Matching Mission and Message Zooperbly

DCIM101GOPROWe recently enjoyed training twenty-eight interpretive professionals from Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania in a day-long interpretive planning workshop at the Melbourne Zoo. Zoo personnel kindly invited us to explore the Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary, two of the three Victoria Zoos, in our remaining days in the Melbourne area and we took them up on the offer.


Perhaps what we enjoyed most about the Melbourne Zoo is the clear message that this zoo is about fighting extinction. It’s not only pervasive throughout the interpretive text, but it’s written in bold letters across a landscape feature that draws visitor attention immediately on entering the zoo grounds. Interpretive signs remind visitors that there are things they can do to help in this effort, both at the zoo and at home. A gorilla telephone challenge invites DCIM101GOPROvisitors to recycle older cell phones to make an investment in protecting gorillas. The use of a “zooperhero” action figure and engaging language really brings young people to the cause. Teens and preteens are often considered a more difficult audience to reach but this approach targets their interests in both animals and phones and gets them involved in fighting extinction. The zoo provides prepaid mail-in envelopes to make it easy for guests to take action after they return home.


Melbourne Zoo definitely designs guest experiences that interpret animals of the world with a focus on the threats and options in protecting animals. Many of their exhibits seem to be in transition to habitats that enclose people in the environment of the animal, rather than caging the animal in a more human-centric environment. Animal identification signs make the experience more personal, providing the name of the animal (what the keepers call him or her) and its individual likes and dislikes rather than the more standard zoo sign that offers only scientific and common names, distribution, and status. The species information is also provided, but isn’t the main focus. We found this approach appeared to more fully engage visitors with the animals, building a bridge of familiarity from one representative animal to the entire species. It seemed to meet people where they were, instead of expecting non-biologists to be excited about the scientific knowledge of the species found in more traditional zoo approaches.



Murrundinde by the sculpture of his great, great uncle.

Murrundinde by the sculpture of his great, great uncle.

After leaving Melbourne, we drove over to Healesville Sanctuary an hour to the east of the city. The guest experience staff met us at the gate and introduced us to Murrundindi, the ngurungaeta (elder/leader) of the Wurundjeri people. At 69 years of age he remains a vigorous spokesman for his people and Victoria Zoos. In the past two years the Sanctuary has formalized the stories of his people using his personal and family stories as examples in exhibits and sculptures along a cultural trail that winds throughout the grounds. His storytelling skills and passion for sharing his culture with people is commanding. We were honored to have him spend time with us, helping us to understand a bit of his history as he told us of his painful transition from hiding his aboriginal history to sharing it with the world. It was wonderful to sit with him in the café and have him explain some of the artifacts he holds dear and get some first-hand tips on playing the didgeridoo.


owlThe Healesville Sanctuary shares the story of aboriginal people while displaying native Australia animals in a beautiful forest environment. We were encouraged to watch a bird show with trained parrots and raptors. It’s a very entertaining show but it goes beyond the typical bird show. The core of the program was a message about using recycled paper products to preserve native forests that provide nesting and foraging habitat for the species of birds being flown in the show. The keepers explained how each species of cockatoo and raptor plays key roles in the ecosystems of Australia. We have seen other bird shows in parks and zoos, but this experience was exceptional in matching messages to the natural history stories and ecosystems.


Blending the natural and cultural heritage of Australia as they do so skillfully at Healesville Sanctuary makes a lot of sense. Landscapes, animals, and people are inextricably linked together and understanding those murrun2connections can be difficult when animals are pulled out of context into cages. Braiding the stories of native species, native peoples, and native plants throughout the visitor experience helps facilitate connections for people in a way that rarely happens in zoo settings. Like the Melbourne Zoo, Healesville Sanctuary is in transition as it updates exhibits and programs, but we definitely think they’re headed in the right direction and look forward to returning some day.


– Tim Merriman






Brewing Up Fun Down Under

coffeeOn a recent trip to Perth, our host Rusty Creighton promised a great coffee break during one of our outings and what he had in store surpassed even my exacting coffee-craving expectations. Yahava KoffeeWorks is an oasis that blends calm and caffeine, nestled among the vineyards of Swan Valley.


The coffee place overlooks a beautiful lake reflecting the fall colors of grape arbors that stretch out in all directions. A spacious lawn accommodates couples and families enjoying the scenery with their coffee.


Inside, Mark Lucas, our barrista, sets out small glasses and begins serving free samples of their best in-house roasts. His coffee interpretation includes countries of origin, roasting practices and a range of options for coffee coffee1preparations that I’ve never seen before. Since we’ve recently purchased a small coffee farm in Kona, I’m fully engaged by his low-key presentation.


