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Base thoughts.

If you want to "think outside the rectangle" when making interpretive panels, materials such as high-pressure digital laminates give you great flexibility. You have probably seen panels about fish in the shape of fish and panels about birds in the shape of birds and so on.

But consider something more basic: the base. We can and probably should depart from the standard four-or six-inch round or square pipe-stands when making sign bases. We will look at several great examples.

Something I came across recently prompted me to look again at what literally supports our interpretive messages. While on a weekend hike, I found an interpretive panel at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to the Columbia River in Washington State.

I liked it for several reasons. The interpretive panel focuses on nearby oaks. It is well situated in the midst of dozens of huge Oregon white oaks, each hundreds of years old. The text j and graphics of the panel do a good ; job of explaining the significance of these massive trees to the ecosystem. Following the principles of Freeman Tilden, they provoke further exploration. They help the person interacting with the panel relate to this ecosystem and they reveal meanings that we might not otherwise consider.

What impressed me most? The sign base. It looked like an oak log. Closer inspection revealed the "log" is made of concrete! It supports the sign but also supports the message. It creates unity between the message and the design. It ties up the experience into a complete package.

It also serves as part of a wall for the observation platform on which it sits. The enclosure includes the "log."

A second outstanding example of a creative sign base comes from a U.S. Forest Service site at Taylor Creek, Lake Tahoe, California. The interpretive panel focuses on the topic of water supply and conserving water. Copper pipes (complete with valves) form the sign base.

They resemble pipes we might find running through our homes! Again, the message and the medium match!

To find the next example, visit the Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center in Vancouver, Washington.

Native basalt rock columns support several signs at Columbia Springs. The images etched in the basalt represent plants and animals found in the area. In this case we see alder and maple leaves and a beetle. Other bases feature different organisms.

Another clever foundation can be found on the same self-guided trail near Lake Tahoe.

The message includes benefits of the marsh grasses as shelter for birds. The base mimics the marsh grasses and supports the interpretive panel ... and the message!

A favorite of mine comes from the Corps of Engineers, National Great Rivers Museum. It sits beside the Mississippi River on the Illinois-Missouri border. The message interprets a nearby wetland where great blue herons may be viewed.

The curved top of the panel resembles the shape of a wing. The shape of the base reminds us of the wetland and the message. By the way, the site manager told me the concrete pedestal has since been covered up by more cottonwood chips.

At Bonneville Lock and Dam, a Corps of Engineers site on the Columbia River east of Portland, Oregon, precast concrete bases mimic the precast concrete in nearby structures.

The arch shape, used extensively in the Columbia River Gorge, also inspired this interpretive panel base.

Finally, look at this example from Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Local volcanic rock forms the base. It blends into the surrounding rocks because the base comes from the surrounding rocks.

The downside of clever interpretive panel bases has to do with cost. Prepare to spend significantly more money than the standard round pipe bases embedded in concrete. However, if creative interpretive panel bases are within the budget, consider them because they help focus the experience and help communicate the message. If your interpretive panels will be in place for many years the investment will pay for itself.

The examples listed here also help the interpretation blend into the settings by mimicking the surroundings. Architects, graphic designers, and exhibit designers can help with the creative part of the process.

My sincere compliments go to the designers of these clever bases and to the managers who invested in them. If using interpretive panel bases to reinforce the message is a trend in our profession, it is a good trend. We need more of these! Why not use this way to help people connect to resources by strengthening and unifying the message? You could say it gives your message a strong foundation.

J. Patrick Barry is a Certified Interpretive Trainer and has experience as a visitor center manager, interpretive/customer service consultant, interpretive trainer, and speaker. He has received numerous awards for interpretation. All photos by author unless otherwise indicated. To contact the author please email him at
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Title Annotation:ON INTERPRETATION; interpretive panels
Author:Barry, J. Patrick
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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