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Speak the Right Language, Say the Right Thing

Number 24 - June 2002

Pat Griggs & Laura Giuffreda





Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK

This paper looks at the evaluation of two major interpretive exhibitions developed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. ‘Plants+People’ was evaluated once the themes had been determined using discussion groups. Once it had opened to the public, visitor response was evaluated by observing use of the interactives and from a comments’ book. The Millennium Seed Bank exhibition was evaluated at a very early stage of its development to find out how potential visitors reacted to the terms ‘biodiversity’ and ‘conservation’ and what they felt about exhibits on seeds.

Public Awareness

Both Agenda 21 and the Convention on Biological Diversity recognise the need for public awareness and understanding of the issues involved in sustainability and conservation of biodiversity.

Agenda 21: 'promote broad public awareness as an essential part of a global education effort to strengthen attitudes, values and actions which are compatible with sustainable development’

Convention on Biological Diversity: 'encourage understanding of the importance of…the conservation of biological diversity'.

With our wide range of visitors, botanic gardens are in an extremely strong position to raise public awareness of sustainability and conservation issues through interpretation and exhibitions of our collections. Careful evaluation of interpretive projects can ensure that we get our message across to visitors as effectively as possible by determining that we ‘speak the right language’ and ‘say the right thing’.

Speak the right language - the visitors’ point of view

  • What is the right language? - defining the target audience
  • What do they already know or understand?
  • What misunderstandings do they have?
  • What interests them or arouses their feelings?
  • Do they feel most comfortable reading text or using interactives?

Say the right thing - the botanic gardens' point of view

  • What are the ‘right things’ to say? - setting objectives
  • What do we want visitors to know?
  • What do we want visitors to feel?
  • What action do we want visitors to take?

At Kew, we have evaluated visitor responses to the proposals for the 'Plants+People' exhibition and the 'Millennium Seed Bank (MSB)' exhibition. The evaluation took the form of focus groups, examining the proposed themes of the exhibitions and discussing the suggested interpretation media. The focus groups were mediated by professional visitor research companies. They used artefacts and prompt boards to stimulate discussion amongst groups of visitors selected from within the target audience. Since its opening , we also have evaluated visitor responses to the 'Plants+People' exhibition, using observation studies and comment books.

Plants+People Exhibition


  • The majority of visitors will know how they rely on plants in their everyday lives
  • Visitors will be aware that it is not only crop plants that have a significant effect on their lives, but also the importance of ‘wild’ plants (eg. Brazil nut)
  • Visitors will have a greater understanding of the value and importance of plant science and will therefore be more committed to supporting plant research and conservation
  • Visitors will become more aware of Kew’s role in plant science and conservation

Target Audience

  • General appeal to visitors to Kew
  • Additional interpretation will cater for:
  • Foreign visitors - German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese
  • Family groups
  • Schools
  • Children -  age group 8-13
  • Disabled visitors - visually impaired, hearing impaired, learning difficulties

Plants+People - Preliminary Evaluation

‘You think of Kew being old and you know it has got a history to it so I think you would expect part of it to be quite old, you wouldn’t expect to go in and find it all totally high tech’

‘I would think that to some extent it would be against the ethic of Kew if they’re ancient cabinets that survived today, they come from wood, from plants, it seems rather nihilistic to destroy them just because someone has a bright idea’

Quotes taken from evaluation report by Creative Research

  • Participants’ knowledge of plants is high with regard to more obvious direct uses. Knowledge diminishes as the processes involved remove the plant from obvious use
  • There is sufficient knowledge/interest to encourage initial intrigue. However the subject still surprises visitors and leaves them with a feeling of having learnt something
  • Although not overwhelmingly interested in the uses of plants per se, when brought to life with stories, artefacts and interesting methods of display, the subject area becomes interesting and captivating
  • Objects in cabinets have limited appeal. All the interactive elements are needed to supplement the traditional methods
  • Awareness that Kew carries out research is fairly high, although it is associated with pure research rather than more applied aspects

Plants+People - Visitors’ Response to Exhibition

The comments books have proved very useful - both in giving feedback on elements of the exhibition that visitors enjoy, pointing out mistakes and problems, and in making new contacts.

To complement the cabinets of plant products, there are a number of interactives that visitors can try out. Each computer interactive encourages visitors to make links between particular products and their source plants. Observation studies showed that a large proportion of visitors used the interactives, in particular the low tech versions. Those using the computer interactives spent over two minutes trying the challenges.

