Developing heritage interpretation exhibits

Developing Heritage Interpretation Exhibits

Where is the heritage interpretation in interpretive exhibits?

  • Do your exhibits answer questions no one is asking?
  • Do your visitors ignore your exhibits because they are boring, dull, un-exciting, or un-inspiring?
  • Are your visitors leaving your exhibit space short of your planned DDT (Design Dwell Time)?
  • Are you exhibits packed full of "information" but fail to accomplish your stated, measurable LFD Objectives?
  • Do your expensive exhibits "look nice", but visitors fail to learn or remember anything from them?

If this is the case, then we are sorry to tell you; you don’t have "interpretive" exhibits! 

In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king!

Effective heritage interpretation is the key to the success of any heritage site, so every heritage consultant, interpretation planner and exhibit designer "does" interpretive exhibits.

The problem is that many of these "experts" (hmmm, just what made them an "expert" anyway?) don’t really have a clue what an "interpretive" exhibit is, or understand the fundamental principles of interpretive communication!

Just look around the web and you will find tons of really very inaccurate, or misleading information about heritage interpretation, often written by people who have just a pinch more knowledge about the subject than you do!

The goal of this paper is to provide an introduction into what makes a heritage interpretation exhibit truly "interpretive", and to give some hints on how to make your exhibits more effective in translating your message from the language of the curator or resource expert to the every-day language of the visitor.

What is an Exhibit?

An exhibit is a public display of cues (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) purposely brought together within defined boundaries for a planned effect.

Reasons for Exhibits

  • Tell a story in an ordered sequence or fashion.
  • Tell a story that can’t be told on site.
  • Bring artefacts and stories to places where the visitors are.
  • Incorporate and protect "real" artefacts.
  • Bring extremes into human scale.
  • Allow visitors freedom to pace themselves.
  • Allow staff to do other things.

What is Heritage Interpretation?

Heritage interpretation is a communication process designed to "reveal" meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage, to the visitors, through first hand experiences with objects, artefacts, landscapes or sites.

What is an "Interpretive" Exhibit?

An interpretive exhibit makes a topic "come to life" through active visitor involvement and extreme relevance to the everyday life of the visitor. Interpretive exhibits should:

  • Employ interpretive techniques and “Tilden’s interpretive principles”
  • Provoke audience interest or attention.
  • Relate to the everyday life of the audience.
  • Reveal the main concept in a unique, creative ending or viewpoint.
  • Address the whole – illustrate the main interpretive theme of the exhibit, and how this exhibit may relate to other exhibits in a story flow.
  • Maintain message unity
  • Be tailored to the specific audience.
  • Be objective and/or benefit based with specific outcomes or products.

The two hardest questions for an exhibit designer/planner to ask and answer!

Believe it or not, many exhibits are planned and designed based on the “interest" of the curator or resource expert, with little or no regard to the visitor’s interest in the topic. Here are two the questions essential we ask when developing interpretive exhibits in heritage interpretation exhibit spaces: 

Why would a visitor want to know this (information that the exhibit is presenting)? If you can’t think of reasons visitors would want to know this information – how can you "provoke" them into looking at the exhibit and reading the copy?

How do you want the visitors to USE the information the exhibit is presenting? If you don’t want the visitor to use any of the information in the exhibit (or the visitor can’t use any of the information), they why are you giving it to them?

If you can’t answer these two questions then you almost certainly need a serious rethink!

The psychology of the exhibit and "exhibit loading".

Exhibit load or loading is the term we use to describe the amount of time and energy (either emotional, physical or psychological) that each exhibit requires the visitor to use up in interacting with that exhibit.

Think of the visitor entering an exhibit space with 100% of enthusiasm, interest and energy. As they move through the exhibit space, interacting with each exhibit they are "using up" energy and their interest begins to drop. They start to get psychologically tired and overloaded with information and stimuli. Usually within about 45 minutes, the visitor has had enough and heads for the gift store, the cafe or the exit!

Usually the exhibits with the highest "loading" are the interactive ones that require mind and physical coordination – more thought process (and easier mental fatigue), and the low load exhibits are the more passive ones, such as flat work graphics, collections behind glass, paintings, etc.

Figure 1 below shows the exhibit classification matrix we designed to help you determine the general "load" of an exhibit.


  • Type 1 - 2-way interaction, i.e. the audience does something and the exhibit does something for example: an interactive hands-on, minds-on exhibit, holding a live animal, interaction with a tour guide, interactive IT activity.
  • Type 2a - The visitor can so something but the exhibit is inert, such as a hands on touch table, holding and artefact, or touching an animal skin.
  • Type 2b - The visitor is passive (just looks) while the exhibit moves, such as looking at live animals in a zoo, watching a video presentation, watching a live demonstration.
  • Type 3 - The visitor does nothing and the exhibit does nothing back – looking at artefact collections behind glass, looking at flat work (photos, graphics), etc.

The idea here is that as the visitor goes from 1 to 2a / 2b to 3 there is generally a decrease in the intrinsic interest they have in "those kinds" of exhibits. Therefore we need to use more interpretive techniques to maintain interest for type 3 exhibits than type 1 exhibits.

