Friday, 28 November 2014



Last Thursday, November 20, the Faculty of Information was host to a wonderful panel of speakers, presenting various approaches to interpretive planning, and a large crowd of museum professionals, academics, Museum Studies students, and other interested parties. It was a great evening. There were cookies the size of your hand.

The panel, organized by Professor Irina Mihalache and Andrea Ott, was called "Reflections on Contemporary Practices in Interpretive Planning"and included speakers Maria Piacente from Lord Cultural Resources, Judith Koke from the Art Gallery of Ontario, Katherine Molineux from Lord Cultural Resources, and Courtney Murfin from the Royal Ontario Museum. The event was moderated by Prof. Mihalache.

A group of women standing in a line in front of some classroom desks.
Prof. Irina Mihalache, Maria Piacente, Katherine Molineux, Courtney Murfin, and Judith Koke.
Photo credit: Anya Baker
Getting a peak at someone else's work process--how they work around challenges and constraints, and how they bring their most creative ideas in to a coherent plan--is always a thrill, and the speakers that evening had some really interesting case studies to share. From Piacente's work with the Heritage Center and State Museum of North Dakota in developing a thematic exhibit of the state's history, to Koke's work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, to Molineux's involvement with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, to Murfin's work developing the ROM's popular "Forbidden City" exhibit--these professionals had some great advice and opinions about the role of interpretive planning in the museum experience.

As the evening moved in to a question-and-answer period, the speakers were able to go into more detail about challenges in establishing intellectual pathways into exhibits that did not alienate too many audiences, tensions between museum departments, incorporating interpretive planning into smaller museums that have limited budgets and time, and the intersections between interpretive planning and other fields like museum education and visitor research.

I was able to speak to a few attendees about their thoughts on what was being presented about interpretive planning. One attendee was very interested in the tensions between different departments as interpretive planning becomes more prominent in museum environments; it certainly helped me to hear from both consultants and one-site staff about fitting into institutions unused to having a planner. It was also eye-opening to hear the speakers suggest interpretive planners can act as defacto project managers, given the depth of knowledge they have on the project and exhibit story as a whole, and the overlap the field has with so many other departments. I can see where tensions might develop as interpretive planning is making a space for itself in the museum, but it's also very exciting to see how far people are pushing the practice.

Karla Corrigan, from the Halton Region Museum was happy to have a chance to talk to people in the field and see what kind of interpretive plans were being developed and used; she thought it was nice to build resource sharing into the field, which I agree with completely. One of the speakers, Piacente, actually had a new resource available for sale: Manual of Museum Exhibitions, which she edited with Barry Lord. Corrigan also said that an event like this was a nice entry point for people interested in starting interpretive planning practices in their museums.

I had a hoot speaking to the ladies from the Lang Pioneer Village Museum: Julia Gregory, Audrey Caryi, Carol Hamilton, and Laurie Siblock. They said they had been instinctively implementing many of the practices suggested throughout the evening, but with an interesting twist. As a small museum dedicated to live historical interpretation, they changed the interpretive plan constantly. That is, according to season, time period represented, special events, theme weeks, and in keeping with any new information they developed through these interpretations or from research. They noted that as time passes, visitors get further and further away from the time period and practices represented in the museum; what would seem at least familiar to a visitor fifty years ago needs a much more in-depth interpretation for a visitor today. They see the need to interpret continuously, providing as many intellectual pathways into the exhibit as the day requires.

I'll be thinking about this panel for a while, and I'll surely be drawing on what I learned from the speakers and attendees in any future interpretive planning I do.

Note: Because they really were so good, I have to mention the cookies again; they were from Almond Butterfly Gluten-Free Bakery on Harbord Street, which is becoming the Museum Studies' favourite bakery. Coffee was from the Innis Cafe, which I feel most Museum Studies people already know about because it's right across the street from the Bissell building and everyone goes there for lunch.


  1. Thanks for sharing the insights and practices of attendees! It's so interesting to hear about how museums, large and small, approach interpretive planning—especially Lang Pioneer Village Museum. I hadn't thought about how visitors from different generations would not understand historical narratives in the same way, and how interpretive plans must be continuously updated to accommodate this. Wonderful article Anya!

    1. Thanks, Jaime! It was a highlight of the evening for me to talk to so many working museum professionals from all over Ontario (some came from museums quite far away!). They all seemed to get a lot out of the speakers' presentations--a successful night at the iSchool!