I have said many times that this heritage interpretation business is fantastic and that is true. Every day involves working with committed and inspiring people, showing them new skills, helping them to communicate about amazing wildlife and human heritage, creating new opportunities for visitors, supporting small heritage-based enterprises and supporting local economies. It’s all good stuff and I love it. I am amazed by the fact that I have been able to spend all my professional life doing this work.
However, just sometimes, I get a bit tired. Recently, for instance, after successfully completing three huge and hugely exciting projects that all fell into our TellTale lap at the same time, I ran away to the forest.
In that tired post project time, I was seriously questioning what all my interpretive efforts over more than 25 years have achieved. I took some big questions to the old trees and dead wood of Bialowieza.
Like many interpreters, I have rather ridiculously lofty ideals. I am old and canny now, so I don’t wear them on my sleeve, but scratch the surface and, yes, under the bark, I still want to change the way that people think and behave and below that indeed I do rather want to make the world a better place.
The impacts of interpretation in terms of attitudes to the natural world or to society are hard to pin down. The experiences and insights that people have at interpreted sites become part of a vast personal tapestry, maybe even an ecosystem, of influences and attitudes. I was troubled about whether if what I really wanted to do was make a difference, I would be better spending the remaining decade and a half or so of my working life in politics or journalism.
So I partly went into the forest to work out whether what I do, or maybe more importantly what I encourage and support other people to do, is enough.
The Strict Reserve in Bialowieza Forest in Poland is an unmanaged part of Europe’s oldest forest. We spent a day there with Arek Symurz http://wildpoland.com/pygmy-owl-bialowieza an excellent local guide. We had asked him to tell and show us the forest as a system.
Arek showed us the tall trees, the fallen trees, their slow and quicker rates of composition, the species that colonise, the seedlings that germinate, the hyphae that send up fruiting bodies, the animals that browse and root, the birds that hammer holes and wedge cones as anvils, the birds and animals that reoccupy holes for nest and shelter, the birds that nest in the roots of toppled trees, under the bark as it peels off.
This still forest was busy, with all its inhabitants contributing to a rich and robust system. The strength and solidity of this forest compared to the smaller, more managed woodlands we know was clear. It was an extraordinary place to be.
I came out of the forest with a different perspective. We interpreters, of course, like the forest inhabitants, are just a (important) part of a bigger picture. Sometimes we are like wild boars, stirring things up, disrupting an organisation, or visitors’ perceptions so that new ideas can take root.
Maybe more often my role is more like a woodpecker that makes a small, significant mark in a mighty and complex system. That mark can open up possibilities that are nothing to do with me. New projects germinate, grow and set seed long after I have gone. People leave the training room and find new places where interpretation can take root in their business. Visitors break down their visit experience into relationships, memories and possibles identities and values that I barely understand.
Restored by the Forest, I plan to continue to fly, somewhat noisily through the heritage interpretation forest, making an impact where I can and helping others to do the same. That impact will of course be stronger when I am working alongside others including designers, branding experts, artists, campaigners, journalists, teachers, lighting designers, community groups, app developers etc., etc…