Tales from the Trail
Connecting Trail Users To Their Environment

Since 1980, Janet Bathgate has been a self-employed contract designer, collaboratively creating in-situ interpretation panels, orientation signs and displays for museums and visitor centres. Over the past three years, Janet has been involved with the design of a suite of interpretation panels for the Kawatiri Coastal Trail.

Having lived in Nelson all her life, Janet has also worked on projects throughout New Zealand, the Pacific and Indonesia. During the mid 1970s she graduated with a Diploma of Fine Arts from Canterbury University with Honours in Printmaking.

Her first lucky-break was with the Nelson Museum as a display designer and photographer. This opened a whole new world, combining her interests of visual art, cultural and natural heritage, and writing. It also introduced a network of many people for her to work with when later setting up in a freelance capacity.

In 1984 Janet travelled overseas, visiting cities, national parks and heritage sites across the USA, Europe and the UK. Her key interest was the interpretation of heritage sites, as well as museum/visitor centre exhibits, which helped her to establish a set of guidelines. Janet found the American sign examples generally aimed their comprehension levels too low, resulting in patronising content. And English examples were overly wordy and rarely utilised visual illustrations. In Europe, heritage interpretation was mostly carried out with audio guides. This offered an invaluable overview of where the world was at with these forms of presentations, seeing Janet return to New Zealand with the knowledge it could be done better.

Over the years Janet’s technical skills have evolved from working completely by hand, through the gradual introduction of photographic and digital technologies, to the current world of high resolution, full colour digital print with exterior longevity. In addition to design, she has made contributions to printmaking, drawing and painting, with work held in several public art gallery collections. This year Janet won a merit award in Nelson’s Changing Threads national exhibition and was a finalist in Wellington’s Parkin Prize. We sat down with Janet to learn more about the process for her work, and the collaboration with the Trail.

Photo: Tide Matters interpretation panel on the Pūwaha Section

What is the purpose of the panels, and how do they add to the Trail user experience?

The interpretation panels are about connecting trail users to their immediate environment, be it the special rocks under their feet, birds in the bush or fish in the creek. They help create a richer experience for those who enjoy them. They are designed to communicate through pictures at a visual level and contain more depth for those who like to perch on their bike and read a short story. Even the speedsters are catered for with a considered colour palette that does not impose, but looks like it has always been there – those in a rush might even miss them, as it should be.

Interpretation panels evolved out of the USA National Parks system in the late 1970s. In the 1980s they were a new introduction here. Within New Zealand’s Lands & Survey Department and the NZ Forest Service (environmental division), there was an established programme of personal guiding by park rangers, but it was not strong. As the popularity of panels grew here, they tended to take the place of guides. This came with many disadvantages such as not knowing the age, comprehension skills, interests or experiences of the audience.

Many people thought these new panels were visual pollution within the natural environment, and this opinion has always formed a salutary guideline – trackside interpretation panels are only really suited to urban and front-end sites, inside tramping huts or within an existing structure is the only acceptable place in the back country. Not knowing who exactly the audience is presents the greatest challenge. One solution is to keep material highly visual and layered with content of increasing detail.

The current new delivery of on-site interpretation is with mobile phones, for example via QR codes. Whilst they’ve had a slow uptake in NZ, following the Covid QR code use, they are gaining in acceptance. Mobile delivery can offer the additional visuals of video, interactions, GPS orientation and of course sound.

Photo: Beach as highway interpretation panel at Nine Mile Beach along the Tauranga Section

What is your creative process for the Interpretation Panels?

The fundamentals rarely change. Know the site. Visiting the place is essential or have well documented photography and site plans. Know the topic. Research is also essential. Figure out the essence of the story, understand the size of a panel and how it will be presented (free-standing, on a building or fence) and the final production output technique/materials. I then start writing a story in a style that reflects the idea that you are standing on-site chatting to visitors, and alongside the writing I find or create visuals. It’s important to imagine the visuals/images as one writes the story, even if they have not yet been created as both are equally important. Only once these bases are covered does the actual computer design start.

