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Changing the Paradigm: Selling the Message
No Plants=No Life



Home | Contents | Abstract | Introduction | Background | Aims of the Visitor and Interpretation Centre | Implementation | Conclusion | Table 1 | References


The construction of a new Visitor and Interpretation Centre for the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) has recently provided the opportunity for our Gardens to re-evaluate its approach to interpretation of plants and communicating the value and importance of plants.

In line with the mission and objectives of our Gardens we elected to focus on communicating the message of the crucial role that plants play in maintaining life on earth.

The primary aim of our new Centre is to change the predominant paradigm to include an appreciation of plants. Secondary aims include communicating an understanding of the importance of the work of botanical gardens and of the value of the Tasmanian flora.

We believe that once visitors recognise the value of plants in keeping them alive then the other messages we need to tell (conservation and the value of the work of our organisations) will be much more readily received and understood.

Our approach focuses on communicating with visitors through experiential and interactive exhibits coupled with a high degree of intranet/internet technology.

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Our aims as an institution are to be what I call a true botanic gardens, that is to meet international standards for a botanic gardens into the twenty first century, with all the relevant facilities and services to our public. Our Mission statement is in line with international standards. It acts as our guide, provides direction and is the measure by which our results are judged.

The mission of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens is:

To further sustainable development by increasing knowledge, awareness and understanding about plants, their economic, social and ecological value; by programs of research and conservation, and; by caring for and stewarding the Gardens, having regard to their value as a primary scientific, educational, tourism and passive recreation resource.

Our Gardens currently fulfils the latter part of our mission very well, but has been limited in our ability to meet the first component to the extent that we would like. Yes, we do have active environmental education programs and community training programs, but our ability to interpret plants has been limited to the normal range of brochures, plant labels and outdoor interpretation signs. These are valuable, as far as they go, but they have a limited ability to give the big picture.

For these reasons, our Gardens has long recognised the need for indoor facilities for interpretation. We have now been fortunate enough to obtain capital funding for a small Visitor and Interpretation Centre, and have therefore been offered the challenge of how to maximise its value to ourselves and to the public we serve.

In looking around to see what other Gardens do we have observed that other botanic gardens that have visitor centres often focus on their ‘meet and greet’ role, use them principally as commercial fundraisers or as opportunities for exhortation of the wonderful job that their gardens are doing. However, I suggest that such messages often ‘fall on deaf ears’ and are essentially heard only by those already converted to the cause.

In this context we have given considerable thought to what the primary role of our centre should be. It is clear that the public do not fully appreciate the importance of plants to the survival of life on earth. This conclusion is obvious if we consider both the ‘macro’ scene of massive environmental degradation, land clearing and loss of vegetation cover and the ‘micro’ economics of the shortage of funding suffered by most botanical gardens. Homo sapiens is an extremely self-centred species; anthropomorphism and a focus on human issues or on the welfare of furred or feathered creatures dominates most human’s consciousness.

A recent graphic example of this bias was that our local newspaper produced a special ‘endangered species of the world’ booklet with spaces for pictures of endangered species. This was an educational and promotional exercise in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund and the Threatened Species Network. I was shocked to see that all the organisms listed were animals, not one plant! This kind of misinformation reinforces people’s prejudices that only people and animals are important.

This realisation has provided the opportunity for our Gardens tore-evaluate our approach to interpretation of plants and communicating the value and importance of plants. We decided that the best way to achieve this is to focus on the theme of the crucial role that plants play in maintaining life on earth.

The primary aim of our new Centre is therefore to change the way people appreciate plants. Back in 1957 Freeman Tilden had the insight that ‘through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection’. Following this approach we are trying to ‘provoke’ visitors into understanding the fundamental importance of plants to the survival of life on earth as we know it.

We believe that once visitors recognise the value of plants in keeping them alive the other messages we need to tell (such as the value of plant conservation and the work of our organisations) will be much more readily received and understood.

There are some basic concepts and issues to be worked out before embarking on the design and construction of a visitor and interpretation centre. If interpretation is to be effective and successful, then attention needs to be paid not simply to the interpretive media but also to the infrastructure base and recreational context of interpretive provision(Uzzell, 1989). These practical aspects are specific to each institution, but details of our situation, logic and solution may be of value to others. As found by Uzzell (1989) these factors need to combine to ensure that, if visitors are satisfied, they stay longer, spend more money, return at a later date and recommend a visit to friends and relatives.

In planning the new Centre, we realised that the most important thing to decide is what we want the centre to achieve, followed by what method we will use to try to achieve our aims. The process we have been through, and the solution we have chosen is the subject of this presentation.

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However, first some background on our organisation to put our choices into context.

The Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens is a 13.5 ha area located on the side of the Derwent River in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. The Gardens were established in 1818, making them the second oldest in Australia.

We are a Tasmanian Statutory Authority operating under the Botanical Gardens Act 1950. Our annual budget is approximately AUS$ 1.6 million. Funding is principally by the Tasmanian Government, who provide a one line grant of approximately AUS$1.4 million. We raise additional funds through our own activities, charges for services and rent on licensed premises, and receive some funding through sponsorship and donations.

