A Flipchart Survey

IMG_0702This very simple survey method at a special event caught my eye last year at the Larimer County Farmers’ Market in Fort Collins, Colorado, where we live. When I managed a nature center for thirteen years in Pueblo, special events were the lifeblood of our fundraising and they attracted thousands of people to our site. This kind of survey method would have been a great way to answer questions we had about visitor preferences.


The method is simple. They set up three or four flipcharts side by side at a prominent location at the farmers’ market. One question with three or four options is simply stated on each flipchart. Volunteers hand out large sticky dots, one per flipchart so that a guest has one vote per question. People stick a dot in the column below their preferred answer.


Is there peer pressure in the voting? Perhaps. But I was aware when making choices that I don’t know any of the folks around me and do not care what they think so its not the direct kind of peer pressure of making choices in the presence of classmates or friends. All surveys have some potential bias, but this method is not intended to be a scientific survey. It simply gives an indication of the preferences of IMG_0704the audience in attendance. The down side is that it does not solicit any input from those not in attendance, but that information, if desired, can be gathered in another way. On the up side, this method does not require face to face interactions with the surveyor, so the bias associated with using an interviewer can be avoided. Since interaction with the person handing out dots is somewhat limited, the design of the questions is critically important. They must be stated clearly with easily understood options. People seem to enjoy the activity but usually want to participate quickly and move on.


This kind of survey has value beyond the information obtained. It invites the customers to think about their motivations. It gives them instant feedback on the motivations of others. It tells them you value their input and will be trying to improve events based on that input.


On varied occasions in the management of sites and events I have seen planning processes that make important decisions with no feedback from users at all. Usually the reasons include “too much trouble, too costly, and not enough time.” Surveys like this flipchart approach offer a simple, direct method of getting useful input; however, like all surveys, they should be considered just that – an input tool, not necessarily a decision-making tool.


We manage better when we know what our customers or guests want or need. This simple tool can help those we serve express their desires easily, quickly, and inexpensively.


– Tim Merriman

Words of Wisdom That Endure On Earth Day

John Muir, who came to America from Scotland as a boy changed the world in his own special ways. He wrote,

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.


President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir (right)

President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir (right)

Muir was born on April 21, 1838, so his birthday is the day before Earth Day, April 22. As a young man, he attended University of Wisconsin and worked in a bicycle shop in Indianapolis. He was a skilled inventor and craftsman with wood and metal, but one day an awl pierced his eye and he was temporarily blinded. The experience led him to abandon technology for nature. After recovering from the accident, he took a 1000 mile trek to Cedar Key in Florida.


Later Muir moved to California and lived three years in Yosemite Valley, often traveling only with a tin cup, a loaf of bread and a book by his favorite author. Muir admired Ralph Waldo Emerson and carried his writings with him in Yosemite Valley for inspiration in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I can imagine him sitting on a rock or log, reading Emerson’s words, Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.


Muir is best known for being the founder of the Sierra Club and most regard him as the Father of our American parks. He inspired Theodore Roosevelt to create the first national monuments by Presidential decree and to protect Yosemite National Park by Congressional action.


Just as Emerson inspired Muir, Muir inspired others in his time. Enos Mills was a young man of 21 when he met John Muir on a California beach in 1889. Muir took Mills to Yosemite and encouraged him to inspire others through books, lectures and journeys into the wilderness. Mills would become a key figure in founding Rocky Mountain National Park and his books are still valued by naturalists and interpreters. He led 300 groups up Long’s Peak and operated what may have been the first nature guide school.


Enos Mills


Lisa Brochu and I were sitting with Enda Mills Kiley, daughter of Enos Mills, in Estes Park, Colorado, a few years ago and she mentioned that her father’s birthday is Earth Day, April 22nd. She also spoke of his life-long bond with Muir and his inspirational words of encouragement. Enda has since passed away, but her daughter and granddaughter continue to keep the cabin he built at age 15 operating as a museum and historic site. When he wrote Adventures of a Nature Guide, he identified many of the ideas that have endured as important approaches to heritage interpretation today.


