A Behind the Scenes Look at The Eden Project
The Eden Project is a 40-acre swath of Cornwall in England that is a testimony to the inter-connectivity of all life on our planet. At the heart of this enormous eco attraction are a tropical biome that encompasses four acres and a Mediterranean biome that spans 1.6 acres.
Once a derelict quarry seeping mineral waste, the site was transformed into a world class homage to horticulture and the human spirit. First conceived of in 1995 by co-founder Sir Tim Smit, the Eden Project is intended as a symbol of optimism and a call to action. Since its opening in 2000, it has educated millions on the symbiotic story of nature and mankind. The Eden Project employs 400 core staff, approximately 200 seasonal employees and about 150 volunteers.
In keeping with the Eden Project’s focus on the dynamic between we humans and the natural world, we are delighted to present a behind-the-scenes look at this epic endeavor through the eyes of the people who have designed and manage it. Tim Smit shares an introduction that puts the work of the Eden Project in the context of today, followed by a Q & A with four members of the leadership team: Paul Stone, Head of Horticulture; Catherine Cutler, Head of the Mediterranean Biome; Jo Elworthy, Director of Interpretation; and Tom Bennet, Interpretation Manager.
Enjoy this fascinating glimpse into the Eden Project, and insights into the natural world that we are all a part of!
Time to Embrace Unreasonable Expectations of Ourselves
Sir Tim Smit, Founder
The Pandemic has achieved in one year what education systems would probably achieve in 50 years. The entire world now understands that everything is connected to everything else and that nature is no respecter of natural boundaries. This realization is something that many young people were onto already. When I look at my youngest son (25) and his friends, I see a very thoughtful group of youngsters that are, in audience segmentation terms, completely different to anything that has gone before. All of us in tourism need to sit up, read the tea leaves, and think deeply about a range of things which this may signal.
My son belongs to a group of people who are interested in the environment and all the lifestyle/moral decisions entailed with that. They realize that the world’s beautiful places play host to debris, mainly plastic, that comes from all over the world. Recently we participated in a plastic clean up on the fabulous jewel that is the Island of Aldabra, the Seychellois United Nations World Heritage Site, home to the finest marine biodiversity on earth. Aldabra is a coral atoll bigger than the Isle of Wight in the UK--and every one of its beaches is covered in tons of plastic. The fact that this island is 1,000 miles away from the nearest village tells you how indiscriminate waste is.
My son and his friends know that there is no country called "Away" where you can throw things you don't want. This generation is becoming significantly vegan or at least only small-time consumers of animal protein. They are interested in their bodies for reasons of health and fitness, and interested in food as both a statement of their politics, their philosophy and an increasing interest in their bodies as engines. Their imagination is captured by popular science books and social media about the science of the human biome and the so-called invisible biomes like Mycorrhizae, the incredible fungi (sometimes referred to as the wood wide web).
I am saying this because tourism is about to be put under great pressure. Nations such as New Zealand are taking sustainable tourism very seriously, having just commissioned a report to guide the Government. One of its authors, Anna Pollock, has written what, in my opinion, is the best paper on sustainable tourism called “Conscious Tourism”. Anna argues that the successful businesses of the future will be those that are rooted in the communities they serve.
When I read it I was aghast and dismissed it as idealistic horse-feathers, but the more I think about how we operate at both Heligan and the Eden Project, we are already on that journey in terms of food supply chain. At Heligan we boast that farm to plate is c157 yards; while of course this is a slight exaggeration, but the point is well made. At Eden the contribution we have made to the local economy is c£2.2bn.
The future for all of us is actually going to involve understanding the personal so much better. Marketing is one thing, true relationship management another. As we review our next five years at both Heligan and Eden, we can see that the real pressure is going to be that almost all of us are imposters in that we want to do just as well as we can. We all sign up to eco certification of one sort or another, place signs in rooms to save on washing. Yet the truth is that as Bill McDonough, the author of the seminal “Cradle to Cradle” says, all of this is about doing less bad, which taken as a whole, eventually ends up as a bad.