Although the Gardens are the most visited single site in Tasmania, with between 330,000 and 350,000 visits per year, we have until this project lacked any significant under cover public area. Given the cool-temperate nature of our climate, this has meant that the visitation pattern to the Gardens is extremely weather dependent. It has also severely limited our ability to tell the larger and more important stories about plants.

After many years of applying for funds, in 1997/98 we were at last successful in obtaining funding of AUS$1.58 million under our state capital investment program. Although a relatively modest amount, this has enabled us to design and build a 600 square metre building with 400 square metres of public space including the interpretation gallery.

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Aims of the Visitor and Interpretation Centre

Having set the context, I now move on to how we approached the challenge.

As I noted above, our focus is on the need to communicate the message of the value of plants. Specifically, our primary aim is: To change or modify visitors paradigm to include the recognition of the critical role of plants in maintaining life on earth as we know it.

As already stated, the rationale behind this decision is our concern that the predominant paradigm focuses exclusively on the importance of humans and animals and virtually excludes concern about, or understanding of the role of plants.

The component messages that we wish to introduce as part of visitors’ new paradigm are:

  1. All life on earth depends on plants and that therefore plants and the environment must be conserved and appropriately managed for sustainability;
  2. That the RTBG is a part of a national and international network of organisations whose core role is bringing people and plants together for a sustainable future, and;
  3. That the Tasmanian flora is unique, rich, diverse and worth visiting and conserving.

A secondary, but a very important aim of the Centre is to raise funds(by means of an entry fee) to cover the operational and maintenance costs of the Centre. This is critical because although we have capital funding to build and equip the Centre, we have not been given a recurrent allocation to operate it. The Centre must fund itself if it is to continue to function.

Having decided on our aims it then became a matter of deciding on specific objectives and messages to tell, and how we are intending to achieve our aims.

The ‘how’ is based on our underlying understanding of interpretation philosophies and principles.

Basically, our emphasis is on providing information and interpretation to visitors in an interesting and interactive manner to communicate withvisitors so that they develop an understanding of our messages.

In formulating our methods we have followed some basic interpretation philosophies such as keeping it simple, and making the exhibits asinteractive as possible so that visitors become more involved and learn more.

Philosophic ideas are in line with those espoused for example, by Ham(1992) who found that most audiences will only remember a simple themealong with five or fewer main ideas. My observation of the success, or otherwise, of some visitor centres on natural history themes in Australia,New Zealand, the UK and USA supports that finding.

Also, during my visits to those centres I made some observations of the behaviour of visitors, and consulted the staff operating the centres about what worked well and what did not. A summary of our conclusions is in Table 1

On this basis we have chosen to concentrate on communicating only the three main ideas discussed above. It is also planned to present the seideas in layers, with the top layer consisting of very clear simple messages (to communicate in the simplest way possible) and questions designed to entice the visitor to explore more deeply.

Our thinking also agrees with the principles elucidated by Veverka (1994), who found that effective learning requires activity on the part ofthe learner.

Our visitor centre will use these principles by communicating the theme through experiential and interactive exhibits. This will be achieved through planning and designing-in behaviours to encourage interaction(doing) within each exhibit, to increase information retention as close to ninety percent as we can achieve.

Another concept underlying our planning is the classification of visitors into three categories (after R. Magee, 1998, pers. comm.):

Philosophically, it is important that the streakers obtain the most important messages in terms they can understand. Also, it is important to tempt as many streakers as possible into being wanderers, so as to increase the effectiveness of the Centre and the amount of influence the information has. The delvers must also be catered for, with layers of information to discover at their leisure.

Practical aspects such as the capacity of the Centre may require strategies to encourage the delvers to come at non peak times to prevent overcrowding.

Another important principle is that the Centre must cater for peopleof all ages and educational stages. Children are the future, so the Centre must cater for them throughout rather than as an afterthought. Also, it is important for a Centre such as ours to cater for a wide range of educational standards. In fact, I believe that more emphasis needs to be placed on the less well educated than on the highly educated. As experts ourselves it is tempting to design information for equally informed people. However, it seems to me that there is little point in preaching to the converted. It is more important to persuade those that I term the ‘yet to be converted’.

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Well, having considered the background, aims, principles, underlying philosophy and practical considerations, how have we chosen to convey our message? First, we chose a channelled layout for our centre, opting todirect visitors on a set path in the hope that this would increase the effectiveness of our communication.

Second, within this layout we have taken three approaches that, combined, meld together the principles and philosophies covered above to try to develop a visitor centre that not only complies with the traditional philosophy of good interpretation but also moves into the future.

These approaches are:

1. Adopting innovative technology

2. Introducing the ‘Wow’ factor

3. Building in change

By the use of innovative interactive and responsive computer technology we hope that our simple, primary message ‘that plants are the basis for all life on earth’ will reach 90% of the audience. Of course further messages may be explored by visitors who are prepared to spend more time at each exhibit. Mascardo (1985) noted that the beauty of computers is that they are flexible and allow visitors to select the level of information they require. We believe that this is only true when computers are used in some specific ways. One of the critical factors we believe, is that computer technology must be used to serve users needs, not in a way that forces them to do things in the computers way.