It is important to always imagine the content we are dealing with could be totally new information for many people. This for most people requires hearing or reading it three times before it is truly comprehended. So, a little repetition from a different angle is not a bad thing. It’s a fine balance between presenting content in a way that can be understood by “newcomers,” but which isn’t patronising to those viewers who bring much knowledge with them. Whether on-site interpretation is presented as a physical panel or mobile device, the process remains the same.

You work with historians and ecologists to source the factual content for the panels. How does this collaborative aspect work?

This is the part I enjoy the most. Meeting new people – albeit sometimes only online, and often I’m lucky enough to visit their homes and meet their families. Specialists know and love their subject material, and most are happy to share. Family members are generous with their histories, memories and photographs. Drilling down to the essence of a topic is a matter of asking questions. It really helps for me to start ignorant, and even when I know a little, I throw that out too and start again. All that’s required of me really, is a curious mind.

Meeting on-site is invaluable but not always possible. There’s also a lot of reading in this work, and it helps to know where to look for material online such as photograph collections. Texts, and later visual proofs, go back and forth, and the label DRAFT features heavily. I have particularly enjoyed working with project ecologist Richard Nichol and historian Stu Henley, and both really know their stuff.

Photo: Interpretation panels in the Ngāhue Whare along the Pūwaha Section

How many interpretation panels have been produced to date, and are there more in the pipeline?

To date we have created 17 panels plus a set of Māori history panels for the Ngāhue Whare (Shelter). There are another four trail-side panels planned to be placed between Nine Mile and Charleston. Three of these are natural history. Two trail-side panels are currently being designed with the West Coast Penguin Trust, and a set of panels interpreting the story of Charleston will be placed in the town.

The panels cover many topics, including flora and fauna, wildlife, Māori and European history and offer a mix of factual information and story telling. Is there one which has been a standout favourite for you?

Hard question as I have found them all so interesting. Can I have two? My first would be the “Masters of the undergrowth” panel about mātātā / fernbird. It was good working with Peter Coburn and his great book about the bird with his excellent photography. And personally, due to my Scottish and Scandinavian heritage, I relate strongly to the story about the Shetland Islanders who beach-combed for gold at an isolated settlement known as Rahui. The panel is designed but not yet produced, as the Trail has not been completed on that section.

A few years ago, I visited the Outer Hebrides and felt a great affinity with the land and its history. I’m hoping on another visit to the UK, and if so to get to the Shetlands. The sturdiness of the Rahui people to work ingeniously in solitude as they extracted minuscule fine grains of gold from the storm lashed Nine Mile Beach, while creating a strong community, is inspiring material.


Photo: Masters of the undergrowth interpretation panel 

How does the Kawatiri Coastal Trail project compare to other interpretation panel projects you’ve been involved with?

It’s satisfying to create a suite of signs that give a visual continuity to a project and carrying out the work over a period of several years is an approach that is common. For example, as with Denniston Heritage Coalfield, Molesworth Station, Meretoto/Ship Cove, and Te Waikoropupu Springs. The KCT diversity of topics is very stimulating, but this comes with trails, especially long ones, and is a feature of other trails I have worked on such as the Coppermine Trail, Queen Charlotte Track and Kaikoura Walkway.

One difference is that with many past projects I have been engaged to help with planning. For example, where panels are to be sited, which topics will be covered, the design of shelters, seats, viewing platforms, and even the route of pathways and tracks. With the KCT, that work is done by the very skilled and capable team, and it has been excellent to focus on design for specifically identified locations and topics. Working with the skills and enthusiasm of clients and associates is a joy.


Have you enjoyed the Trail on foot or by bike?

Yes, I have walked and biked all the sections that are currently open several times. I particularly like the Omau Section from Cape Foulwind to Tauranga Bay. One comes over the last hill that opens up to the blue sea below – it was a glorious day. Then it’s a smooth little curvy downhill run through a gully of native vegetation.

On a recent trip during the whitebait season, and after biking the West Coast Wilderness Trail, we biked the short 1 km Waitakere section from Charleston to the beautifully constructed Nile River Bridge. We then rode to the very end of the farm road at the Tōtara River mouth. I’m looking forward to the fully joined up Trail.


Photo credit: Diane Chandler – Omau Section with views across Tauranga Bay

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