What do Museums and Wilderness have in common?

I have two real interests in life, one is my work in interpretation, the other is spending time in the outdoors, and specifically wild landscapes.

Sligachan Glen, John Muir Trust
Image copyright: John Allan

Recently I’ve been working on a piece of research for my part-time MSc in Sustainable Mountain Development exploring how organisations involved with conserving wild or mountain areas approach ‘interpretation’ in mountain landscapes. My intention was that as well as fulfilling my degree requirements, the outcomes might be helpful for my current and future work with clients including museums, a festival, a university and a botanic gardens.

Five interviewees from four organisations; the John Muir Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland and Woodland Trust Scotland were kind enough to give me some of their time in the form of a visit or telephone interview and for that I’m very grateful. I really enjoyed these conversations and found they provided lots of food for thought.

National Trust for Scotland leaflets

I won’t bore you with all the details of my research (email me if you would like a copy of the report), although I discovered a lot about current trends and policy at the various organisations to feel really positive about.  But I will share with you my main conclusion:- there are far more similarities between museum interpretation and wild land interpretation than differences.

The nature of the work is very similar, and almost all the tools and techniques used are identical, as are the skills required. Re-reading Tilden’s ‘Interpreting our Heritage’ (1957), a book often referred to by many schools of interpretation but in my experience rarely referred to by museum staff, I noted how relevant his writing is to museum work. Tilden talks about the importance of ‘the Thing Itself’ in the same way that museums stress the importance of the ‘real thing’ or genuine objects. He discusses the importance of ‘relating’ information to people’s own experience in the same way museum staff talk about constructivist learning models. He also talks about the importance of story-telling in the same way museums do.

Glen Finglas, the Woodland Trust’s largest property in Scotland

There are only really two main differences I noticed between interpretation of landscapes and interpretation in museums. The first is the emphasis put on ‘the experience’. Museums are keen for their visitors to have enjoyable experiences; however they do not often articulate it as a key aim as strongly as the organisations managing landscapes do. There is a strong feeling among landscape interpreters that the experience is a holistic one which is ‘good for the soul’. This feeling doesn’t tend to be expressed among museum professionals about museum visits.

Glen Finglas

The second, and biggest, difference I can see is that the rational for providing interpretation is different between museums and landscape organisations. By far the strongest rational that came out of my research was that all the landscape interpreters believed that interpretation helped their organisation justify its existence and could lead ultimately to better conservation of the landscapes in question. As Tilden quoted from a US National Park Service Manual:

Through interpretation, understanding
Through understanding, appreciation
Through appreciation, conservation

Museum interpreters, in my experience seem less worried about justifying the work of museums or getting visitors on-side with the importance of conserving material culture and valuing the preservation of objects. However, in the current economic climate with pressures on funding perhaps there are lessons museum interpretation could learn from environmental or landscape interpretation?

Forestry Commission way-marking
Image copyright: Astrid Horn

With thanks to:
 Andrew Fairbairn, Policy and Communications Manager, Woodland Trust Scotland
Paul Hibberd, Interpretation Officer, Forestry Commission Scotland
Colin MacConnachie, Head of Learning, the National Trust for Scotland
Phil Whitfield, Head of Interpretation and Design, Forestry Commission Scotland
Susan Wright, Head of Communications, John Muir Trust

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