Humanities: Museum Planning

Creating an Interpretive Master Plan


Museums and other cultural institutions (sometimes referred to as “GLAM” for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) offer a variety of educational opportunities to a range of audiences. While the missions and target audiences of museums will vary significantly from institution to institution, all are focused on providing enriching educational experiences for their visitors. 

The roles and responsibilities of museum professionals—including curators, exhibit developers, and educational programmers—will similarly vary across institutions and may include supervising teams of people, collaborating with others both inside and outside of the institution, or working independently on specific aspects of an exhibit to help engage visitors or potential visitors in the museum’s offerings. The day to day work of these roles can involve everything from doing research and creating exhibit tags to working with a team of facilities personnel to address engineering challenges around an exhibit.

To identify potential curatorial roles and get a sense of the range of museums in which you could seek employment, explore the American Alliance of Museums or Great Museums websites.

The Process

The process below includes the steps necessary to begin implementing an exhibit for a museum. 

  1. Create an interpretive master plan for the exhibit
  2. Outline the major steps in implementation
  3. Plan for execution
  4. Create a timeline
  5. Identify items and generate labels

This exercise follows the process and terminology outlined in the Smithsonian Institution’s brief “Guide to Exhibit Development”, which is a great resource to read prior to beginning the exercise.

The Exercise

Create an outline of an interpretive master plan for an exhibit that you would be interested in developing. Read through the scenario below and then, follow the steps to start composing the core elements in the master plan. 

For this exercise, imagine that you have been hired as a museum curator in an area related (however loosely) to your graduate field of study. If, for instance, you are an English PhD who studies environmental humanities, you might imagine that you have been hired to work in a natural history museum. 


You are a curator at the Washingtonian Institution, a large museum with a variety of divisions including science & technology, natural history, art, and the history of different regions of the world. You have been tasked with developing a proposal for a new exhibit related to your field of study. This preliminary proposal, if selected, would serve as the basis for a more fully developed plan that you would work with an exhibit development team to create. You will identify an exhibit topic and create a rough draft of an interpretive master plan that would guide eventual exhibit development and shape the exhibit.

Task 1: Select a topic for your exhibit.

You can select any topic that you wish for your exhibit, including something related to your dissertation or thesis topic. While you will continue to refine your topic throughout this exercise, try to articulate a specific topic that will appeal to a variety of potential audiences. This may require expanding, narrowing, or more specifically defining the scope of your exhibit. For this job sim, plan on a small program. Feel free to think big if that’s the direction that you want to take this project. 

To help get a sense of the appropriate scope, think about your previous visits to museums and critically examine one or more of their exhibits. Alternatively, you can take a look at some of the current exhibits at the Smithsonian museums, The Field Museum, or The Metropolitan Museum of Art. You could use some of these large exhibits to conceptualize your idea.

Task 2: Identify your audiences.

Most museums serve a variety of different audiences, but they tend to do so in different ways. Each exhibit will have multiple intended audiences which could include schoolchildren on a field trip for their science class, college art students seeking to develop a better understanding of artistic technique during a particular period, or adult learners seeking to deepen their understanding of a particular topic. 

For this task, write down who your audiences are and identify the top 3-4 needs for each group related to your imagined exhibit (e.g., supplement classroom learning, challenge preconceived notions about a specific topic, inspire engagement, mark an important historical milestone). Be as specific as possible. 

While an exhibit can and ideally should serve multiple audiences, it’s important to be conscious of your intended audiences to help focus and inform your design. Identifying and developing an understanding of your audience and their needs can help with everything from selecting items for the exhibit to determining what marketing strategies will be more successful.

Task 3: Develop key goals and objectives.

Once you have identified your audience and their needs, revisit the exhibit topic that you are planning and think about the key goals and objectives you might have for the exhibit. 

These wide range of goals could include: 

  • commemorating an historic event at an important anniversary 
  • educating an audience about an important but little-understood topic helping the audience understand the larger context of important contemporary events,
  • highlighting important concepts or collections
  • just about anything else that you can imagine. 

Start by asking yourself what you most want your audience to take away from the exhibit and why those things matter. As you go through this process, rethink or revise the responses that you came up with in previous steps.

Task 4: Create an interpretive hierarchy.

Following the model offered by the Smithsonian Exhibit, the next step is to create an interpretive hierarchy that identifies: 

  • the “big idea” or big picture takeaway for the exhibit 
  • the “key messages” that are more specific points that support the big idea
  • the “critical questions” that you want the exhibit to address (and potentially to raise) for visitors. 

As you go through this process, you may want to rethink or revise the responses that you came up with in previous steps.


General resources to help you get started:

Skills Used to Perform These Tasks

  • Strategic thinking
  • Synthesizing and prioritizing information
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Organization

Skills Used in This Field

  • Planning
  • Problem solving
  • Time management
  • Budgeting
  • Communication & presentation skills
  • Writing skills

A museum curator/exhibit designer may also perform these activities:

  • Implement a museum exhibit
  • Supervise staff or interns in the development or implementation of programming
  • Coordinate with other curators in the design and development of large-scale exhibits
  •  Translate scholarly findings or information with a general audience
  • Coordinate external communications and contribute to building a social media campaign
  • Content development and delivery outside of the academic classroom are defined as part of the Training job family in career exploration tool, ImaginePhD. Explore ImaginePhD, to learn how Trainers use teaching, instructional design, assessment, and public speaking skills in a variety of settings including museums and other non-profits, corporations, and government.

You are viewing a job simulation. To get started, set up SMART Goals to perform this simulation in a reasonable timeline. If you have completed the task, fill out the Self-Reflection Sheet.

Simulation author – Brady Krien, PhD candidate at the University of Iowa.

Simulation vetted by professionals at the University of Iowa.