Interpretation as Field researches, documents, and positions in the museum field a community that is essential to the development of exhibitions: interpretation professionals. This project records the process of exhibition development in four museum genres (art museums/centres; encyclopedic/general/multi-disciplinary museums; natural history/anthropology museums; science/technology museums/centres) from the point of view of interpretation professionals. It establishes the significance of the museum interpretation field, alongside more documented areas of practice, such as curation and education.
This project is also a pilot for what we hope, in the future, will be a larger collaborative research initiative, inclusive of more museum genres in and outside of North America.
While interpretation has a long and well-documented history in natural parks and built heritage sites as far back as the 1950s, interpretation in art, encyclopedic, natural history, and science museums currently lacks a comprehensive, concrete, and critical account of its development. This project proposes that a historical understanding of the field’s emergence will strengthen contemporary interpretation practices. We acknowledge the many affinities and overlaps between museum interpretation, education, and heritage interpretation, but we aim to isolate museum interpretation as a field in its own right.
Interpretation as Field is the first study to explore the work of interpretation professionals in art museums/centres; encyclopedic/general (multi-disciplinary) museums; natural history/anthropology museums; science/technology museums/centres. We explore their work as a field of practice, with its distinct history, routines, and challenges. We believe a study focused on four genres of museums will reveal overlaps and common challenges of interpretation strategies, will show that museum professionals share practices across disciplinary boundaries, and will illustrate how different types of institutions have dealt with and continue to navigate the challenge to be more visitor-centered.
Data collection methods
The main data collecting methods of this project – a state of the field survey of over one hundred interpretation professionals and up to three detailed case studies of exhibitions centred on interpretation work – will enable access to the tools, strategies, and challenges of current professionals. The third method of this project, a scoping review, will allow us to survey the literature (1970 – present) for definitions of museum interpretation related to values and practices in four museum genres.
We will produce survey reports and case study snapshots, which will be available free to download. In addition, we will offer other resources that emerge from our various methods, such as thematic bibliographies, data sheets, and resource lists. We will communicate project findings at museum association meetings, and through three publications in peer-reviewed journals and two short pieces in high-circulation professional magazines.