We need to create protocols that enable us to live within the boundaries set by our only Planet Home and invest in a long term future while the Future still remains ours to make. It is time for us to embrace the unreasonable expectations of ourselves and lead in the development of a new Green Enlightenment. Tourism should be the leader. It is time for us to…do good.
The Living Theater of Plants and People
Paul Stone, Head of Horticulture
Meg: You have been building gardens for 30 years. Was there any one early experience that inspired you on this career path?
Paul: I built a rockery with what was then called Westmorland Stone in my parents back garden – I was fascinated by the miniature world of the rock crevices and the alpines I grew in it!
Meg: Has your experience as a garden designer given you a life philosophy?
Paul: Listen hard to the client. Never compromise by agreeing to design for something you are sure is intrinsically wrong. Don’t try to fight nature – it’s not worth it on the whole!
Meg: Your role is Head of Horticulture. What exactly does that mean? What is a "day in the life of Paul Stone" like?
Paul: My role splits into strategic, inspirational and nuts and bolts. When I took the post I set out to build a structure that worked for me and everybody else – which is challenging at Eden with 450 staff and many different departments all relying on horticulture in one way or another. 6 months in its coming into place. I generally arrive at my desk at 8am and may carry on work back home with no particular finishing time. I don’t really differentiate between working and not working, I’m happy to be available 24/7 but also make sure I get down time to recharge. I enjoy most of the aspects of my work which are primarily about people, my team and the excellence of our horticultural offer. It’s demanding but I enjoy the feeling of being in an excellent position to be able to orchestrate and influence. I love to be part of developing individuals through coaching and facilitating investment in them.
Meg: I understand you have been with the Eden Project from the very beginning. Can you share what your reaction was to the concept, and what was involved from a horticulture perspective to begin the transformation of the former clay quarry?
Paul: Eden was the biggest and most exciting landscape project in the UK in 2000 – why wouldn’t I want a part of that? My initial role was to take responsibility for the manufacture of the basic thing that was not available for plants in a big empty hole in the ground – 85000 tonnes of topsoil manufactured from grades of green waste and the waste product of the clay quarry – sand.
My training and background is Landscaping and I was lucky in the sense that the fledgling Green team of Eden were mostly horticulturalists or scientists – so they needed my organizational and project management skills and I’ve stayed on for 20 years and made it my life project. I worked with the original curators and set up the development of the whole landscape starting with the incredible logistical operation of planting the Rain Forest Biome with semi mature trees with military precision using a gigantic crane and pre planned sequential articulated lorry loads of specimen plants. The Rain Forest needed to be the iconic star of the show on opening – everything else followed.
Since then it’s been very demanding to meet the environmental challenges like controlling water in the garden and also the importance of carrying out important development of the garden whilst ensuring a great visitor experience at the same time.
Meg: Has there been one challenge that really had you stumped and if so can you describe it and how you resolved it?
Paul: My biggest challenge is always to do with water. The garden and Biomes all generate unpredictable springs of water that can destroy our displays and landscape. The worst example was the failure of the engineering of the giant slope behind our amphitheatre which resulted in a disastrous landslide 5 years ago. Fixing it has been blood sweat and tears but last summer we completed the reinstatement with the planting of 10,000 glorious blue flowering perennials and herbaceous species which will now enhance our already longest blue border in the UK!
Meg: You have said " We have a robust five-year garden development plan of unique displays with a clear message about the essential interaction between plants and people.” What is that "clear message"? Can you elaborate on this essential interaction--and how you create displays that communicate it?
Paul: Eden Project is the living theatre of plants and people. An Educational Charity seeking to reconnect people to horticulture, the environment and important issues about food, manufacturing, sustainability and climate. We lead the world in creating a platform in our garden for talking about, learning and consideration of these issues. Like any other garden we have to implement long term plans to develop the garden and refresh or even change messages. Our garden is essentially an ethnobotanical collection so interpretation about what plants are and their story is essential. We strive to do this without degrading the aesthetics of the landscape using bespoke and innovative signage and artwork. We have led the way on this and other gardens have followed. A classic example of this is our Cornish crops exhibit which includes growing all the ingredients to make a Cornish pasty and cream tea!
