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Interpretation master planning: creating holistic narrative experiences

Volume 6 Number 1 - April 2009

James Furse-Roberts

French title: Planification générale de l’interprétation: le développement d’expériences narratives globales

Spanish title: Plan maestro de Interpretacion: creacion de experiencias narrativas holísticas


Interpretative master planning has been around in a professional form for several decades. However, much of the text and approaches that have been developed are based on the interpretation of heritage sites. While this work can be of use, botanic gardens are different and require a different approach. By ensuring that adequate thought is given to the visitor experience, being clear about the top level outcomes, developing the interpretation plan in an holistic manner with the other elements of the masterplan, and by telling strong stories through layered media, a botanic garden’s interpretation can become an effective way of delivering core aims, building a rapport with their visitors and effecting changes in behaviour.


Botanic gardens have been interpreting their collections since their inception. That is to say that plants in botanical collections have always had information associated with them that institutions have wanted to impart to users of the collections. Just think of the European physic gardens set up to teach aspiring doctors the medicinal properties of plants or the Victorian systematic order beds laid out to teach botany. Indeed, it could be argued that growing plants with the aim of using them to inform visitors, be they specialist academics or curious members of the general public, is one of the key differences that sets botanical collections apart from normal gardens. However, even with this long history, the quality of interpretation found in botanic gardens has only recently started to improve; partly because it is only recently that there has been a commonplace understanding that this is an activity that needs to be discussed, studied and planned for.

Where do you start?

Before we address this question it is best to define a few terms. ‘Interpretation’ is now widely understood as broadly being the process of communicating information in museums, heritage centres etc. However, terms used to describe the process of planning interpretation are less well defined, such as ‘masterplan’ and ‘interpretation masterplan’, sometimes also referred to as an ‘educational masterplan’.

For the purpose of this article, a masterplan can be thought of as a guidebook, a point of reference, that can be used when one looks up from immersion in the minutia of running a busy garden and wonders ‘Are we still heading in the right direction?’ or when one is setting out to create a new botanic garden. Within such a document one would expect to find elements that address, among others, the business needs of the garden, its conservation aims, landscaping and educational purposes. Given the scope of these topics, the masterplan cannot be a detailed prescription and indeed if it were, with the need to adapt and evolve over time, it would probably be obsolete before fully implemented.

An interpretation masterplan is the section within the larger masterplan that details the messages the garden wants to impart and the ways that this might be achieved. Wrongly, they are often spoken of as documents that stand alone from the other aspects of the garden’s masterplan. The aim of this article is to show that not only does having an interpretation masterplan integrated with the overall masterplan benefit the delivery of education but it will also benefit the garden by improving the visitor experience.

Hundreds of years ago, mediaeval monks were laying out their sanatorium gardens in the form of a human body as an aide memoir. Herbs were planted at the points on the body that related to their area of treatment. Despite this, interpretation as a subject or profession only began to become formalised around the 1950s. In 1957, Freeman Tilden, who worked for the United States National Park Service, wrote ‘Interpreting Our Heritage’, one of the first texts on interpretation. Since then, the principles that Tilden laid out have formed the backbone for most of the interpretation master planning of heritage sites.

Using Tilden’s approach, a typical interpretation master planning process for a heritage site or national park may consist of conducting an inventory of objects and locations, deciding on the themes to be interpreted, reviewing the budget and management constraints before delivering a plan that outlines the most favourable method of interpretation for each object or location.

Before we apply this process to botanic gardens it is worth asking ourselves whether they are similar enough to national parks and other heritage sites to use the same approach. Whilst both are usually outdoor spaces with plants growing within them, there are some key differences. Heritage sites are usually a natural feature, landscape or a human-made structure of antiquity. As such, they invariably have a limited number of features to interpret. Those features they do have are usually static and the main aim of the interpretation is to tell the visitor about the location. Botanic gardens, on the other hand, have large numbers of individual specimens, displayed in a human-made environment with the aim of imparting specific, and sometimes complex, ideas. With the increased concentration on conservation, many botanic gardens take this further and want to influence the behaviour of their visitors in a way that supports plant conservation and sustainability.

