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Let’s take this outside
With many museums forced to limit their indoor space, interpretive designers the Creative Core celebrate the joys and possibilities of outdoor interpretation for museums and visitors alike.
Earlier in the year, museums had started to reopen their buildings amid a bewildering array of new restrictions – visitor routes were overhauled, numbers limited and ticketing reintroduced. However, for museums blessed with outdoor space, the situation may present new opportunities to meet visitors where they feel more at ease and less burdened with COVID-19 risk. Whether your site sits within acres of parkland, or just its external walls, the Creative Core has ideas for how to maximise this outdoor potential.
During lockdown, outdoor space has become a peculiar refuge; many of us have spent more time outdoors than ever before, taking daily exercise, enjoying nature, and exploring our local areas. At the same time, cultural life has migrated outside, with outdoor public space transformed into impromptu theatres, art galleries and concert halls. Many cultural institutions now recognise this shift and are refocusing their programmes to reach audiences outside, where they feel more comfortable and receptive.
So, what does successful outdoor interpretation look like?
The best makes an energetic and engaging addition to the outdoor environment. Instead of detracting from what’s around, it accentuates its surroundings and the unique sense of place. It is innovative and inspirational, without being wordy and didactic. It works to enhance the visitor experience, giving access to fascinating stories and characters that visitors can truly relate to. It can even offer opportunities for self-led, multi-sensory interaction and play through a menu of low-tech and no-tech activities. It forms an important part of a memorable
day out and gives visitors a reason to come back.
Some of our favourite examples of outdoor interpretation help draw us back into the historic landscape, reorient our perceptions and create moments of discovery. Against the peaceful backdrop of sheep and heather, interpretation in the North York Moors depicts a fiery landscape of ironworks, kilns and railways. All at once, we realise we’re standing at the epicentre of a booming ironstone mining industry, now all but vanished from the landscape. Viewpoint silhouettes and tactile 3D maps help us re-impose this forgotten heritage back onto our surroundings and appreciate the transformation that’s taken place.
Other examples provoke conversation and debate. Interpretation along North Norfolk’s prehistoric coastline gets us thinking about the
natural environment and how it has changed over millions of years. Imagery built up through fleeting glimpses and surprise discoveries suggests what life might have been like for early humans living cheek by jowl with mammoths, woolly rhinos and hyenas. A disused water tank in seaside Sheringham proves an unlikely spot for a prehistoric encounter, as stencil shapes suddenly align to reveal a family of steppe mammoth in a life-size anamorphic mural. Elsewhere, human footprints in the ground are a simple but effective reminder of who was here before us.
For sites with limited space, outdoor interpretation is not off the cards. Wall-mounted signage offers prime space for a branded welcome, whether to invite would-be visitors through the door, or provide interpretation on buildings and landscapes. Tactile engagements offer a new and unexpected dimension to traditional graphics, while non-invasive fixings ensure suitability for historic buildings. Public realm interpretation can also help maximise space by combining functionality and storytelling, such as interpretive street furniture or viewpoint panels to engage passers-by in the heritage of their surroundings.
As museums face the uncertainty of the months ahead, outdoor interpretation has a role to play in sustaining audiences with new stories told where they feel safest.