Meg: You are building a new South African Veld Garden which is opening in 2022. Can you tell us about this?
Paul: We are bringing the flora of the wild open landscapes of the South African veld to our Outdoor Gardens.
South Africa is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with over 20,000 different plant species. Veld means ‘field’ in Afrikaans but it’s used to refer to a wide range of open landscapes in South Africa from the renosterveld (flora from the fertile flats which is considered to be critically endangered) to strandveld which refers to the coastal habitat.
We’re not recreating a specific habitat, instead we are creating one of the biggest outdoor South African displays in the UK which will be a vibrant exhibit that celebrates the beauty and diversity of South Africa’s flora as a whole, with swathes of colour throughout the seasons and structure from trees, shrubs, succulents and Cape reeds. We will also draw attention to the fact that there are many species that are under threat, nearly a quarter of South African flora is considered either threatened with extinction or is of conservation concern. We will also telling fascinating ethnobotany and ecology stories about the plants.
In spring, there will be displays of South African heaths, in different shades of pink white and yellow. These will be complemented by a display of different Ixia, which is a beautiful member of the Iridaceae family which come in shades of magenta, whites and yellow. Euryops will create lovely evergreen mounds with bright yellow daisy flowers.
In summer the display will be at its peak with lots of beautiful summer flowering bulbs such as the Pineapple lily, Watsonia, Zantedeschia and Dierama. The Agapanthus will also be flowering with vibrant Kniphofia, as the exhibit will be home to a National Collection of species Kniphofia. There will be carpets of perennials and annuals like Diascia, Nemesia, Gazania, Arctotis, Osteospermum and Lobelia, inspired by the carpets of wild flowers I saw at the Waylands Nature Reserve I visited in South Africa.
In autumn there will be a show of beautiful flowering bulbs with swathes of Amaryllis belladonna, Hesperantha coccinea and Nerine bowdenii. Winter will be a chance to see some of the structure plants like the Cape reeds with their beautiful patterned stems and architectural succulents. The Veld will be part of the Wild Edge of our garden where visitors can travel from South Korea to Wild Cornwall, through our Outdoor Mediterranean exhibit, through to our North American prairie and on to South Africa.
Plants Are Integral to All Aspects of Living
Catherine Cutler, Head of Mediterranean Biome
Meg: I was struck in the Mediterranean Biome by the many reminders of all the diverse uses we humans have for plants. Can you single out a few ways this fact is presented in Mediterranean Biome?
Catherine: Absolutely, allowing visitors to come to the realization that plants are integral to all aspects of living is a core message at Eden. Many of our plants in the central area are typical Mediterranean food crops such as tomatoes, aubergines, oranges etc. There is a restaurant inside the biome too serving these plants to guests whilst they are surrounded by the growing pants.
The grapevines, through the artistic/sculptural interpretation of the story of Dionysus explains the need for balance in the way we use the land. Our cork trees demonstrate the use of cork bark in numerous applications (including stoppering wine of course!) but also talks about the ecological importance of the cork forests, whereas the tobacco plants show a very different use of plant – as a vice but also in medicine.
Meg: The biome is named "Mediterreanean" meaning a type of climate vs a location. Can you make the distinction for readers and single out a few of the diverse kinds of plants from different regions of the world that are presented?
Catherine: Yes – this can be confusing for people, but you are right – Mediterranean is a climatic zone (a biome) which has mild, cool damp winters, warm springs, hot dry summers and warm damper autumns. The Mediterranean climate is found in a number of global locations but they all have plants which exhibit similar characteristics. Many have highly scented foliage e.g. Rosemary from the Mediterranean Basin, Pelargoniums from South Africa and Boronia from Western Australia. Others have silver foliage, such as the silver tree (Leucadendron argenteum) from South Africa, Eriogonum giganteum from California and Convolvulus cneorum from the Mediterranean Basin. Many bulbs, which become dormant and hide below the ground in summer, grow these regions too including Narcissi, Tulips, Hyacinths, Muscari.
