A more developed stage than leaflets or onsite panels is an outdoor exhibition area. A number of panels—which might include text, illustrations, photographs, interactive devices and ‘touchy-feely’ exhibits (tree – cones, fur, antlers, stone etc.)—are arranged in a sequence, perhaps near where trails start. The design of the panels can be an extension in structure and materials of the information panels (see Chapter 4), taking the information a stage further into interpretation. An enclosure formed from the panels and open to the air and natural light can also work quite well.
Alternatively, a shelter of the type described for picnic areas or an overlook platform can be used to house the exhibition area, giving some weather protection and a vantage point to help relate the interpretative story to the landscape. Otherwise an enclosure formed from the panels and open to the air and natural light can also work quite well.
The biggest and most comprehensive way of presenting interpretation is at a special centre. During the 1930s, before the term ‘interpretation’ was coined, the US National Park Service built what it called ‘museums’. Some of the buildings were of outstanding design, and they serve as models of the attention to detail for functional requirements and the harmonious visual relationships between the building and the surrounding landscape. However, a visitor centre building can be very expensive, and a fundamental first question is whether or not it is essential for the delivery of the interpretative objectives of the site: hence a careful economic appraisal of all the options should be undertaken to determine the most appropriate range of facilities to be provided, and the size of building in relation to the expected number of visitors.
Visitor centres usually combine some or all of the following:
– A reception area and information counter manned by staff, at least in the main busy periods. The staff answer questions and manage the building.
– An exhibition area consisting of static displays, interactive or hands-on gadgets, dioramas, artefacts and things to handle (‘touchy-feely’). This may be similar to the outdoor display brought indoors, or may be more sophisticated, as the
controlled environment and availability of power make it possible to use computers, action models and so on.
– An audiovisual area. This might be a theatre where tiered seating creates the best views for a cinematic film, video or tape/slide, or a smaller, more informal area with fewer seats for a television, video or a tape/slide.
– A souvenir and book sales area where revenue can be made. Books on natural history, the history of the area, guides and maps, stories and other appropriate material such as posters or art prints are well-tried merchandise. Other items might include pens, pencils, badges (buttons), mugs, toys, games and crafts made from, labelled or otherwise identified with the area and its attractions.
– A classroom or study area for environmental education of both children and adults.
– Some comforts for the visitor, including toilets/restrooms, perhaps a cafe or restaurant, and spaces for lectures or talks (possibly the same area as for the audiovisual display).
– Staff facilities, including office space, toilets, storage and workshop areas.
The size of the various spaces required needs to be carefully assessed relative to the expected numbers of visitors at different times. The result can be a substantial building with the potential to make a significant impact on the landscape, and with high capital and running costs. The design of such a building should be carried out by an architect. Different approaches can be taken to fit it into the landscape, which have been successful in various settings.
A range of both good and bad designs of interpretative signs used on along trails: (a) A fairly large multi-sided structure with roof provides information and interpretation Quite a lot of material can be presented, and several people can look at it at one time. This is more appropriate for the entrance to the trail. The roof is a fussy aspect of the
design. Koli National Park, Finland. (b) A small panel screen- printed on aluminium and housed in this little shelter is an overdone structure for a small amount of material. A fussy solution like this is also quite expensive to make. Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, West Virginia,
USA. (c) An interesting and effective exhibit made of laminated sheets, which open like a book. The graphics are photographs of pages of a ranger’s notebook, recording daily sightings of wildlife and descriptions of seasonal changes. Well presented and generally sturdy, although it can be damaged. Skunk Cabbage Trail, Glacier National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (d) Interpretative structures made from large slabs of timber. Laminated panels can be clipped into recessed sections, or a side-piece can be unfastened to
allow a graphic panel to be slid in or out. Forest Enterprise, Britain. (e) A structure using a tall post carrying site and organizational information acts as part of a frame to an angled interpretative panel using laminated material. Scottish National Heritage. (f) For a vandal – prone area, tubular steel, either zinc coated or Cor-ten rust patina steel, can be used to make a strong structure to hold a laminated panel fixed to flanges or crosspieces.
This structure provides a
more ambitious yet still outdoor
exhibition structure. It gives limited cover and protection against the weather. The neutral, almost sculptural form and natural finish work very well.