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An Interpretive Plan for a Castle in the Clouds

Category: Alliance Blog
A historic mansion with mountains visible in the background
When a historic mountaintop estate in New Hampshire needed to create its first interpretive plan, it turned to the Museum Assessment Program for inspiration. Photo credit: Courtesy of Castle in the Clouds

Every year, dozens of museums around the country participate in AAM’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP), offered in a cooperative agreement with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Through guided self-assessment exercises and a consultative site visit with an expert peer reviewer, participants take stock of their operations in one of five focus areas and identify priorities for future growth.

With applications for the next cycle now open, revisit this article from a recent participant sharing their experience to help you decide if the program is right for your museum. Staff at Castle in the Clouds, a historic estate built atop a mountain in New Hampshire, applied for an Education and Interpretation assessment for help in constructing the site’s first-ever interpretive plan. Read on to find out what they gained from the program, and don’t forget to apply by February 15, 2024, if you want to be next!

When I began my tenure at Castle in the Clouds as Director of Visitor Experience in March of 2020, my immediate priority was to help create our organization’s first-ever interpretive plan. As you might imagine, that intention was soon pushed aside in the upheaval of the pandemic, and it wasn’t until the following year that we were able to start working on it.

When I was finally able to start researching how to write an interpretive plan, I stumbled across the American Alliance of Museums’ Museum Assessment Program (MAP), and our Executive Director encouraged me to apply for the Education and Interpretation Assessment to guide us towards our end goal.

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As someone new to the museum field, this ended up being a great learning experience for me, as I was forced to learn things about our organization that I had never even thought to ask. Of course, I wasn’t doing this alone. Our Interpretative Team worked together throughout the process and made my job a lot easier! I may have been the coordinator, but our Curator, Programs Coordinator, Executive Director, Marketing Coordinator, and Education Committee members each participated in filling out the MAP Workbook.

Each module of MAP gave our group something new to reflect upon and led to discussions that we may not have otherwise had. For instance, to bring our board into the process, we even devoted one of its meetings to a MAP activity, the “life cycle” exercise looking at the stages of institutional development. Board members found the discussion to be extremely helpful in highlighting both how our organization has evolved and how it can continue to grow and change (and the work that this will entail). Taking the time to examine our resources and exhibits, as the workbook’s exercises and discussion questions prompted us to do, allowed us to brainstorm and lay many different ideas on the table. It also helped us to think beyond what we already had, as we examined what other institutions were doing for inspiration. We all really appreciated the “I’m Here on a Date” MAP resource, for example, which had us look at a creative example of content development from the Phoenix Art Museum and talk about how we could adapt something like it for the Castle.

Not all the exercises felt like a good fit for our museum, when they seemed geared toward bigger institutions than ours. For example, an activity that involved picking one out of several exhibits didn’t make sense for our small historic site with only one true “gallery.” But even this became a useful talking point during our MAP discussion meetings. As we decided which articles to set aside or how to adapt certain activities to apply to us, we talked about why we felt it was important to do this—which came down to our assumption that because MAP is geared towards all museums, individual museums may need to focus on what is relevant to avoid becoming bogged down. In the end, this helped us clarify our abilities and priorities to focus on what was most valuable.

Leading up to our site visit, we didn’t just complete the MAP Workbook and activities, but also worked on our interpretative plan in the background. Though most of our meetings had shifted focus to MAP activities, we kept our eye on the end goal, completing little pieces here and there, gathering materials we would need as we moved forward, and discussing what we could at that point, like how to best organize the new themes we would be creating as part of the process.

During our site visit with our assigned Peer Reviewer, Claudia Ocello, we continued our discussions, both in groups and one-on-one so that we all felt individually heard. In addition to being productive, it was also an opportunity to make time for social gatherings with each other in the middle of our busy open season. What a great extra benefit!

One of the best things about consulting with our Peer Reviewer was hearing her affirm things we had all been feeling. For example, she recommended forming teacher and community advisory groups, something that we were hoping to establish even before her visit. Her report echoed much of what we discussed with her and laid out clear action steps that we could present to our board to start moving the needle towards our future. These action steps included things that our interpretative team was already hoping for, as well as several things that we hadn’t even thought of yet, like changing the title of our walking tour in order to give visitors a better sense of what it would include. (Not only did we follow through on this, but we added several hikes this season, both guided and not, in order to expand our visitors’ experiences on our property.)

Though the site visit was only a little over a year ago now, it feels like it’s been several years because of how much has already happened. Since then, at our Peer Reviewer’s suggestion, we have restructured our staff, hiring another director and changing a few titles in order to better fit the road ahead. As of January, I am now the Director of Education & Partnerships and am able to work with our Curator & Director of Preservation on interpretation. In the spring, as we picked up work on the interpretative plan, I was lucky enough to join our Strategic Planning Committee, and we adopted a new plan in April which, among many other things, added “education” into our mission statement, ensuring that our interpretative plan would have a place once finished.

In October, the Education Committee recommended the board adopt the interpretative plan, and they did. As we move forward with building an education department (with our now-formed Castle Teacher Advisory Group) and expanding our interpretative offerings, it can be hard to take a step back and reflect on the journey that got us here. A lot has happened since I began my journey at Castle in the Clouds, but I am extremely proud of all we have accomplished and of all that we will accomplish as we move forward. Participating in the Museum Assessment Program for Education & Interpretation was a vital step in the creation of the interpretative plan, because it brought us all together to discuss where we were and where we wanted to go, while also bringing in an outside voice to help us dream big. Would the plan have been finished without MAP? Sure, and probably sooner, but I don’t think it would have turned out quite the same, as the program led our team to reflect on and discuss topics that expanded how we thought about our museum’s potential.

About Castle in the Clouds

Castle in the Clouds was listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. It is operated by the Castle Preservation Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, whose mission is to preserve, interpret, and share the buildings and landscape of Castle in the Clouds as a cultural and educational resource for the benefit of the public. The historic estate boasts a sixteen-room Arts & Crafts style mansion that was built in 1914 by shoe manufacturer Thomas G. Plant as well as other historical buildings, hiking trails, and restaurants.

About the Museum Assessment Program

MAP is a national, voluntary program that helps museums strengthen operations, plan for the future, and meet standards through self-assessment and a consultative site visit from an expert peer reviewer. The program offers several assessment types that focus on multiple aspects of museum operations, allowing participants to work on various methods of self-improvement.

MAP is supported through a cooperative agreement between the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the American Alliance of Museums.

Learn More About MAP – A sample application PDF is available on our website, and online applications are now being accepted through Feb. 15, 2024. And, check out our twelve-minute video, The Insider’s Guide to MAP.

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