Meg: How are the plants sourced?
Catherine: As much as possible we try to grow plants from seed – this is because seed carries a far lower risk of introducing new pests or diseases. All plants we bring in are quarantined, for a period anything from three months for locally sourced material to a year plus for imports. Of course – this means we have to be planning a very long time in advance. It's not unusual to be planning an exhibit four years ahead. When creating a specific garden, stages include general brainstorming, researching & planning, composing designs, getting agreement from the wider Eden community, sourcing plant material and hard-landscape materials, writing signage, and doing the practical installation work.
Meg: I believe you’ve been at the Eden Project for almost twenty years. Can you speak about how the nature of your work has changed in that time, as well as how public perception of horticulture and its role in climate has changed?
Catherine: I’ve always been involved in horticulture at Eden, initially setting up the Rainforest biome where I oversaw its establishment in the first few years, I went on to set up a seasonal horticultural displays unit and most recently have been managing the Mediterranean Biome – so a great, varied collection of roles!
In the past few years the boundary between Horticulture and Ecology has definitely become fuzzier, noticeably with horticulture encompassing management and growing wild-flower meadows. There has also been a lot of movement in the use of horticulture for health benefits in social prescribing and community groups.
A Different Eden Every Time You Visit
Jo Elworthy, Director of Interpretation
Meg: Eden offers an endless abundance of lessons about the natural world. How do you decide what dimensions of Eden to dedicate the time and resources for interpretation?
Jo: The aim of our charity is to reconnect people with each other and the living work working towards a better future. Stories underpin everything we do and we’ve developed and grown our story over the past 20 years evolving with the needs of the world around us.
Chapter one: We wished to demonstrate that transformation was possible and give people hope for the future which is why we restored a china clay pit that has reached the end of its economic life as a mine. We made 83,000 tonnes of soil from recycled waste (things are only waste if they are wasted) and planted thousands and thousands of plants – those which we use every day but rarely get to see growing: plants for food, fuels, medicines and materials, plants that grow in the humid tropics, Mediterranean and in our own climate – hence Eden having two covered Biomes in addition to the Outdoor Gardens. The horticulture team planted crops such as cocoa, rice, rubber and coffee from the tropics, olives, grapes and cork from the Mediterranean regions and wheat, flax and hops from our own temperate climate.
Chapter two: We explore not only the crops but the stories of those who grow them and take this through into our shops and cafes – nothing here is franchised. We serve and sell products that have narratives to tell around responsible sourcing and that support livelihoods, care for the environment and that don’t cost the Earth. These stories have evolved and changed over the years as relationships and systems have developed and as we have developed relationships with some extraordinary people and organizations worldwide. Eden is about plants and people.
Chapter three: From the outset we also wanted to demonstrate the balance that was needed between cropping the land and conserving the wild places. We wished to present the rich biodiversity of the wild places and also to communicate an understanding of how these global environments help to keep us alive by providing vital (ecosystem) services such as climate regulation, water purification and providing the very air we breathe.
Chapter four. A few years later we added the story of the Invisible World. This relatively new exhibition reveals the world beyond our senses: too big, too small, too fast, too slow, too far away in space and time, introducing the interconnectedness between life and the Earth’s environments at all scales, exploring how life is shaped by, and shapes, invisible systems. In a nutshell the story of interconnectedness and of Our Life Support System. If the invisible lifeforms and systems we rely on for fresh air, clean water, fertile soil, nutritious food, rich biodiversity, a stable climate and a natural recycling system are threatened, so are we. Bringing the invisible into view and exploring the interconnectedness of everything can transform our understanding of the world – and how we interact with it.
