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garden tales from a Brit abroad

Tell-tale Signs

As a landscape historian, I am interested in how we understand and interpret historic places. How do we learn and sustain the stories and emotions associated with a particular landscape? How do new visitors discover a landscape’s past?

One obvious answer of course is through signage. I have commented here and here in this blog about signs in historic parks and gardens, and how well (or badly) they convey information. And now people have started sending me other examples, and it struck me I might set up here a gallery of signs, from the woeful to the wonderful.

My particular interest is in historical markers (signs that tell visitors about a landscape’s past), but other interesting specimens will also appear here from time to time. I’d be delighted if readers of this blog would send me images of any signs that strike them – and, just as importantly, comments on why they do or don’t work.

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Scavenger Hunt sign, courtesy Jan DevereuxHere’s an interesting example, submitted by Jan from Salutations. It’s a temporary historical marker, put up as part of a scavenger hunt at Fresh Pond in Massachusetts. Thus it neatly side-steps one of the big problems with designing markers – that any sort of consultation over content produces a mass of pet topics and viewpoints that somehow all must be included, and the signage ends up with far too much text squeezed on, in far too small a font. But a temporary sign avoids the need for extensive consultation, and allows a more sensible, single viewpoint approach.

This sign isn’t bad: it has just a few interesting facts about the history of the particular spot where the viewer is standing; uses a nice, big font; and includes two large, clear historical images and a contemporary one. (Although, as the author of a book on the landscape featured, I am pretty sure that at least one of the historical images is actually of a different site with a similar name 200 miles away…)

MAC display panelA second sign spotted by Jan is this display panel at Mount Auburn Cemetery, also in Massachusetts. It has some general information about the creation of the cemetery and its influence on other burial grounds, but only a small amount specific to the spot where the visitor stands while reading. As Jan charitably points out, the featureless map at the bottom right with its unlabelled roads is “only somewhat helpful for navigation.”

Campo del Moro signNext, a thumb’s down for this sign at the Jardines del Campo del Moro in Madrid. The map, clearly, is much better than the Mount Auburn example above, and has lots of information and a detailed legend. But the historical information is pretty woeful. OK, it’s thoughtfully presented in both Spanish and English, but there is just too much text: if you’re going to present something in more than one language, I think you just have to say less in each one. The English version is ungrammatical and has the leaden feel of a translation (for example “It is given this name due to the fact that..”).

And somehow, despite there being too much text, at the end we are left none the wiser about the park – having read the sign several times, I can only tell you that the park was quite “Spanish” in style, then became more “English,” and that it has lots of fountains. Events and monarchs are mentioned without giving any dates, and there is a whole paragraph on vague projects that were never carried out.

Canal signageHere’s a sign from St James’s Park in London. It’s specific about one historical feature of the park – the canal that preceded the current lake – and gives some interesting facts on how it came about. On the plus side, I’d say it has a nice, eye-catching headline and interesting images. The amount of information isn’t excessive, although I suspect most readers give up before they get to the last panel. But for me there are far too many different types of font (I counted eleven distinct styles) which makes the reader’s eye jump around uncomfortably and leaves the whole thing seeming rather fussy.

Vaux enigma signAnother thumb’s down, this time for a sign at Vaux le Vicomte, the glorious estate southeast of Paris. It’s clearly part of a series of questions or riddles displayed on panels for children to explore and learn about the gardens. But the question is somehow both dull and difficult [roughly translated: Question No. 5: You are now on the south side of the ‘acre of water.’  Look carefully: this pool has a special feature. Which of these is it? (A). The chateau is reflected in the pool, even though it is 450 metres away; (K). It’s square; or (Z). It’s the biggest in the garden]. I studied Vaux as part of my Masters degree, and am not sure I know which of these answers is right! And why on earth are the multiple choice options labelled A, K, Z rather than the more customary A, B, C … ?

The signs are gaudy and intrusive in this beautiful garden, and the background photo in this one shows a view of the garden from a completely different place, which only adds to the confusion.

An example now from New Delhi. It’s not a single sign but a whole corridor of information boards. These are from the Gandhi Smriti, the national museum located at the site where the Mahatma was assassinated, now run as a celebration of his life. I have never seen so many boards together like this and can’t believe that any visitor has ever read all of them. We loitered for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes and read parts of the extensive text, but it just felt overwhelming. The information in Hindi has been translated into rather ungrammatical English and, in an effort to introduce a single style, some wonderful historical photographs have been made bland and almost indistinguishable by all being printed in the same greenish colour. At most, half a dozen boards with bigger pictures and less text would actually send visitors away with more information.

Here’s a much better example, also from New Delhi. This is a sign in the delightful Lodi Gardens.It’s well-located, just as you approach the steps to the tomb it describes, and printed in similar colours to the wall behind, so as not to be too intrusive. More space is given to the images than the text, which makes it seem accessible and easy to absorb, and there is a nice mix of photos and drawings, all with clear explanations. The information in the text is well chosen – a little about the history of the site and a few suggestions for things to see while you visit. Simple and excellent.

Now some examples from a recent trip to Singapore. The first is from the new Marina Bay, and is rather better than my blurred photograph may suggest.

Marina Bay

The key thing was the sign’s location, near some strange-looking structures (actually large solar-powered fans or “breeze shelters”). Curiosity made you look for an explanation and, right there on cue, was this sign. It explains the purpose of the structures, as cool “pause points” in the tropical climate, shows how they work, and smuggles in a bit of information about the area more generally. Not dazzling as a sign, but effective and informative.

