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Planning Outside of a Master Plan

Volume 2 Number 2 - October 2005

Matthew Cole





Interpretive Master Planning is the process of creating a master plan for all interpretation at an institution: this is a major undertaking.  The intended results can be so detailed as to become easily out dated or obsolete.  The solution we attempted was to provide a flexible but meaningful planning structure that could be used to focus and improve our efforts.  We adapted elements of educational and business planning into a format that would outline an interpretive method (how) without overly specific detail.

Starting with questions of what to interpret to whom and why, we selected preferable interpretive methods (how) and then discussed measures by which the method's success could be judged.  The plan that resulted is comprehensive; but will retain flexibility as the institution grows: we can also evaluate new opportunities as they appear.  In our case, the consensus that emerged from the planning process gave us both direction and momentum that continues to this day.


The ‘Interpretive Master Plan’ appears to have become recognised as the ideal sort of education plan to have.  I sense a palpable envy or desire for it from my colleagues when the subject comes up.  And yet, only a handful of botanical gardens admit to having completed ones.

Interpretive master planners suggest that institutions gather a team of stakeholders, consider the objectives, collections or resources they have; then choose methods (from labels to guides to exhibits to brochures) to interpret each one.  If one followed John Veverka’s Interpretive Master Planning (1994) to the letter, each institution would catalogue all existing and planned assets, consider all conceivable interpretive methods and finally specify every detail of each interpretive feature or programme.  The process could yield high-quality end results; but in practice, such a detailed process seems most useful for botanical gardens beginning new projects or major construction.

The drawback for an institution like mine is the uncertainty about the future garden development.  Despite a thoughtfully-done master plan to prepare for future expansions, the actual garden layouts, final visitor amenities, and plant lists remain far off into the future.  In gardens, the plant list especially determines the lessons that can be taught and the subjects that can be explained.  So for me, the full master planning treatment (cataloguing every future asset worthy of interpretation and then choosing a method for each asset) was unrealistic. 

And yet I desire high quality end results: programs, displays and learning that fulfilled my goals and my institution’s mission.  So I began to prepare for the future and a better present with the notion that interpretive planning can be comprehensive without being a master plan. Together with the Board’s Education committee, we started discussions with a model from Veverka.

The Process

We determined the audiences we wanted to reach (who), the most worthwhile subjects to cover (what), and the reasons we would have such things at all (why).  As we progressed, we realised our 'whys' should reflect our institution’s mission statement; and yet we were all cognisant of the practical constraints that affect programming success in the real world.  So we adjusted our model, added a constraint list and began extending our lists of who, what and why.

These lists become a simple sentence: choosing the who of ‘schoolchildren’, the what of ‘plants’ cultural, medicinal and economic uses’, and the mission (why) of ‘increasing the audience's understanding of the subject’.  We thought about programmes that would ‘increase schoolchildrens' understanding of the cultural uses of plants’ and programmes that would ‘increase casual visitors’ appreciation for native plants.’

Given the energy and enthusiasm that I see in this profession, I have no doubt we can  all brainstorm a surfeit of programmes to meet the broadly stated goals that the who, what and why lists help you generate.  It is important to screen your ideas by the constraints you have to operate under, both self imposed and otherwise.  Even then, it’s easy to have too many possibilities as you begin with interpretive methods (the ‘how’ section). 

The process of choosing your methods of interpretation will probably begin as another list.  Do not list every programme you want to try – list each delivery method.  Do not list every label, sign or exhibit you think you need – think about all display labels at once, all interpretive signs at once, etc.  If you do have the time and energy to write up each programme and each sign, that is interpretive master planning.  But you don’t need to go that far to compare the relative merits of developing interpretation for schools that visit, with developing traveling interpretation to go to schools.

To make these choices, create a uniform format that your team can use to consider different methods.  Our methods ranged from the informal education of interpretive labels to the formal, standards-linked education of a school tour.  For each method, I listed the audience, the subjects, a 2-3 sentence description and any specifications or requirements that were relevant.  When I brought this bare bones format to the others, it was easy to understand and stimulated productive discussion.  As our list of methods lengthened we could see which priorities we were reaching.  Finally, we reached what I considered the most important feedback I could get: what was the measure of our success?

