Interpreting geology creatively – with a cuddly coelocanth

Interpreting geology in a way that really engages people’s imagination can be difficult. It may call for a crochet hook and felting needle.

Detail of a Derbyshire Carboniferous coral reef  as envisaged by local people under the influence of Stone and Water

Detail of a Derbyshire Carboniferous coral reef as envisaged by local people under the influence of Stone and Water

Getting people excited about rocks is not that easy.  The stories they hold come from so long ago and are so deeply buried.  We know they are the fabric of our landscape but they are so often shrouded by that thin but mesmerising layer of noisier, living things that it seems hard for us to concentrate on or get excited by them them.

One of Freeman Tilden’s ‘Principles of Interpretation’  is that ‘Interpretation is an art .. whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable’.  So if you have a tough subject, you may need an artist or better still a bunch of them.

Stone and Water is a great little community arts organisation dedicated to celebrating the environment, history and people of the Peak District where I live.  ‘Ancient Landscapes’, one of this year’s projects, focusses on the fossils of our local Carboniferous (that’s older than the dinosaurs) limestone.  This means, for Stone and Water at least, recreating a Derbyshire coral reef in a range of participatory arts events.

For the last two weeks leaders and volunteers took some time out to practice their own coral and other creature crafting skills and to learn what the Carboniferous was really like under the brilliant and inspiring guidance of Gordon MacLellan of Creeping Toad.

Experimenting with gel printing - a fun technique but probably not for public drop-in events

Experimenting with gel printing – a fun technique but probably not for public drop-in events

Creating your won Carboniferous rock pool however, probably has great potential.

Creating your own Carboniferous rock pool however, probably has great potential.

We clarified what was alive and what wasn’t when Derbyshire was a coral sea. As we looked out on the snow-covered hills, envisaging the warm tropical ocean was a mind-stretch.

There is good solid scientific information at the heart of this project – and lots of gaps in the fossil record where soft bodied creatures lived and our creative imaginations could wander at will.

Needlefelting a deep sea world as it might (just) have been.

Needlefelting a deep sea world as it might (just) have been.

I  was reminded that the Carboniferous was before the modern fishes (and before belemnites which I didn’t know – my degree was in Vertebrate Evolution and I am woefully ignorant about the rest)  and needle-felted a coelocanth.

Probably the world's cuddliest coelocanth ever -

Probably the world’s cuddliest coelocanth ever –

To some extent, all interpreters have to be artists and that means taking some time out to play, to be open ended, to explore possibilities and to build and celebrate our own connections with the natural world or human heritage that we work with.

Needle-felting a coelocanth put me back in touch with the remains of the ancient coral sea that I walk on everyday, and just how amazing the world is and always has been. That’s a good place for an interpreter to be.

To find out more about TellTale and the work we do (which has almost never involved needlefelting – but it might from now on) to connect people with amazing natural and human heritage take a look at www.telltale.eu.

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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.
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