Interpretive Panels

Interpretative panels are a great way to give people some more information about your cemetery and are a popular, simple way to start! So what’s in a good panel?

For this we turn to a famous book in the museum world (the author jokingly mentions that her book is the “most stolen” from museum conference book tables), Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, by Beverly Serrel. I had the second edition which was published in 2015.

In this book, Serrel emphasises the importance of story over lists of facts, which some interpretative panels fall victim to. While your panel should certainly be factually

Salem Pioneer Cemetery Interpretive Panel

The interpretive panel at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery. It includes a map, interesting individuals buried there, and a narrative about the cemetery itself. (Photo by author)

correct, think about how to present those facts in a narrative form.

In this panel found at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, there are several different examples of what your interpretive panel could include. A map is a great start, and would be a great panel to have at your cemetery, even if you don’t want to add any other information. That helps people find specific plots and will be especially helpful to those doing genealogical work.

Think about what would useful for your visitors to know. Is there a great story associated with the property itself? Is the history of the development interesting or unique? Do you want to avoid historical interpretation and simply make it easier for people doing genealogical research, like this example at the Lee Mission Cemetery?

Lee Mission Board

This panel is very simple: contact info and a map. Short and sweet can work well! (Photo by author)

Lee Mission Burial Book

This list contains the names and locations of each person buried at the cemetery. (Photo by author)

In the wooden box to the side, there is a laminated list of burials that people can browse through, find a location keyed to the map, and go to look at the grave. It’s simple and very effective. Make sure to do what works best for your cemetery.

You don’t have to just have panels that relate to the cemetery as a whole. Do you have a particularly large or beautiful monument? An often visited grave? Consider adding a small, yet informative panel somewhat near the grave itself. Of course, since this is a cemetery, it’s important to consider where you bury the posts for the panel. At the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, a group coalition is putting together plans to put an interpretive panel near the site of a recently discovered Chinese shrine. Because the shrine is at the edge of the cemetery, there is room between the feature and the property line where there are no burials, and thus an appropriate place to put the panel posts (there will be ground penetrating radar done to make sure, just in case). The Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries offers grants to help Oregon cemeteries with just these kinds of projects, so don’t be intimidated by cost!

Want some more ideas? Simply do an internet search for “cemetery interpretive panels.” There are hundreds of examples that pop up which should give plenty of ideas. Totally out of ideas? Ask if a local museum or historical society might partner with you. The staff are usually trained professionals who can help you develop a really great panel.

Good luck, and remember, the best kind of panel is going to be different for every cemetery, so do what is best for your cemetery and your community!