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Interpreting nature: connecting to visitor understandings

Volume 6 Number 1 - April 2009

Amy E. Ryken

French title: Interpréter la nature: a l’écoute de la compréhension du public

Spanish title: Interpretación de la naturaleza: conectando el entendimiento del visitante


Providing interpretation in a botanic garden offers us a challenge. Not only do we want to nurture visitors’ unique interpretations, we also want them to explore issues in a thoughtful way. In this article I compare two views of learning—the transmission model and the contextual model. To demonstrate that simply providing information limits our view of teaching and learning, I consider four different ways that visitors understood and interpreted nature within the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Tacoma, Washington, USA. Too often we focus on whether or not visitors understand a particular interpretative message rather than how visitors create their own interpretations from these natural settings. To help this process and foster learning in botanic gardens, I offer some questions for consideration.


Botanic gardens are increasingly focusing educational initiatives on the complex topics of global climate change and sustainability (Forrest, 2008; Qwathekana and Midgley, 2008; Romano, 2008). We expect visitors to learn much as they experience gardens, but how much and what type of learning might we reasonably expect (Blais, 1999; Rennie and Johnston, 2004)? The goal of learning and experiencing is to encourage a change in people’s perceptions and ultimately behaviour and this involves using interpretation. But the term interpretation raises a critical question for our consideration—Who is doing the interpreting . . . scientists, garden educators, or visitors? This question challenges us to reflect on our views of learning.

Two views of learning

Botanic gardens are but one part of a large educational infrastructure including families, schools, print and broadcast media, museums, libraries, community-based organisations and the Internet (Falk and Dierking, 2000). Considering two different views of learning can help us redefine garden interpretation. Debates about the transmission and contextual models of learning have a long history and are far from new. In the transmission model, learners are viewed as passive recipients of pre-interpreted messages and learning is framed as a cognitive experience; the primary concern is whether or not the visitor received a particular message (Freire, 1970; Oakes and Lipton, 1999). This view of learning suggests that gardens should work thoughtfully to define and fully transmit coherent educational messages or enduring understandings (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998). In contrast, in the contextual model, learners are viewed as active meaning-makers, or interpreters; learning is framed as a complex context-dependent social process where the primary concern is whether or not visitors are forming connections through their previous and subsequent experiences (Dewey, 1938; Falk and Dierking, 2000). This view of learning suggests that visitors generate their own highly personalised meanings from the same exhibition experience (Diamond, 1999; Falk and Dierking, 2000; Marstine, 2006; Sandell, 2007) and that gardens should implement strategies that invite visitor interaction, response, and interpretations (Sandell, 2007, Shakespear, 2008).


Transmission Model

Behavioural Paradigm

Contextual Model

Constructivist Paradigm

Mode of Learning




Socially Construct Meaning




Cognitive ExperienceCognitive, Physical



Emotional Experience

Context Dependent


Pre-interpreted MessagesPersonalized Meanings

Documenting Learning

Did visitors get the intended message?

Looking for knowledge of pre-determined outcomes

Did visitors make connections to life experiences?

Looking for change in awareness, enjoyment, attitudes, interest, opinion, or understanding


Examining visitor interpretations allows us to consider the complex and highly personal nature of learning. To better understand interpretation, for eight months in 2008 I conducted a study of visitor engagement at the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Tacoma, Washington, USA (Ryken, 2008) and visited botanic gardens in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. What do visitors tell us? Studies of the attitudes of botanic garden visitors indicate that they rate the restorative features of the garden setting as more important than learning about plants or conservation issues (Ballantyne, et al., 2007; Connell, 2004). Visitors to the Seymour conservatory identified three primary reasons for visiting: to look at flower displays, to be in a garden setting, and to be in a peaceful setting. Interestingly, reasons ranked amongst the lowest were to learn about plants and to learn about the environment.

While the majority of visitors valued being immersed in a beautiful setting, their written reflections can be further organised into four different interpretations of nature. Looking at the range of visitors’ interpretations in relation to garden interpretation challenges us to reflect on our views of teaching and learning, as well as how we represent nature to visitors.

Four interpretations of nature

Conservatory visitors interpreted the same setting very differently, 1) seeing nature as source of scientific knowledge, 2) as creation, 3) as a human resource, 4) or in peril. Gardens also use one or more of these interpretations when displaying nature, despite the fact that these perspectives may be in tension—for example, seeing nature as a source of scientific knowledge versus seeing nature as creation. Below I share representative visitor reflections, give examples of how each interpretation was addressed in botanic gardens I visited, and highlight tensions.

