.

 The challenge of bringing objects to life

Developing Our Interpretive Themes

We started off by developing our interpretive themes with a group of scholars and internal stake holders, such as members of the board and volunteers.

According to the National Park Service an interpretive theme “is a tool that helps interpreters affect the audience. Its purpose is to provide focus for the audiences’ personal connections. An interpretive theme articulates a reason or reasons for caring about and caring for the resource.”[3] Developing an actual theme (not just a statement or idea) was more difficult than I could have ever imagined. It is not easy to take every interest, idea, object, and fact and develop something simple and impactful.

We originally proposed three themes focusing on the building of a new nation, becoming Washingtonians, and women and historic preservation. After our first meeting with scholars and internal stake holders we picked apart these themes and approached developing the themes based on the resources we had available and where we saw a void. In Washington, DC we have no shortage of museums and you do not want to attempt something that is already done well! We decided to combine our themes and expanded our sub-themes based on the conversations we had over a few meetings. We narrowed them to Becoming Americans and Women in Historic Preservation.

Again, these are not themes (they’re not even sentences!) but they helped us to look at the big picture. Our first attempt to create an interpretive theme closer to the NPS definition read as follows:

  • Realizing the American ideals of freedom, equality, and self-government is an ongoing process, which each generation continues to refine.
  • Before women were fully included in the experiment of self-government they preserved historic sites. Preservation became a surrogate form of patriotic activity and expression, which expanded their social power.
Some of my many drafts of themes and notes!

Finally, we have sentences and well thought out ideas! I remember feeling very proud, but still not feeling we had developed concrete themes after six months. At one point in the process we put these themes on a dry-erase board, underlined the key points, and started a list of synonyms.

Refining the Themes to Connect with Visitors

We were also pushed to think about conflict and struggle. Visitors connect to a story of people overcoming something and need to know that the past was complicated. How does it relate to their lives? Why is it important for them to understand? How does it connect with today? The themes went through a few more rounds of editing, mostly changing or adding in a few words before we came to our current (and perhaps final) interpretive themes:

  • Expanding on the American ideas of freedom, equality, and self-government is an ongoing process defined by each generation.
  • Women embraced preservation as a form of civic expression and influence as they strived to achieve equality.

How best to connect with visitors…

Incorporating Our Themes into Tours

The process of refining our interpretive themes took over a year but it was an excellent tool to focus us and prepare us for the next steps. Now, as Dumbarton House undergoes HVAC renovation, we are working on incorporating these themes into our tours and rethinking how we share information with the public. When we reopen in May, we will have new guided and self-guided tours at Dumbarton House. Additionally, we will add in new interpretive elements to help create a deeper “emotional and intellectual connection” between the objects in the house and our visitors. We will also be evaluating our visitors’ experience to find out what changes you like and to ensure we are effectively communicating our history. I hope you will take some time this summer to visit Dumbarton House and help us improve and best serve you, the public.

Stephanie Boyle, Education Manager

[1] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), p. 8.