Interpreting your building

If people understand their building, they will value it; by valuing it, they will want to look after it; in caring for it, they will help others enjoy it. From enjoyment of the historic environment comes a greater thirst to understand it and the circle begins again.
Dr Simon Thurley, former Chief Executive, English Heritage

Interpreting your building for local people and visitors can be incredibly exciting. In the average church, chapel or meeting house there are a huge variety of stories to tell; architectural history, social history, monuments, works of art, your place in national history and much more.

Choosing what to include, and in which type of interpretation can take a lot of thought and planning. But, like in many things, start small, evaluate the response and then develop.

The content and type of interpretation you choose can vary widely, and it’s well worth having a look around some other heritage sites as well as the websites of interpretation suppliers to get some ideas. If you are planning a major interpretation project, and perhaps applying for funding to do so, then writing a fairly general brief for a number of companies to respond to will probably highlight some ideas you hadn’t thought of.

Association for Heritage Interpretation: homepage

Heritage Lottery Fund: interpretation guidance

Interpret Europe: heritage interpretation

Herefordshire, PETERCHURCH, St Peter (Russell Lewis 2010)The stories we tell

Big stories and tiny details are equally fascinating so tell them both.

Make sure that all research is thorough and accurate. Don’t just repeat what was in the previous guidebook, it may be wrong.

Christianity & Culture: the English parish church

Heritage Inspired: interpreting your site: how

Heritage Inspired: interpreting your site: what

Armthorpe St Leonard & St Mary GuidebookSilkstone All Saints & St James the Greater Free LeafletThe written word

The most common form of church interpretation is a free leaflet or a guidebook.

We see a huge number, both through visiting churches and submitted with grant applications. Often written several years ago, and perhaps photocopied out of all recognition, they can be a great disappointment. But yours doesn’t have to be this way!

When writing text for an information sheet, guidebook or interpretative panel please bear in mind your audience. Too much text can discourage all but the most interested visitors, and a writer's over enthusiasm may put people off. Try and make text exciting and engaging, more like a guidebook than a history book.

In colour guidebooks include high quality, large, colourful images. Visitors may be unable to take these themselves, and may buy a guidebook as a souvenir as much as for a source of information.

Lastly, also bear in mind some of the problems that reading can present - poor eyesight, low lighting, dyslexia. Very few people are illiterate, but a surprising number have reading problems (eg long sight, bifocal glasses). The average reading age in the UK is 13.

Open University: How to write a church guide

Crowland Abbey WebsiteTechnology and all that

More and more churches are exploring the use of new technology to help visitors understand their building.

Using technology in an appropriate way for your church can be a very cost effective way of bringing an exciting new level of understanding, and can even help to attract visitors by reaching new people in new ways.

Before the visit:

  • a bespoke app, or being part of a group app, which gives visitors information about how to find and get to the church
  • a Google InsideView tour, which attaches an interior virtual tour of the church into the streetview platform

During the visit:

  • a touch screen or tablets for visitors, with in depth information about the church
  • QR codes on objects or interpretative panels, linking to a description or more detail
  • using specialist photo merge or augmented reality apps to blend the old and new, or even to make characters or objects speak
  • a bespoke app which visitors download to their own device and which guides them around the church, which might include audio, video, text and images

After the visit:

  • encourage visitors to continue to engage with the church via Facebook or Twitter, particularly using a hashtag you suggest

Christianity & Culture: Shakespeare's church app

ChurchBuild: Aurasma video

Holy Trinity Micklegate: Micklegate Priory revealed

Leicester Photo: heritage