Six Approaches to Being Present

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Those of us who work or have worked in service roles know the erosive effects of seeing lots of people in a day, often asking or being asked the same questions over and over. Soon our eyes glaze over and we listen minimally just for the most basic cues needed to do business, but we must remember that every conversation is an opportunity to turn a customer into a friend, a supporter, and an advocate for our natural or cultural heritage site. It won’t happen if we are not truly present. Here are a few thoughts on training staff to be present, not just physically but with sincere focus on each and every guest. Encourage your staff to:


  1. Look at each guest as you talk and do not move your focus to other people or transactions as you chat. People in service roles often move their eyes to focus on other people or activities, which tells a guest that he or she is the lower priority. Being present requires holding focus with a guest throughout a conversation, not just intermittently. If you must change focus for a brief moment, excuse yourself before doing so and apologize when you return your focus to the guest in front of you.
  2. Have real conversations with the customers, clients or guests. “Do you have big plans for the weekend?” is intrusive and sounds artificial. Asking questions is a good start but they should be more respectful. Requesting personal information not needed in the transaction is too pushy. Asking “Have you been here before?” is usually a better starting place.
  3. Use the name of the guest or client if you have it, but be respectful. We all perk up when our name is used and pay more attention to the conversation. Ask how people would prefer to be addressed. A good rule of thumb is to start more formally when addressing people by name and switch to first names or nicknames if they invite familiarity. Although an informal approach may work in the U.S., many people from other nations expect to be addressed more formally by people they don’t know well.
  4. Listen carefully to the person’s answers. When you hear a person answer your question, build the conversation from there and repeat back what they say in a different way to confirm you heard correctly. “So you’ve been here before, but you’re looking for new things to do? Is that correct?”
  5. Be thinking how you might assist them beyond their expectations. Do they need additional information? Have you shared options they might enjoy based on what you heard? Are there things to see or do or pricing options that they might overlook if someone doesn’t point them out?
  6. Don’t close with clichés like “Have a nice day” over and over. People hear what you say to others and know when they are being “handled” but not heard. Be sincere and say what seems appropriate. It never hurts to say, “It was very nice to chat with you. Let us know if we can be of further help.”


Some of these work better if the work environment and responsibilities are supportive. A person greeting guests should not be taking phone calls during a conversation that make the guest wait. We once stood in line to rent a car and heard the guy behind us calling the clerk in front of us because he could tell phone calls took precedence over people at the desk.


Training all staff to be good hosts is a critical need when you hire people. Being present is a matter of sincere focus on the guest, not just minimally available to do business.


Call us at 970-231-0537 or visit our website at to learn more about how we can be of assistance in designing or delivering customized host training for your staff.


– Tim Merriman

Capacity Building with Computers

Dr. Beth Kaplin delivered the two laptops recently to Gilbert in Rwanda.
Dr. Beth Kaplin recently delivered two laptops to Gilbert in Rwanda. He expressed his thanks to donors.


We have made several trips to Rwanda to provide training and interpretive planning in two national parks. The dedication of the guides we have met in Rwanda is inspirational. They are deeply committed to the conservation and care of the spectacular park resources of their nation.


Last January we asked the guides we trained in Nyungwe National Park about their access to the Internet as a resource for continuing education and communication with professional colleagues. Most had some use of a computer through a park office, library or classroom but no personal access at home. The few who did have their own computer had old models without much power or software. Many of the guides are working full-time while also going to school to complete a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree and supporting additional family members. Though computers can be purchased in Rwanda, they are more expensive than most park guides can afford on an annual salary of roughly $3000. Unlike the situation in the US, Internet service is very inexpensive once you have the hardware for access.


We offered to help guides obtain laptops or iPads and have spent the past nine months inviting friends and colleagues to help out, either through purchase of new models or through donation of gently used models. Within a few months, we sent three laptops and an iPad to Jules Cesar Dushimimana, Ange Imanishiwmwe, Niyigaba Protais and Kambogo Ildephonse. Donations of funds and computers were made by Nicole Deufel, Mike and MaryJane Swope, Pam and Mike Neely, CarolAnn Moorhead and Luke George, Marji Trinen, Tobias Merriman, Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman.


Prudence received his laptop and shared a photo and his thanks to donors.
Prudence received his laptop and shared a photo and his thanks to donors.

