The art of interpreting wildlife at RSPB Ynys-hir

The fleeting, changeable and unpredictable nature of wildlife is part of why we love it. It also makes it aggravatingly difficult to interpret. RSPB Ynys-hir rises to the challenge brilliantly

Ynys-hir in the Dyfi Valley is a beautiful place.

Ynys-hir in the Dyfi Valley is a beautiful place.

Wild things hide, skulk about and don’t show up on demand. They fly away, die, eat each other, make out they are not there. Then, just when it all seems too difficult, they will do something so jaw-droppingly, hair-raisingly amazing that it makes life sparkle and tingle.

It is a challenge to interpret this unpredictability and we have long argued that permanent panels are a really poor solution for something that will be different on every visit. We are strong advocated that fixed interpretation at wildlife sitesshould often be temporary and responsive to what is happening. Over the last few years quite a lot of people who run nature reserves in the UK (notably the RSPB and the WWT) seem to be agreeing with us and are developing nice ideas for seasonal interpretation.

RSPB Ynys-hir in Wales really impressed by taking it further.

Firstly, when we arrived they gave us this. Up to the minute information on what has been seen and a specific call to action on the Greenland white front.

P1330575 49A list of  what to look out for at this time of year and a map. Bang on the button – just the information we needed. The fact that it was given to us by a friendly and knowledgeable person at the desk made it even more pleasurable. That would have been enough for me to blog about the good visit – but it’s not the best bit

The reserve is lovely and looked glorious in autumn.  That would have been enough for me to blog about I much I enjoyed my visit – but it’s still not the best bit.

P1330392 19

We found lovely examples of temporary seasonal interpretation.


Timely information, related to what we could see and written on local slate to boot. It demonstrates that people here notice and enjoy what’s around them and are prepared to take a bit of trouble to show it to visitors. Nice work that I could well have blogged about – but there was even better to come.

When we got back to the small visitor centre, the woodburning stove was lit. The comfy chairs around it were empty and inviting. The coffee and snacks were high quality. The staff were exceptionally friendly and interested in us and our visit.  That would certainly have been enough for me to blog about a warm, welcoming visit – but the best bit was still to come.

The coffee and snacks were high quality. The staff were exceptionally friendly and interested in us and our visit.

Even better than the fire,the chairs and the coffee was the browsing material. Inspired and inspirational.

This is the best bit. Ynys-hir has an ‘artist on site’, Becky Thorley-Fox, and her work is on show in the visitor centre. Her sketches are pinned on the wall and shown in two portfolios

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The combination of wildlife art and wild places is resonant. The sketches embodied the transient, mobile delight of being with wildlife. The centre manager told us the sketches on the wall change week to week. I think that is possibly the most brilliant way to reflect the dynamism of the natural world and how it touches people I have ever seen in a visitor centre .

At Ynys Hir the RSPB is showcasing and supporting  a young wildlife artist whose work celebrates the joy of being there. That’s a good thing to do  too.

This shy fox made its way home with me.

This glimpse of a  fox made its way home with me.

Sitting by the fire, looking at the art in the portfolios and on the wall, was lovely. It made us happy. Of course in business terms, it extended our visit, built our relationship with Ynys Hir and with the RSPB and encouraged us to spend more money.

We bought these too.

We bought these too.

We left with happy memories of a hospitable, beautiful reserve and with two pieces of original art. That’s one good day out.




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Last Post at Menin Gate, Ypres

Well, I certainly under-estimated the significance of this event. Spot the heritage professional on a steep learning curve!

The Menin Gate

The Menin Gate

As soon as I heard that I had a meeting in Brussels, I knew I wanted to extend the trip so that I could visit  Ypres. It has started to feel ridiculous and almost embarrassing that I have not visited the Western Front given all I have said and written about the interpretation and commemoration of conflict. I knew I was putting it off. I find all this war stuff hard to handle. It fascinates me, but it drains me.

