The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

Planning the Interpretive Program

Success or failure of an interpretive program is usually in direct ratio to the amount of thought that has gone into it. Too often an action is taken which seems good at the time, but turns out undesirable from the standpoint of overall interpretive objectives accomplished.

For example, a park was granted funds to build a visitor center, but the money had to be spent immediately. Now there were no plans available to indicate where such a building was to go, how it was to be used, or what was to be in it. In order not to lose the funds, a location was quickly selected, an architect drew up a design, and the building was constructed. Then, and only then, was much thought given to just how the building was to be used. It was most disconcerting for the agency concerned to find that the building was not designed to allow for the type of exhibits needed to tell the area story. Good circulation of visitors within it could not be achieved. Rest rooms were in the wrong location. No provision had been made for audiovisual facilities. The building was so constructed that it could neither be air-conditioned for hot summer months, nor adequately heated in winter. As though all these problems were not enough, there was insufficient outside space for adequate parking. Thus, the value of the building as an interpretive facility was severely reduced. The worst feature, of course, was that it was new and could not be replaced. The area was simply stuck with it for years to come.

All of this adds up to the obvious fact that a well thought out interpretive plan should always be produced for an area before any major steps are taken to put the program into action. This calls for careful study of the entire interpretive operation, and the production of a prospectus.

Just what is an interpretive prospectus? It has been defined as "a preliminary statement that describes an enterprise or program." Stated in a different way, it simply means a "distant view." Basically it is a study document, but not necessarily a final plan. It consists of the thinking and planning of the interpreter. It is the blue print of how he believes the total interpretive program for his area should be developed. It may be long or short, depending upon how much he feels should go into it to make his thoughts clear and easily understood. Once completed, it becomes the document upon which all future interpretive development is based.

It should be kept in mind, however, that the finished prospectus presents only the thinking as of the date it is written. It has now reached a "point of departure." It has become subject to improvement in any way possible as soon as it is finally typed. It represents only the basic first step of an ever-developing program, but any changes in the prospectus should be most carefully considered before being made. Change for the sake of change can be damaging. Any interpreter, in studying an existing prospectus, should remember that its proposals are based upon the best thinking and experience of the one who prepared it.

The prospectus is not a complicated document, but should have sufficient detail to be entirely clear to those who may read it. This is essential, for it will be used as a reference by other planners of park or area activities. There is no "best" form in which to prepare it, although the following format has proved to effectively insure comprehensive coverage for the various aspects of the interpretive plan:


1. Interpretive statement defining basic values of the area or subject to be interpreted. These values will determine scope of the plan to be presented.

2. Statement summarizing objectives of the area's interpretive program, defining the major interpretive goals this particular area hopes to accomplish.

3. Factors influencing selection of interpretive means.

a. The environment.
   (1). Weather and climate.
   (2). Location of the area.
   (3). Geography of the area (if pertinent).
   (4). Natural history values of the area (geology, biology, ecology).
   (5). Historical values of the area.
   (6). Archeological values of the area.
   (7). Other values.
b. The visitor.
   (1). Origin (his home).
   (2). Type (economic level).
   (3). His background.
      (a). National origin.
      (b). Educational level.
   (4). Visitor use patterns.
   (5). Interpretive activities of other nearby agencies or organizations.

4. The interpretive program.

a. Present (Describe activities and facilities in some detail)
   (1). Visitor center.
   (2). Wayside exhibits.
   (3). Interpretive signing.
   (4). Self-guiding devices.
   (5). Personal services.
      (a). Conducted walks, hikes and tours.
      (b). On-site assignments.
      (c). Off-site assignments.
      (d). Demonstrations.
      (e). Amphitheater and campfire programs.
   (6). Audiovisual facilities.
   (7). Publications available to visitor.
   (8). Reference library.
   (9). Reference collections.
b. Proposed facilities and activities (summation of the same items as given above).
   (1). To be developed in some detail, giving thoughts behind each proposal.
c. Summary chart, showing present and proposed activities and facilities, and locations and manner of treatment of each activity or facility.

5. Content of the proposed program.

a. The visitor center.
   (1). List what it is to contain and how the building is to function.
   (2). Function of the various rooms.
      (a). Lobby and contents.
      (b). Exhibit room contents. Indicate the stories to be told.
      (c). Audiovisual room.
      (d). Library.
      (e). Work and storage rooms.
      (f). Other (rest rooms, offices, etc.).
b. Wayside exhibits.
   (1). List locations and basic stories to be covered, and describe how each is to be accomplished.
c. Interpretive signing.
   (1). List and describe how each is to be accomplished.
d. Self-guiding devices.
   (1). List and describe what each is to accomplish and how it is to be done.
e. Personal services.
   (1). Information desk at visitor center or museum.
   (2). Conducted walks.
   (3). Conducted tours (building, archeological site, auto, etc.)
   (4). On-site assignments.
   (5). Off-site assignments.
   (6). Demonstrations.
   (7). Campfire and amphitheater programs.
f. Audiovisual facilities.
g. Publications available to the public.
   (1). Folders, maps, etc.
   (2). Publications relating to the area and its features.
   (3). Self-guidance leaflets or booklets.
   (4). Other.
h. Reference library.
   (1). Contents. General statement.
   (2). How used.
i. Reference collections.
   (1). List types and scope of collections (biological, geological, historical, archeological, other).

6. Studies supporting the interpretive program, list of studies made, or being made of value to interpretive plan and program.

7. Staffing requirements.

a. Present staffing.
b. Proposed staffing.

8. Cost estimates for the proposed program. Follow break down of facilities and activities as given in item 5 above.

9. Map of area showing locations of all present and proposed facilities and activities.

The prospectus should be developed initially to cover the entire interpretive program for an area, at least in concise outline. It will often be found helpful then to break it down into sections, with each section becoming a detailed statement of how that portion of the prospectus is to be accomplished. Ideally the initial prospectus should be produced 2-3 years ahead of the fiscal year in which implementation is planned. This allows for thorough review by other concerned groups, such as landscape architects, architects, engineers, etc. Some of them will likely be affected, and their needs in turn may require some plan changes.

A sound prospectus is the heart of the interpretive program. Production requires as accurate knowledge of the area, its values, and its potential as is possible to obtain.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association