This past June Lisa and I went to Australia to do several training events with the assistance of colleagues Claire Savage and Rusty Creighton. They personally donated funds to purchase a new laptop for a guide. Claire also asked the Forum Advocating Cultural and EcoTourism (FACET) to help and they funded another laptop. Emily Jacobs was kind to donate funds to support software installation, shipping and backup flash drive costs for the new laptops.


The second round of equipment was recently delivered by Dr. Beth Kaplin of Antioch University New England to Gilbert Muhawenimana and Harudy Prudence Uwitonze, who are working on Master’s degrees. Dr. Kaplin has been doing tropical forest ecology and restoration research for many years in East Africa and travels back and forth several times a year. We are grateful for her kind assistance in transporting equipment to the guides.


Capacity building is often identified as training and advanced skills development, but we think it must also include improving access to appropriate technology. If you would like to help us purchase the next two or three laptops to donate or have a second generation or newer iPad to donate, please call me at 970-231-0537. A new laptop is $250, but a contribution of any amount helps. You can make a real difference in the professional life of a colleague in Rwanda.


– Tim Merriman





Ecological Restoration – a Story Worth Telling


We live next to the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colorado. It meanders out of the Rocky Mountains toward the Platte River, which eventually joins the Missouri River and travels onward into the Mississippi basin at St. Louis. More than a century of agriculture and community development have led to numerous water diversions and flood control levees that have changed the nature of the river for wildlife, plant communities and people.


spotlight_image.phpThe City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department has developed Poudre River Projects with the collaboration of several surrounding communities and water districts. The result is that the river is being restored to behaving more like it did before agricultural development and housing needs changed the landscape. Levees of lakes by the river have been lowered, a major water diversion was removed and floodwaters now rush into wetlands and lakes to absorb heavier water flows. Creating a healthier river environment for people and nature is the theme of an interpretive brochure they developed. It is on the city website and at trailheads on entry signs to explain the plans and objectives of the project. It is helpful but you have to search for it to find it.


Despite educational objectives in their Draft Master Plan, we have yet to meet anyone among neighbors and trail users who knows the details about the project and its idealistic objectives. As a homeowner adjacent to the property, we have received nothing explaining the work. There was a community meeting, but since it was held while we were out of town we were unable to attend and could not find any written summary of that meeting. Small and, for the most part, unreadable signs (laminated sheets of paper printed in 14 or 16 point type, were put up in the areas where major construction or restoration activities were done. The brochures are good but generally unknown to most folks. I am not a critic of the resource managers doing this great work, but it does make me think about what is missing.


North Shields ponds adjacent to the river now absorb floodwaters, lessening the damages from high water.
North Shields ponds adjacent to the river now absorb floodwaters, lessening the damages from high water.

I can think of five great benefits the community and Natural Areas Department would gain from better public relations at the start of and throughout this kind of multi-million dollar project to improve river management and flood control. They are:


  • Increase advocacy for natural areas budgets to support even broader ecological restoration projects.
  • Decrease criticism when trails are blocked for construction. The public lost access to some of the most popular trail areas for weeks with little or no explanation.
  • Sharing the story with other communities promotes the leadership of this community in doing these projects and encourages others to take a better approach.
  • Achieve educational/interpretive objectives as construction occurs, not just after completed.
  • Involve local stakeholders in citizen science to monitor the short-term and long-term changes as and after restoration work is done.


I am impressed by what has been accomplished with this project. It is an amazing step toward riparian management and flood control that respects the power and dominance of the natural forces of nature. I have read the management plans prepared for this work and it mentions some interpretive programming and signage, but it would provide great benefits to both the agency and the community or natural area to integrate more engagement of the public in the development and research phases. A more in-depth interpretive plan integrated with this extensive resource management plan and process would have provided a more broad-based approach to helping those in the community understand the very dramatic changes underway, but the results of this effort are dramatic and will be much appreciated in the community. Ecological Restoration is an important approach to river management and this is a story worth telling.


-Tim Merriman


Compensation Matters

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We get paid in sunsets! That’s always been the insider joke for people who work in parks, forests, nature centers, marine sanctuaries and other outdoor settings. It’s another way of saying, Don’t expect to get rich here. You will start low and slowly move up, some day making a good living wage or salary if you can stick with it long enough.


