Behind the Scenes: Insights of an Interpretive Planner

Interview with Halley Fehner, CIP, Content Director, Exhibits and Interpretive Planning

How did your background influence your decision to become an Interpretive Planner?

Halley Fehner tests a smartphone app on location at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia.

I come from a history-loving family who also really like to hike, so we visited a lot of historic sites, Civil War battlefields, museums, and national parks when I was growing up. There were two summers in a row when flights were really cheap, and we flew out west and did big road trips to see some of the major western national parks: Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion, Bryce, Arches, Dinosaur, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Craters of the Moon, Great Basin, etc. They were epic trips, and I still remember them really well. We would often pull over to look at scenic overlooks  and read waysides. That can be infuriating for a kid who is hungry and tired, but as an adult, I now do that myself!

When I first started working at HAI, some of my early projects were planning interpretation for Civil War battlefields. I had visited a lot of these places growing up, so it’s been pretty cool for me to come full circle at some of these sites.

Who needs an interpretive plan and what exactly is it?

An interpretive plan is a guiding document for a park, battlefield, heritage site – basically any place that has resources that are being interpreted to the public. It’s the foundational document about how you’re going to convey your message to visitors. It outlines your mission, vision, goals, and objectives. The plan also helps guide what you want visitors to learn, feel, and do when they engage with your site.

Interpretive Planners help discover and define the main stories about a site and what makes it truly special and interesting. We also provide recommendations about how to meet the goals and objectives and how to convey the themes.

What can you do for sites that are already open?

A lot of times existing sites feel that they aren’t getting the right message across, or that their ideas aren’t cohesive enough. Or things change—maybe they acquire new land or a new collection and want to share it with the public. Our perspective on the past also changes, sometimes requiring reinterpretation of a site and its stories. It’s always good for sites to periodically reevaluate and update their objectives, goals, and interpretive approach. So we help them refine concepts and bring it all together. We also emphasize the strategy behind how they are going to talk to visitors.

What are some of the first steps when developing an interpretive plan with a new client?

The first step is to get on site and meet with the major players involved. A good example is a former project: the Mountain Maryland Gateway to the West Heritage Area. They had individual stories and sites, but they weren’t pulled together in a cohesive way. So we went up to Garrett County, met with staff and got an overall sense of things. We defined the mission and vision, and then we assessed the site itself. We spent a week visiting the state parks and historic houses. In a nutshell, we assessed all the interpretive offerings they had.

During the process, do you tap into other sources beyond what the client provides you?

Halley Fehner, History Associates, at Grumman History Center, Long Island, NY

Interpretive Planner Halley Fehner conducting research at Grumman History Center, Long Island, NY.

Yes, we do. We take what the client gives us, and we work towards executing their vision. And we build upon that with our own research where needed. So for Garrett County, we went to the historical society, the library – and we collected primary sources, images and so on.

Another important part of interpretive planning is to define the audience profile. If the site doesn’t have any hard data, we’ll compare it to similar sites to develop the profile. Let’s say 90 percent of a site’s visitors are first time visitors. Then there’s probably not a need to change the exhibits very often, since it’s new for everyone. We’ll even look into state educational standards for sites that receive a lot of student visits.

How do you help guide clients in crafting their message?

Sometimes a site will try to extend a story too far, or they might be transmitting it in a manner that doesn’t consider all audiences. Our goal is to protect the integrity of the site and its stories and at the same time serve our client’s mission and vision as faithfully as possible.

For example, we’ve worked on a lot of sites related to the history of slavery, and we have to be careful there. The methods we use are important. We try to match the interpretive programs and media to the seriousness of the subject matter.

What kind of deliverables are involved in interpretive planning projects?

With Civil War Battle Apps (TM), visitors can and can check the display for virtual signs of historic places and events.

It’s pretty diverse. In some cases the final product is a written interpretive plan document. For others we might take it a step further. With the Civil War Trust, for example, we developed “Battle Apps”. When visitors are on the battlefield they can download the GPS linked app and will see where they are and can check the display for virtual signs. For example, in Fredericksburg, there was fighting that happened in the town itself but only a couple existing waysides tell this story. So we have a virtual tour that leads a visitor around the town following the sequence of the battle. In this way, a visitor gets the whole story through the app.

For museums or visitors centers, we might develop both chronological and thematic approaches to guide the interpretation. Then we weave that through the entire exhibit development process. We collaborate with designers and take it all the way from outline form to a final script. We’ll write panel texts, artifact labels; we’ll also research and acquire images and write image captions – all working closely with the designers, fabricators, and clients.

So where does the job of the Interpretive Planner end?

At the White House Visitor Center, we explored many different themes for “The People’s House.”

Good question! It really depends on the client. In some cases, the written interpretive plan is the end of it. In other cases, we’re done when all the final products and ideas are developed and launched—so when an exhibit moves to fabrication or the waysides are installed, etc. Some projects might return to us for refreshing, but they typically last for 15-20 years before they need that.

Do you have a team?

Internally, at HAI we have many people who work on exhibits and interpretive planning. We have researchers, writers, image acquisition personnel and also a lead project manager who engages with the client. Larger projects may need a team of 5 or 6 people.

How might an interpretive plan help guide how people react to certain sites?

A good example is a current project we’re working on at Arlington House, where Robert E. Lee lived. Here we’re dealing with complicated and delicate issues such as the Confederacy and slavery. To their credit, the National Park Service wants to address these issues head on. They don’t want to shy away from people feeling conflicted. Things like understanding the Civil War – and the sense of trying to bring our country together – is an ongoing process. We’re seeking to fully develop those concepts with the way we’re interpreting the site.

For Arlington House, we’re asking a lot of questions and creating opportunities for visitors to provide feedback. There’s going to be an actual wall people can write on and share their reactions. There’s a general movement – especially in the National Park Service – promoting the sense that heritage sites belong to all Americans. These sites should be a place where people feel safe and welcome but can also encounter the challenges of the past in a contemporary context.

I like to think it elevates our work to an entirely new level. Today’s society is so diverse and emotionally charged that historic site interpretation is incredibly relevant.

How can we help you?

If you need assistance in developing or refreshing an interpretive plan for your site, we’d be happy to share ideas, just give us a call!

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