Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preservation in Action: Ambition and Excitement at Zealandia

This week at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand, a librarian stood up and said, “one of the great challenges of this sector is to make preservation sexy.” People laughed with incredulity; no matter how CSI-like the pitch, it’s hard to capture public attention with preservation projects. And yet earlier in the week, at the Zealandia nature sanctuary in Wellington, I’d seen some hints of how to do just that.

Zealandia is a nature preserve with a big hairy audacious goal: to restore a neglected valley into a haven for native birds, plants, and a few special ancient species. Their signage is upfront and specific about this plan; the large sign at the entry says, “It will take 500 years to reach our goal.” Miles of public trails are littered with evidence of the ongoing efforts: volunteers at work, temporary feeders and enclosures, experiments ongoing and hibernating.

Zealandia provides visitors with a beautiful, peaceful experience in nature. There are interpretative trails and helpful staff to aid visitors in tuning in to the bird sounds and identifying the native animals now thriving in the preserve. But the thing that stood out most was the sense that Zealandia is a place of action, where projects are actively underway. Many of the projects—like a huge, specially designed fence to separate birds from lizards until the populations of each stabilize—were both impressive in scale and were communicated well as short-term steps on a long path to a thriving natural habitat. As a visitor, I repeatedly ran into objects, staff, and signs explaining the specific science at work on the preserve and how the project was evolving. The interpretation was frequent, clear, and adult in tone and content. I felt respected as someone who could understand science and might be interested in more than just a nice walk in the park.

This sense of action, coupled with Zealandia’s ambitious goal, gave me a feeling that I was visiting something Important. Some of the signage pointed out “firsts” happening at the preserve—new techniques for introducing species into new habitats, creating a completely mammal pest-free environment, and inviting people to visit the project while underway. I felt like the sanctuary staff and their 400 volunteers were welcoming me into their vision for a future version of human coexistence with nature. This feeling was reinforced by inclusive signage that used the lovely construction “visitors like you,” as in “Seven years after taking control of the land, the Sanctuary was ready to receive visitors like you, seven days a week” which made me feel specially engaged as an individual.

As a side note, my positive feelings about the onsite Zealandia experience were somewhat undermined by their branding as a "conservation attraction" on their website and on billboards around Wellington. I presume that this branding will help them appeal to a potentially large audience of those seeking exciting experiences in nature, but to me, this veiled the truly exciting work at the physical site. Online, you can access some evidence of their powerful work, such as this clear and impressive timeline of key achievements, but these messages are not front and center as they are at the preserve. Zealandia isn't more than just a nice place to go see animals in natural habitats, and I think it's a disservice to market it that way.

But let's get back to the good stuff. Reflecting on the impact of my Zealandia visit later at the National Digital Forum, I realized how rare it is that cultural professionals communicate with the public about the exciting ongoing nature of preservation projects. As at Zealandia, cultural preservationists often pursue incredibly ambitious goals—to digitize huge collections of records, or to save centuries-old objects. Zealandia’s signage opened with an unambiguous image: a black and white photo of the valley pre-nature preserve—barren, clear-cut, devoid of natural life. Standing there looking at the photo, and then taking in the rich diversity of plants and bird sounds around me, I was instantly compelled by the sense that the work going on at Zealandia was valuable, and that it was going in the right direction.

How can cultural preservationists communicate the largeness of their dreams, the dire state of the unpreserved landscape, and the potential richness of successful projects? By communicating the need, making the process public, and inviting “visitors like you” to enjoy the richness of the expanding cultural assets made available by the effort. I hope that I will one day walk into an archive or history museum and feel the same sense of urgency, purpose, and progress that I felt at Zealandia.

4 comments, add yours!:

dgilman said...

I don't know much about preservation or how to make it sexy, but this is about the last place I expected to find mention of a BHAG.

Nina Simon said...

David - is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating project! I agree that too often signage doesn't seem to respect the capabilities of the visitor--sounds like Zealandia has hit the right balance of accessible and interesting. Glad to hear you're enjoying your trip so much!

Jared Forbes said...

Did you get a chance to see the exhibit my company produced for Pukaha Mount Bruce - New Zealand’s National wildlife centre while you were here?