Nature as a source of scientific knowledge

Some conservatory visitors saw nature as a source of scientific knowledge, often emphasising the scientific search for patterns in the natural world.

“By displaying examples that reflect what I’ve learned in class, my understanding of the natural world is reinforced. I’m curious about the bloom of the plant that resembles a ‘large bug’. What natural pollinator has a mate that looks like the bloom? I’d love to read more about the evolution of plants here with exotic features and know how/why the varieties arise. Details about leaf and petal patterns and numbers per bloom would be interesting.”

“I saw a pattern. In South America, Spanish moss grows on large branches and orchids grow out of this medium. In the same way, big leaf maples provide a structure for moss and ferns. Everywhere living things cooperate, sharing space, nutrients, etc.”

Taxonomic displays, either spaces devoted to different types of plants (e.g., palm house, cactus house) or plants grouped by genus and meticulously labelled by scientific name, are one interpretative strategy that gardens, such as the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle, Washington, USA use to present plants as a source of scientific knowledge. Alternatively, some gardens, like the New York Botanical Garden, emphasise the processes of science. Interpretative panels include close observation reminders (e.g., Did you notice? or Look closer.), questions that scientists investigate (e.g., Why did certain physical traits evolve?), or highlight field research. At Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, scientists at work are on display for visitors to observe.

Framing nature as a source of scientific knowledge emphasises that collecting, sorting, and organising is a form of inquiry; studying objects generates knowledge (Arnold, 2006). Classifying is not a neutral activity as all classification schemes raise questions about the fundamental unit of classification (Ritvo, 1997). The scientific view of nature is in tension with viewing nature as creation.

Nature as creation

More than 10% of conservatory visitors focused on nature as spiritual and as evidence of God’s creation.

“I do not really understand a lot about the natural world, but I love the beautiful plants and the fish. I think that humans were meant to approach the beauty of flowers, plants, and animals and to live in harmony with these things and to love them. This conservatory, to me, reflects the boundless love of God and his love in His creation. I glorify God for creating this beauty.”

“I saw plants I didn’t know existed and found them fascinating—I most appreciate and actually long for a chance to be in a natural beauty setting. I find nature very spiritual.”

Describing nature as evidence of creation is not typically explicitly addressed in botanic garden interpretative displays; in all of my garden visits I discovered only two references to this perspective. A display at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London included the quote, ’God created and Linnaeus ordered’. And an A-Z orchid display at the National Botanic Garden in Washington D.C. included the word ‘spiritual’ for the letter ‘s’ and described a Maori orchid creation legend. Most gardens’ displays emphasise evolution. For example, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Evolution House presents a visual evolutionary timeline and the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. displays an evolutionary tree diagramming phylogenic relationships.

Reverence for life is the common ground that can support reaching across the religion and science divide (Wilson, 2006). For some visitors botanic gardens are the re-creation of Paradise and a physical bible that makes God’s purposeful design visible (Cunningham, 1996; Prest, 1981). Visitor worldviews are unlikely to change easily as they are the result of complex interactions between religious belief, scientific knowledge, values, and common sense reasoning (Poling and Evans, 2004; Reading, 2005).

Nature as human resource

Other conservatory visitors described nature as a human resource, often emphasising their own use of plants or critiquing the human manipulation of plants.

“As a tea drinker, I thought about where a beverage I enjoy begins its life. It was very interesting to learn about tea varieties and where they grow—to me something about the economy as well as the natural world and how they impact each other. Also brought in the cultural role of the plant in the description of different ways of serving tea.”

“Plant modification and the fact that you must be breeding the flowers to be BIG. BIGGER is NOT better! Why are all the flowers so BIG? It’s not natural.”

Many gardens reinforce the interpretation of plants as consumables for humans’ use. For example, the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. displays how plants are used as food, medicine, ceremonial objects, and building material. The medicinal uses of plants are also emphasised at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Human manipulation of plants is made clearly visible at Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s bonsai museum.

Plants were, and continue to be, central to the political and economic expansion of nations and we should make transparent which plants were transported across the globe (e.g., cinchona and rubber trees) and which were not (e.g., abortifacients) (Schiebinger, 2004). Presenting nature as a shared resource—there for the taking to suit human needs and purposes—is in tension with the view that nature is in peril.

Nature in peril

Another set of conservatory visitors saw nature as threatened, focusing on the importance of conserving natural resources and balance in ecosystems.