Research has shown that people are more interested in dynamic, animated, changing stimuli than in inert flatwork. If you want to see this principle in action go to any museum, sit in a corner, and "watch" visitors interacting with the space.

The content can make a difference too. We know that visitors have a greater intrinsic interest in real objects than in other forms, such as replicas:

  • Original objects in exhibits – High intrinsic interest
  • Replicas in exhibits – decreasing intrinsic interest.
  • Graphic Representations and Photos – even less intrinsic interest.
  • Verbal descriptions – almost no interest.

An example:

  • Here in this glass case is Davey Crockett's actual rifle (Imagine the adventures it’s been a part of!) 
  • Here in this glass case is a "replica" of Crockett's Rifle (hasn’t been anyplace, done anything, no story).
  • Here in this glass case is a large photograph of Crockett's Rifle.
  • Here is 1000 words describing Crockett's Rifle.

You can see that there is a decrease in intrinsic interest as we move from the "real thing" to the verbal description.

When planning an exhibit space it is important to present a diversity of exhibit types that flow together in a purposeful wave pattern. For example; an exhibit space might start with a type 3 exhibit that flows into some type 2a or 2b exhibits, building interest to a type 1 "hands-on, minds-on" exhibit that really illustrates the key point or concept. After the excitement of the type 1 exhibit, you work your way back down to types 2's and 3's, before building back up to the crescendo of another type 1 .


Visitors remember

  • 10% of what they hear.
  • 30% of what they read.
  • 50% of what they see.
  • 90% of what they do.

When designing exhibit spaces we endeavour not to have to many type 1’s as too many will tend to promote "exhibit burn out" in the visitors and extreme sensory overload in children (taken you kids to a science museum lately?). Usually we aim to plan for 20% type 1’s, 50% type 2’s and 30% type 3’s.
Remember also that type 1 exhibits will cost more than type 3’s.

You can use this concept to perk up exhibits. For example, if you had an exhibit on Neolithic Stone Tools and had a bunch of them (originals) in a glass case for children to look at, you would have a Type 3 exhibit. But if you had replicas of those same stone tools that children could pick up and "try to guess how each was used", you would have a more powerful Type 2a exhibit.

Hands on exhibits need "minds on" too.

One of the big problems we have with exhibits is where people can touch an object, but don’t know why they are touching it. Take "Touch Tables", for years a standard in Nature Centres. A child picks up a deer antler from the table…so then what?

Exhibits need to have "minds on" as well as hands on for any learning to take place. So this exhibit could be enhanced by adding "Pick up the deer antler and see how many tools you think you could make from it". Now the mind is focused on a mission with the artefact and real learning can take place (assuming the child "wants to know this").

Planning Interpretive Exhibits

In planning interpretive exhibits the element that is most important in the planning process (but most often left out) is a clear understanding of what exactly you want the exhibit to accomplish – its objectives. We would think that any professional (i.e.someone who is trained, qualified and accredited!) “interpretive” exhibit designer would require their clients to give them the objectives for each exhibit – in writing!

After-all how can you possibly design an exhibit if you don’t know what that exhibit is supposed to accomplish? It is really difficult to do any real exhibit evaluations without having the objectives in hand to evaluate against.

When planning interpretive exhibits w use three kinds of objectives for each and every exhibit being planned:

  • Learning Objectives: those objectives that state just what you want the visitor to learn, such as "Upon completion of interacting with this exhibit the majority of visitors will be able to list three ways plants have been used for medicine. Another example would be "upon completion of interacting with the exhibit the majority of visitors will be able to describe the concept of "lift" in making airplanes fly

  • Behavioural Objectives: These are the objectives that address the question of "how do you want the visitors to USE the information you (the exhibit) are giving them". This is what you want to visitor DO! An example might be: "upon completing interacting with the exhibit the majority of visitors will want to contribute to preserving historic homes in some way". Another example: "the majority of visitors will want to learn more about the history of the mound builders". The behaviour can be psychological as well, such as "want to become a member of the museum/zoo" or "make more return visits to the facility".

  • Emotional Objectives: Emotional objectives are those that will have the most impact on the visitors’ long term memory (and help accomplish the behavioural objectives). They are important for the exhibit designer as they help direct the colours, graphics, photos, music, etc. to be used to create a certain mood or feeling. Some examples: "upon completion of the exhibit contact the majority of visitors will feel a sense of sadness about children working in the coal mines of Wales." "Upon completion of the exhibit contact the majority of visitors will feel an increased need to quit smoking." "Upon completion of the exhibit contact the majority of visitors will feel a greater sense of community (local history) pride". Having “fun while learning” can be an objective too.

You see these objectives in use everyday. These same objectives are used in developing almost every advertisement you see in print or on TV or hear on the radio. These are the fundamental marketing and advertising objectives. Think of each ad in a magazine as a miniature "exhibit". The ad wants the viewer to learn something (why you need this product), have you "feel" something (you will be better off with this product), and do something (buy the product).