Many people may think the current discussion about the U.S. minimum wage applies only to food service and retail jobs, but it has direct implications for the heritage and tourism fields as well. I worked three jobs for a period of several years in an effort to support my family, when the professional salary I received was little more than the minimum wage. Despite requiring college degrees or even advanced degrees, many jobs in our field do not pay well.


Here are five things to think about when considering compensation for your staff:


  1. Every worker should be sustainably compensated. If your entry level workers cannot support themselves for the pay you offer, they may have to find a second or third job, which means they may get less sleep and come to your job tired and trying to balance schedules between two or three places of work. At best, productivity suffers, but at worst, imagine sending your customers or their children out into field, forest, or ocean environments with a tired or stressed worker. It’s an accident waiting to happen.
  2. Your investment in training may not pay off if a better paying job appears for your worker. Turnover is a great indicator of poor pay and benefits and the hidden cost is continual retraining. Unfortunately, many employers use this as an excuse to do no training at all rather than understanding that training AND competitive pay with benefits are crucial to holding onto valued staff members.
  3. Health insurance, disability and other benefits are critical components of a balanced compensation program. Benefits can and should include enrichment opportunities such as support for professional memberships, assistance with tuition for advanced education and renewal costs for certifications.
  4. Staff loyalty revolves around more than the paycheck and sunsets are a part of that. Quarterly performance reviews are a great opportunity to have serious discussions with employees about balance in their workload. “How can I help you perform better?” can be a good question to initiate a discussion rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong. Do they need a schedule that creates access to advanced education? Would working four ten-hour days work better with their commuting situation? There are many ways to improve work compensation that are not reflected in the base pay.
  5. Openness, transparency and respect can all be considered part of the compensation. Those regular staff meetings, discussions of the potential for raises and/or improved benefits, and staff involvement in decision making also matter. Being treated respectfully is part of the compensation in a great work environment. Open, transparent work cultures encourage collaborative work and entrepreneurship.


As a manager, what are your indicators for sustainable employment practices? Level of use of workmen’s compensation, tenure of service, use of sick days and many other subtle indicators let you know how your staff feels about where they work. Real conversations on a regular basis may help you understand worker satisfaction, but they may not tell you if your style is repressive or punishing, especially if your workers have any fear of retribution if they lodge a complaint.




We do get paid in sunsets to some degree. It’s great to work in the outdoors, but sunsets will not repay student loans, build retirement funds or help you weather a severe illness or recession. Sustainable management practices include a thoughtful approach to total compensation of talented staff.


– Tim Merriman

Inspiring Art in the Parks


We took a drive yesterday from our home in Fort Collins, Colorado, to Rocky Mountain National Park to enjoy the scenery. It was perfect timing to enjoy the fall color in the mountains from 8,000 to 10,000 feet elevation, a beautiful sunny day with mild temperatures. Blue, our Australian Cattle Dog, came along to enjoy the smells of a new place as only a dog can.


art3These days it is usual to see people with cameras photographing everything in a park. We passed many people with their phones out to take scenery or wildlife photos or selfies with the stunning scenery in background. And of course, some had bigger single lens reflex cameras with telephoto lenses mounted on tripods for professional quality shots.


As we drove past Sheep Meadow, we saw no sheep, but perched on a rocky outcrop, a group of three older women clustered around their easels, each painting her individual impressions of the views. Below, an artist was standing waist deep in the grasses with an umbrella providing shade as he created a painting of the magnificent valley, striped with yellow aspens, that leads up to Trail Ridge Road.


We drove up to Hidden Valley and stopped to enjoy a picnic lunch surrounded by golden and red-orange clumps of aspens with shimmering, almost iridescent leaves. Another artist just art1fifty feet from us captured the vivid scenery on canvas. Every few minutes someone would stroll up behind her to get a look at her work and take a photo of her in the foreground and her object of art in background.


We turned south into Bear Valley and then back west in a stream valley noted for elk being easily seen. We immediately saw an artist working on an interesting painting of the trunk of a fallen tree in the foreground with Long’s Peak in the background.


