Reflections on the V&A Professional Development Course: ‘Writing your Interpretation Plan’

Cristina Horvath tells us about her recent experience on a professional development course she attended, with the aid of the Scottish Museums Federation Career Development Award:

IMG_4764Friday September 14th: I bounce up the steps and through the entrance doors of the V&A, eager to roam the galleries and corridors of this awe-inspiring place once again, a place that I can honestly say was instrumental in my desire to pursue a career in museums and galleries. On this particular day, I was anticipating with great excitement my attendance at a professional development course on interpretation for museums and galleries, made possible by the SMF and their Career Development Award. 


After a warm welcome from the V&A Professional Development Team, the course began with introductions from the course leader, Bryony Shepherd (Head of Interpretation at the V&A) and then to all the course participants and I was fascinated to hear from them all and about their diverse backgrounds in museums, galleries, exhibitions and heritage organisations. 

IMG_4778We started the course with a solid foundation on what interpretation really means in the most basic terms – by the end of the course I came to the realisation that interpretation is incredibly multi-faceted, with many intricacies to consider! To begin the conversation on interpretation, however, it can be argued that interpretation is more than just stating facts or ‘educating’ the audience, it is about telling a story and sparking an interest in the reader. How does the interpreter of the object(s) enable the audience to make a meaningful connection with the object(s) on display? And in this day and age, with so many different interpretation methods to choose from – audio, visual, film, mobile, digital – how does the interpreter decide which method will be most effective? With the threat of dwindling funds and external competitors all vying for the public’s time and attention, museums and galleries are also under pressure to create new and innovative exhibitions and displays -although, as Bryony reminded us, you can often rely on previous experience and what you know will work… If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it! (Sorry). On top of this, there are also practical things to keep in mind when designing an exhibition or display, such as: ‘museum fatigue’ (we’ve all experienced it!) and where to place seating, how visitors move around the space, where crowds are likely to form, who is the interpretation for and where will it be going? What will the layout of the space be like and how many entrances and exits are there? Is the interpretation going in a permanent gallery (where there are hundreds or thousands of objects and multiple stories to tell) or a temporary exhibition (with limited objects and stories)? What are the key messages you need to get across? These are all questions one should ask when designing and writing interpretation.

IMG_4785As part of the learning experience, the course participants were asked to attend one of the current temporary exhibitions, ‘Videogames’, as well as one of the permanent galleries, ‘Europe 1600-1815’ and assess the differences between them. We were encouraged to observe the interpretation and design in each of the galleries, keeping in mind everything we had learned in the first half of the course. One thing that always impresses me when I visit the V&A is that there really is something for everyone, and an exhibition like ‘Videogames’ is a great example of this. For the videogame aficionados there was a wealth of information on the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of videogame production and all of the effort, time and detail that goes into producing videogames, such as time spent on research as well as script and story writing alongside the art of creating the graphics and illustrations. For those who are typically uninterested in videogames and their production, there was a portion of the exhibition space dedicated to the politics behind videogames, including discussions on violence, gun control, LGBTQ rights and the portrayal of women in videogames. All of this information was delivered in a variety of ways: big screen graphics, little screen graphics, hands-on digital devices, sound bites and of course, good old fashioned wall text.

IMG_4796While the ‘Videogames’ exhibition had a clear path and progression with one entrance and one exit, the permanent ‘Europe 1600-1815’ galleries are much more fluid out of necessity. I learned that interpreting this type of space is much more complicated than I originally believed. Great thought must be put into labels and stories that speak to all types of audiences, are easily understandable even when one does not walk the route of the galleries in a chronological manner, and that can also stand the test of time. 


IMG_4801The course ended with a very useful exercise where participants teamed up to try their own hand at interpretation. The object we were tasked with interpreting had a long and varied history, and even the techniques behind the production of such an object was quite complicated. With several different ‘themes’ and stories to choose from it was great to have the challenge of narrowing down which story we would use, as it seems like a challenge that would come up very often when interpreting historic collections! We also had to decide which type of audience we were trying to reach, as this would influence which storyline we would go with. The only thing we had no limits on was the budget, and my partner and I unashamedly ran with that aspect of the task and really blew our imaginary budget – a museum worker’s dream

Overall the course was incredibly useful and I really gained a greater appreciation for what goes into interpreting museum and gallery collections. I have no doubt that it will help me to become a better museum professional now and in the future. I’d like to give a big thanks to the SMF for making this dream of mine a reality; receiving the award and attending this course has truly been a major highlight of my career!’

Cristina attended the V&A workshop using an SMF Career Development Award.

We have two grants each of up to £50 (or one grant of £100) available for the financial year 2018-19.

We would like to encourage our members to take advantage of the awards and so have broadened the criteria to inspire creative applications. We want our members to prioritise continual professional development within the museum and gallery sector and use this award to encourage best practice in Scotland.

If you have been inspired by Cristina’s experience, you might want to consider applying for any career development activity including, but not limited to:

Attendance at a conference or seminar that interests you.

Research trips – an opportunity to conduct research at another institution or in the field, either as part of a course or a work based project.

Training of any sort – this can either be related to your current job in the sector, or might be aimed at getting you into the sector.

Museums you Admire – go and see that museum or gallery you have always wanted to visit.

Exhibition Envy – have you seen a show advertised further afield you simply can’t miss? The SMF can help you get there.

The deadline for submitting an application is 14 January 2019. Applications can be any value up to the cost of £100 (one applicant) or 2 x £50 from two applicants.

If you are interested in applying for an award, please download the guidance document and application form. All completed applications should arrive before the allotted deadlines.


Please contact us on if you have any further queries.



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