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Discovery carts: interpretation on wheels

Volume 6 Number 1 - April 2009
Marilyn Smith

In the summer of 2006, when educators at Brooklyn Botanic Garden learned that our young titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) was developing a spectacular and very rare bloom, we knew that it would be an ‘event’ on the New York City scene. How could we inform the thousands of curious visitors who would flock to the garden about the fascinating biology of this 1.67 meter (5½ feet) blossom that smells like rotting flesh? Despite our large staff of educators, we did not have the capacity to redevelop dozens of pre-scheduled programs nor to build a major exhibit in two weeks’ time. Our solution was to place one of our discovery carts outside the room where the arum was displayed in our conservatory. The cart was outfitted with an interactive felt board illustrating the arum’s flower structure, a pollinator-blossom matching game, a selection of potted aroid relatives, and trained interpreters to help children and adults appreciate the significance of one of the world’s most unusual plants.

In the past two decades, discovery carts - mobile interpretive education stations - have become a common feature at botanic gardens, museums, zoos, and nature centres across the U.S. Their rise in popularity should not be dismissed as a mere symptom of this country's love affair with anything on wheels. Rather, their adaptability, affordability and, yes, mobility make interpretive carts a winning solution to meet a wide range of educational goals. Discovery carts enable educators to interpret a special feature or event for their visitors by placing an engaging activity or attractive display right on the spot. In a garden setting, where indoor spaces for the public may be limited, carts can be an elegant yet inexpensive alternative to permanently installed exhibits. They are an easy way to introduce interpretation at a new site, forming a foundation from which other education programmes can grow. The ease with which carts can be changed to tell a new story is another reason they're so well suited for botanic gardens (for example, ‘What's in bloom this week?’)

Since I’ve mentioned mobility several times, I should make it clear that discovery carts are not designed to be in motion during their use as interpretive stations. The wheels on a discovery cart make it convenient to move outside during visiting hours and bring indoors overnight, or to place near a special display and relocate once the season has passed. Discovery carts are most effectively used with a live educator to connect people passing by with information about plants, although they can serve as a self-guided interpretive station. Your visitors will appreciate the chance to handle and explore plants at a cart in ways you’d prohibit among your permanent displays. 

Before you start pounding nails to build a new fleet of carts for your garden, you need to think through your specific goals for each cart. Developing a programme plan is the first step to successfully launching any new education program; all the more so, if it’s going to require building a physical structure. What message or theme do you wish to convey to visitors? Will the cart be used exclusively in a particular section of your garden, or will it be free ranging on your grounds? Defining the audience may be the most important part of this exercise. What ages do you hope to serve? When do they visit the garden and what do they typically do while there? Does your target audience visit in small clusters of family and friends, or large organized groups from camps, schools, or garden clubs?

Next, you’ll need to consider the type of experience you’d like your audience to have. Carts can serve as information stations where a knowledgeable person answers questions about plants and gardening. They can be set up with attractive, informative, yet static displays. They can be activity centres where children or adults explore plants using their five senses or scientific tools. These functions are closely tied to the physical construction of the cart, so it’s crucial to start with a clear educational objective in mind, then build the cart to support it.

Another key element to include in a programme plan for carts is how they will be staffed. Who will create lessons and materials, manage supplies and arrange for maintenance when necessary? Who will interact with the visitors when the carts are in use? Many gardens successfully use volunteers as interpretive educators for their carts. This can be a tremendously satisfying assignment for volunteers who enjoy interacting with people and want to dive into a job where they’ll learn a lot of new information. But someone on staff will need to train and schedule the volunteers and recruit new ones when needed. At Brooklyn Botanic Garden, highly trained teens in the third year of our Garden Apprentice Program are the workforce behind our discovery carts. Of course, the availability of staff or volunteers will need to align with the times your target audience is likely to visit.
Although flexibility is the hallmark of discovery carts, there are a few physical features that most interpretive carts have in common:
• one or more horizontal surfaces on which to display plants and objects or to serve as work surfaces for hands-on activities (these should suit the height of your audience).
• Secure, out of view storage for programme materials (often bundled in containers as topic modules).
• high quality wheels with brakes and a sturdy handle to push and steer.
• changeable signage to display your garden’s logo and the theme of the cart.
• for outdoor carts, a weatherproof finish and a canopy or umbrella for shade or rain protection.
• an attractive design that complements your garden’s aesthetic and is engaging to visitors.
• construction from durable materials that are easily cleaned and withstand the inevitable bumps and dings against doorframes and signposts (avoid protruding parts that will catch or break off).

Whether built by on-site staff, volunteers, or professional exhibit designers, discovery carts are usually custom-made for the needs of the organisation.  Pitfalls to avoid are building overly large carts that are too heavy to move or too wide to fit through doorways, using materials that cannot be repaired by in-house maintainers, and designing storage spaces that are highly customized to very specific supplies. One caveat to keep in mind is that no matter how well you plan them, the carts you build today will likely be used in ways you never imagined over the course of their lifespan. So even after developing a programme plan, it’s wise to construct carts with that unknown future in mind.

Résumé

Les charriots découvertes sont des postes d’interprétation mobiles qui sont fréquemment utilisés dans les lieux de diffusion du savoir informel aux Etats-Unis. La création de ces charriots est relativement simple et peu coûteuse. Une fois construit, un charriot peut facilement être modifié en vue d’interpréter de nouveaux sujets, un aspect intéressant pour les jardins, dont les collections de plantes vivantes changent constamment. Pour qu’un programme intégrant des charriots se déroule avec succès, il faut tout d’abord déterminer le message à transmettre, le type de public ciblé, et le mode d’interprétation. Il est également recommandé que le modèle et la structure du charriot soient basés sur des facteurs d’ordre pratique, tels que l’espace disponible et les conditions dans lesquels il sera utilisé, la possibilité de déplacement, et l’adaptabilité à de nouvelles utilisations futures.

Resumen

Los carritos de descubrimiento son modalidades móviles de interpretación comúnmente utilizadas en centros de educación informal a lo largo de los Estados Unidos. Desarrollar estos carritos es relativamente sencillo y no muy costoso. Una vez construido, el carrito se puede fácilmente cambiar para interpretar nuevos temas – característica de gran utilidad para los jardines botánicos cuyas colecciones de plantas vivas están en constante cambio. Un programa exitoso empieza  con la planeación del mensaje a transmitir, la audiencia y el método interpretativo. El diseño y construcción del carrito debe tomar en cuenta aspectos prácticos como el espacio disponible, en qué condiciones se utilizará, facilidad de movimiento, ya adaptabilidad para nuevos usos en el futuro.

 

Marilyn Smith
Director of Children’s Education
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
1000 Washington Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11209 U.S.A.
Email: marilynsmith@bbg.org
Website: www.bbg.org