Enos Mills was a lover of trees and his Story of a Thousand Year Pine remains one of my favorite books. He tells of a ponderosa pine cut by sawyers only to be abandoned for being shattered when it fell and therefore unsuitable for lumber. Saddened that the tree had been felled, he studied the pine and carefully told the story of this millennial giant giving evidence of the past measured by fires, hackings by a Spanish knife and arrowheads embedded in its annual rings. His reverence for trees and belief in their symbolic importance shines through the quote you will find in one of his finest essays;


Enos Mills

Enos Mills

The forests are the flags of nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten. It may be that some time an immortal pine will be the flag of a united peaceful world.


Earth Day is a great time to pause and remember great nature writers like Emerson, Muir and Mills – and every day is really Earth Day for many of us. We carry the inspirational words of these good people in our hearts and let them guide us in finding ways to live more peacefully on and with the planet.

– Tim Merriman



5 Thoughts About Graffiti – Messages on the Landscape

Graffiti or art on the streets of Athens.

Graffiti or art on the streets of Athens?

Graffiti – is it vandalism or a message on the landscape, something that transcends time to bring a view of the past into the present? At what point does graffiti stop being a problem and become a valued artifact, and who gets to make that judgment? Here are some random thoughts generated by graffiti around the world.


  1.  1. If graffiti is old enough, it is called pictographs or petroglyphs and we not only interpret it, we go to great lengths to protect it. Turkeys and waterfowl painted on the walls of shelter caves in Tsegi Canyon in Navajo National Monument tell a story of how the landscape changed due to drought. People who occupied the canyon before 1,000 A.D. enjoyed a more lush and verdant landscape with lots of wildlife. They kept what amounts to a library and art collection on the walls of the cave and I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the culture of their times from what was left behind.
  2. Much modern graffiti on the streets of major cities like New York or Athens is either offensive or incredibly artistic and sometimes it’s both. It makes me wonder why art programs in schools have declined. I wonder if there would be as much tagging of trains, walls and city streets if young people had less anger and frustration and more opportunities to be successful artists in school and daily life. Some parks and museums in the U.S. have limited tagging by encouraging young people to create murals for public spaces or painting electrical boxes. How do we engage these highly motivated and talented individuals to keep graffiti in the realm of public art?
  3. Graffiti carved on living trees is the most objectionable for me. A tree is another living entity on our planet and should not have to endure the indignity of tattoos given by a human. It may not care, but I hate to see it. I don’t know how you stop it in remote settings but it is especially offensive in parks and natural areas. It’s usually a very temporary message about “John and Marsha,” not a broader cultural statement about profound events. Trees are thicker skinned than me, and eventually new growth may cover the offensive scars.
  4. I am both amused and mildly offended by the temporary graffiti made from chunks of bleached white coral arranged over black lava on the Big Island of Hawaii. As you drive north from Kona up the Kohala coast, you see silly messages, messages of love and other symbols meaningful only to the maker and few others. Tourists and locals often stop to dismantle another person’s art to create their own in this constantly changing mosaic of messages made from natural materials.
  5. There are other ways to use the landscape as a temporary canvas with sensibilities about not changing things forever. I rather enjoy cornfields turned into mazes or messages seen only by planes. Andrew Amador has made a career of decorating beaches with amazing patterns and pictures, knowing that wind, weather and water will erase his work on a regular basis.
Guides in the Serengeti of Tanzania show cave art where Maasai recorded their sighting of someone on a bicycle.

Guides in the Serengeti of Tanzania show cave art where Maasai recorded their sighting of someone on a bicycle.



As a manager I was always aware that graffiti must be obliterated the same day or next day after occurrence. If it stands for even a short time it attracts more and more. When management doesn’t react quickly, we send the message, “We’re not paying very close attention so do what you will.” Graffiti is a magnet for additional self-expression. But at some point, it becomes a message from the past . . . we seem to be telling those in the future that nothing can stay unmarked by the hand of humankind.


-Tim Merriman



How Does Your Program Smell?


Does your natural or cultural site or facilities have a “signature” odor? That may be a strange question but it has more to do with interpretation than you may think.


Wikimedia photo.

Wikimedia photo.


