Whether your workplace is a museum, park, nature center, zoo, cultural institution, exhibit design firm, or other: if you do interpretive planning, Nina Simon’s “The Art of Relevance” is worth not only reading, but keeping handy.
Simon is both a field luminary and an admirable stylist; her refreshingly unacademic sophomore offering reads at a quick clip thanks to her clear and candid prose.
Further, “The Art of Relevance” elegantly exhibits all the major hallmarks of interpretive planning methodology that we champion here at Taylor Studios: it’s thematic, captivating, organized, and—of course—relevant.
The author’s use of keys as a metaphor for relevance serves as a thematic through line from cover art to closing passage. This motif is especially effective because what a key is and does are common knowledge across many cultures. Simon connects tangibles to intangibles by using the physical form and function of keys (and doors) to relate abstract concepts.
Interpretive planners are called to steep ourselves in research without losing touch with the interests and appetites of our audience (in many cases, the general public). When writing for exhibits, we guard against using too much scientific jargon or other “expert” terminology, lest we bore visitors—or perhaps worse, alienate them. To attract and retain their attention, we use creative storytelling rather than encyclopedic exposition, appealing to people’s emotions as well as their intellects.
Simon does this, too, by weaving personal anecdotes and narrative case studies throughout her book. These snippets of storytelling work in tandem with the more utilitarian/instructive passages, sometimes foreshadowing key concepts, other times reinforcing them. As a result, “The Art of Relevance” is both captivating and memorable.
Even the structure and formatting of the book is notably reminiscent of the hierarchical organization of exhibit texts (according to interpretive planning best practices). Ostensibly for readability and pacing, the book is chunked into five parts, each of which contains a handful of subsections that aren’t denoted as “chapters” but might be thought of as such. Each major section is prefaced with a succinct intro page, not unlike the introductory panel in a museum gallery: a bold title followed by a concise summary—no more than a sentence of two. The subsequent text delves deeper into the concepts, broken up by intermittent headlines every few pages. (The catchiest among them might be “Meaning, Effort, Bacon.” I think I’ve found a new morning mantra!)
“The Art of Relevance” is universal enough to appeal and apply to a wide range of professionals beyond the interpretive planning realm, in both public and private sectors. It addresses several tough topics of broad-based relevance, such as debunking fears (or unfounded criticisms) of “dumbing down” resources/products/programs, the human tendency to “otherize” perceived outsiders, controversy surrounding institutions and activism, and the important differences among an audience’s needs, wants, and assets.
As Simon incisively notes, asking “is it relevant?” begs the follow-up question, “to whom?” The foundation of any successful effort toward relevance is an intimate understanding and appreciation of the community one serves.
In interpretive planning, this means getting to know a site’s visitors—or prospective visitors—in order to discover opportunities for creating new keys, new doors, or entirely new rooms for them.
Before we can sincerely invite people inside, we have to meet them where they are. Doing so takes humility and courage: two traits that Nina Simon invokes in the first few pages of her book and exemplifies throughout.