Tag Archives: Interpretive tools

Strengthen Your Interpretive Themes with these Tools

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 Continue reading

Campbell House using Simple and Durable Interpretive Tools

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When I recently visited the Campbell House Museum in St. Louis, I was really impressed by their use historic images and documents throughout the tours.  It wasn’t just that they were integrating lots of different historic materials into the tours (that’s always a good practice), but they looked great.  In the entry hall, a couple 16″x20″ historic maps on the wall put the house in a historical context.  In the parlor, a stand held an assortment of historic photos on lightweight boards, which the docent passed around so that visitors could examine them more closely.

They were clearly modern so there was no confusion you were handling something historic and the docents could easily use them because they were so simple and light.  They were easy to examine because the matte surface reduced glare from the sun and lights. But what really surprised me is that they were more than ten years old—they looked brand new!  No edges were peeling and the images hadn’t been worn out or bent by the constant handling.  Even better, they were cheap to produce—about $8-10 per square foot by a local sign maker. These are so much better than laminated or framed interpretive tools I’ve seen and used elsewhere.

If you’re interested in creating these for your site: Continue reading