Published in Oregon Museum Association DISPATCH for January, 2004.

As a middle schooler, I was entranced by a cartoon (in Mad Magazine, as I recall) that showed two prisoners chained by the hands and feet several yards above the floor of a windowless dungeon. One said to the other, “Now here’s my plan….” The Black Adder’s sidekick, Baldrick, showed similar fortitude, meeting each new disaster with the confident pronouncement, “I have a cunning plan.”

As a museum administrator in the 1970s and 1980s, I gained new appreciation for the prisoners’ hopefulness, and wormed my way out of more than one tight spot with a cunning plan. Those were the dark ages, before museums engaged in big picture planning. Now many directors consider a strategic plan to be an essential management tool, and think of an interpretive master plan as an invaluable first step to exhibit or program renewal. What are these planning processes? How do they interrelate? Could a strategic plan or an interpretive master plan be useful to your institution?

A strategic plan is based on a comprehensive overview of the institution’s situation, both internal and external; the end result consists of goals, objectives, and action plans to advance the museum’s mission and vision. An interpretive master plan begins with an analysis of the museum’s public spaces, educational activities, and interpretive resources; the outcome is a vivid conceptual narrative showing what visitors might experience in a transformed exhibit and program setting.

Strategic planning and interpretive master planning proceed from different points of view:

Strategic planning, and the creation of the institutional mission and vision, stem from questions like “Who are we?” “Where are we headed?” “How can we best position ourselves to reach our goals?” The focus is on “us”. The strategic planning facilitator works to elicit all points of view within the staff and board, so that conflicts can be resolved. At the same time, (s)he plays devil’s advocate to ensure that the in-house group is realistic about environmental factors that need to be part of planning.
Interpretive master planning is based on questions like “How will visitors experience us?” “What will they take away from this experience?” There is a conscious effort to move away from “us” in order to think about the experience from the visitor’s viewpoint. Ideally, the interpretive master planning process includes diverse outsiders who represent the interests of potential visitors. The interpretive planning facilitator also plays devil’s advocate, asking follow-up questions that keep the visitor’s interests in the foreground.

The two types of planning are symbiotic, and inform one another. A viable mission, vision, and strategic plan must incorporate visitors’ perspectives. Ideally, interpretive master planning begins with a solid, well-crafted institutional mission and vision. If the institutional groundwork hasn’t been laid, it can be very challenging to do an effective interpretive plan. But it can be done; and sometimes, successful interpretive master planning leads a museum to undertake a long-deferred strategic planning effort.

The motivation for self-betterment, as an institution or through the creation of more dynamic exhibits and programs, can express itself through a strategic planning effort or an interpretive planning effort. Either one can lead to the other. I believe the motivations for engaging in the two processes are similar: the institution wants to become more visible, more open and accessible, or more valued.

© Alice Parman, Ph.D., 2004-2009. All rights reserved.