Interpretation is the process of looking for links between themes and resources to find the best way to tell your story. When you put the story together, strive to create a visitor experience that is both authentic and unique. Consider these points:

  1. Consider story telling and interpretation in every phase of cultural and heritage tourism development. Interpretation is a fundamental function and it should be a major focus of planning and development of your tourism program. The interpretive program determines the types of activities and facilities that are needed.
  2. Evaluate all of the resources and identify a range of topics that your community will support and that tell the best story. There are many topics for interpretation – artists, performances, history, geology, wildlife, etc. What is common to you can be fascinating to your visitors if presented properly.
  3. Develop interpretive themes for your story:
    • Select a broad topic and brainstorm uses for your tourism effort.
    • Narrow the topic and choose the best ideas from the brainstorming session.
    • Write the theme as a complete sentence.

      Broad topic: Heritage of the Texas livestock industry
      Focused topic: Importance of cattle drives
      Theme: The Texas economy was devastated after the Civil War, but wild cattle and wilder young men revived it and established the basis of our modern state.

  4. Characteristics of good themes:
    • They can be stated as a complete sentence
    • Themes tell important story about the place that is relevant to the visitor
    • It is appropriate for the audience
    • The theme is of personal interest to the presenter
    • The presenter has sufficient knowledge about the theme
  5. Match interpretative programs to intended audiences. Create your interpretive program to meet the needs, interests, age, gender, and ethnicity of your audience.
  6. Determine objectives for the interpretive program. You want visitors to have an enjoyable and beneficial experience. The program can also accomplish other things. The “tangible” elements of your stories should help illustrate broader and deeper “intangibles” that can affect how your audience thinks and acts in the future.
  7. Determine how you will operate the interpretive program. The biggest operational decision is whether you will use guided or self-guided interpretation. This determination has major implications for cost, liability, and who you can sell it to.

    Guided Interpretation: Guided interpretation means that an employee or a volunteer accompanies the visitors and conducts the interpretive program. It is personal and direct, giving the visitor a richer and more valuable experience. Having guides can also help protect the visitor and your resources. The major disadvantage of guided interpretation is cost. If volunteers serve as guides without pay, the cost is substantial. High quality interpretive programs take time to prepare, and several hours to conduct for each visitor group.

    Self-guided Interpretation: Self-guided interpretation consists of signs, displays, installations, dioramas, booklets, audiotapes or other means of communication that the visitor uses. Self-guided interpretation is cost effective and the visitor has more freedom. Once the program and materials are prepared, minimal staff time is required. Though preparing high quality materials can be expensive, the cost is minimal thereafter. Visitors participate on their own schedule and they can spend as much, or as little, time as they wish.

  8. Ensure quality and credibility of your interpretive program. The quality and credibility of the interpretive program largely determines the quality and credibility of the attraction. Programs and activities do not have to be high-tech or expensive; however, they must be credible, well designed, and executed with quality.
  9. Estimate costs of developing the interpretive program. Due to the large number of variables in planning and developing an interpretive program, it is impossible to provide a specific cost estimate. However, we can estimate a range. If volunteers do the majority of the work, an interpretive program may involve little out-of-pocket cost. On the other hand, to develop a program similar to those found in state and national parks and modern museums, it will be necessary to hire professionals. Costs to develop such a program can range from $50,000 to $1,000,000.
  10. Evaluate your interpretive program and revise as necessary. Interpretation is a combination of art and science. Both of these perspectives require constant monitoring and modification. We learn as we go. Audiences change. Sometimes even the “facts” change. Interpretive programs must be flexible and easily modified to meet new conditions.

Adapted from
Texas State University’s Dept. of Geography Developing Interpretation