Cold drip coffee is a bit “lemony,” sharp and good. Coffee syrup mixed with cold milk is creamy and delicious, but not my preferred beverage. The varied dark roasts and blends are excellent, slightly different and easily compared in this taste test. Mark is friendly and skilled in telling stories about coffee. He easily keeps four or five customers served at the same time without slighting anyone. We munch on chocolate covered coffee beans to clear our palates between tastes.


coffee2Mark interpreted the coffee options with no sales pitch at all. A giant coffee roaster looms behind him and other barristas bustle around the busy bar. During the brief conversation over the various tasters, we look around to see that there are places to purchase bulk coffee to take home, a freshly brewed cup to enjoy on the grounds (no pun intended), and a variety of coffee-related merchandise. Every wall of the large warehouse style building offered bulk coffee, brewing devices, coffee-flavored food products, coffee-themed clothing and snack items.


The experience shifted us from “sell me a coffee” to a slow stroll through their amazing store. We soon had French press travel cups for brewing on the road and coffee-flavored toffee bars, along with a piping hot “long black” (plain American-style) and “flat white” (black coffee loaded with milk) from the main counter. We relaxed and enjoyed the setting and rich coffee before driving up into the hills to check out some hiking trails.


coffee3Yahava KoffeeWorks goes way beyond a Starbucks or other experience economy shop. Like the best craft beer breweries, which offer tours and tasting in addition to sales, this place makes you feel at home with their setting while they interpret their products. By the time we left, it was perhaps the most expensive coffee break we’ve ever taken, but we are, even as we type this, enjoying coffee made with our new French press travel cups. The craft of the coffee interpreter at Yahava made our day.


– Tim Merriman

Six ways to Put Interpretation On Your Manager’s Agenda

MGTI was at the National Park Service training facilities in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, when Mike Watson (then superintendent) said to me, “Interpretation is management.” I had heard our profession described as a management tool for decades, but if it’s only a tool, it’s one of those used too infrequently. I tend to agree with Mike – it’s not just a tool, it’s the way to manage most effectively.


How can you elevate interpretation in your park, zoo, museum, nature center, historic site or aquarium to being considered the fundamental approach to management? Here’s a few suggestions to get you started.


1)   Is the interpretive chief or interpreter invited to management meetings? It’s hard to contribute if you’re not at the table. You must know what challenges the site or organization faces. If not invited, ask to be invited. Or buy a box of donuts and show up. They rarely chase off the person with donuts. Show up and pay attention and volunteer ideas about how your programs and activities might help with management challenges.

2)   Read the annual management plan and any other documents that identify management issues. Strategize how you might use interpretive programming, signs and facilities to solve specific problems. Could you show how helping people better understand the resource will also help prevent vandalism, unwanted fires, or drownings?

3)   Write an annual interpretive business plan or operations plan that includes a logic model with measurable objectives and then stick with it. Show alignment of the objectives and results with management goals.

4)   Include your manager on your interpretive planning team to ensure that your interpretive objectives match his or hers. Everyone has to be on the same team.

5)   Report monthly, quarterly or annually on your progress toward objectives in your plan. Measure success in terms that management will understand and care about.

6)   Refer to interpretation as management when talking about why you do it. If you believe that what you are doing is “icing on the cake,” not the cake, you may find the icing scraped off during periods of budget decline.


Too often organizations are so compartmentalized that management, interpretation and marketing are in separate offices and rarely meet together. But ideally, all of these departments work together to help achieve the overall goals and objectives of the site. Your programming becomes more valued when you show the same interest in overall goals and objectives as the manager.


Interpretation can do more than the traditional approaches of creating awareness and building understanding. Showing the power of interpretation to assist with or even solve management problems simply enhances its value. Sam Ham’s new book, Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose documents how it may be used effectively.


–      Tim Merriman


70th Anniversary of D-Day – A Time to Remember

Seventy years ago today Allied forces hit the beaches of Normandy, France, at Utah and Omaha Beaches after an early assault by Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc. The date was June 6, 1944. More than one million people annually visit Normandy Cemetery where 9,387 of the U.S. military are buried, mostly casualties of D-Day. The American Battle Monuments Commission manage the site and interpret the invasion, what has been interpreted in film as, The Longest Day. RIP

U.S. soldiers, recently back from Afghanistan, stopped at Normandy to pay respects - March 2012.

U.S. soldiers, recently back from Afghanistan, stopped at Normandy to pay respects – March 2012.





Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

Normandy 9