Chapter five. Most recently we are focusing on narratives around climate change and biodiversity loss and sharing not only the challenges and helping to demystify the science behind it but also demonstrating hope, showing the growing movement of organizations and individuals working for change and showing what people can do to make a difference. The team are working on developing Eden projects beyond the destination in Cornwall - both nationally in the UK and internationally. Each project is underpinned by the narrative of positive transformation. Each project also has its own identity based around the local needs of that project.
In summary, the story constantly evolves and layers are added rather than changing the original narrative. The messages we wish to convey are of our connection with each other and the living world: social and environmental stories intertwined. Back to the specifics of the question: Eco issues are vitally important – particularly climate change and biodiversity loss as long as the stories connected to hope and action.
Seasonality is part of our story - especially in the Outdoor Gardens - as we use plants as a canvas on which to paint our narrative. Our live program also brings the seasons to life - with an active year round events program that goes from Christmas with an ice rink and Father Christmas to Easter and then the music Sessions through to our summer program and onto Halloween and our arts festivals and back to Christmas. As we say, ‘A different Eden every time you visit’. Visitors tend to visit several times during the year.
In terms of misunderstood topics, we link our stores to our people’s everyday lives, and context the narratives to provide relevance and understanding. We work with artists and designers to help people look at the world through different lenses. In regard to widespread applications – many of our exhibits and events have elements that people can replicate in their own homes or apply to their own lives. We also run courses – from formal education at all levels to public workshops, talks, Nature’s Way events for specific groups such as grandparents and grandchildren and social prescribing groups.
We do gardening courses, practical demonstrations and outreach in the community – we’re currently working with communities in Cornwall to plant wild flowers on roadsides, roundabouts and in community spaces to help bring back the pollinators – if we all work together we can make the change and leave the world better than we found it. There’s the Big Lunch where we work with communities across the UK and Commonwealth to have a wonderful celebration once a year by people having a lunch with their neighbours – a simple idea that leads to millions of people making new friendships and making a difference to the places they live.
Eden is a way of life with something for everyone. I always think of it like a patchwork quilt with many patterns and stories that together make a pleasing whole with memories to take away and ideas to take forward.
Meg: You have 1st class honors degree in Plant Science and a PhD in plant biochemistry, and have chosen to make public education the focus of your career. What led you to that aspect of your chosen field?
Jo: It all started with a burning curiosity to explore how the world worked and awe and wonder at every new thing I discovered - what an amazing planet. Initially (at school) I was keen to do art – but the art tutor had other ideas and was less than impressed with my attempts at still life. Fortunately I had a superb science teacher who took note of my enthusiasm for natural history and biology and encouraged a career in that direction.
Scientific research followed the PhD but the desire to share all the incredible hidden worlds that were all around us took hold and I missed being with people from all walks of life so … I left and went to teach gardening to specific groups of youngsters – youngsters who had not fared so well in the school system. A real eye opener – here were some young people who were not initially interested in the Earth and how it worked or had never really thought about it.
We started with photosynthesis. Not a lot of response. I asked them what they breathed. ‘Air? ‘Oxygen?’ they asked. Yes, where does it come from? ‘Sorry?’ Well you breathe 20,000 breaths a day and the oxygen is still there the next day so something must be putting it back. ‘Never thought about it,’ they replied. Plants make it. ‘No way! Plants aren’t alive, are they?'
We made a pact. They would teach me how to teach and I would teach them what they needed for their exam. A steep and incredible learning journey ensued on all sides and a new passion – engaging wide audiences in a myriad of ways. Long story short: I went on to work in youth clubs, training schemes, colleges, then the golden opportunity – television, the Natural History Unit and onto gardening programmes with audiences of several million.
A few years in, a new series was hatched – Fruity Stories. In one of the programmes we needed someone – with an interesting character and interesting story -– growing pineapples. A vague memory was stirred. Wasn’t there a place in Cornwall growing them in a garden that had been restored? A garden that had been enveloped by brambles since the gardeners left to go to war in 1914, the majority of whom never returned. An investigation was required.