When you finish writing your exhibit objectives, review the two questions:

  • Why would a visitor want to know this and

  • How do you want the visitors to use the information?

Once you have your LFD objectives – the exhibit is almost done. The rest of the planning and design process is essentially how to best accomplish the objectives (what graphics, text, photos, music, interactive activity, etc.).

What do Exhibits Cost?

Here are some "rules of thumb" in trying to determine your exhibit budget for "new" exhibit projects:
An average cost for exhibits for a new exhibition (empty room) is about £180/sq.ft. of floor space. This cost may be higher or lower depending upon individual exhibit complexity, but this provides a good starting estimate. Out of that total cost estimate approximately 20-25% should design fees. Allow around 15% for delivery and installation of the exhibits. So if you had £1.00 for your exhibit budget, 25 pence would go do design, and 15 pence to delivery and installation. So there is about 60 pence left to buy end-product exhibits.

If you decide to do one contract for "design" and a different contract for "construction", you can probably add another 10% to the design costs for the preparation of "bid" or "construction" documents.

The average time you should allow for most new exhibit projects (depending on the size of the project) is about 9-12 months for planning and design and another 9-12 months for construction and installation.

Cost/contact and cost effectiveness of exhibits.

The evaluation of your exhibits is really very important. We like to look at the "cost per contact" and cost effectiveness of exhibits.

Cost per contact is how much it costs you each time a visitor uses the exhibit over the projective "life" of the exhibit. So for example if an exhibit cost £10,000 to build, and over 3 years 10,000 visitors looked at or used that exhibit, the cost per contact would be £1.00.

Cost effectiveness is what you get in return for your cost per contact. So in the example above; if you spend £1.00 per contact - your “investment”, will you get £1.00 or more in benefits or “return” from that contact? Are your objectives being accomplished at whatever minimum success level you wanted (70% of the visitors….)?

We have seen some exhibits that cost thousands of dollars in museums and interpretive centres that visitors hardly ever look at, read, or interact with. When you figure the cost/contact and cost effectiveness (thousands being spent to accomplish very little or in some cases "nothing") it can be a very sobering moment! We have also seen some exhibits in interpretive centres done with poster board, a few artefacts, and a lot of "creativity" that cost very little, and are very successful in accomplishing their objectives. Low cost per contact, and very "cost effective". The point here is that the amount of money spent on exhibits does not automatically make them "successful" or cost effective.

The visitors and exhibits

Over the past 30+ years of doing interpretive exhibit planning, design and evaluation there are some "truths" that we have observed (most backed by research). Here are a few:

  • Visitors do not enjoy reading labels. If a label is over 50-words long it almost certainly won’t be read by the vast majority of your audience.
  • If a label uses small type size (should be about 30-point type or larger) there is even less chance of it being read.
  • If the label is text on glass, or has a busy background even less chances of it being read.
  • Provocative headlines and graphics will draw attention.
  • If you can’t get the main point across in about 15-20 seconds, you probably won’t get it across at all.
  • Visitors will be drawn to exhibits that have information or artefacts of intrinsic interest to them.
  • Before you write your label, ask yourself "why would a visitor want to know this?". The answer to that question might end up as your exhibit header to label copy header.
  • The average viewing time for a video / film presentation within an exhibit is about 3 minutes before the visitor looses interest and walks away. It will be less if the visitor doesn’t know how long the video will take. Be sure to have a label that states "Push for a 2 minute video", or whatever the time length will be. That way the visitor can decide if they want to spend that much time there, or not walk away before the video is over.
  • The average viewing time for sit-down video / film presentation in a small theatre is about 7 minutes before the visitors begin to loose interest.
  • If you can’t fix it in-house with a screwdriver, don’t put it in! This is one of our generalisations, the point being that many facilities forget the maintenance costs associated with exhibits, especially more hi-tech ones. Be sure you are equipped (and trained if necessary) to maintain the exhibits. Replacement parts, etc. should be easy to come by locally if possible.
  • Remember Murphy’s Law of exhibit planning – "It will probably cost more than you thought, and take longer than you planned to get your project done the way you first envisioned it!"


  • An interpretive exhibit is a communication media that is designed to engage, excite, relate to, and reveal to the visitor the essence of the topic or story being presented. An interpretive exhibit must utilise interpretive principles (provoke, relate, reveal, have a theme and message unity) and be built on the learning, behavioural, and emotional objectives you want to accomplish.
  • An interpretive exhibit just doesn’t present information to visitors, it "translates" the story from the language of the scientist or resource expert into the language of the visitors (thus the word "interpreter" or "to interpret") so that they can RELATE to the presentation and understand/remember the key concepts.
  • This short paper just provides a general overview of considerations in planning interpretive exhibits – the tip of the iceberg. But it should give you some additional tools to help you plan truly "interpretive" exhibits, and help make your next exhibit project just a little more successful in communicating with your visitors.


  • Tilden, Freeman (1957) "Interpreting Our Heritage", The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
  • Veverka, John A. (1994) "Interpretive Master Planning", Acorn Naturalists, Tustin, CA

By Dr John Veverka & Crispian Emberson