I had heard great things about the In Flanders Field Museum so it was a ‘if you only do one thing’ must-see (see my next blog). I booked the last remaining room in Ypres (a wonderful loft apartment ( sleeps  6) at the Holiday Home Ieper Market Square run by the lovely Din Augustus. I recommend it highly).

A websearch reminded me that the Menin Gate was in Ypres and that there was a daily Last Post. I pictured a lone bugle, a few people standing around and those always-haunting notes ringing out at dusk. I added it to my itinerary.

At about 1830 I wanted a stroll so wandered over to the Menin Gate. As a structure it was both bigger and more moving than I had anticipated. I hadn’t realised that it commemorated those from the Allied forces who had no named grave – lost, missing or blown to unidentifiable bits. Over 55,000 of them.
Even at 1830 there were a few people standing about. By 1845, there were more and I assumed I had got the time wrong and the event must be 1900. By 1915 I realised that I had totally underestimated the scale of this event: at least 1500 people had gathered. By the time the ceremony started (punctually at 2000) the roads were closed and there was a crowd of at least 3000.

This was a short, moving international ceremony. A reading in an Australian accent, laying of wreaths, Belgian monks singing, a Canadian voice to conclude.  Belgians, Germans and Brits around me in the crowd. A mixture of people laying the wreaths. I checked the tributes afterwards and found contributions from the Australian government, several from British schools, and one from the ‘Ride to Wall’ bikers – I had thought I’d clocked them.  These felt like personal tributes, more diverse, less precise and formal, warmer than the Remembrance Sunday ceremonials at the NMA.

I found the sight of the teenagers laying wreaths powerful and emotional. Their messages were eloquent about the impact of visiting this part of Belgium. Sometimes they were thoughtful and fresh  ‘we feel honoured to live in the future you made possible for us‘. Sometimes they were more familiar: ‘you died fighting for our freedom‘.
 I wondered again whether that is true of this war and whether these young people, and indeed the rest of us, will have an opportunity to discuss and examine that.

More than anything else, visiting the Menin Gate hammered home how the waves from 1914-1918 tore across the world, through lives, through families and how they still resonate for so many people today.
It may be that the memorialisation, the interpretation, the storytelling, the remembering, the reconstructions and discussions around the centenary of the First World War are the largest, most widespread and most orchestrated (and therefore to me the most interesting) public heritage event ever.

POSTSCRIPT:  I was very moved by Ypres and by the Menin Gate ceremonial. I woke up the next morning with a blinding clarity that the best way to mark the centenary of the First World War would be to extend the commemoration of those with no marked graves to include the Germans – rather in the spirit of Attaturk and his letter to the ANZAC mothers, that has so inspired me. Half an hour later, I realised what a crazy impractical idea that was. Four hours later I know who I was going to write to about it.

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Some questions about interpreting conflict

Some questions about interpreting conflict

I really didn’t know what I was embarking on when I closed the Association for Heritage Interpretation’s 2012 national conference with some stirring words  about the challenges, opportunities and responsibilities for heritage interpreters at the centenary of the First World War.

I hope cleaning up the village memorials is just the first step in engaging with the legacy and impact of the 1914-1918 war.

I hope cleaning up the village memorials is just the first step in engaging with the legacy and impact of the 1914-1918 war.

  • Actually, I don’t know whether what I said stirred anyone else but it stirred me. It made me realise that the next few years in my country (UK) would have a strong heritage focus and that could be important for me and people like me.

    Not for the first time, I could spot an important thing that I wanted to think about well before I knew what or how to think. My interest had been raised by my work on Remembrance at the National Memorial Arboretum and my work with the National Army Museum. Both had been sensitive projects and thought-provoking experiences.

    At that very early stage, I had some questions to focus my thinking.

    How can interpret something that happened far away (as well as long ago)?

    What is the relationship between remembrance and interpretation?

    Can contemporary interpretation challenge engrained national myths?

    Is there anything new to say? Any new perspectives? Any stones unturned?

    How do we engage the great grandchildren and great grandchildren in this? And should we ?

    How on earth do we explain something as complex and murky as the causes of the First World War?

    The next year, the international NAI, Interpret Europe, Swedish Centre for Nature Conference in Sweden in 2013 had the rather ambitious title ‘ Heritage Interpretation can make us citizens of the world’. I gave a paper on interpreting the First World War as citizens of the world.  It made a strong impact and I learned a lot from the conversations afterwards.

    Since then I have delivered similar (although always evolving) papers and keynotes on similar topics at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Croatia, Ireland and, completing the circle, at the 2014 AHI Conference last week. At all of these I have had fascinating, experience-stretching conversations.

    It seems many of us have stories connected with war. One of my family stories lies in this picture.

    It seems many of us have stories connected with war. One of my family’s stories lies in this picture.

    This topic seems to touch a nerve. It makes people think. People come to me and tell me stories, often about their family’s experience of war (and not just the 1914-1918 war). They ask me questions arising out of these stories. I have the impression that unsurprisingly our experiences of conflict leave us with questions that last for generations. Here are some of them.

    ‘I do not know how to discuss the war with my class because it has children from German and British families in  it.’  (In discussion this became an opportunity to reflect modern Europe. She was a surprised how many people in the room had mixed Allied/German blood in their veins. I believe and hope she was less fearful and daunted afterwards.)

    I am Jewish,  how  do I tell my young children about the Holocaust and how their grandfather fled from Germany without destroying the safe happy world they live in? ( we chatted about it and to my great relief she found her answer.)

    Is the focus on the home front in interpretation an evasion of the hard stories about the political and military errors that led to the war?

    Do we always have to tell the other side of the story? ( My answer: no, I have never said that. I do suggest that you remember your readers will always have different perspectives and understanding. I also now feel strongly you need to be clear whose story you are telling.)

    What are your tips for telling the story of our civil war to tourists?

    Where  do think the place of healing and reconciliation is in this process of memorialisation?

    Should interpretation be in a physically different place from remembrance? Are the two processes actually compatable?

    Is focussing on interpreting the war (including, I think, my talking about it) glorifying war? Do you realise how offensive this is to the Germans?

    Are you trying to undermine the heroism of our soldiers and what they went through to give us our freedom?

    These are all good questions that have made me think. they have helped me to see more clearly what I think we should be thinking about.

    Some are hard questions that I hope are rhetorical because I don’t know all the answers. I certainly can’t always think of the answers on the spur of the moment. but they do keep me thinking.

    Some of the questions have challenged is my agenda in pursuing this.  That’s another important story which will be a future blog.

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    ‘Good’ wildlife, ‘bad’ wildlife?

    I have of late become sensitised to bias and subjectivity in interpretation.  That’s not surprising as I have been working at the interpretation of conflict and contested histories. The importance of recognising perspective and prejudice is clear there. 

    There is more than one way of looking at almost everything. That's what makes communicating about culture, heritage and environment  so interesting. (picture: Piccadilly station, Manchester)

    There is more than one way of looking at almost everything. That’s what makes communicating about culture, heritage and environment so interesting. (picture: Piccadilly station, Manchester)

    I have found that the aspects of a history are tense or troublesome are often expressed as omissions in the interpretation, in the stories that have gaps in them. Things are left unsaid – sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

    Interpreting wildlife can seem much more straightforward than delving into the murky waters of human history.

    Nature is so much more black and white (especially orcas, avocets, ring ouzels and marbled whites). Except that some of it – like some history – is darker than that.  Some of it we are not neutral about at all.

    Some does not fit well with the story we want to tell. Sometimes wildlife is awkward.



    This picture (taken on my i-phone) comes from a nature reserve run by a wildlife organisation dedicated to building good connections between people and wildlife. There are of course many such reserves run by a range of organisations with similar goals across the UK.

    What struck me as I looked at this rat family scurrying about under the bird feeders, is that it is a long time since I had such a good view of rats.

    The next thing that struck me is that although there was attractive interpretation about the birds that were visiting the feeders, there was none on these mammals.  That sounds like discrimination, in any money.

    That ‘gap’ in the story can’t be because the mammals are hard to see. They are very obvious. Unusually for mammals, that tend to be shy, secretive and nocturnal, the rats are predictable. A visitor with a long lens told me he often comes here to photograph them.

    It seems that the rats have been edited out of the interpretation.  I imagine this was based on the reasonable assumption that ‘people do not like rats’. As generalisations go, I imagine that’s a good one. The argument seems to have gone ‘so let’s turn a blind eye, and keep quiet’.  Just like we do with uncomfortable histories.

    I can understand why. There are problems with talking about rats, especially with rats under a bird feeder.  However, not talking about something does not make it go away. The history of the slave trade is still embedded in many of the great houses of this country, for instance,  even if it is not mentioned. The rats are still there, twitching their whiskers, crawling over each other and stuffing their faces with bird seed.

    These rats can provoke strong responses from visitors.

    These rats can provoke strong responses from visitors.

    Like most wildlife organisations, the one that owns this site, supports all of nature and  the value of habitats with all their diversity. But maybe not rats? Can we have an ecological reason for this apparent value judgement? I suspect not.

    There is a more worrying angle to this. Again, along with many others, this organisation frequently suggests that people could do more for wildlife in their garden.  That is a very good idea. However, despite the interpretation boards’ silence on the subject, the rats tell their own story on that. ‘We’ll come too’ they say to any visitor who will listen. ‘Put out the food,’ they say ‘ and we’ll be there, possibly in drove ‘. I suggest, that’s the point at which the organisation absolutely needs to join the dialogue.

    Similarly, I suggest, in those great houses that are silent about the human cost of the accumulated riches the gap in the narrative is eloquent. It says things like ‘places like this are not for people like you’ and ‘… and we still don’t really care’.

    It is naive to hope that visitors only hear what we want them to hear, or see what we want them to see. They come to our places with their own attitudes, histories and predispositions and direct their attention accordingly. If we want them to hear us we need to put our attention and our messages there too.





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    Text writing in teams at the Royal Air Force Museum

    Writing the words for a major museum gallery is like climbing a mountain.  It is a dauntingly large task that can make even the strongest grow weary. It requires training, careful preparation, a good plan – and, I now know, it is altogether more joyous in good company.

    Sorry, I can't tell you what this gorgeous plane is - go the Royal Air Force Museum and find out.

    Sorry, I can’t tell you what this gorgeous plane is – go the Royal Air Force Museum and find out.

    I know less than very little about the early 20th century history of military aviation. It turns out to be extremely interesting – but that’s not why I am enjoying working at the Royal Air Force Museum so very much.

    I am helping a large team of writers work on a major new exhibition on ‘The World War in the Air’ that will open later this year. It is a hugely interesting project. It is exciting too – both the process and the content contain writing challenges.

    This project is all about team-working. This collaborative approach to generating text is a new venture for the museum and, at this scale, for me. It is part of a significant shift in the museum’s approach to communication. For me it answering questions that have niggled at me for a long time: ”are good writers born or made?” and “are the skills of interpretive writing teachable’.  (for answers see foot of page)

    I led two training workshops on good practice in writing for museums to start the process. The first was held in-house, the second, at the Victoria and Albert Museum where I worked on a similar project over a decade ago. It was good to see at first hand how far the V&A’s approach to text writing has  developed since then – and to see how far I had come too.  Many thanks to the V& A, especially Lucy Trench, their expert and generous Interpretation Editor.

    Armed with that good example and furnished with an excellent and comprehensive Script Outline from exhibition designers Ralph Appelbaum Associates and a style guide and set of writer’s guidelines written by me, we were ready to go.

    Reviewing draft texts in situ in the Grahame White building, Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon

    Reviewing draft texts in situ in the Grahame White building, Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon

    I think it was important that after the training we asked who would like to do some the writing.  Any trainer will tell you that people who want to learn new skills are gold dust. We struck solid gold: more than twenty people volunteered – about three times the number we had envisaged.

    Neither the Museum nor myself wanted to refuse anyone the chance to take part in what was becoming a real adventure. Instead we created 3 teams, each containing curatorial staff and education and outreach staff. We divided the writing tasks between the teams and I delivered what I hoped was a motivational speech. I was told later it was ‘very scary’. As I was talking about the dangers of procrastination for a writing project that is quite possible. I have many years’ experience.

    The teams set off. We waited for the first dispatch.

    I am by nature an optimist so my expectations are rarely exceeded. The staff at RAFM hugely exceeded them. Within a fortnight there was an avalanche of text, a fortnight later another. I suppose it was fairly obvious that twenty people can write ten times as much as two.

    Much of the work was very good and the teams reported that working on the text together had been enjoyable, productive and a very positive learning experience. Using team members as critical friends had been particularly successful. Good writers need good readers. Subject specialists and communications specialists worked together well. Between them they generated a strong collaborative spirit and a shared sense of responsibility for the gallery.

    I have found this a fantastically encouraging and energising project. Working with the Royal Air Force Museum and its staff has been a great experience.

    Answers: Yes, good writers can be made (although I still think great writers are born) Yes writing skills are readily transferable to willing learners (like those at the Royal Air Force Museum).

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    Writing with the RSPB

    Last week I spent two very enjoyable and inspiring days with the RSPB.  I learned a lot, talked to lots of people and listened to more.

    By the end of it I understood more of the big picture about ‘giving nature a home’, that rallying cry that dyed-in the wool environmentalists so decry and criticise. Personally, I think it is a bright, clever and multi-layered message. I had been hoping that the RSPB had noticed this, even if their detractors hadn’t. Now I reckon they have.

    I don’t get to go to these great gigs just to listen and learn, I get to run workshops too. This time we were talking about writing temporary interpretation especially about ‘giving nature a home’.

    We talked about what ‘home’ means and how it feels. We noted all those positive cliches – how there’s no place like -, how it’s where the heart is , or where you lay your hat, or how home sweet home it is.

    Armed with all this we (or actually they) started to write about homes for nature with warmth, humour, and emotion. Writing good relevant, resonate texts about places for wildlife.

    It all reminded me that ecology is about the study of home – and a blog post about ecology and writing that I wrote a while ago. Here are my favourite bits of it again – with a hat-tip to the RSPB.

    To understand a word you have to plunge into its meaning.


    Wikianswers tells me that ‘Astonishingly, this word is attested directly to a single individual; in 1873, coined by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) as Okologie, from Greek oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation” + -logia “study of.”

    This is my ‘oikos’, my home – with all its implications, stories, relevances and associations.

    Home. As interpreters and interpretive writers, our quest is always for points of connection, relevance and resonance. So ecology, ‘the study of our home’ is a total gift. Or would be, if it wasn’t in Greek. It  is cross-cultural, cross-generational, and dear to our hearts.  It is a rich seam.

    Home. Where we live and grow and mate and breed and feed and paint and dance and sing and play and kick and scream and fight and do everything that make us alive and unique.  Not a house, not a family, but home.  The place we ‘come home to’ like ‘homing pigeons’, our ‘home town’, where our ‘home team’ plays. Feel the connections – and write from them.

    The rich ecology of this woodland is a few yards from my house, and is part of my wider ‘home’.

    Oikos.  The place where we fit , where we are part of it and it is part of us.  Where what we do matters and makes a difference, often a big one, to everyone around us. Where we feel their pain and joy and they share ours. Aawww – I am feeling warm, connected and enlivened already.  This is a great springboard for writing .

    Ecology really is a fantastic word. It can be hard to remember that we can’t use it.

    Before you ask, yes, I do know that homes can be broken, and that this has tragic and devasting, life-destroying consequences. Sometimes they can’t be repaired for generations. Sometimes not at all. Just like ecosystems.

    Puffins have found their oikos disturbed and their home (at least the larder) broken of late.

    I have to stop now.  My daughter moved out yesterday to set up her first home.  I need to rush round and give her, and her beloved, hugs. Great big ecological hugs to them, to you and everyone you share your home with.  Enjoy it, love it – then write it for our home planet and all we share it with.

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    The Museum of Broken Relationships, breaking conventions

    In 2011 The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb was awarded the Kenneth Hudson Prize for Most Innovative Museum in Europe. I visited it in December 2013.

    IMG_4199But is The Museum of Broken Relationships really a museum, I asked myself? I mean, seriously?

    Probably not seriously but, yes, a museum, albeit one teetering on the brink of definitions in a rather attractive way. It is certainly a good day out.

    It looks like a museum. It is a collection of objects displayed with explanatory texts – that certainly sounds like a museum. But in most museums the objects are the primary currency, the labels tell their story. (Or so we say, as if there was one story adhering to any object.)

    The museum displays a curious range of objects that make no senses until ...

    The museum displays a curious range of objects that make no sense until …

    ... until you read the accompanying text.

    … until you read the accompanying text.

    But, here, in the Museum of Broken Relationships that familiar relationship, appropriately enough, breaks down. Here the story is the most important element. And there is definitely only one story  – that of the person whose relationship ended, told in their own words, in their own terms. An object that illustrates the story, chosen by the narrator accompanies the object.

    IMG_4109IMG_4107In Zagreb’s Archaeological Museum I looked at how museums can use illustrations to draw visitors into a more direct, unmediated relationship with artefacts. That doesn’t work here. Here knowing what the objects are is banal, obvious and meaningless.  The museum is a collection of deliberately discarded objects – rubbish in fact.

    The stories are the point. These accounts of relationships remembered, sometimes with wit, sometimes regret, longing, sorrow or gratitude are what this museum is about.

    The place of the objects in this is ambiguous. They are the focus of the stories. It seems to me that the selection of an object to represent the lost relationship triggered the storytelling and gave it a structure.  The objects also help the visitor, walking the galleries is a bit like a quiz – constantly asking, ‘why on earth …?’, ‘why did someone choose … ?’ and being drawn into another human story.

    It is a fascinating visit. Like most visitors I read almost everything. The tales were compelling, jaw-dropping, eye-watering, hair-raising.  I am sure some stories were censored but nonetheless much of this is adult stuff.

    Insignificant objects ...

    Insignificant objects …

    ... become redolent with emotion and meaning.

    … become redolent with emotion and meaning.

    My favourite moment was when my friend (and erstwhile guest blogger) Janja exclaimed ‘O M G! This woman has given her wedding album‘. Suddenly myself and the other two women gathered round, looked at it and all started laughing (I like to think in four different languages). I  am not sure what we were doing but it felt like recognition of audacity was a part of it.

    I realised then that the vast majority of visitors were women visiting alone or in pairs. I wondered if that is usual. I wondered whether this was an attraction that appealed to Zagreb’s hen party market – and pitied the bride-to-be.

    The Museum of Broken Relationships actually is probably not a museum by most the definitions that I would use. In fact it merrily subverts many the assumptions that underpin museums. It collections are based on personal, not cultural, significance.  In this  crowd-sourced, user-generated content the narratives are more valuable, and maybe more worthy of preservation and curation than the objects.

    I laughed much more than I do in most museum visits. I cried and gasped more too. The Museum of Museum Relationships also made me think – about barriers, conventions, definitions and innovations. I am so very pleased to have seen it.

    I shall remember the story with the axe forever. I have told it many times. If you want to know it you will have to visit the museum.

    I shall remember the story with the axe forever. I have told it many times. If you want to know it you will have to visit the museum.

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