During the weekend trip to the Lost Gardens of Heligan I learnt of an idea – an idea to build the biggest greenhouses in the world in a crater to tell the story of transformation and to create a living theatre of plants and people. What a thought. What an adventure! Time to uproot and go and help set up the Eden Project - what could possibly go wrong? The rest as they say is history … a longer story for another day.
Meg: What has been the most challenging piece of science to interpret for the public since you’ve been with Eden?
Jo: Every project seems challenging at the beginning – whether it’s to do with finding the resource and backing to do it, or working out how to do it. Building the largest greenhouse in the world in a hole 15m below the water table on unlevel ground with no soil set the tone. There is always a way and in a way that’s what we were here to do – to show you could do things, to never give up and to demonstrate that there were ways of leaving the world better than we find it. Within a few years the greenhouses were up and the rainforest had grown – 50 m tall in some areas.
Someone asked me ‘Why do we need to save the forest, it is something to do with biodiversity isn’t it?’ We started chatting about how as well as being storehouses of biodiversity, rainforests make rain and also cool the Earth. The idea for the ‘Weather Maker’ project started to take form. How to tell the story of rainforests as climate regulators? The team decided to make a high level walkway and let the visitors walk through clouds and … shelter from a tropical rainstorm while it thundered on the tin roof of a wooden hut. Rain showers from the local plumbing shop come in handy sometimes!
Fast forward a year or two – further conversations and an idea was hatched to tell a story that paid respect to the cyanobacteria, a group of microbes that evolved over three billion years ago and changed the face of the Earth forever by producing the first free oxygen. The result; Infinity Blue, a nine metre high cyan blue glazed ceramic sculpture that contains 32 vapour cannons and puffs out beautiful circles (representing oxygen). Serenely it puffs away, children delightedly trying to catch the rings – unaware of the nine months of hard graft and myriad ‘heart in the mouth’ moments that preceded it.
The most challenging piece of science however has been representing dynamic systems. For example, the flow of carbon between air, water, land and life (including us) and the way it changes from gas to solid and back to gas. We’re working on it – at Eden we never give up and are our own worst critics. The Vast Invisible exhibit has made a start but there is a way to go - and time is ticking as we live in a climate emergency and the carbon story desperately needs visualising.
Meg: I understand you’ve been with Eden since the beginning. Has the nature of intrepretation changed in that time, and if so how and why?
Jo: It has changed in several ways. In terms of the media we use, we’re delving into digital (AR, VR, MR) more and working on how best to use it – interpreting dynamic systems being one and immersion in invisible environments another. The challenge is around the cost and how quickly the platform changes. After all, the best way to immerse yourself in a rainforest is to immerse yourself in a real rainforest.
We have always worked with storytellers and always will – it’s the oldest form of interpretation and we have found it to be the most effective. We have also always worked with artists and will continue to do so as it brings new perspectives and new ways of seeing. Our interpretation narrative evolves according to need. For example, the climate narrative is transforming before our eyes.
Twenty years back I was ticked off for saying humans cause climate change and was told not to put it into print. That changed halfway through writing a leaflet for one of the national gardening shows – a quick rewrite followed. Now at long last everyone is talking about it, change is happening fast.
More recently our visitors have been asking what they can do to make a difference so we are becoming more proactive in that respect and not only sharing ideas on what people can do but also putting people in touch with other organisations working for change. We respond to the world around us.
Eden is a wonderful place to work, it’s a way of life – with ups and downs and highs and lows but I will always remember what was said when I was asked to join Eden 20 years ago. What would you like to have written on your tombstone? ‘I wish I had or I’m glad I did’?
Designing From an Emotional Perspective Rather Than Cerebral
Tom Bennett, Interpretation Manager
Meg: What does your role as an interpretation manager involve? Can you share both the bird's eye view and a "day in the life"?
Tom: In essence, it involves managing the interpretation on site. At the top level, this means working with the Director of Interpretation Jo Elworthy and other colleagues to determine the overall direction of Eden’s interpretation strategy, based on our key messages, which are currently climate change crisis, bio-diversity loss and food/water security and what is being/can be done to counter these. This is agreed with the Board, and then we set to work to develop exhibits and exhibitions across the site that deliver this strategy, at the same time as both maintaining and reviewing all exhibits currently on site. Work on this is done by a combination of our content production team, our own small team of Designer Makers, our graphics team and external designers, artists and other contractors.
I manage this process, working on overall concept and approach, managing project budgets and programmes/schedules, internal and external teams, and working with the horticultural team, operations and estates teams.
I also play a role in editing text for interpretation, choosing materials and finishes, talking to suppliers about materials, samples and delivery. I’m sometimes involved physically in installations (although this is largely undertaken by our Designer Makers, often with external contractors), when I need to get out from behind my computer.
I spend some time on site every week, checking on the condition of exhibits, and watching visitors. When we’ve a new exhibit to be installed, I return frequently to the location to make sure we have covered everything. Key to what I do is a consideration of the visitor experience, so constantly imagining and reviewing that user interaction is critical – this can only really be done in-situ. We’re essentially a science-based organization and we can’t expect our visitors to come with pre-knowledge, so we have to work hard to make the information accessible and user-friendly.
Meg: What's been the most fun project you've worked on and why?
Tom: I’ve only been at Eden since mid-January, so there is a limit to this. We recently installed a mini-beast mansion play structure and play area for young children which is certainly different to what I’ve done before. Working out of doors on a physical build is always a challenge, and we’ve learnt a lot. We’re currently planning a much bigger play structure elsewhere on site for older children, and the mini-beast mansion has effectively been a good pilot project for this.
We’re also coming towards the end of an HLF/NLHF-funded collaborative project about bees, which includes two observation hives in different locations, and a family-friendly pollination trail across the site. It has been hugely informative (and worrying!), and leads nicely into another project that I’m hugely looking forward to. This will culminate with the installation of a newly commissioned artwork on site for Easter 2021, on the theme of pollinators.
The process for this is something I really enjoy – starting with the kernel of an idea, and then getting an external perspective from an artist, followed by the process of working with them through the design, development, fabrication and installation programme. The satisfaction of my role is largely found in this delivery, and observing visitors engaging with the final outcome – particularly their smiles, conversations and moments of understanding.
Meg: How does the interpretation design manifest?
Tom: It usually starts with a visceral response to something – if I’m moved by something, others will be. This can be a place/space/location, a story, a person or an idea. It’s quite intangible in fact, but always linked to the very tangible need to interpret something for a general public. And of course, it has to become tangible, so the initial response needs to be discussed with a number of different people to get to something that is a design concept. The concept gives something to respond to. There can be big changes from initial concept to final design. Often lots is thrown out as it becomes more defined and simpler – like peeling back the layers of an onion. (There’s probably a better metaphor.) What’s really important is not to be too precious about ideas as this can get in the way of producing something that looks good, works as it should and really engages visitors.
Meg: What is the role of interactivity in the interpretations you create? Can you share a few thoughts about how you go about engaging people from a design perspective?
Tom: I design initially from an emotional perspective rather than cerebral. I consider how I want people to feel rather than what I want them to think or what information is being relayed. The right emotional state allows the best possibility for people to engage with the subject/information. Of course, people are different, and some people just want the information, however it is presented. A well-designed exhibit and attendant interpretation allows for both approaches – as long as the design doesn’t get in the way of either. And this is something that you have to keep on checking all the way through the process of design and implementation.
Finding something that will already be familiar with people can be a good hook too, and help to create a bridge to something that is unfamiliar and potentially daunting. An attractive illustration of a bee, for example, can draw someone in as it is familiar (we also tend to have a positive emotional response to bees as opposed to wasps), and this is a good way into talk about pollination and pollinators.
It's also important to stimulate curiosity, rather than trying to give absolutely all the information and answers. Curiosity is what stimulates people to learn as it’s self-directed.
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