Less impressive was the signage in the extraordinary new Gardens on the Bay.


Flower Dome

At first, the signs looked great: snazzy, well-placed and colour co-ordinated.  But soon I noticed that no-one was reading them and, on reflection, think they are over-designed: all those decorative leaves and flowers erupting from the text, and the large slabs of toning background colour, leave the words and (over-plentiful) photographs crowded into too small a space, and make the whole thing look fussy. Your eye can’t settle easily on a sensible place to focus and start reading, and it feels like it it will take too long to extract any information.

The worst signs I saw in Singapore were in the eco-garden at the otherwise admirable Science Centre. The centre is a hi-tech, child-friendly place, full of bright signs and colourful explanations.  Much effort has gone into making science appear lively and fun. The day we visited it was packed with schoolkids, interacting with a mass of hands-on experiences. I wandered into the deserted eco-garden, where the interpretive material all looked like this:

It explains why the eco-garden remained utterly empty as the children chose to stay among the vibrant signage and interactive demonstrations inside, rather than step out to study Latin names and irrelevant information printed in small black & white lettering.

Below are some better examples, from Nek Chand’s extraordinary Rock Garden in Chandigarh. The quirkiness of the site is reflected in its signage, with messages that look almost hand-written and signs that seem to emerge naturally from the garden’s mass of recycled materials.    Rock garden1 Rock garden2

Now one that just needed a bit more thought. This is a temporary sign in the Tuileries gardens in Paris, explaining why one area is cordoned off.
Tuileries1
It’s always a good idea to explain such things to visitors, but here there is too much information in too small a font, and the differing lengths of the three columns of text are distracting. Although I am a fan of images on signs, here I’d argue there are too many, huddled together in a block, and it is too difficult to work out what they are meant to be showing. Better to have had a few lines of text explaining the aim of the work, one or at most two helpful images, and a link to a website for those who’d like more detail on the restoration work.

Here’s a better designed one, from the Royal Horticultural Gardens, Wisley, in the UK. It explains the gardens around the snazzy new glasshouse. I like the balance of text and image, and the jaunty diagram that represents the glasshouse. The background colours are good, breaking up the text into bite-size chunks without becoming too tricksy. My only concern (and it’s actually a pretty fundamental one!) is that the sign doesn’t say anything very interesting. Its function seems to be largely to credit the two designers involved, in which case it might have been better to say a little more about them, and have a little less waffly text about the planting.

Wisley1Next, a rather odd sign from the glorious Golden Temple in Amritsar. This holy site for Sikhs has some bright blue screens displaying messages. The colour and height of the screens is very distracting, even given the splendour of the temple, their flickering catching the eye as you explore the site. I am not sure whether the messages change from time to time, thus explaining why they are displayed on screens rather than traditional signs or posters, but they seem to me ill-judged. And without knowing very much about the Sikh religion, I am troubled by the English translation in this one, which makes the guru sound rather like a postman.

Golden temple2 Golden temple1
Here are two Indian signs that made me smile, not for the oddity of the translation, but for the directness of the message. First, a sign at Kumbhalgarh fort in Rajasthan, encouraging pride in our history:
Udaipur1
And a notice in the Garden of 5 Senses in Delhi, discouraging canoodling:
5 Senses1

10 comments on “Tell-tale Signs

  1. sequoiagardens
    May 19, 2011

    St. John’s Lodge, Regent’s Park, is one of my favourite gardens in London. It has a complex design which is well shown in this plaque at the entrance (a long passage which extends down through the word ‘lodge”. Not only is it informative – it is well integrated against a wall where ivy surrounds it. The picture is on my flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jackholloway/2149049605/in/photostream
    Jack

    • landscapelover
      May 19, 2011

      Jack, thanks for the link. I agree that the axonometric drawing is a great way to help visitors understand the layout of the garden – so much more meaningful than a standard bird’s eye view plan. And the ivy curling rounds its edges is perfect: it gives a sense of nature gradually subsuming the man-made sign !

  2. Wendy
    May 22, 2011

    I love signs, too. I have beautiful photos I’ve taken in my travels from Boston to London and in between.

    Jardines del Campo del Moro is fabulous, isn’t it? Being from Spain myself, the sign felt and read okay to me. The English is rough, I know, but Spaniards wrote it. What can you expect? The Spanish version offers more.

    • landscapelover
      May 23, 2011

      Thanks for the comment. Yes the Campo del Moro is a great place, and I’m glad that its historic marker is more informative in Spanish. As someone who does some translation work (French to English), I sympathise with the difficulties involved. It’s just frustrating that all that effort has led to a sign with so little helpful information for the Anglophone visitor.

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  4. K
    October 15, 2012

    In response to the information boards at Gandhi Smriti, when I was there I read the entire thing. So visitors do take the time to read it all because it is in a peaceful serene environment, away from the chaotic city of New Delhi. I found it extremely fascinating, and yes a bit overwhelming, but very important information for visitors to be given the opportunity to read. I think because the information goes on for so long causes it to be difficult for visitors to take the time to read it all the way through but the information provided was important history that I think all museums should aspire to expose. The only thing that I think was missing were benches in front of the boards so that one can sit and read.

    • landscapelover
      October 22, 2012

      K, thank you for stopping by. I’m deeply impressed that you read every board at Gandhi Smriti, but would still argue that such a vast amount of information is better presented in other ways – on a leaflet for example, or a website where users can click on the parts that interest them.

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