John Veverka & Associates

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Interpretive Consultants

Provoke, Relate, Reveal and more!

For the Cutting edge in Heritage Interpretation

Interpretive Planning, Training, Evaluation and more!

World Wide

5010 Delray Dr. Lansing, Michigan 48910

(517) 899-4548 (we've gone mobile)

SKYPE: jvainterp

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From interpretive planning for castles in Wales for the National Trust and bird sanctuaries in Michigan for the Kellogg Biological Station, to interpretive training in Alabama for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and museum exhibit evaluation in Wisconsin - (bottom row) and critiquing ancient temples interpretation on Malta for Malta Heritage, prehistoric archaeological site interpretation in Utah for Nine Mile Canyon/BLM, and docent/interpretive staff training for the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, we do that - and more!

Heritage Interpretation: Interpretive Planning, Training and Consultation Services

Serving Parks, Museums, Historic Sites, Zoos & Botanical Gardens, Heritage Tourism Sites and Facilities, Commercial Tourism Attractions, and related interpretive sites and facilities -




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Creating Interpretive Themes for

Heritage Tourism Sites and Attractions


John A. Veverka

Heritage Tourism & Interpretation Planner


What is an Interpretive theme?

A theme is the central or key idea of any presentation. When communication to your visitors has been completed (via exhibits in a visitor center, self-guiding tours, live programs, or other means), the audience should be able to summarize the main point of the communication in one sentence. This sentence would be the theme. Development of a theme provides organizational structure and clarity  of understanding to the main message of the site or facility. Once the main interpretive or story message   theme has been decided, everything  in presenting the programs or services to the public falls into place.

Themes should:

bulletBe stated as a short, simple, complete sentence.
bulletContain only one main idea if possible.
bulletReveal the overall purpose of the site, facility, agency,  program, visitor center, etc.
bulletBe specific.
bulletBe interestingly and motivationally worded when possible.

Thus: "History of the area" is NOT a theme – it is a topic. I have to ask "what about the history of the area?

A theme would be: The history of Smithville is tied in amazing ways to the Big Fork River.

With this as a "theme", the exhibits, programs, etc. would then  give the visitors lots of different examples of just how Smithville is tied in amazing ways to the Big Fork River.

A theme is the one thing that, if nothing else, visitors remember, understand,  or feel about the heritage tourism experience of your site, facility, program. The theme usually begins most programs,                  might be the first exhibit in a visitor center, or be the in the first introductory paragraph of a marketing brochure or self-guiding brochure.

Can you find the theme in this room of mixed graphics and messages?

Look at the graphic below – this is what many visitors "see" when  they enter a visitor center, museum, historic site, or other heritage  attraction. They see "lots of things". But what you want them to   see, in this example, is the perfect 5-pointed star – that is the theme  or main point we want them to understand. Can you "find" the perfect 5-pointed star? How long did it take?

Star Teaching Aide.jpg (245823 bytes)


If you have trouble in "finding" the star, or the main point  (theme) of this visitor center, look at the next page of this article for a hint.

In heritage tourism planning, we want to make sure that the visitors can easily see the star (your main message).


Themes big and small.

You can use themes for big messages and for small ones.  For example, a theme for a historic home might be:

The Smith Mansion changed forever the way 18th century homes were built!

An interpretive theme for a guided tour of the Smith Mansion might be:

The Smith Mansion holds many secrets behind its walls!


Selecting your operational theme

So you need a heritage site theme – how do you pick one?  There are several ways:

bulletDo a story analysis for your site or attraction – what is the "site" telling you it is a good or the "best" example of?
bulletWhat are the 5 most important aspects of your site (people, historical events, natural history, etc.) that happened here that you want visitors to know about?
bulletHow can those 5 events or significant aspects of your  site be summarized into one sentence (your "star)?

Check your thought process:

Ask yourself and your staff this question – and have each person write down their response.

"If we spend all of this time and money to interpret this site’s   story to visitors, and after the end of their visit, tour, etc. they only remember one thing about this place, that one thing better be __________________________________"! The filled in blank is your theme.


Themes and marketability

Once you have developed some draft main heritage site themes, the next thing to ask yourself is "who cares". While you many think that your theme is great, will your visitors think so too? So as you develop your theme and site story messages, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Why would a visitor want to know this (come to the site, attend the program, etc.).
  2. How do you want the visitor to use the information from your messages?


The theme needs to "relate" to your potential target markets –   give them some reason or motivation to visit your attraction  or facility, give them a hint as to "what’s in it for them" by  visiting the site.


Did you find the star? Look at the bottom right quarter of the illustration.

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Examples of Heritage Tourism Site and Community Themes

Themes can be as rich and diverse as the kinds of heritage sites   and attractions that are available for visitor to experience. Here  are some main theme examples. Note that there are no "right or                  wrong" themes. Simply themes that express your mission and site story in "more market successful ways" than others.


The Connley Family (historic site) changed this communities history  forever!

The village of Elgen help usher in the age of mass production.

The town of George is a birthplace of inventors that changed the world of photography.

The Wax River Fort Historic Site holds three hidden secrets.

The industry of Tomsburg underwent three historic changes.

Tomsburg milling history may have affected your own hometown.

Protesting and preserving local history benefits you and your family  in several ways.

The daily lives of children in historic Smithville will make you laugh  and cry.


Some examples of "program" themes (or sub-themes to the main theme) might be:

The Smith home was built using three revolutionary building designs.

Living in the Smith home was full of daily challenges.

Fort George served the community in five different ways.

Farming in Onionville in 1890 changed for two remarkable reasons.

We need to preserve wetlands for 5 reasons.

Wetlands benefits all of us in 5 ways.

Steam engines changed our lives in 3 ways.


Main theme and sub theme relationships.

Once you have your main theme, you look at the sub-themes needed to illustrate that main theme. Here is an example:


             Main theme:    Life on the Arnold farm changed in many ways in the early 1900's.


             Sub Themes:     - New kinds of farm machines changed farming forever.

                                        - New kinds of crops were  needed to be planted for cash crops.

                                        - Three social changes of the 1900's affected the Arnold family in several ways.

So essentially, themes are ways to organize and present the key story (and stories) specific to your heritage attraction, site or facility. They guide you to focus on the main events and to make sure visitors  get a focused understanding of what is so unusual, important, special, memorable, etc. about your heritage site.


Heritage interpretive themes are an essential ingredient in presenting your heritage attraction to visitors, and helping  them understand, value, appreciate the significance of your site.  The theme makes sure visitors  get "the big picture" of your attractions story. Themes are short complete sentences that will  guide your total program development (walks, talks, exhibits, etc.),  as your interpretive services will need to be planned content wise  to "illustrate your theme". Your theme is the essence of your identity, your thumb print in the heritage or history of the area or community you are located in.


John Veverka

John Veverka & Associates