Thoughts (on heritage interpretation) from Bialowieza Forest


Some reflections on why heritage interpreters are like woodpeckers. They have a vital role and impact on the big, complex system of influencing public perceptions of heritage and environmental issues.

Two woodpecker feathers from Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

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.

Bottom of a tree covered in moss in Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

Bialowieza Forest in Poland, Europe’s oldest forest was a great forest to take some time out in

Bottom of a tree in Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

Bialowieza Forest in Poland, Europe’s oldest forest was a great forest to take some time out in

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.

Susan Cross, a middle aged woman, hugging the tallest ash tree in Europe at Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

How did my lofty ideas look next to the tallest ash tree in Europe?

View from the bottom looking up at the tallest ash tree in Europe at Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

How did my lofty ideas look next to the tallest ash tree in Europe?

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.

Two people (Susan Cross and Arek Symurz - a local guide) walking through Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

We walked through the forest surrounded by birdsong

Arek Symurz, a local guide, standing next to a tree and looking up in Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

We walked through the forest surrounded by birdsong

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.

Dead tree wood in Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

The forest is full of dead wood that actually isn’t dead at all. Dead wood is vital – the life and afterlife of trees are equally important

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.

Red squirrel in Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

… the red squirrels told me I thought too much

Beaver in the grass at Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

… the beaver was too busy to stop and chat about such notions

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.

Litter layer having been turned over by Wild Boar in Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

Wild boars make quite an impression on the forest in Bialowieza

Marks left on a tree by woodpeckers in Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

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.

Two woodpecker feathers from Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a UNESCO natural world heritage site

I now have two woodpecker feathers from Bialowieza on my desk

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…

 

 

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