Wayside Exhibit Planning

Outdoor, or "wayside", exhibits often are planned at a point where the need to know intersects with the need to explain. Typically these wayside exhibits are flat panels mounted on a low base, angled to refer to a particular scene. They may also be mounted upright as trailhead exhibits or as orientation exhibits near visitor centers, marinas, or other major access points. For the purpose of this discussion, a wayside exhibit is defined as a combination of words and pictures on a two-dimensional outdoor panel providing interpretation, information, or orientation to a specific landscape. Waysides are very much a graphic medium. Although the boundaries are somewhat blurred, directional signs are not considered wayside exhibits.

Wayside exhibits have the challenge of interpreting a sometimes dynamic landscape in a setting that has multiple distractions. When a family emerges from their minivan at a park visitor center or overlook, many things compete for their attention. Arriving in a park, people may be scanning for wildlife or a dramatic vista, looking for a restroom or the start of a trail, or checking the schedule of the next guided walk. For a first-time visitor there are so many interesting features that it's difficult to know where to focus. To complicate matters further, this potential audience (or victims) of the wayside may be seeking an enlarging or inspiring experience rather than a didactic one.

In attempting to interpret everything significant in a setting, a park could spawn a dense forest of waysides. This thinking leads to the trap of the Wayside Exhibit Paradox: In a natural area, a wayside is a manufactured intrusion; in a historic area, a wayside is a contemporary intrusion. Too many wayside exhibits can dilute each message and compromise the resource; too few might shortchange the visitor.

It is possible to select sites and subjects judiciously, to present the interpretation to optimal effect, and to blend harmoniously with the resource. But to achieve this, planning must go according to the strengths of the medium. Planners who allow wayside exhibits to be theme-driven often underestimate the importance of the medium's third dimension—the piece of significant terrain that appears just beyond the frame of the wayside's two dimensional panel.

The best wayside exhibits are site-specific. A specific piece of ground should drive the idea and provide the creative tension—the interplay between the landscape being viewed and the emotional and intellectual reaction of the person entering and apprehending the scene. Think of wayside exhibits as captioning the scenery. In that way, the particular geyser or fort bastion or customs house foundation remains the primary focus of the exhibit. Just as the best writing is packed with highly specific language, the best waysides illuminate the specifics and significance of the immediate terrain.

Show Me the Graphics

Implicit in any discussion of wayside exhibit planning should be the notion that design is an integral part of the exercise. Rather than distinguish between planning and design, or viewing them as sequential aspects of the process, think of planning and design as having co-responsibility for the interpretive solution.

At Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland, a wayside exhibit faces a small church, approximately one hundred yards distant. The one-room whitewashed building has simple unremarkable lines. On the wayside exhibit is a large black-and-white photograph taken immediately after the battle. The church, though a bit shot up, looks much as it does today, but in the foreground are corpses of soldiers. Much of the wayside exhibit's power derives from this historic photo, taken from the precise site where the exhibit is installed.

Wayside Exhibit Text

Few people come to parks for the express purpose of reading. At its best, the text should succinctly illuminate the terrain and help people immerse themselves in the resource. The text is the springboard. Admittedly, some of the subject matter may be fiendishly complex. That is where succinct expression finds an enjoyable challenge.

Outdoors, the exhibit audience is mobile. The wayside graphic must attract people's attention; the title must be short and intriguing; the first sentence (most crucially the first sentence) must seduce the audience into wanting to know more. A wayside exhibit audience is the opposite of captive. Show them something predictable, academic, or jargon ridden, and they move on, having far better things to do. The best waysides make one point and one point only.


It is not enough to design and write a well-crafted wayside exhibit panel. It must be integrated into the scene. Too many outdoor exhibits appear to be located arbitrarily, as if javelined into the ground by a cargo plane flying at ten thousand feet. Wayside exhibits are part of the built environment. They normally should be accessible to all, including wheelchair users and people with arthritic knees. Develop a landscape architect's eye, or trick a landscape architect into joining your interpretive team. Remember that exhibits don't simply interpret the resource. They intrude on it as well. Blend the exhibits into pedestrian turnouts on boardwalk trails. Or blend them with railings, boulder groupings, or hedges.

The Planning Process

Ideally begin with media planning or a long-range interpretive plan. For any park area, wayside exhibits should be just one component of a mix of media. Sequential narrative or in-depth analysis of a subject can be covered better in a publication than on the limited area of a wayside exhibit panel. Parcel the park's story according to each medium's strengths.

The core of any wayside exhibit planning venture is the site visit. First, survey the entire area, getting an overview of the outdoor resource and significant features. Identify potential sites and how they fit into visitor use patterns - the tour roads, trails, and interpretive loops. Closely observe visitor behavior, paying special attention to how people make use of existing interpretive media. Then return to each potential wayside exhibit site and study it in depth. Think about graphics as well as the story, and trust your perspective as a first-time visitor. Like a detective, seek the visual clues that reveal the significance of this particular piece of terrain. Notice how the rise of the land favors Stonewall Jackson's troops crouched in the sunken railroad; notice the pattern of the dry desert wash, the way the angle of debris may reveal the power of a flash flood. Let the landscape itself - the telling detail - illuminate the subject.

The initial result of the site visit should be a wayside exhibit proposal. This is essentially a list of all the sites that made the cut. For each exhibit, provide an outline that identifies the subject, the interpretive purpose or intent, the panel's orientation or view, and a detailed description of the precise location and any landscaping considerations. At this stage, each exhibit in the proposal should reflect a team perspective, including the views of a subject matter expert, park interpreter, designer, wayside exhibit planner, and park superintendent. As often as possible, include the maintenance foreman (who may be installing and maintaining the exhibit) and a landscape architect on the initial team. This is also the time to begin determining materials based on factors such as weather, potential vandalism, and the relative permanence of the information.

After the proposal has been reviewed and approved, the wayside exhibit planning/designing begins in earnest. The wayside exhibit plan, as a document, consists of draft text and a scaled layout of each exhibit panel. While developing text, particularly for a historic site, look for quotations that refer to the specific landscape.

Concluding Strategies

As in theater, wayside exhibits depend on an audience response. Obsessively field-test your products; spend hours observing people interacting with outdoor exhibits. Eavesdrop on their comments. Use a stopwatch to time people who stop at (or pass by) the exhibit. To test wayside exhibit concepts and effectiveness, cultivate a group of informal evaluators —"civilians" with little or no connection to the profession of interpretation or outdoor recreation. Solicit candid responses; don't let them pull punches. Real people in a realworld outdoor setting may provide you with responses far different from those of your client park interpreter.

At its best, a wayside exhibit inspires a more active park visit. Good waysides often provide perceptual tools for further exploration. When the wayside exhibit across from Glacier National Park's Bird Woman Falls interprets that specific hanging valley above the waterfall, visitors learn how to recognize this glacial feature and can look for other hanging valleys during a tour of the park.

Last updated: October 1, 2019