Comments from the Visitors’ Book

The exhibition was OK but the computers and flaps were good' - child aged 10

We enjoyed answering quizzes. There are many things to learn both for me and my daughter’ - Japanese visitor

It was really interesting to find out that everyday things come from such strange sources’ - child aged nine

I really enjoyed it. I like the walking stick and the little figures made of olives’ - child aged 10

Lovely exhibition - interesting facts, especially about the red tape!’ - Visitor from London

This display is an excellent, well designed process. The themes for each display case is clear, helpful and very well planned. You have created a very strong teaching tool by keeping interest high. I wish slides were available for my students in the States’ - Visitor from Pittsburgh, USA

Great computer game on medicine and plants. Good fun for newly qualified Drs!’ - Visitor from London

The children had fun! I enjoyed the smells and music’ - Teacher from Wimbledon

Very informative and well presented. Should provide a separate leaflet for this museum’ - Visitor from Sri Lanka

Millennium Seed Bank Exhibition


  • To raise awareness of the problems facing biodiversity
  • To show how seedbanking can contribute to solving these problems
  • To highlight the role of the MSB as part of Kew’s and the UK’s contribution to conservation
  • To explain the global collaborative nature of the MSB
  • To explain the process of seed banking
  • To explain the seed and its vital importance

Target Audience

  • Existing visitors to Wakehurst Place
  • 65% over 45, 17% family groups, 9% overseas visitors

Preliminary evaluation - Visitors' response to the MSB exhibition proposals

  • Biodiversity - the term is not understood: needs to be explained and dramatised; important to show effect of loss of single species as well as benefits of wide gene pool
  • Conservation - doesn’t stir much passion, especially on a global scale, until benefits of biodiversity realised and sense of loss invoked
  • Plants - difficult to raise emotions until people consider how plants relate to their everyday lives
  • Seeds are thought of as dull until concept of germination introduced, then seen as intimate and ‘miracle of birth’; stirs emotions
  • Seed Bank - considered to be ‘dry’(!) and ‘dull’; someone else’s concern; interest needs to be powered through sense of personal loss and by dramatising concept.
  • Exhibition style - must be lively, dramatic, couch complex ideas in simple terms

Parlez un Vrai Langage, Dites les Vraies Choses


En utilisant leurs collections comme support d’interprétation, les Jardins Botaniques sont bien placés pour sensibiliser le public aux problèmes du développement durable et de conservation de la biodiversité. L’évaluation attentive d’un projet d’interprétation, avant, durant, et après sa réalisation, permet de s’assurer d’avoir délivré ses messages de façon efficace auprès du public. L’évaluation aide à cerner le point de vue du visiteur, d’évaluer ses connaissances sur le sujet interprété, et de tester les techniques d’interprétation qui attirent et retiennent son attention. L’évaluation permet également de vérifier et de valider les objectifs du projet : Quel public ciblons-nous ?; Qu’est-ce que nous avons voulu lui transmettre ou lui faire ressentir lorsqu’il quitte le site ?

Cet article traite de l’évaluation de deux grandes expositions réalisées par le Royal Botanic Gardens de Kew. « Plantes et Hommes » a fait l’objet d’une évaluation après que les thèmes aient été déterminés par un groupe de discussion. Une fois ouverte au public, la réaction des visiteurs a été évaluée par l’observation de leurs comportements face à l’exposition, ainsi qu’à partir des remarques laissées dans le livre d’or. L’exposition « La banque de graine du millénaire » a été évaluée à un stade précoce de sa réalisation, afin de déterminer comment les visiteurs potentiels réagissaient aux termes « biodiversité » et « conservation », et recueillir leurs avis au sujet de la présentation de graines.

Hable el Idioma Apropiado, Diga las Debidas Palabras


En los jardines botánicos, con la interpretación de nuestras colecciones, estamos en una buena posición para aumentar el conocimiento público sobre los temas de la sostenibilidad y la conservación de la biodiversidad. Para transmitir el mensaje a los visitantes lo mas efectivamente posible, conviene evaluar cuidadosamente el proyecto de interpretación, antes y durante su desarrollo, así como una vez completado. La evaluación nos ayuda a comprender el punto de vista del visitante en relación a su conocimiento previo del tema y a las técnicas interpretativas que atraen y retienen su atención. La interpretación también puede asegurarnos que estamos completamente seguros de los objetivos del proyecto: a quien nos queremos dirigir y que deseamos que sepan o sientan cuando se vayan.

Este trabajo estudia la evaluación de dos importantes exposiciones interpretativas desarrolladas por el Royal Botanic Gardens de Kew. La exposición 'Plantas+Gente' fue evaluado por grupos de trabajo después de que los temas hubieran sido determinados. Una vez abierta al público la reacción de éste se evaluó observando el uso que se hacía de la exposición interactiva y estudiando un libro de observaciones de los visitantes. La exposición del Banco de Semillas del Milenio se evaluó al comienzo de su desarrollo para ver como los posibles visitantes reaccionaban a los términos 'biodiversidad' y 'conservación' y que opinaban de la exposición de semillas.