Live from Australia, Part 3: Three Interpretive Experiences in Melbourne

The great Australian adventure finds me in the country’s second largest city, Melbourne, which the locals pronounce MEL-bun. We’re lucky to be staying with friends who have the time and patience to tote us around to some amazing sites. While I normally write about graphic design, three of our interpretive experiences in Melbourne have stood out, so I’m going to venture into Shea’s area of expertise and write about interpretation.

The Melbourne Zoo: Don’t Palm Us Off
One of the many great things about events like the NAI International Conference is that it affords you the opportunity to meet talented interpreters who work in amazing places around the world. One of the many great things about using vacation time immediately following the NAI International Conference is that you’re bound to go to a site where someone you just met works.

During the conference, I had the good fortune to meet Scott Killeen, visitor experiences manager for Zoos Victoria, who is based out of the Melbourne Zoo. After the conference, I had the good fortune to go to the Melbourne Zoo, where they have a sign that uses my new favorite word, Platypusary. Scott graciously took time out of his schedule to meet my family and friends and me. He introduced us to one of his recent projects, an orangutan exhibit that uses an advocacy-based interpretive message to alert visitors to the damage the palm oil industry does to the orangutan’s habitat. The zoo and its employees were covered with this “Don’t Palm Us Off” message, and visitors were asked to support a proposed bill that would cause products that use palm oil to be labeled as such. (Find out more at http://www.zoo.org.au/palmoil.)

The interpretive message itself focused on creating an understanding of the relationship between the products we buy at the local grocery store and the rapidly diminishing habitat of the animals immediately in front of us at that moment, and it was powerful. In fact, our friends in Melbourne are members of the zoo, and told us that they had already stopped buying products with palm oil because of an article in the zoo newsletter.

So soon after the NAI conference, it was invigorating to see interpretation at work in such a rewarding way.

The Penguin Parade
Every night at dusk, the southern shore of Phillip Island in Port Phillip Bay plays host to an amazing scene. Hundreds of fairy penguins (sometimes called little penguins) come tumbling onto land after spending the day swimming in the sea. These little guys (the smallest species of penguin) wait until dark to avoid detection by predators, then scramble in groups across the beach to the cover of the brush for the night. At Phillip Island Nature Parks, visitors can witness this event from stadium-style seating on the beach. They don’t allow photography of any kind because people don’t know how to turn off the flash on their cameras, so I’ve borrowed the image here from Wikimedia.

After enjoying this amazing event, visitors have the chance to tour through an attractive nature center (with the exception of one inexplicable and inexcusable use of Comic Sans), where you can learn all about the gruesome nature of these adorable animals’ deaths. After seeing stuffed cats and birds mauling our tiny feathered friends, we walked through the exhibit pictured here. My six-year-old son Joel, feeling protective of and connected to the penguins, saw the shark and asked, “Why does this building have to haunted?”

The exhibit included other information, but I was disappointed that visually, the emphasis seemed to be on stuff that kills fairy penguins. There was no take-home message that there was something we could do to help them, as the focus was mostly on natural predators. If I had to identify the theme of the park, it would be, “It’s a miracle that you got to see this amazing natural event at all because sharks eat these guys like popcorn shrimp at a Vegas buffet.”

Koala Conservation Centre
I didn’t fully appreciate the majesty of these beautiful beasts until I learned how much they sleep. At the Koala Conservation Centre on Phillip Island, we had the opportunity to witness koalas (as well as wallabies) in their native habitat. Noticing how droopy they all seemed, I asked an interpreter whether they were nocturnal. He told me no, they sleep 22 hours a day, and when they’re awake, they eat eucalyptus leaves, which are extremely low in nutrients, so therefore they have no energy. During their waking moments scattered throughout the day, they eat. I told him it reminded me of college.

At another site earlier on this trip, we had the opportunity to pay money to hold a koala and have our photo taken, and we jumped on it (the opportunity, not the koala). I love the photo and will enjoy showing it off, but I will have much fonder memories of moments like the one pictured above, where a sleepy koala (which I now understand is a redundancy) roused himself momentarily to look around and take in the scenery. Knowing what I know about koalas now, I think he looks like he’s trying to remember where the heck he is, what day it is, and whether it’s worth the effort to lift his paw to eat a eucalyptus leaf—all of which I find very endearing.

I’ve always liked koalas, but now because of one interaction with a knowledgable interpreter, I like them more than ever.