USA here I come . . .

The flights are booked and I’m off in about three months’ time. But given how quickly this year is flying by, it will be upon me before I know it I’m sure.

So what brings me to the US? Well I was fortunate enough to receive a student scholarship to attend the Visitor Studies Association conference in Raleigh, NC from July 24-28. And it seemed like a long way to go for just a few days, so I thought it would be a good idea to stay a bit longer and see some of the sights – museum-related sights in particular of course!

So between the end of the VSA conference and August 10, I will be making my way up to New York where I’m meeting my return flight back to Australia. So 12 days to cover some 500 miles, according to Google maps:

So far I have no fixed plans for this study tour besides the start and finish of my journey. Rather than the hassle of short-hop flights, I’m hoping to travel by train, making it feasible to stop at a few places along the way. I’ve been to Washington D.C. before, but it was only a short visit and I only had time to visit one museum (the Air and Space museum as it turns out). So much more to see there. And it will be my first time to New York City – so excited!

So over to you – what are the must-see museums in Washington, New York or elsewhere that I should try to fit in my itinerary? Are there any hidden treasures en route I should know about? Please add your suggestions in the comments below.

Also, any hints and tips for travelling on a budget in these parts would be most welcome too . . .

Interpretive Signs of Kangaroo Island

Following our visit to the Flinders Ranges (see previous post), we recharged our batteries for a few days in Adelaide before heading down to Kangaroo Island. K.I. (as we South Australians call it) is renowned for its wildlife and interesting landscapes. Interestingly, even though we were a few hundred kilometres and several hours’ drive away from the Flinders Ranges, both KI and the Flinders are part of the same ancient geological region. But once again, of course, this post will concentrate on the interpretive signage.

Flinders Chase National Park

While this park covers more or less the whole western third of the island, the most popular destinations are Admirals Arch and Remarkable Rocks, both at the south western tip. At the entrance to the National Park, there is a visitor centre which also acts an an entry checkpoint, where you pay your park entrance fee. At first my (UK-based) travelling companions were a little surprised at this, but were satisfied that the money was being well-spent when they arrived at Admirals Arch to find well-maintained boardwalks and viewing platforms. It took plenty of stairs to get down to the arch itself, but even for older visitors this was not too big a problem.

First, notice the positioning of the signs – they were located at the bottom of the boardwalk platforms at an angle, so you could read them as you were taking in the view:

Interpretive sign at base of boardwalk, viewed in profile
View of interpretive sign from boardwalk. Seals are basking on the rocks beyond as the waves crash around them.

I thought this was a good way for the signs to be positioned. As you were looking down from the boardwalks they were in easy sight without being intrusive. However, the sea air is obviously not good for them – as you got further down to the Arch itself, they got increasingly more tatty, and at the bottom of the arch the interpretive sign (whatever it was about) was so degraded as to be just a yellowed and dog-eared blank rectangle.

A sign interpreting the arch structure itself. Notice how this one is showing more signs of wear and tear than the seal identification one.

Around Admiral’s Arch there were a few walking trails, including some that were a bit more of the “off the beaten track” variety. On one of these we encountered some signs about the strategies the local flora use to survive in such a windswept and saline environment:

Sign on the Cape du Couedic walking trail

While walking this trail (ostensibly a loop), I started to get the distinct sense that we were doing it ‘backwards’ compared to the way that the designers intended. One clue was that the order of the interpretive signs seemed to be telling a story in reverse – in itself no big deal. A bigger problem was that we sometimes had trouble picking up the trail among the undergrowth, as the line-of-sight direction arrows of the trail were presumably placed on the assumption that you were heading in the opposite direction and sometimes were obscured from the other way. A lesson to trail designers – make sure your wayfinding and directional signposts work in both directions!

Remarkable Rocks

Still in Flinders Chase National Park, Remarkable Rocks are a short drive from Admirals Arch. (Incidentally, the rock structures were formed by similar geological processes to those which created Uluru [Ayers Rock] – something I picked up from reading the signage.) As well as interpreting the formation and significance of the rock structures, safety is a strong message here.

Signage hut on the way from the car park to Remarkable Rocks
A safety message. The salutary tale here is that you are risking the lives of others, not just your own, if you stray into prohibited areas.
A sign featuring then-and-now photographs, highlighting the continuing erosion of the rocks

Seal Bay

Another stop on our travels was Seal Bay, famous for its colony of sea lions. I don’t have any photographs of the signage here – access to the beach is via guided tour only, and the boardwalks overlooking the beach have signage of identical design to those at Admirals Arch. They must have all been commissioned together. But we did take the guided tour, on which I learned:

  • The difference between seals and sealions: the former are predominantly ocean dwellers; the latter are equally at home on land and on sea.
  • Sealions are related to wolves and bears, so you’d better keep your distance! Especially during the breeding season, it’s essential to keep your distance. This point was made more than once, and I wondered if the analogy to wolves and bears was to reinforce, particularly to international tourists, that these animals are not to be taken lightly.
  • Female Australian sea lions have 18-month pregnancies, with only two weeks off in between. So they are almost constantly pregnant with one pup while nursing another. The long gestation period makes it slow for a population to recover if their numbers are reduced for any reason.
Prospect Hill
Our final stop on the way back to the ferry terminal was Prospect Hill. I’m not sure how many steps it is from the car park to the summit, but it sure is a long way up!
View from Prospect Hill, facing Penneshaw. We climbed up here from the car park at highway level - quite a trek!