“I believe that understanding our world and nature’s powers over the weather and the natural balance of the ecosystem is more than important with the threat of losing it due to our lack of gratefulness for its beauty.”

“I thought about how all plants in the conservatory are without question dependent on clean air, water, moderate to humid temperatures and ultimate harmony between all species for all to survive and prosper. The balance between man and nature and at times how delicate it is. How plants affect not only man but the rest of the planet and the ultimate balance and harmony between man and Earth.”

Botanic gardens are increasingly emphasising the interpretation of nature in peril. The Toronto Botanical Garden’s focus on urban gardening, San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers display of Goldman Environmental Prize winners, and displays about habitat destruction or global climate change at the New York Botanical Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, are examples of this interpretation of nature.

From this perspective nature is viewed as compromised by human activity, such as habitat destruction and overharvesting, leading to loss of biodiversity and extinction of species (Wilson, 2004). While often viewed as a current issue, concern for human impact on the environment has a long tradition; for example, it is documented in classical Greek writings and systematic forest conservation efforts began as early as 1768 on the island of Mauritius (Grove, 1995).

Questions to consider

Botanic gardens “invite discussion on the role(s) of ‘culture’ in relation to ‘nature’ and can act as a metaphor for the complex relationships that humanity has with the environment” (Sanders, 2007, p. 1213). They are important sites for learning precisely because of their potential to help visitors consider their multiple and conflicting relationships to nature. As the contextual model of learning suggests, visitors do indeed form highly personal meanings in relation to the same setting; simply providing information is a limited way to engage visitors. Below are questions to consider as we work to foster learning in botanic gardens.

  • What are the pros and cons of providing interpretative information versus posing visitor reflection questions?
  • How might we invite visitors to share their thinking?
  • What types of connections to nature do we hope to foster?
  • How might we make visible humans contradictory relationships to nature?

Engaging questions such as these can help us improve our work. Re-examining our views of learning and nature in relation to visitor worldviews suggests that we think critically about both the type and amount of learning we expect from a garden visit and our role in supporting that learning.


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Balis, J-M. (1999) Creating Exhibitions for Learning, in Moffat, H., Woollard, V. (eds) Museum and Gallery Education: A Manual of Good Practice. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, California, USA.

Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., Hughes, K. (2007) Environmental Awareness, Interests and Motives of Botanic Gardens Visitors: Implications for interpretive practice. Tourism Management, 29, 439-444.

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La mise en place d’un système d’interprétation dans un jardin botanique présente un défi. Notre but est non seulement d’étoffer les interprétations uniques du public, mais également de l’inciter à envisager certains sujets plus en profondeur. Dans cet article, je compare deux conceptions de l’apprentissage : le modèle de la transmission et le modèle contextuel. Afin d’illustrer le fait qu’un simple apport d’informations limite notre conception de l’enseignement et de l’apprentissage, j’examine quatre manières différentes de comprendre et d’interpréter la nature, rapportées par des visiteurs, au W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory de Tacoma, Washington, aux Etats-Unis. Trop souvent, nous nous attachons à ce que le public comprenne ou non un message interprétatif spécifique, plutôt qu’à sa manière de développer ses propres interprétations à partir de ces cadres naturels. Afin de contribuer à ce processus et de favoriser l’apprentissage dans les jardins botaniques, je propose une série de questions à étudier.


Aportar actividades interpretativas en un jardín botánico es un reto. No solo porque le queremos aportar al visitante materiales interpretativos únicos, sino porque también esperamos que piensen y exploren por su cuenta. En este artículo comparo dos formas de aprendizaje: el modelo de transmisión y el modelo contextual. Para demostrar que la simple transmisión de información limita nuestra forma de enseñar y aprender, presento cuatro maneras en las que los visitantes entienden e interpretan la naturaleza en el Conservatorio Botánico W.W. Seymour en Tacoma, Washington, Estados Unidos. Con frecuencia nos centramos en si los visitantes entienden o no un determinado mensaje interpretativo, en vez de centrarnos en cómo los visitantes elaboran sus propias interpretaciones de estos espacios naturales. Para contribuir a este proceso, y promover el aprendizaje en los jardines botánicos, presento algunos aspectos a considerar.

Amy E. Ryken
Associate Professor
University of Puget Sound
Chair, Education Committee
W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory
1500 N. Warner Street CMB 1051
Tacoma WA 98416, USA

To view vodcasts of field visits see