Themes for heritage interpretation

Clarifying Interpretive Themes and Interpretive Topics

Using interpretive themes makes your interpretive program planning easier and more effective!

A common misconception we often come across when planning interpretive exhibits, interpretive experiences or interpretive programs is that of developing interpretation themes. The following are a few ideas and examples that will help make interpretation theme planning easier and more effective.

What is an interpretive theme?
Just what is an interpretive theme anyway? Themes are all encompassing and the single most important element in the interpretive planning process. An interpretive theme is the central concept or key idea of any interpretive experience, interpretive exhibit or interpretive presentation. A clear interpretive theme helps you plan and design exhibits, experiences, activities, programs and presentations. Not only does the development of an interpretation theme provide organizational structure and clarity of purpose of the exhibit, presentation or program, it also has a dramatic effect on the whole business planning process.

- interpretive themes help you manage visitors
- interpretive themes affect how you train your staff
- interpretive themes affect who your market is
- interpretive themes affects your branding
- interpretive themes shape your site management
- interpretive themes affect your marketing effort
- interpretive themes shape your live programming
- interpretive themes affect what you sell in the gift shop and cafe

Once an interpretive theme has been established, everything you do in effectively presenting that interpretive theme to the audience falls into place.

How do you write an interpretive theme?
- Interpretive themes contain one key concept.
- Interpretive themes are stated as a short, simple, complete sentence.
- Interpretive themes reveal the overall purpose of the exhibit, experience, program or activity.
- Interpretive themes should be interestingly and motivationally worded.

What's the difference between interpretive themes and interpretive topics?
It is important not to confuse interpretive themes with interpretation topics.

Examples of interpretive topics that may be mistaken for interpretive themes might be:

- Birds of the desert
- Seasonal Wildflowers
- Bird migration
- Cooking with native plants
- Working steam engines
- The Victorian kitchen

Remember, interpretive themes are always stated as complete sentences and meet the other criteria noted above.

Here are some examples of interpretive themes:

- We manage our habitats to benefit both people and wildlife.
- Garden wildlife needs your help to thrive.
- Tropical forests around the world have plants that heal people.
- Living below stairs at Wilton House was full of daily challenges.
- We need to preserve wetlands for five reasons.
- Steam engines changed our lives in three important ways.

In simple terms visitors exiting your heritage site should be able to summarize the interpretive theme of the site presentation, exhibit, activity, program or experience in one succinct sentence that mirrors your stated theme.

Try testing your interpretive theme...

As a simple experiment ask 20 visitors leaving your site what they thought the site experience was all about and to sum that experience in one short sentence.

The answers you get back, if you have done your job properly, should reflect your interpretive theme.

If it doesn’t, you have a problem with your interpretive theme!

Want to find out more about interpretive themes? Why not contact us about one of our training courses.