Planning for interpretation in botanic gardens

Whether you have an existing garden with an extensive collection or an area of land awaiting development, it is important to carry out an inventory of the site and collection. This will help you think about the relationships between these objects, the locations and the stories they can be used to tell. This discussion should quickly lead to questions such as “What are we trying to achieve?” and “What is our purpose?”

Be clear about the top level outcomes

Is your garden interested in raising awareness of a particular habitat or the flora of a particular area? Does it have a mission to encourage a change in people's behaviour to protect plants? Or perhaps an aim to enhance people’s wellbeing? Without a clear understanding of the desired outcomes, an interpretation masterplan cannot be devised that leads towards them. The mission of Missouri Botanical Garden, USA, for example To discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment, in order to preserve and enrich life’ can be seen to underpin the whole of the garden’s interpretation.

Be holistic

It was mentioned earlier in this article that many interpretation masterplans are developed separately from and without consideration of the overall masterplan for the garden. This is not only likely to have operational implications for the delivery of interpretation on-site but a lack of joined-up thinking will also mean that opportunities are being missed to infuse your garden with your messages. The Eden Project (Cornwall, UK) is an example of an institute that carries its messages through everything it does. One illustration of this is the sachets of sugar provided in the restaurant which carry interpretation about the origin of sugar. There are a range of reasons why communicating through catering does not happen in all botanic gardens (including a concern about the unit cost of sugar sachets!), but the point is that the more channels you can find to communicate your messages through, the more effective your interpretation will be.

Think experience

Closely linked to an holistic approach is consideration of the visitor experience during the interpretation master planning process. We live in an age driven by what Pine and Gilmore (1998) have termed the ‘experience economy’. Whereas there was a time when people spent money on food for the purpose of nourishment many of us now pay extra for the experience that accompanies that food. For example, one could make a cup of coffee at home but many prefer to pay more for having the experience of drinking coffee out, with the added experience of choice, service and social statement that accompanies it. Pine & Gilmore (1998) give the following definition of experience.

‘An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.’

Botanic gardens are a part of this economy. Nature tourism is on the increase and as such gardens offer excellent locations for social outings. Having said that, this is not such a new phenomenon, one hundred years ago in 1908, W. J. Bean, the then Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, noted that “to nine tenths of the people who visit is simply a beautiful garden - a place in which to spend a few pleasant hours”. The purpose for a visit to most large botanic gardens is to have a social or recreational experience. Whether this experience occurs in a botanic garden or a museum is a secondary consideration decided by the prospect of the overall experience on offer. Further evidence of this is the ranking of botanic gardens, zoos and museums as ‘visitor attractions’ in the same category as theme parks and other tourist attractions. It follows therefore that comparable experience needs to be offered by botanic gardens if visitors are to continue to choose them over the other destinations in the list.

To compete successfully in this market for the visitors' time, and thus the opportunity to influence them, botanic gardens must find ways to engage visitors with memorable and meaningful events. Good visitor experiences should consist of the three elements of unexpectedness, social interaction and sensory stimulation. For example, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, USA, created a nature-play space ‘Under the Oak’ where children came together to build simple forts, crawl through a willow tunnel and decorate a child-sized butterfly’s wings. If possible, a fourth element, something that can be taken away to prolong the experience, should also be included as in the Green Workshops run at the Conservatory and Botanic Garden of the City of Geneva, Switzerland, where children constructed bird boxes, among other activities. Designing and delivering good visitor experiences requires stepping outside the traditional bounds of interpretation into the areas such as marketing, catering, event management, landscape design and architecture.

Tell strong stories

We have looked at the importance of creating an experience for the visitor but experiences don't necessarily communicate information. Information can be interesting but, as statements that stand alone, it can be difficult to put them into context or derive a greater understanding from them. This returns us to Tilden’s principles, in particular the first two, which state:

  • Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
  • Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

We are all familiar with how powerful storytelling can be; as children we became immersed in the alternative realities created by books, films and theatre. In adulthood, even though we are better at distinguishing reality, stories can be equally magical. A good storyteller, be they using the written word, voice or drama, can manipulate our emotions and in so doing strengthen the effect that story has on us. Stories crafted to deliver information can harness this emotive power and provide a structure which the visitor can use to organise their existing knowledge and the new knowledge they are gaining.