Although we believe we must not reinforce the predominant paradigm, we intend to use that paradigm as part of the change process. We have designed the Centre around an innovative use of technology to create a highly sensitive system. In this we are taking computer interaction one step further. Not only can visitors interact with the computer, but the computer will react to the mere presence of the people.

This is being done in two ways:

(a) The experiential entry exhibit. This exhibit aims to put people themselves into a simulated environment as a real life experience to open their minds and begin to change their paradigm. The exhibit will be something like:

The first thing visitors will see once they enter the interpretation gallery is a small seating area with a large screen. The screen will display a message ‘come for the ride of your life’ and invite visitors to sit down and enjoy the ride. Visitors will then see images of themselves (captured by hidden video cameras) ‘fly’ out of the centre, over the landscape of the Gardens and nearby river and up into space. The voice over will point out how green and blue the earth is, and invite them to imagine a world without plants. The view will return to a barren earth without plants, and their images will disintegrate and‘die’. A laser message will complete the story ‘no plants - nolife’. Visitors will then be invited to tour the rest of the centre tolearn how plants keep them alive.

This experience aims to be interpretive by making the topic come to life through, to quote Veverka, (1984) active visitor involvement and extreme relevance to the everyday life of the viewer.

(b) People sensing and responsive displays.

Computers within other galleries of the visitor centre will interact with the visitor by sensing a persons presence and immediately responding by activating to display attractive images and messages which will tempt the attention of the visitor. They will encourage the viewer to navigate through the information they have to offer by touch screens or similar non-technologically threatening means.

2. Introducing the ‘Wow’ factor

Study shows that interpretive text demands no more than a 45 second attention span from a visitor (Ham, 1992). At an average reading speed of300 words per minute a visitor is capable of reading a maximum of 225 words within this 45 seconds. Therefore, it is understandable that one can not rely solely on text to interpret a message. The old saying that a picture can be worth a thousand words comes into play. If this picture is provocative and relates to the viewer the ‘Wow’ factor is introduced.

We are therefore aiming to use big, bright and colourful images and animations projected on large screens to grab the attention of visitors. The interpretation design uses rich multimedia images with powerful and dramatic graphics presented with computer driven video projectors on to large screens to capture the attention of the viewer.

Visitors who see and hear information on the big screens and interact through touch screens, or the machines responding to their presence and movement, will not be aware of the complex technology used to create the exhibit. Most exhibits will not have a keyboard and visitors will not see anything that looks like a personal computer. The idea is to use the technology in an interesting and inviting way, and not to alienate those unfamiliar with or afraid of computers.

3. Allowing for change

We have placed a big emphasis on the use of the latest computer driven web design and multimedia technology to ensure that the interpretation information can be added to and modified frequently for an ever-changing display. The flexibility of this technology widens the potential to attract repeat visitors (Miles et al., 1982).

Because staff will continually add layers of information and keep information up to date we hope to cater for repeat visitors by showing them something different each time they come.

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We believe that the big challenge facing botanic gardens interpretation is to become more focussed and more effective in communicating the message of the importance of plant conservation and the sustainability of life on earth. The RTBG’s solution to the challenges have involved going back to the most basic message, but telling it in an innovative way.

The concept that life on earth depends on plants is well known to all thinking botanists, botanic gardeners and horticulturists. But I have to ask: how effective are any of us in communicating this message when the predominate paradigm effectively excludes recognition of its importance. Our role, I would argue, is to change the paradigm and that is what I hope we will achieve. To quote an old saying, ‘it is easier said than done’ of course, but worth trying none-the-less.

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Table 1.

Observations of Australian and New Zealand Visitor Centres

What Works (DO)

What does not Work (AVOID)

  • Interactive
  • Sight
  • Responsive
  • Ease of access
  • Flow through
  • Attractive
  • Clear simple to understand messages
  • Easy to update and change completely
  • Communication aided by attractive simple graphics
  • Promotion and PR
  • Static
  • Hard to update, e.g. photo prints & text panels
  • Many complex messages
  • Messages obscured by artistic effect/overlaid graphics
  • Unadvertised


Ham, S.H. (1992). Environmental Interpretation: A practical guide for people with big ideas and small budgets, North American Press, Colorado, USA.

Mascardo, G. (1985). Consultancy Report on exhibit planning and design, James Cook University of North Queensland, Townsville.

Miles, R.S. Alt, M.B. Gosling, D.C. Lewis, B.N. & Tout, A.F. (1982).The design of educational exhibits, George Allen & Erwin, London.

Tilden, F. (1957). Interpreting our Heritage, The University of North Carolina Press.

Uzzell, D.L. , 1989. Heritage Interpretation, Volume 2: The Visitor Experience, Belhaven Press, London.

Veverka, J.A. , 1994. Interpretive Master Planning, Falcon Press Publishing Co., Montana, USA.


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Copyright 1999 NBI