I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.
Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.
Thankfully, Sam Ham, the interpretation guru from the West, wrote Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose in 2013. He provides a handy framework for assessing interpretation (thematic, organized, relevant, and enjoyable) and explains how to develop excellent themes over several chapters. It’s the best book around on themes (although the paperback is priced at $53 at Amazon.com—ouch) and it’s assigned reading for my graduate class in the interpretation of house museums at George Washington University.
This semester I placed even greater emphasis on themes by asking my students to draft three themes on an assigned topic and then hone them in small groups using a worksheet based on Ham’s book. Afterward, I reviewed their themes and noted that many were statements of fact or lacked contemporary relevance or meaning, such as:
- Women in the late 1800s and early 1900s joined and supported different voluntary and political groups/organizations.
- Not all American women earned the right to vote in 1920.
- Isabel Anderson took charge of all social and diplomatic events at Anderson House.
- The slave trade saved the economy of Alexandria.
- Even the most seemingly privileged of women in 19th century America faced their share of challenges and hardships.
Ham offers a great solution by connecting the theme to a universal concept, such as anger, birth, bravery, or freedom (he provides a chart with dozens of concepts). I’ll also suggest connecting them to the mission, vision, and values of the organization but often they’re not relevant or meaningful (sorry, just my experience of reading so many over the decades), so try the “Values of History” at HistoryRelevance.com. Secondly, for house museums and historic sites, I’ll suggest using categories of inquiry such as cause and effect, change and continuity, turning points, and multiple perspectives. Historians frequently use these approaches to make meaning of the past and they can be incorporated into themes as well. You can learn more about this approach in Thinking Like a Historian by Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007).
I’m sharing my updated “Strengthening Interpretive Themes” worksheet in case other museums are looking for ways to improve and enhance their themes. I welcome suggestions to improve the worksheet and techniques that have helped you develop excellent interpretive themes—please share them in the comments below.