The number of plant species in a botanic garden means that there is an unlimited supply of stories. For each plant in the collection it will be possible to relay far more stories than there is space for. If you want convincing of this, it is worth reading Conway’s article on ‘How to exhibit a bullfrog’ (1973). It was written with zoo directors and designers in mind but nevertheless demonstrates that good exhibitions rely on the quality of the stories told not the number or rarity of specimens. The narrative style within which it is written also reinforces the point.

Continuing with Pine and Gilmore’s theatrical analogy, one can think of each specimen as a character with a whole lifetime’s worth of stories. Some of these stories will be individual to them while others will be shared by other specimens in the collection. The job of the interpretation plan is to decide what overall story the visitor will be presented with and to orchestrate how each of the characters will tell the parts of their stories that are most relevant.

Layer media

We all have preferences for how we like to receive information. Some people like to read text, others to listen to an explanation or watch a demonstration. Therefore if we only use one medium to deliver a message you can be sure that for a lot of the visitors this will not be their favoured medium. Guided tours are one of the most frequently used media for interpretation in botanic gardens (>90% of botanic gardens in the UK); however, operational limitations mean that only a small percentage (<1.5% in UK) of visitors will ever experience them. Interpretation boards are also a popular choice but can exclude whole sections of visitors (Furse-Roberts 2005). It is therefore important to ensure that each interpretational element is delivered through a variety of media. An example of this is the Big Answers to Big Questions programme run by the Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney in 2006 where over 2,000,000 people were reached through debate, web and radio.


It is important that the interpretation plan is thought of in conjunction with and tied into the other elements of the masterplan. When writing the interpretation plan ensure that adequate thought has been given to the visitor experience. Be clear about the top level outcomes. Be holistic. Think experience. Tell strong stories and layer media.


Bean, WJ (1908) The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Historical and descriptive. Cassell and Company Ltd, London

Conway, WC (1973) How to exhibit a bullfrog: a bed-time story for zoo men. International Zoo Yearbook 13: 221-226

Furse-Roberts, JM (2005) Botanic Garden Creation and Management: The feasibility and design of new British collections. PhD Thesis, University of Reading, UK

Pine, JB, Gilmore, J (1998) Welcome to the Experience Economy. Harvard Business Review, 76 (4) p 97-106

Tilden, F (2008) Interpreting Our Heritage 4th Edition. The University of North Carolina Press, USA


La planification générale de l’interprétation s’opère sous forme professionnelle depuis plusieurs décennies. Toutefois, la plupart des écrits et des stratégies développés se réfèrent à l’interprétation de sites du patrimoine. Bien que ce travail puisse être utile, les jardins botaniques sont différents et nécessitent donc une approche différente. Par l’assurance qu’une réflexion appropriée soit prise en compte dans l’expérience du public, qui soit claire par rapport aux résultats finaux, tout en concevant le plan d’interprétation de manière globale incluant les autres éléments du plan directeur, et par la proposition de messages puissants par le biais de méthodes multicouches, le système d’interprétation d’un jardin botanique peut devenir un outil efficace pour atteindre des objectifs centraux, en établissant un bon rapport avec son public et en mettant en place des changements de comportement.


Se han utilizado los planes maestros de interpretación desde hace algunas décadas. Sin embargo, mucho del texto y de las propuestas que se han desarrollado se basan en experiencias de interpretación del patrimonio. Si bien estas experiencias pueden ser útiles, los jardines botánicos son diferentes y requieren de una diferente aproximación. Asegurando un adecuado desarrollo del pensamiento en la experiencia del visitante, teniendo claridad en los resultados que esperamos, desarrollando el plan interpretativo de forma holística con los otros elementos del plan maestro y participando seriamente y a profundidad en los medios de comunicación, el trabajo interpretativo de los jardines botánicos puede convertirse en una forma efectiva de transmitir los mensajes centrales construyendo un rapport entre sus visitantes y cambios efectivos en sus conductas.

Dr.James Furse-Roberts
Senior Consultant
Wildlife and Wetlands Trust Consulting
Slimbridge, Gloucestershire GL2 7BT, UK

James Furse-Roberts provides clients with master planning of visitor centres and natural history interpretation. His PhD thesis examines the creation and management of botanic gardens and is available from the BGCI website (