Effective Design of Interpretation Centres

Though they share the fundamental mission of educating and preserving culture, museums and interpretation centres differ in their approach and theoretical objectives. While museums tend to be broader institutions, with their collections and exhibitions covering various topics, interpretation centres focus on providing a specific educational experience on a particular theme, using interactive and participatory approaches, often linked to local tourism.

What exactly are interpretation centres?

An interpretation centre is a specialised facility that develops permanent exhibition halls focused on themes highlighting distinctive resources of the territory, generally linked to tourist attractions.

This denomination also applies to tourist offices that establish exhibition halls near cultural or natural resources, providing an educational and informative space that seeks to enrich visitors' experience by exploring and understanding interactively the distinctive aspects of the environment.

Origin, approach, and debate on interpretation centres

The history of interpretation centres dates back to 1960, when the first ones were created in the United States. Their boom came in the 1990s, coinciding with economic prosperity. These spaces, conceived initially as a tool to explain and contextualise relevant heritage elements, have evolved significantly.

During the 90s, interpretation centres became a recurring topic in the heritage field, generating debates and criticisms, especially from the museum sector. In contrast, other sectors saw them as comprehensive solutions for tourism development. Many of those centres have been highly successful in recent years, while others have maintained deficient visitor numbers and even closed their doors.

This experience tells us that an interpretation centre must be strategically planned for its survival and success. Coordination among the various public administrations in the area and an approach that interests both tourists and the local public will allow it to be a sustainable facility. In this regard, an interpretation centre is rarely attractive but rather in relation to a relevant heritage element and the connection with its territory's historical, natural, and cultural richness.

How to design interpretation centres

Knowing the history of interpretation centres or visitor centres, we must evaluate each specific case and the current context to build a beneficial and exciting space for visitors over time.

Below, we will discuss a few aspects of interest for creating truly relevant interpretation centres.

1. Research and context

As we have seen, successful interpretation centres are directly related to their environment and can be linked to very different spaces or themes. Knowing the exhibition's central theme in depth will condition how to approach the entire project and is undoubtedly essential to offer a relevant experience. For example, in the case of a natural park, this could include fauna, flora, geology, and unique characteristics of the environment.

We can also explore how the centre relates to the space it occupies, that is, what the impact of the building is and how visitors will reach it. What will its facade be like? Is access easy, or does it require mountain vehicles? Can they find it casually, or must we signal the surroundings? Does the weather allow for museography or any activity in the outdoor area?

2. Definition of specific educational objectives

Beyond tourism, education and outreach should be the ultimate goals of any interpretation centre. However, being more specific will help us focus the entire exhibition, from distribution and zoning to graphic design.

Does the interpretation centre seek to raise awareness about biodiversity, local history, or tourist activities? Does it aim to explain unknown details of a specific monument or have a cross-sectional approach? Does it want to be accessible to children or focus only on adults? Establishing specific educational goals related to heritage will effectively guide the design and presentation of information.

3. Thematic design and visitor flow

Organizing space thematically and considering visitor flow is essential in designing any exhibition. In the case of interpretation centres, emphasis must be placed on the overall visitor experience, not only within the room but also outside. What will their day have been like? Will they have visited other nearby monuments or exhibitions? Is the centre located next to a heritage site or distant? Has the visitor received any previous information about what they will see?

All these questions can vary the content of the interpretation centre and how it is approached. When in doubt, it is generally better to address a few points and explain them clearly than to try to cover too many themes. If we have a small space, there will be even more reason to focus on something specific.

There are many ways to approach an exhibition in an interpretation centre, from organizing information by types of activities or regions to structuring the discourse based on various aspects of the same ecosystem. The degree of contextualization we offer to the viewer will also depend on our space and the population's general knowledge about that theme.

4. Strategic use of technology

Since they do not have original pieces, many technological elements are usually included in the design of interpretation centres, such as interactive screens or audiovisuals. They are undoubtedly a very good resource for achieving an interactive and enjoyable experience.

Ensure these elements are not included out of inertia but have an apparent reason within the exhibition discourse. For example, in an interpretation centre about the farmhouses of a region, an interactive display showing the architecture of a farmhouse in 3D and the traditional uses of each room can add an attractive data visualisation that complements the visit to a real house.

Whatever devices you choose, remember that they all require maintenance, which can sometimes be expensive. Select reliable systems that can work smoothly for years and do not require constant centre spending.

5. Inclusion of sensory elements

As with technological elements, sensory elements are beautiful for the design of interpretation centres. They are a perfect complement to texts and visuals that also appeal to all types of audiences.

Thanks to them, we can design panels with small "touch-touch" areas, for example, showing replicas of native flora or materials and tools used by our ancestors.

Use lighting and sound to reflect natural environments or characteristic scents to transport visitors. These elements will contribute to immersion and emotional connection, creating a richer and more memorable experience.

6. Offer of complementary activities

Beyond the exhibition itself, one of the most exciting aspects that an interpretation centre can offer is activities led by professionals.

A good idea is to offer various packages with guided tours, walks through the environment, or other animations that complement and expand the exhibition's contents. Depending on the user profile, we can have packs of specific activities to offer them a more complete and personalised visit. For example, for a family visitor, we can have a pack that includes a game that brings the contents closer to the little ones. For a group of friends, a geocaching-style challenge could motivate them to visit other lesser-known heritage sites.

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Small educational laboratories: the future of interpretation centres

It is possible to design an attractive, lasting, and beneficial interpretation centre for its environment if it is well-planned and has a solid foundation.

Unlike museums, these exhibitions have greater freedom since they do not have original pieces to preserve or, therefore, have strict regulations. They can be a perfect playground for designers and visitors as they allow experimenting with new formats and approaches.

The interpretation centres of the future will guide visitors through an educational experience where interactivity and active participation are crucial elements. Visitors should always be familiar with the reality of their environment and sociocultural context.

Theoretical and design differences between museums and interpretation centres highlight the diversity of approaches to presenting and transmitting cultural and educational knowledge. Each plays a valuable role in the cultural landscape, contributing to preserving and disseminating the richness of history and society.


Miró, M., (2012). Buenas y malas prácticas en la creación de Centros de Interpretación [en línea]. Raining Stones. Interpretar el patrimonio. [Accessed on March 13, 2024]. Available at: https://manelmiro.com/2012/03/02/malas-y-buenas-practicas-en-la-creacion-de-centros-de-interpretacion/