National Trust interpretation

Exploring the connection between interpretation and visitor satisfaction

Among its many other functions, the National Trust is one of Europe’s biggest visitor attractions. It aims to provide experiences that move, teach and inspire the millions of people who come to its properties and outdoor sites each year. 

The Trust delivers extremely satisfying visitor experiences across the country. But they were curious to see how interpretation – the ways in which the stories of a place and its collection are told – can affect the depth in which visitors feel moved, educated and inspired. Not surprisingly, approaches to interpretation varied widely across the Trust’s many sites. 

To conduct this analysis, we gathered data from a large-scale visitor survey and from in-depth studies with visitors and volunteers at a number of Trust properties. 

Satisfaction is intrinsically linked to visit motivation

We found that while visitors greatly enjoyed their social day out, compared with other types of visitor attraction venues such as museums or galleries, far fewer visitors were engaging in the intellectual or emotional experiences they expected.

This was hugely significant, because we found that visitors who did experience these outcomes, were also more satisfied in a myriad of ways.  In other words, with some visitors, the National Trust was not achieving its aim to move, teach or inspire. 

Interpretation is key for emotional and intellectual rewards

We could see that the Trust’s interpretation affected these outcomes when we compared the different venues. Newly interpreted properties saw higher levels of engagement.  

Armed with our insights, the Trust has set about constructing new approaches to interpretation that would retain authenticity, be sympathetic to the sense of place and give people the meaningful outcomes they are looking for.  

This invites curators to step away from explicit interpretation tools such as labels and text panels. Instead they have freedom to embed meaning through props in the rooms such as radio broadcast or letters. Artefacts and clues may be hidden inside drawers or furniture. 

The organisation now has an evaluation handbook so individual properties can continuously monitor the impact of their interpretation on the visitor experience. 

The National Trust is providing a sturdy interpretation scaffold on which people can build their own experience, according to their own needs. Visitors may not see every item of interpretation but what they do discover will be authentic to the venue and their experience will be more memorable and meaningful as a result. 

And that is going to be more satisfying.

As Director, Guy is responsible for delivering pioneering audience engagement projects with many of...

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