I was reminded of the power of the Proust Effect when I visited the Science Teacher website that suggested going to a Dollar Store to buy library paste, the white glue used in grade school. Just reading those words immediately transported me to elementary school in Vandalia, Illinois, where the odor of library paste pervaded the hallways. I can even taste it (which tells you a little about what we did as kids back then). These “involuntary memories” characterize the Proust Effect and we can use what we know about it to plan effective interpretive experiences.


There’s a scientific basis for the Proust Effect that tracks back to our survival instinct. The olfactory nerves in our nose lead to the limbic system in our brain, the hippocampus and amygdala being two of several distinct parts of the system. This is the oldest part of the vertebrate brain, sometimes called the “animal brain.” Smells and tastes quickly inform animals of threats or food or opportunities for reproduction. Although we’re not entirely sure what animals hold in their memories, we do know that humans store memories all over the cerebral cortex and in the limbic system. A single smell or taste can quickly have our brain reassembling a memory from our past.


A coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii, gives out free samples and the smell of coffee brewing invites you in to try their samples.

A coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii, gives out free samples and the smell of coffee brewing invites you in.

This is the reason that movie theaters blow the smell of popcorn all over the waiting area, reminding us of how refreshments are part of the overall experience and enticing us to spend some extra money. Coffee shops such as Starbucks ask their staff to not wear colognes or deodorants with discernible odors to avoid interference with the tantalizing smell of coffee in the air. Because their brand is about the coffee and not their food items, they have food items brought in rather than baking or assembling on site for the same reason. Many businesses have figure out how to use the enrichment associated with sounds and smells to enhance their customers’ experience and encourage them to stay longer and spend more.


I once found a comment on Tripadvisor.com by a tourist describing an important heritage site as “smelling like toilets.” That sort of report immediately tells me that the site is poorly maintained and could change my mind about visiting. On the flip side, sometimes very clean sites smell more like artificial scent blocks and cleansers than anything to do with the experience.


Heritage site managers should think not only about the appearance of the grounds and facilities, but the aromas that might enhance or detract from the experience. Knowing that the Proust Effect is at play, stop and smell the opportunities for enriching the experience at your site.


–       Tim Merriman

Finding The Sweet Spot

At some heritage sites interpretation is entertainment, doing little more than passing time for visitors or delivering information that will not be remembered. Helping people connect emotionally and intellectually with complex stories is a challenge. Experiences must be planned with specific objectives in mind.


Much of what we do in planning natural and cultural heritage sites and programs is really about balance. When planning messages (theme and sub-themes) for a site, we think about hitting the “sweet spot” with our approaches to communication and experience design. We view that spot as the overlap of what interests our audience, what objectives must be met for our agency/employer, and what honors and protects the resource.


Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 8.02.37 PM

There was a time when most interpretive planning and programming was solely resource-based. We told our visitors what we thought they should know using only the techniques we knew well with little regard for their backgrounds, interests or preferences in learning styles. The resulting signs, exhibits and programs delivered information accordingly. But just delivering information is not the same thing as interpretation, as Freeman Tilden pointed out in his principles. More information about the resource doesn’t always help people deepen their understanding and therefore, rarely achieves the objectives of management.


When only management objectives are considered, there may be a tendency toward what has been called “interpreganda,” presenting only the perspective of the agency responsible for the resource. While there is nothing wrong with putting the mission of the organization in front of visitors, doing so without considering how to meet the audience where they are in their belief systems may result in unfortunate conflicts rather than connections.


In the 1980s we began to be more market-oriented, using social science surveys to understand the needs and desires of our guests. Multiple perspectives, especially regarding sensitive stories, began to emerge in a greater variety of media choices designed to reach a greater variety of visitors. The danger, of course, in being solely focused on the visitor’s interests and desires is that sometimes interpretation becomes so entertaining that the resource suffers. The desire to get “just a little closer” to wildlife or interact with historic structures in a way that damages the integrity of the building can put the diagram out of balance yet again.


If the interpretive plan elements support management of the site, appeal to our visitors and serve the best interests of the resource, we have a great start at defining where the sweet spot lies, where balance creates a great experience that benefits all three bubbles of the diagram. A batter focuses attention to swing at a ball, hoping to hit the sweet spot that will mean a home run. A planner has to think in several directions at the same time to hit a home run, finding the sweet spot, the balance, among the many variables required for successful interpretation.


-Tim Merriman