Every museum wants to be popular – right? So how come so many are languishing with poor visitor numbers? What’s the secret ingredient that makes popular museums such a hit? Truth is, the ingredient is no secret. It’s storytelling.

However, many museums decide to cut corners and cut costs in this most vital area. If only they’d had a conversation like this beforehand:

Bean counter: I think we should save a few dollars and not bother with an interpretive writer. Our staff know enough about our artefacts to write our panels. After all, most other sites do the same.

Museum director: But…

Bean counter: Sorry, must dash – my car has broken down and I have to catch the bus.

Museum director: Would you like me to have a look at it for you?

Bean counter: Oh, I didn’t know you were a mechanic?

Museum director: I’m not, but I’ve owned a few cars. I’m sure I could fix it.

Bean counter: Errr, no thanks. I think I’ll get a professional mechanic to do the job.

Museum director: C’mon! I’m sure we could work it out for ourselves. Let’s have a go and see what we can do. It might take some time, and we’ll have to go on a very steep learning curve, and we probably won’t even know if we have actually done a good job or not, but I’m sure it’ll all end well. It won’t be a disaster at all.

Bean counter: Hmmm, you’re making a point about interpretation here, aren’t you?

Museum director: Yup. Well spotted.

Bean counter: OK, so tell me why we shouldn’t write the panels ourselves.

Museum director: Well, like most sites, we don’t have an interpretation expert on our team, so we don’t have the expertise to write good panels. That means we’ll have to get our busy curators and historians to do the work in addition to their regular job And I’ve seen enough panels that were written in a hurry by curators and historians to know that most of them are not trained interpreters.

Bean counter: Oh, does it happen a lot?

Museum director. Oh yes! It’s scary how many museums have panels which simply regurgitate facts and information and so fail to engage our‘non-captive’ audience. Faced with data-heavy didactic panels, most visitors will switch off. Visitor attractions are supposed to attract visitors, not push them away.

Bean counter: So how is interpretation different then?

Museum director: Interpretation is the act of explaining the meaning of something. This isn’t the same as ‘teaching’. Interpretation should not simply aim to ‘educate’ because heritage sites aren’t supposed to be hard work. Non-captive audiences will rarely engage in didactic exhibitions and will likely switch off. The aim of interpretation is to deliver information in a way which is relevant to the visitor. It should ignite an interest, empathise with the visitor and compel them to think or act differently.

Bean counter: And panels full of facts won’t do that, right?

Museum director: Right. Our visitors are there to enjoy themselves, so we should make our communication engaging and simple.

Bean counter: Ok, so is this interpretation thing difficult?

Museum director: The best sites consider it a job for a professional, and it should be considered both an art and a skill. You’ll need to know the latest interpretation protocols about readability, layering, word counts and learning styles. Then you’ll need experience enough to be able to distil lots of information into as few words as possible, and you’ll need to understand what makes a good story and how best to tell it.

Bean counter: Oh, I see. So what happens if we don’t use a specialist interpreter?

Museum director: We’ll probably end up with crap panels, which is a disaster so great we may as well have not opened the museum at all.

Bean counter: Really? Surely it’s not that bad?

Museum director: Think about it – like most museums we use panels to tell our stories and transmit our messages. Panels are the transaction point between our organisation and our visitors, so if the panels are so badly written that they fail to engage our visitors, then the stories and messages will not be heard. Surely the aim of every museum is to deliver a message and engage their visitors? Only then can they justify our existence.

Bean counter: But what about those visitors who like loads of detailed information? I’m sure we’ll get lots of experts, nerds and know-it alls in our site.

Museum director: No, we won’t.

Bean counter: We won’t?

Museum director: No. Research shows that the vast majority of visitors to any heritage site are not experts. Curators and historians writing for their peers is one of the reasons why most museum panels are crap.

Bean counter: So we’re back to needing an interpretation expert?

Museum director: Yup. An interpretation expert will write in such a way that will attract and engage your non-specialist visitor base. And that’s what you need if you want your site to be a success.

Bean counter: Ok! Ok! I’m convinced! I’m glad we stopped to chat, but now I need a favour.

Museum director: Sure, what can I do for you?

Bean counter: I’ll need a lift home. I’ve missed my bus.