Down with the panel! – Or maybe not just yet?

The current issue of AHI’s Interpretation Journal is entirely devoted to words – and an inspiring debate about whether or not we should lay the interpretive panel to rest.  Verity Walker of Interpretaction rightly points out that too often, panels are the default when interpretation is sought.  She bemoans many panels’ formal, nondescript voice and highlights that their cost-value ratio is poor, as is their sustainability.  Verity champions more modern technologies, such as mobile phone downloads.

On the other side of the spectrum, Eleanor Bird argues that panels are still the best thing when seeking visitors’ attention – even if only for the supposed 3 – 15 seconds.  Panels, she feels, are easily accessible and if designed well, may even enhance the interpretation.  After all, not everyone is comfortable with the technology alternative proposed by Verity, she writes.

And where do I stand?  I agree with Verity that panels are used indescriminately even where they may not be the best interpretive solution.  Surely all of us have enjoyed a great wilderness hike, only to have the mountaintop view spoilt by an interpretive panel telling us all we never wanted to know about the mountain’s vegetation.  This is a perfect example of where a dedicated vegetation webpage on the park’s online presence, advertised perhaps in the park’s car park, would much better fulfill the needs of any hobby-botanists, while leaving the rest of us free to enjoy our views.

But I also agree with Eleanor that creatively designed panels may be just the thing under some circumstances.  But these are not your off-the-shelf text panels with the best practice image thrown in.  They are things like the children’s tiles below the bridge at Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, where one of them reads ‘I want the ferry back’.  No more is needed, and yet it offers both information (oh – there used to be a ferry, and it is within the memory of these young children) and a powerful sense of local place (oh – I guess the locals feel they’ve lost something – I wonder what a ferry can give that the bridge doesn’t).  THAT is the kind of panel I support.  Of course, not many would consider it a panel at all.

As for alternative technological solutions, I am myself not very big on I-phones and their numerous applications.  But I am perfectly prepared to check out a website, and equally, I am sure that the older generation, often assumed to be adverse to technology, would enthusiastically embrace a car park mention of a publication, too, and then go out and purchase it at the local book shop (adding some local economic benefit?).

So my last word on panels is, let’s make sure we know whom they’re for, what they’re for, and whether there really isn’t a better alternative.  If there isn’t, then let’s create panels that don’t merely tick the 150-words-max rule, but that are creative pieces of art which can enhance the environment by adding a layer.  If what you end up with is still a condensed version of a textbook, then probably the panel wasn’t the way to go after all.

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