Artists in national parks are not new, but seeing so many artists out in one day surprised me in a good way. Before there were parks in the United States, artists like Catlin, Remington and Russell created works of art that have becoming enduring images of the time and place before the changes brought first by settlers and later by tourists. Their works of art are part of our understanding of the culture of the times. Ansel Adams took black and white photos in Yosemite and other parks that show how photography can leap beyond being a recollection into being memorable art.


art2Despite the beauty, accuracy and immediacy of photographs, we still value the singular interpretations of beauty that artists, photographers, musicians and writers provide. National parks have been leaders in artist-in-residence programs that allow longer stays in unique settings to inspire their work. Forty national parks of the four hundred in the NPS system now have these programs. While working on their own art, they also teach classes in some of the most inspiring places in the nation.


Nature centers, zoos, aquariums, museums, historic sites and heritage communities also have such programs. They sometimes include classes to help novice artists or photographers improve their craft. If you have not facilitated art at your site or community, think about the opportunity to stimulate people of all ages to find their own niche in personal art in the outdoors or a unique science, museum, aquarium or historic setting.


As I look around our home, often called a museum of sorts by our friends, I realize that most of our displayed works of art are handmade paintings, wood carvings, and crafts, not photographs taken by us or others. I am an avid photographer, but inspiration comes in many forms. Think about how you might create opportunities for inspiration where you work. And don’t forget to get out somewhere and enjoy the fall color change.


– Tim Merriman





Five Things to Think About Before Outsourcing

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Placing segments of your business with a contractor can help you take advantage of specialized skill sets needed for a short period of time or intermittent services. Business entrepreneurs rely on outsourcing as they start new businesses. But many businesses choose to outsource without consideration of the potential side effects of doing so. To make sure you’re getting the most from outsourcing, think about these five key issues:


  • Never outsource your core businesses to a contractor, even if the potential contractor is a valued partner or key stakeholder. Your organization is (or should be) known and valued for its core services and products because you do those things better than anyone else. As soon as you allow anyone to manage and deliver your core business activities, you run the risk of losing the brand that establishes your very identity. The contractors become known for your having your supposed expertise, not your organization. If your contractors deliver a core service, they also have incentive to upsell their own abilities in that area rather than representing the interests of the organization. You will invariably lose market share to those you are trusting to help you.
  • Be sure your contractor can deliver non-core services at a higher standard than you can. Use references and check the performance record of contractors carefully before you hand off responsibilities for an important function. Banks, credit card companies, and web service providers are examples of contractors that can handle specific financial and tech services more skillfully and securely because they usually have access to technology a small business or nonprofit lacks.
  • Some business services are too proprietary or vital to management to outsource – Allowing a contractor to handle key services that include stakeholder data that is sensitive, such as donor information, can be problematic. I view bookkeeping/accounting as an area best handled by staff because of the potential for misuse of data. The exception is to outsource an external audit as a check on internal business practices. I once used an accounting contractor who did not file federal reports on time, resulting in the IRS seizing my bank accounts. Trusting a contractor with your most critical management information and analytical approaches can be a problem if they are not exceptional in their interest in serving your needs.
  • Outsourcing must be to contractors who share your values – We have all seen mainstream vendors lose customers to the revelation that their products violate human rights or environmental ethics. Nonprofits and government agencies are held to even higher standards for selecting contractors who operate ethically, legally and generally with a compatible philosophy to that of the contracting business. Be sure your “due diligence” includes finding out who does the work, how it is done and where it is done.
  • Outsourcing can achieve economies of scale – Many smaller organizations can outsource payroll services, health savings accounts, insurance, benefits management, maintenance and other services as part of a larger pool of similar organizations. Your business may lack the volume to get the best discounts on services, but in a pool you might be purchasing at volume rates. Some organizations specialize in helping you with pooled resources.


Outsourcing has its place in businesses of all sizes, but be sure you understand how it makes your organization stronger and better before you execute those contracts.


– Tim Merriman





Loving It to Life – A Nature Center is Born

Kahaluu Bay is a great place to see Green Sea Turtles while snorkeling, but respect is essential to their health and survival.
This is a great place to see Green Sea Turtles while snorkeling, but respect is essential to their health and survival.



Kahalu‘u Beach Park is one of those unique places where the resource surprises visitors, charms them and brings them back. I have been visiting this shallow bay on the traditional sacred grounds of the ali‘i (Hawaiian royalty) for 27 years. It’s four miles south of Kailua-Kona and walking distance from where we usually stay when we visit the Big Island of Hawaii. The shallow, warm water is a sanctuary for over 100 species of fish including many endemics, found only in the Hawaiian Islands.



Kahalu‘u is one of the most visited sites on the Big Island. Sea turtles predictably feed around the edge of the bay. Eels poke in and out of holes in the large coral formations. Puffers, Moorish idols, parrot fish, wrasses and butterflyfish of myriad kinds are common. It’s a great place to learn to snorkel but also an easy place to accidentally trample the coral or fall on the lava rock shoreline and hurt yourself.


Signs have helped people understand that the still lumps on reefs are living animals that can be easily harmed by people.
Signs have helped people understand that the still lumps on reefs are living animals that can be easily harmed by people.

In about 2000, the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant program used citizen scientists to monitor the vulnerable coral of the shallow bay. Volunteers monitoring transects informed the coordinators that public use was destroying this incredibly accessible sanctuary. The beauty of this amazing place could easily have slipped away from people loving it to death. Soon the Sea Grant program put up signs to give people advice about not standing on coral, walking on the sand for safety, not feeding the fish and leaving the sea turtles to rest or feed. It helped but might not have been enough since few people stop to read signs in a recreational setting.


A reef etiquette talk while renting equipment starts a better experience.
A reef etiquette talk while renting equipment starts a better experience.

In 2006, the Sea Grant program passed the role of protector of the bay on county property to The Kohala Center, a nonprofit committed to being a “community-based center for research, conservation and education.” Their ReefTeach program has blossomed under the supervision of program director, Cindi Punihaole. Jean Bevanmarquez began her work at Kahalu‘u as a volunteer monitor under the Sea Grant program. Since joining the staff three years ago she took over day-to-day management of the Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center in 2011, which now coordinates more than 250 ReefTeach volunteers and three full-time staff equivalents. For years ReefTeach volunteers have met people on the shallow sandy trail into the water and briefed them on reef etiquette. Cindi explained, “we have trained over 400 ReefTeach volunteers since 2006.  We educate between 1,300 – 1,900 students each year on reef etiquette.” All of these efforts have made a dramatic difference evidenced by the recovery of formerly battered coral formations.


The white tents and rental signs invite people over to talk and the interpretation begins.
The white tents and rental signs invite people over to talk and the interpretation begins.

In 2011, the county parks department granted The Kohala Center’s Kahalu‘u  Bay Education Center concession rights for the area, and a mobile nature center was born. Each morning the blue ReefTeach van arrives, staff buries an extension cord, sets up three or four 10×10 tarps and arranges tables to do business. Hundreds of unprepared visitors arrive daily so rental of snorkel gear and sale of basic beach items generates revenue to support the center’s education and volunteer program. More importantly the center’s presence starts the conversation with people. Jean and staff help people get proper fitting mask and fins, and then they share a simple flipchart lesson or a fun video on how to behave in the bay.


Yi Pei, a student and volunteer from Taiwan donates time with ReefTeach to gain experience.
Yi Pei, a student and volunteer from Taiwan donates time with ReefTeach to gain experience.


ReefTeach volunteers continue to meet snorkelers as they enter the water but many now get the reef lessons while renting equipment. Some come back to the van to use a field guide or ID cards to put a name with a colorful fish they see. Some have questions about the area and staff and volunteers have answers. Jean explained to me that the program is nearly self-supporting now with rental fees, sales income, and donations. It is a nature center that appears each morning and disappears each evening, doing a job of educating people and making lasting friends for the bay, the island, The Kohala Center, and outdoor living in general.


Many beautiful places we visit around the world could use this kind of program as a way to build a presence and provide education. The good shepherds of ReefTeach, the Kahalu’u Bay Education Center, and The Kohala Center take care of this special place and it’s a little better every time we visit. Finally, Kahalu‘u is being loved to life.


– Tim Merriman

4 Ways to Improve Your Call to Action

Donation boxes work better when they tie to the place's theme and explain how funds will be used.
Donation boxes work better when they tie to the place’s theme and explain how funds will be used.



Provoking further thought or action is an idea we often make reference to in the business of conservation, interpretation and social marketing. How many times have you seen this phrase on a website, brochure, or exhibit: You Can Help – Here’s How! We want people to do their part and make a difference in the world, but some requests are more likely to yield results than others. Here’s four ways to improve your call to action.





  1. The task should be easily completed and within the ability of most folks. You can ask people to carry a reusable bag to the grocery store, sign a petition, share the message, make a small donation, clean up their local environment or volunteer to work at a local event. When you make the tasks to get involved very complex or expensive, few will make the effort. Frame the request clearly so they know what to do and how much time and money investment they might be in for. Research into donor websites have shown that making people click multiple times from page to page will chase away the donors. aptly demonstrates that “ease of use” matters. They have One-click purchasing and easy to navigate order forms. People need a simple, direct way to get involved and help, whether signing up to volunteer, donating money or being an advocate.
  2. The requested task actually makes a difference. It’s important to know that your request is actually helpful and not merely symbolic or worse yet, the wrong thing to do for some reason. What you encourage people to do should be consistent with your organizational mission. If you invite gifts to a charity (other than your own), have you checked out the organization and know their funds go where intended, directly and efficiently? The recent ALS Challenge is brilliant from a social media standpoint and has raised funds for a worthy charitable cause. However, it has also raised the question of how dumping clean water and ice on the ground is a “good thing to do.” And should our donation commitments be based on celebrity “kitchy” requests or deeper and growing commitments to what we wish to support? Hitting “Like” on Facebook is a fun and easy way to participate, but does it lead to any real support for a program or campaign of real value?
  3. The requested task has a sustainable value. When you ask people to do things that build their understanding of environmental or social problems, they will often look for other ways to be involved. Inviting folks to clean up a river valley, work at a recycling center, or contribute household items to a worthy program can build a sense of ownership and demonstrate the longer-term effects of the action. They grow in understanding and often in commitment to helping further.
  4. There is some easy and visible way to measure progress towards success. If you invite people to donate, volunteer or otherwise participate it is helpful if you can report how the effort performs. I once led a Clean Up the Rivers annual event in Pueblo, Colorado, and we could visibly report the cubic yards collected by volunteers. We actually flipped our measures of success after a few years to other measures like “volunteer hours” contributed because the task had shifted from pulling car bodies out of the river to picking up pop can tab tops and cigarette butts. We wanted people to know they had accomplished the original task. The rivers became so clean due to their efforts that the waste stream was reduced.
Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program helps people remember which fish are sustainably harvested with a handy pocket guide.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program helps people remember which fish are sustainably harvested with a handy pocket guide.


The approach you use to provoke further thought or action can make the difference between getting real, measurable results or falling off your audience’s radar. Keep challenging people to take next steps, and you may just get what you ask for.


– Tim Merriman



Paintbrushes Ready – Seven Reasons to Make a Mural

Whitehall, Montana, uses murals to remind people of their place on the Lewis & Clark Voyage of Discovery route.
Whitehall, Montana, uses murals to remind people of their place on the Lewis & Clark Voyage of Discovery route.



Like banners, murals are another medium that offer some unique values in communities or natural and cultural heritage sites. We see them used effectively in some places, used poorly in others and often not used when they might be a great option. Here are some good reasons to consider them in your setting.






  1. Murals convey information and a sense of place without the barrier of a specific language. People from diverse cultures can enjoy them and usually understand their messages. John Medina’s “Brain Rules” point out that visuals trump all other senses.
  2. Murals are usually less expensive to turn a large wall or space into a compelling part of the experience. They do require maintenance so choosing a method and medium that can be refreshed can be important. Letting them weather or degrade is usually not desirable but actually works in some
    A habitat mural at Elk Island National Park in Saskatchewan sets the scene for other exhibits in the Visitor Center.
    A habitat mural at Elk Island National Park in Saskatchewan sets the scene for other exhibits in the Visitor Center.

    settings where the desired feeling is one of times past.

  3. A mural can provide context for habitat next to a live animal exhibit. Animals are so compelling that people usually will not read extensive labels nearby but a mural can help you envision the animal in its natural habitat or make the entire area seem to be in that specific habitat.
  4. Historic murals take us to another time and event. Many communities or parks were the setting for important events or the former homes of important people. A mural can visually bring the past into the present.
  5. Murals may be used to beautify a blighted wall, an electric box or blank corridor. An old brick wall, a concrete garage wall, a connecting corridor, utility boxes, or a stairwell can be brightened up with a thematically appropriate mural. Murals usually work better than placing signs in these walkways since they don’t require that people stop and read to absorb the thematic material. Murals on outdoor surfaces may also discourage vandals from tagging, particularly if local young people are involved in creating the artwork.
  6. Great murals strengthen the thematic identity of a community or site. Murals can be messengers that deliver the theme of the organization and show examples of it in action. Because they are created by an artist/illustrator, they can be designed to be very clear in meaning and message.
  7. Murals can be used to reveal hidden assets. A mural can reveal an asset you cannot easily display in another
    Utility boxes in Fort Collins, Colorado, are painted with varied scenes by local citizens.
    Utility boxes in Fort Collins, Colorado, are painted with varied scenes by local citizens.

    way. It could tell the story of technology infrastructure in the building such as a solar or wind system. It could show artifacts or documents not easily displayed due to fragility or rarity. It can be whimsical or realistic, showing details of plants and animals in ways that are more compelling than a single photograph.

– Tim Merriman

Tingatinga artwork on this mural at the Serengeti Visitor Center in Tanzania tells the management story for the park.
Tingatinga artwork on this mural at the Serengeti Visitor Center in Tanzania tells the management story for the park.



Seven Reasons to Fly Your Banner High

The Aquarium of Western Australia in Perth has a banner at the building entry to attract attention.
The Aquarium of Western Australia in Perth has a banner at the building entry to attract attention.

I try to photograph interpretive media wherever we travel to serve as an idea file. In recent years I’ve seen some really creative uses of banners at varied sites, but especially at zoos and aquariums.


Banners are usually long strips of fabric or weatherproof vinyl with a verbal or visual message. As interpretive media they offer some unique qualities that may make them a better choice than a sign or exhibit or maybe to use in conjunction with signs and exhibits. Here are five reasons to consider using banners as a media choice at your location:


  1. Attention Grabber – A well-designed banner can brighten up an entryway or building exterior as an ad or teaser. Photos of highlights on the property often serve to entice someone to enter even better than words or descriptions. They create a festive look to a trail or large building interior that gets your attention.


Street banners in Monterey, California, remind you of the Steinbeck characters from Cannery Row.
Street banners in Monterey, California, remind you of the Steinbeck characters from Cannery Row.
  1. Wayfinding and Thematic Connectors – A distinctive banner can be used to mark a path or road and connect physically separated features into a thematic trail. Sub-themes can be designated with the banners by changing colors, or by using a different graphic or word while maintaining the general look to tie everything together.


  1. Sense of Place or Time Marker – A banner can be used to identify an event or person with a specific place or date. Intangible stories can be identified with the setting where they occurred, inviting curious guests to learn more. A banner that tells me I am standing where President Washington once stood or a peace treaty was signed can be a powerful attraction. While a sign might do the same thing, a banner’s movement may be more eye-catching.
Monterey Bay Aquarium has colorful banners that emphasize their themes of Explore, Discover and Act.
Monterey Bay Aquarium has colorful banners that emphasize their themes of Explore, Discover and Act.


  1. Branding – The organizational logo on banners throughout a property can reinforce the brand and make your boundaries clear, especially if your site merges with that of some other organization.


  1. Messages – Use of a thematic message on banners may make it more memorable through repetition. It might have to be a word or phrase that more telegraphically delivers the message than you would use on an exhibit.


  1. Use of Space – Often banners can be placed higher than regular signs or exhibits, using space that cannot be used for more detailed messages or graphics. The effect can be beautiful if the banners are professionally designed and produced.


  1. Cost – Banners have likely been around since there’s been cloth. Some of the new methods of transfer of digital images to fabrics make it easier and less expensive to generate banners than ever before.


At Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, one banner provides the branding and the other helps you identify the exhibit's theme.
At Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, one banner provides the branding and the other helps you identify the exhibit’s theme.

Because fabrics may be more fragile or may fade in direct sun, you may need to consider the longevity you require before deciding on materials. Fabric banners may work better for short duration, while vinyl might be needed for longer terms (over the course of a summer season, for example). Funding for replacement or changes when needed will have to part of the decision-making process when determining whether banners are the right medium for your site.


– Tim Merriman