Interpretive Exhibits

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Note: In its original "printed" form this article contains many photographs of exhibits which were left out of this web version due to downloading time.  The article prints out at about 9 pages.


Where is the Interpretation In

Interpretive Exhibits?



John A. Veverka


Are your exhibits giving lots of answers to questions that no one is asking?

Are your exhibits boring, dull, un-exciting, or un-inspiring? Are they full of "information" but not translation of the topics in terms that visitors can understand or relate to? Do they "look nice" (they better if you paid a lot for them), but visitors don’t seem to learn or remember anything from them? If this is the case, you don’t have "interpretive" exhibits! The thing that I have noticed is that today "interpretive" is "IN" and every planner and exhibit designer does "interpretive" exhibits. The only problem is that many haven’t a clue as to what an "interpretive" exhibit (or interpretive communications) actually is.

The goal of this paper is to provide an introduction into what makes an interpretive exhibit "interpretive", and some hints on how to make your exhibits more effective in translating its message from the language of the curator or resource expert to the "language of the visitors".


What is an Exhibit?

An exhibit is an array of cues (visual, auditory, etc.) purposely brought together within defined boundaries for a desired effect.


Reasons for Exhibits

bulletTell a story in an ordered sequence or fashion.
bulletTell a story that can’t be told on site.
bulletBring artifacts and stories to places where the visitors are.
bulletIncorporate and protect "real" artifacts.
bulletBring extremes into human scale.
bulletAllow visitors freedom to pace themselves.
bulletAllow staff to do other things.


What is Interpretation?

"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, artifacts, landscapes or sites."


What is an "Interpretive" Exhibit?

An interpretive exhibit makes its topic "come to life" through active visitor involvement and extreme relevance to the everyday life of the visitor.

Interpretive exhibits should:

bulletEmploy interpretive techniques and principles (Tilden’s Interpretive Principles).
bullet Provoke the visitor’s interest or attention.
bullet Relate to the everyday life of the viewer.
bullet Reveal the main concept in a unique, creative ending or viewpoint.
bullet Address the whole – illustrate the main theme of the exhibit, and how this exhibit may relate to other exhibits in a story flow.
bullet Have message unity (use the correct colors, visuals, design look, music, etc. that supports the exhibit theme).
bulletBe Objective 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 staff, with little regard about the visitor interest in the topic. Here are two questions I like to ask the exhibit planning committees or designers when critiquing exhibits:

  1. 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?

  2. 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?



The psychology of the exhibit – exhibit "load".

Exhibit load is the term I use to describe the amount of time and energy (either physical or psychological) that each exhibit requires the visitor to use up in interacting with that exhibit. Think of the visitor coming to a museum or interpretive center with 100% of enthusiasm, interest and energy when they first enter the exhibit area. As they move through the exhibits they are "using up" energy and interest begins to drop – they start to get psychologically tired and overloaded with information and stimuli. And, usually within about 45 minutes, the visitor has had enough and heads for the gift store or the lunchroom.

Usually the exhibits with the highest "load" 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.

The following exhibit classification matrix gives you one way to help determine the general "load" of an exhibit.


                    Exhibit Classification Matrix

                             exhibit is active      exhibit is inert

visitor is active                  type 1                        type 2a


visitor is passive              type 2b                         type 3




Type 1- The exhibit moves and the visitor moves – an interactive exhibit like holding a live animal or a computer activity.

Type 2a - The visitor can so something but the exhibit is inert, such as a hands on touch  table or touching an animal skin.

Type 2b - The visitor is passive (just looks) while the exhibit moves, such as watching a  live animal in a zoo, looking at a video, watching a model train run.

Type 3 - The visitor does nothing and the exhibit does nothing back – looking at  collections behind glass, looking at flat work (photos, graphics), etc.

The idea here is that as the visitor goes from cell rank 1 to 2 to 3 there is generally a decrease in the intrinsic interest they have in "those kinds" of exhibits. Thus, more use of interpretive techniques are required 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" the visitors.


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 Crocketts Rifle – Imagine the adventures it’s been a  part of!  With the real thing you can have a "time machine".

- Here in this glass case is a "replica" of Crocketts Rifle (hasn’t been anyplace, done  anything, no story).

- Here in this glass case is a very large photograph of Crocketts Rifle.

- Here is 1000 words describing Crocketts Rifle.

We have a decrease in intrinsic interest as we move from the "real thing" to verbal descriptions.

      The best plan of action I have found is to have a diversity of exhibit load types presented in a purposeful pattern. For example, an exhibit gallery might start with a type 2 exhibit or a type 3 exhibit, slowing building up to a type 1 (hands on) exhibit. I usually recommend that the type 1’s are used to really illustrate a key point or concept. Remember:

Visitors remember

10% of what they hear.

                    30% of what they read.

                    50% of what they see.

                    90% of what they do.

I try not to have to many type 1’s as to 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 I look at about 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 Native American 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 I have with exhibits is where people can touch things, but don’t know why they are touching it. Take "Touch Tables", for years a standard in Nature Centers. So the child picks up a deer antler – 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 artifact 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. I would think that any "interpretive" exhibit designer would require their clients to give them the objectives for each exhibit – in writing! How can you design an exhibit if you don’t know what that exhibit is to accomplish? And it is really difficult to do any real exhibit evaluations without having the objectives in hand to evaluate against.

When planning interpretive exhibits I 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".


Behavioral 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 behavior 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 behavioral objectives). They are important for the exhibit designer as they help direct the colors, 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". Have fun 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! These are basic marketing/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: 1) why would a visitor want to know this and 2) how do you want the visitors to use the information?

Once you have your objectives done – 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:

bulletAn average cost for exhibits for a new exhibition (empty room) is about $200/sq.ft. of floor space. This cost may be higher or lower depending upon individual exhibit complexity, but this provides a good starting estimate.
bulletOut of that total cost estimate approximately 20-25% goes to design fees!
bulletAbout 15% goes to delivery and installation of the exhibits.

So if you had $1.00 for your exhibit budget, .25 cents would go do design, and .15 cents to delivery and installation. So there is about .60 cents left to buy exhibit stuff!

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. I 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 $100.00 to build, and over 3 years 100 visitors looked at or used the exhibit, the cost per contact was $1.00.

Cost effectiveness is what you get in return for your cost per contact. So with the above example if you spent $1 per contact, are you getting $1 or more in benefits from that contact? Are your objectives being accomplished at whatever minimum success level you wanted (70% of the visitors….)?

I have seen some exhibits that cost thousands of dollars in museums and interpretive centers 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! I have also seen some exhibits in interpretive centers done with poster board, a few artifacts, 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 20 years of doing interpretive exhibit planning and evaluation there are some "truths" that I have observed (most backed by research). Here are a few:

bulletVisitors do not really like to read labels. If a label is over 50 words long it probably will not be read. If the 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 on glass, even less chances of it being read.
bulletProvocative headlines and graphics will draw attention.
bulletIf you can’t get the main point across in about 15-20 seconds, you probably won’t get it across at all.
bulletVisitors will be drawn to exhibits that have information or artifacts of intrinsic interest to them!
bulletBefore 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.
bulletThe average viewing time for a video/slide projection program 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.
bulletThe average viewing time for sit-down AV programs in small theaters is about 7 minutes before the visitors begin to loose interest.
bulletIf you can’t fix it in-house with a screwdriver, don’t put it in! This is one of my generalizations, 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.
bulletRemember 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, reveal to the visitor the essence of the topic or story being presented. An interpretive exhibit must utilize interpretive principles (provoke, relate, reveal, have a theme and message unity) and be built on the learning, behavioral, 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.


John Veverka