By using interpretation and associated media, in the right way, it can welcome you to a site, evoke a sense of place, promote your understanding and encourage you to actively explore the site.

Interpretive media

There are increasingly exciting ways to interpret outdoor sites through the use of digital media, GPS enabled trails, geocaching, and these should all be considered when embarking on a new interpretive project, but it is easy to be seduced by the digital offer. Any discussion on media should be consider both digital and more ‘traditional’ media such as the panel, leaflet or guided tour.

How do I choose the media?

What is of utmost importance at the outset of any interpretive project is that the media choice does not come first. The media choice should be made alongside other considerations.

What is the mission, vision and objectives of your organisation? Think about what your organisation exists to do.

Who are your target audiences? Every media choice will have benefits for different audiences. Understand who is visiting your site and make sure the media choice is suitable for them.

What is your message? Establish a central theme, sub-themes and storylines that will provide you with a framework to communicate your message and facilitate visitor understanding.

How will new interpretation affect the visitor experience? Consider how the interpretive media will fit in with the overall experience provided by the site.

Once you have considered all of these things then you should be able to make an informed decision about which media to use.

Challenges of outdoor interpretation

Outdoor interpretation can be challenging, but if you plan it from the outset a lot of these challenges can be overcome. If your interpretive media is fixed in an urban area consider the potential for vandalism and even theft. Fixed in a rural area vandalism can be as much of a concern as the effect of sunlight, rain and wind. When any interpretation is fixed it will need ongoing maintenance and management and this must be considered within any plan

Guided tour of the Tower of London (c) Yeoman Guard, Wikimedia
Guided tour of the Tower of London (c) Yeoman Guard, Wikimedia

If you are implementing non-fixed interpretation such as leaflets and mobile interpretation you will need to think about how people are going to find out about it. Where is the leaflet being distributed from? How do people find out about the audio-trail for their mobile device?

Don’t let faded panels, graffiti, lack of phone signal and missing waymarkers lead to your visitors having a negative experience. Plan for any eventuality.

How else can I get my message across?

While we might first think of the written word as being the prime communication tool, people, images, sculptures, audio and video are also important and may reach certain audiences more effectively. Face-to-face live and participatory interpretation can also have the most lasting impact on visitors. Nothing beats the experience of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable ranger, warden or volunteer showing you around a site. But live interpretation needs as much planning as any other media. Consider how long the tour or talk should be. How will the live interpreter engage visitors with the site and its stories? How will they deliver that important conservation or management message?

Guides and maps can be interpretive too (c) Lisa Keys
Guides and maps can be interpretive too (c) Lisa Keys

It’s also important to consider engaging people’s senses. Whatever interpretive media you decide to use, you should encourage people to look, smell, touch and listen. ‘Can you see?’ ‘What does it feel like?’ By addressing the senses you can promotes a sense of discovery, allowing people to actively engage with your site’s message and draw their own conclusions. By doing this you will also help to meet the needs of different abilities and learning styles.

Guides to Interpretation

There are a number of publications and online resources to help guide interpretation. Freeman Tilden’s 1957 Interpreting our Heritage is still relevant and a great place to begin. Sam Ham’s Environmental Interpretation: A practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets from 1992 introduces sound interpretive concepts anyone can produce. A Sense of Place, edited by James Carter, is a concise and insightful guide to interpretive planning.

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