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Case Study 12: The Need for Interpretation

The role of interpretation, as part of our education programme at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is ‘to increase public knowledge and understanding of the value of plants and to increase recognition of, and support for the work of Kew’.

Interpretation is essential. Without it a botanic garden can seem little more than an attractive park. Signs, pictures, posters, displays, exhibitions, maps all help to provide the vital link between the work and mission of a garden and its visitors. Interpretation is about communication. It is an important way of telling the public about the work a garden is doing and of raising awareness about the importance of plants.

Developing interpretative material is demanding on staff time involving:

  • research
  • discussion
  • drafting
  • testing ideas – can the information be understood? is it accessible? entertaining? thought provoking?
  • checking and clearing texts
  • sourcing good photographs and illustrations
  • high quality design
  • product specification
  • co-ordination of production
  • installation
  • evolution
  • monitoring
  • maintenance

Before any proposals are considered and developed at Kew, we always look carefully at our objectives and target audience. We decide what we want to interpret what interpretation methods we want to use and what costs we are likely to incur.

The Variety of Interpretative Methods

There are countless ways to interpret the work of a botanic garden. We interpret our collections using the following methods.

Live interpretation – we provide guided tours for the public. Our guides are volunteers, trained at Kew and Wakehurst Place, Kew’s satellite garden south of London. Their tours offer fascinating insights into the work, history and collections of the gardens. We also interpret the work of the gardens through drama, workshops and special events.

Printed material – we produce a range of information sheets for visitors wishing to know more about certain plants and buildings. Self-guided trails, which suggest a particular route around the garden, are also available as are publications such as guidebooks, leaflets and maps.

Exhibitions – we use exhibitions to explain more complex biological ideals than would otherwise be possible with a small display and to also provide a focal point for other interpretation in the garden. In the Sir Joseph banks building, for example, the exhibition focuses on how plants are used by people and how Kew's work can benefit mankind.

Plant labels – in some areas we have modified basic plant identification labels by using colour coding and/or suitable symbols to highlight areas of interest. Such labels, for example, are used in the landscape area around the Sir Joseph Banks Building to categorise plant economic use. These labels could also form the basis of garden trails.

Information labels – these provide information on habitats, conservation issues and other items of interest. They are designed to a standard format and are featured throughout the gardens and glasshouses, highlighting particular plants and their uses.

Site-specific interpretation – examples of site-specific interpretation can be seen in Kew at the order beds and the rock garden and in Wakehurst Place at the Tony Schilling Asian Heath. The labelling and other display elements have been designed and developed specifically to suit the particular subject and location.

Before any labels or displays are installed we always consider the opportunities and constraints of the selected locations and discuss the suitability of the potential locations with all relevant staff. We aim to design our displays in a way that is sympathetic with the surroundings and locate them close to paths for easy access. The displays are positioned in a way that makes it easy for general garden work. By siting them in popular locations information can be disseminated to the maximum number of visitors possible, while encouraging them to explore less visited parts of the garden.

The material we use for outdoor displays and signs is duralite, a form of GRP (Glass Reinforced Polyester) panel. The resin permeates completely through the printed image which provides us with a rigid sheet which cannot split, crack of warp. The image is completely subsurface and protected from deterioration. The material has been tested and used at Kew for approximately 10 years. Although expensive, we find that our signs and displays require very little maintenance and are resitant to vandalism.

In conclusion, we decide what we want to say and select the most effective and practical way of saying it. Interpretation is essential for communicating the message that all life depends on plants.