Once at the top, there was a lookout with a few signs about the view, the exploration history of the site (apparently Matthew Flinders climbed up in 1802, without the help of the stairs . . .) and the local wildlife to keep an eye out for.

Interpretive sign on Prospect Hill

Another sign (elsewhere on the island) had included diagrams of the different kinds of footprints you may see in the sand, and what animals might have left them. Unfortunately, from this vantage point, all I could see was evidence that the Trainer Wearing Off-trail Tourist (Inconsideratus destructii), had been by recently.

NB: For the benefit of Australian readers, I assure you that the timeliness of this post is completely unintentional. And that no payment has been received 😉

Interpretive signs of the Flinders Ranges

I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks’ holiday showing visiting relatives some of South Australia’s sights (a good excuse to finally get around to seeing them myself!). Our first trip was to the picturesque Flinders Ranges in the state’s mid north.

While most people take photos of the scenery when they go on holiday, I like to photograph the interpretive signage I see on my travels. So here are some holiday snaps of the interpretive signs of the Flinders Ranges:

Animals in the First Person

On the walk into Wilpena Pound are a series of interpretive signs written from the perspective of the animals of the area, both native and introduced species including goannas, frogs and mountain goats. It’s an interesting way to present messages on conservation and species loss.

Species loss through the eyes of a goanna

Geological Time Travel

A drive along Brachina Gorge is a trip through time between 640 and 520 million years ago, as you drive across 13 km ancient rock sediments that have been folded and eroded over the millennia. There are interpretive signs along the way, as well as large signposts pointing out the different geological types and ages as you drive along. However I’ve only got photos of the signs in a small shelter located at the end of the trail. While these were a little dry and technical in places, the text was broken up into small manageable chunks and subtitles making it easier to get the overall gist. Also, the diagrams were reasonably clear and helpful in placing what you had just seen in a broader geological context:

Diagram showing the trail in context of the geological layers
Another example of the Brachina Gorge signage

Dreaming stories of the landscape

At Stokes Hill Lookout there is a 3-D map of Wilpena Pound (known as Ikara to the indigenous Adnyamathanha people), that offers a good point of orientation to the topographical features of the surrounding landscape.

The topographical map of Wilpena Pound . . .
. . . that lines up perfectly with the landscape beyond.

Also at this lookout were a series of interpretive signs describing the Adnyamathanha stories of the formation of the landscape and how this is reflected in art and oral history.

Dreaming stories sign

Assuming these signs are the same age as the 3D map, they are about 20 years old now (the map had a plaque which was unveiled in 1992), so they have survived the ravages of the outback climate quite well it would seem (the looked like an enamel-coated metal of some kind). However, they did seem to be oddly located in the context of the lookout – the row of signs had their backs facing you when you were standing at the 3D map or looking out across the landscape. I wonder what the rationale of this positioning was?

Old Wilpena Station

By the time we made it to Old Wilpena Station, it was towards the end of a day’s sightseeing, when both daylight and the stamina of my fellow travellers were in short supply. So I only had a chance to have a quick scoot around the Living with Land Interpretive trail about the pastoral history of the Flinders Ranges.

One of the signs on the Living with Land interpretive trail.

I would have liked to have seen more of this trail but it really was a lightning trip. And when I returned to Adelaide I realised that the text of the one sign I photographed didn’t really come out at all . . . but that’s holiday snaps for you.



Big stories in small places

Last week I gave a presentation to the Flinders University Archaeology Department, titled “Big Stories in Small Places:reflecting community identity through the interpretation of heritage sites”.

Big stories in small places

View more presentations from ReganForrest.
I drew upon two case studies of past projects: Fort Stanwix National Monument in upstate New York; and West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide. Several years ago I worked on the development of a new exhibition and site interpretation at Fort Stanwix, while my work at West Terrace Cemetery is more recent (and in fact, ongoing).
I chose these two because I thought there would be some interesting parallels – both are in downtown locations, and both can be used as a starting point for wider and more complex narratives. Through Fort Stanwix we can tell the interweaving stories of colonialism and the formation of the American nation; while West Terrace Cemetery acts as a springboard for many stories of South Australia’s colonial period.
As I was going through the case studies, it also reinforced to me that the way we choose to interpret sites such as these inevitably says something about how we see ourselves, and how we want others to see us. How we see ourselves as a community will shape what stories we see fit to tell. But our heritage can also bring us face to face with uncomfortable truths that demand to be told.