Sign of our Times

Interpretation and communication of information formed the theme of the latest London Parks & Green Spaces Forum seminar


As more of our parks and green spaces are expensively and extensively restored, so it becomes more important to provide local information for visitors about the sites they are visiting to help them relate to the places and their history. This is where heritage interpretation comes into play.

At a seminar at City Hall on 16th March 2007, organised by the Biodiversity Working Group of the London Parks and Green Spaces Forum, and supported by the Mayor of London's Office, a number of experts on heritage interpretation were assembled to discuss issues of interpretation and outreach for London's parks and green spaces.

Maicolm Whitehead, Head of learning at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre, opened the seminar by emphasising that Interpretation is about Communication. Interpretation must communicate in a way that enhances the visitors' experience and draws on their individual prior knowledge. He warned of the dangers of the expert assuming too much prior knowledge by the visitor.

Malcolm was followed by Ruth Hayhurst, who asked what made good interpretation and rounded up a consensus among the audience that a good guided walk, for example, would be focussed, entertaining and inspiring. Ruth was an enthusiastic advocate of the TORE principles of interpretation: interpretation should be 

A sandblasted timber map makes a tactile signboard
(Shelly Signs)
A sandblasted timber map makes a tactile signboard
(Shelly Signs)

She gave an example of how to make a theme relevant: you could relate the size of tiny pipistrelle bats to your audience by saying that you could fit 100 of them into a pint glass.

Malcolm Whitehead returned to give an entertaining presentation on 'Spectacular ways to mess up interpretation'. He pointed out that "Curators are from Mars, educators from Venus" and emphasised the need for simplicity. It was important to know your audience - interpretation is not the same as information. Good interpretation should provoke, relate, reveal. Finally he exhorted us to keep in mind that the people remember 

10% of what they hear, 
30% of what they read, 
50% of what they see, and 
90% of what they do.

Be Welcoming

Martyn Foster, Manager of Wild in the Parks, described some of the work his team had done to attract new audiences into our parks and open spaces. He told us ruefully that disaffected young people who have a high boredom threshold were particularly hard to reach. Among his top tips were to 

Lectern-style interpretation board from Shelly Signs
Lectern-style interpretation board from Shelly Signs

Often a tangential approach worked well. Working with community groups and inviting ethnic groups to a Picnic in the Park for example, was more successful than inviting them on a Wildlife Walk.

A speaker from the Sensory Trust described the work they are doing to promote development of inclusive environments for people with physical and sensory impairment.

He described a case study which used a seasonal trail at Stourhead Landscape Garden to provide a range of experiences for example, listening to the rain under a tree canopy.

He also felt it was important to involve potential users early on in developing projects of this type and emphasised the need for a range of access materials for example, audio guides, large print guides, sensory maps etc.

Lambeth Experience

lan Boulton, Project Officer with the LB Lambeth, described his council's approach to getting people into parks and providing interpretation aids once they are there. A major problem is vandals attacking signs and interpretation panels.

Some of his suggestions were obvious but often overlooked, making sure, for example, that the name of the Council as the park's owner was clearly visible on the signs, in the same format as the official logo used on official council communications with the public. Display panels should have contact numbers, be up to date and not obscure sight lines. Several members of the audience agreed that too often on entering a park the signs obscured the visitor's initial view of the grounds.

Other interesting points emerged in his talk and in the discussion which followed. Interpretation panels with a dark green background were less attractive to vandals. A speaker from Shelly Signs said that the frame of a display could be as important as the message in deterring vandalism. A natural timber surround, for example, was often less challenging to vandals than a really stout metal frame.

lan Boulton also said that his council had identified signs in parks which were most subject to attack and kept the design and construction of these simple and easily replaced. He aimed to replace them once damaged as quickly as possible, so that 1he vandals did not win.

Encouraging Young People

Other speakers emphasised the need to encourage young people to identify with their local park before they became teenagers and there was a general demand for signs which could be read visually, like signs showing which were cycle paths and encouraging cyclists sharing paths with walkers to ring their bells. Malcolm Whitehead reiterated the importance of humour in getting a message across.

Finally it was generally agreed that displaying messages in too many languages could be confusing and a simple, humorous, well-illustrated message in English could often be very effective.

Seminar Speakers: