Why wildlife interpretation is harder work than historical interpretation

A little while ago, I asked the question ‘which is easier, wildlife or historical interpretation?’ That’s a difficult question. It made me think. Now I have an answer, but not the one I expected.

I work in and train people in both wildlife and historical interpretation. I enjoy both and I think there are some quite important differences between them that are sometimes glossed over. They present different opportunities for the interpreter. I wrote about the strengths and opportunities of historical interpretation here, this post is about the strengths and opportunities of wildlife interpretation.

Then I will answer that difficult question about which is more difficult.

Interpreting nature means dealing with the unpredictable. Nature changes. A couple of weeks ago, I took you on a wee walk through the wildflowers on the moorland edge at the back of my house. That walk no longer exists. It was only there for that week. Everything there is different now.

All this has gone now – until next July.

If my walk had been about the history of water supply and how it changed from between the 19th and 21st centuries (which it could have been), I could point out all the same structures today as a month ago. The built environment is fixed, the living world isn’t.

I maintain we cannot used fixed interpretation for non fixed stuff*. Or at least not if we really want to share the excitement of nature with people.

Whatever media we use, they have to change with the seasons. At the very least. So, in almost all circumstances*, one year-round panel, or publication, or app or QR code-linked website are poor solutions for helping people understand what they are seeing. We have been making this point in our TellTale training for years and, maybe coincidentally, maybe not, change is happening, at least in the UK.

I love the way the folk at RSPB Titchwell, a great bird reserve on the Norfolk coast, use easels to carry temporary signs. This one (not a great example) is singing the praises of their fabby new hide but they use them too to highlight the activities of frogs, dragonflies, orchids – whatever is busy doing its stuff that day.

And, yes this means that good nature interpretation is labour-intensive. Somebody has to change that communication.

And it gets worse – I really believe that the interpretation should be more than ‘seasonal’, it should recognise that, even in temperate climes, the story of nature isn’t really divided into four acts with four different casts.

The fact is, it changes. There is a very good chance that many of the things you see you will never see like that again. This is very exciting. For instance, last month I saw a grey squirrel carrying its young across a hotel patio. I only just missed seeing a heron reach into a nest burrow to eat a brood of young kingfishers. Recently, I saw two red kites and three short-eared owls flying together (goodness knows why). Two years ago I watched an adult otter teach a young one to swim. I will probably never see any of those things again. Wildlife is generous in offering once in a lifetime experiences regularly.

Once in my lifetime (last year in west London) a female stagebeetle shared my pub table.

Most naturalists and nature guides will, I believe, tell you that it is the sense of having a once in a lifetime experience that lies at the heart of great wildlife encounters. Interpretation that acts as if it was otherwise misses the whole point of being in love with nature (whoops – that’s a bit of a giveaway – more on that tomorrow!).

So wildlife interpretation needs people. People who can respond opportunistically to change; who can rise to the challenge that they have a cast of thousands and a legion of stories and the best story to tell today may well be different from the best one yesterday. They are constantly intervening and inventing – whether by rewriting the sightings board, re-routing their walk, putting up temporary signs, editing the webpage – to create the best possible connections between the wildlife happening all around them and their visitors. They use the changes to build and maintain excitment.

In short, I think wildlife interpretation is best done by people.

So, in some senses, good wildlife interpretation is harder work, more labour-intensive. That makes it more difficult.

But, that’s only part of my answer. There’s another, deeper, possibly more important reason, why wildlife interpretation is harder and I will explain that tomorrow.

(*Regular readers of this blog will remember I recently found an exception to this which you can read about here.)

NOTE: Our new training course on “What makes nature and wildlife interpretation special?” is now ready for in-house customers (at an introductory rate until the end of 2012).  We are looking for suitable venues for running an open course for up to 30 people in 2013 – ideas welcome. If you would be interested in hosting or attending such a course,  contact us at info@telltale.eu.

All pictures (except the foxgloves, which is mine!) thanks to Peter Phillipson. For more go to Peter’s Flickr stream. Follow Peter @ TellTalePeter on Twitter.

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About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
This entry was posted in Environment, Historical interpretation, Stories, Tips and advice, Training, Wildlife, Wildlife and countryside attractions, Wildlife interpretation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Why wildlife interpretation is harder work than historical interpretation

  1. Judi says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog and some of your other ones. I am very interested in wildlife interpretation work as a career but I cannot find much information on how to get in to it. Are there any qualifications or voluntary work you would reccomend? Or any other careers that do similar work? Thank you, Judi.

    • Hi Judi

      Thank you for your kind comments about my blog. It is always good to hear from readers.

      You don’t say where you are from, so I am going to guess you are from the UK, partly because that enables me to give you a more informed answer.

      Firstly, wildlife interpretation is a great thing to do and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to do so much of it. As careers go, it’s a funny ol’ business – not a lot of career structure and that sort of thing, but you meet great people and have the satisfaction of doing interesting work that can be really worthwhile.

      Getting voluntary experience is a great start, if only to test that you really like it. Ideally, you should volunteer for organisations where people know about interpretation and take it seriously, you will learn more that way. That may possibly take you outside wildlife for a while but so long as you are learning about communication skills that is good. Talk to museums, botanic gardens, organisations like RSPB, WWT and National Trust. Be clear that you want to learn about interpretation.

      If you have a degree, look at the Masters course in Interpretation: Management and Practice at Perth College, University of the Highlands and Islands.

      If you want more specific information contact me directly.

      Good luck – we need more dedicated wildlife interpreters.

  2. Judi says:

    Thank you for replying so quickly – what you said is very helpful to me.

    I would like to ask some more specific questions if you would be able to help answer them. I can’t find any contact information – please could you tell me how contact you directly?

    Thanks again, Judi.

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