Measuring Success

Measuring learning can be a difficult task, especially when it competes for time with programme delivery.  Choosing measures that predict future success can help guide your efforts.  For your programmes, what indicators forecast success?  What statistics will funders or stakeholders want to know?  Is success measured by the number of programmes or the number of people in those programmes?  Is it by the number of offerings available or by which programmes are most popular?  If these topics are unfamiliar to you, I recommend the ‘balanced scorecard’ model.

Like so-called ‘total quality management’, the ‘balanced scorecard’ is a business management system that attempts to mesh measurements of past performance with predictors of future performance.  The goal is to give staff (like myself) and governing bodies (boards and committees) the best indicators and measures to use in shaping strategy and tactics.

During our discussions, we selected indicators and measures for each method.  Typical measures included: number served, audiences served, programme delivered, groups not served, students per instructor, etc.  For certain methods, audience-reported feedback was preferable; other times we will seek outside evaluation. 

The consensus on what to measure is a terrifically valuable result of the process.  It empowers staff to develop and implement interpretation knowing what measures of success they will be held accountable for.  The Education Committee has a format in which they can ask for performance improvements, better measures, or new methods. 


This kind of Interpretive Plan is intended to support and enhance the Education Department decision making and even the governance process.  The consensus on the audiences to reach, the subjects of value, the most appropriate methods, and the fairest, most relevant measures of the interpretation’s success or failure speaks to garden and stakeholders that are united in their goals and expectations.

The results of this planning have been quite helpful to me as a staff member.  I often consult the plan when making adjustments or considering new ideas.  Whether it works for other institutions in place of interpretive master planning has yet to be seen.


Kaplan, Robert S., Norton, David P. (1996)  The Balanced Scorecard: translating strategy into action.  Harvard Business School Press, Boston, USA.

Veverka. John A. (1994) Interpretive Master Planning: the essential planning guide for interpretive centres, parks, self-guided trails, historic sites, zoos, exhibits and programs.  Acorn naturalists, Tustin, California, USA.


La planification détaillée d’interprétation est la démarche de création d’un plan détaillé pour toute interprétation dans une institution : une entreprise majeure. Les résultats attendus peuvent être détaillés au point d’en devenir facilement dépassés ou désuets. La solution que nous avons tentée était d’apporter une structure de planification flexible mais significative qui pourrait être utilisée pour concentrer et améliorer nos efforts. Nous avons adapté des éléments de planification éducative et commerciale dans un format qui exposerait une méthode interprétative (comment) sans détails trop spécifiques.

En commençant par des questions sur quoi interpréter pour qui et pourquoi, nous avons sélectionné des méthodes d’interprétation préférables (comment) et ensuite discuté les mesures par lesquelles le succès de la méthode pourrait être jugé. Le plan qui en a résulté est détaillé mais retiendra de la flexibilité avec l’accroissement de l’institution : nous pouvons également évaluer de nouvelles opportunités lorsqu’elles apparaissent. Dans le cas présent, le consensus qui a émergé de la démarche de planification nous a donné à la fois l’orientation et l’élan qui se poursuit encore aujourd’hui.



Un plan maestro interpretativo es el proceso de crear un plan maestro para toda la interpretaciόn en una Instituciόn: un mayor entendimiento. El resultado buscado puede ser detallado como para estar fácilmente fuera de moda u obsoleto. La soluciόn que nosotros intentamos fué preveer una flexible pero significante estructura de planeaciόn que podria ser usada para enfocar y mejorar lo que delinearía un método interpretativo (cόmo) sin caer en el detalle.Comenzando con preguntas de que interpretar, a quién y cόmo, nosotros seleccionamos métodos preferiblemente interpretativos (cόmo) y entonces discutir por que medios se pueden juzgar los éxitos del método. El plan que resultό es comprensivo pero retendrá flexibilidad conforme la instituciόn crece: nosotros podemos también evaluar nuevas oportunidades conforme ellas aparezcan. En nuestro caso, el consenso que emergiό desde el proceso de planeaciόn nos diό ambos, direcciόn y actualidad que continua hasta éste dia.

About the Author

Matthew Cole is the Director of Education for Green Bay Botanical Garden, 2600 Larsen Road
PO Box 12644, Green Bay, Wisconsin 54307-2644. Tel: (920) 490 9457. Fax:(920) 490 9461. Email: Website: