Best Practice in Park Interpretation and Education - DNRE 1999


A Report to the ANZECC Working Group on National Park and Protected Area Management
Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria 1999

About this document

In June 1998, on behalf of the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) Group of Agencies, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (Victoria) appointed a consortium headed by Earthlines to conduct a best practice and benchmarking evaluation of park and cultural site interpretation and education services. The project is part of the ANZECC Benchmarking and Best Practice program - an initiative of the National Parks and Protected Area Management Working Group to establish best practice standards and models for park and protected area management. The terms of reference for the evaluation focused on organisational processes - that is, what constitutes best practice in organising and managing the delivery of effective park interpretation and education.

The investigation comprised three elements:

  • A survey of 35 organisations involved in the provision of interpretation and education (including all ANZECC Working Party agencies)
  • A literature review
  • A review of relevant business processes and systems

Managers of national parks and protected areas have challenging responsibilities in regard to interpretation and education. Conserving natural and cultural resources and providing for visitor recreation are often the largest and most conspicuous management tasks. This investigation shows that interpretation and education are generally minor activities in terms of the resources employed yet important, core activities for virtually all of the organisations surveyed. Interpretation encompasses science, art, inspiration, ethnicity and belief, and as this investigation points out, it must justify itself in the business management terms of today. In the last decade tourism has become a larger part of the combination through the role of the guide. Good practitioners in this field must be part ecologist, part historian, part anthropologist, part artist and story-teller, and part market researcher. Increasingly they must also be partnership managers assisting providers such as educational institutions or tourism organisations rather than always delivering services direct.

The clients of interpretation and education are equally variable: sometimes "customers" wanting enjoyment and stimulation, sometimes "citizens" with the right to information about the values and condition of the areas being managed, sometimes "students" looking to be filled with knowledge. In other cases they are clients who want nothing, escaping to a park to encounter nature without the analysis or deconstruction that dominates most other aspects of life in the 1990s. Delivery must therefore be pitched at the right level - evangelism is generally inappropriate while policy pronouncements are likely to produce tedium rather than understanding.

Interpretation is an activity usually made up of many small activities - a guided walk, an information board or a nature trail. Field practitioners may be confident about the impact of these localised activities but this investigation suggests that organisations have difficulty in knowing what they add up to - or, if they know the answer, they know it intuitively, not in ways that can be demonstrated or measured.

These challenges demand an uneasy mix of competencies for large organisations and the individuals in them: discipline about setting objectives, rigour about understanding clients and measuring effectiveness, all leavened with the creative freedom and support for the art of interpretation practice that results in a spark of insight and understanding among clients.

While many examples of best practice came to light during this investigation no one agency demonstrated mastery of this area of park management. The challenge for improvement remains for all ANZECC agencies. In the era of the "knowledge society" and a climate where the importance of community support and partnerships for viable park management is clear, most organisations are likely to recognise the need to give this improvement a high priority.