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Let’s interpret natural heritage so that we love it more

Croatia is a country of exceptionally valuable natural heritage, and numerous EU funds offer funds for its protection. In order that from initial initiatives, arising from the love of nature, to successfully led and realised projects in a local community, it is necessary to become well acquainted with the whole process of planning heritage interpretation. From hereinafter we will look back at our experiences of interpretation and presentation of nature in conjunction with the EU Natura 2000 Integration Project.

Several days ago we received two telephone calls. For the purposes of this text, we will call the people who called us Mr. Hrvoje and Mrs. Hrvojka. They don’t know each other, he is the mayor of a small municipality located on the edge of highland Croatia, whilst she leads a tourist association on one island. What they have in common is that they both want to make a good story about the natural beauty of their regions. Mrs. Hrvojka had not made any further moves regarding her wish, whereas Mr. Hrvoje had applied to one of the European funds and his project was not satisfactory. He was mad, she was confused. How to help them? Luckily, the news was more than good: in the last several years numerous lines of financing natural heritage have been directed to Croatia as a new member of the European Union. For a start let’s try to determine which areas include natural heritage.

Areas of natural heritage

According to UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, natural heritage includes natural monuments which consist of physical or biological formations or groups of such formations, and they have exceptional global value from an aesthetic or scientific point of view. Furthermore, included in natural heritage are geological, physical-geographical and specific areas which represent habitats of endangered species of animals and plants of globally exceptional values from the point of view of science and the protection and preservation of nature. There are also remarkable sites of nature which are globally exceptional values from the point of view of science, the protection and preservation of nature or as natural beauties. Croatian law regarding the protection of nature defines 9 categories of spatial protection. The most beautiful and most valuable protected areas are in 8 national parks and 11 nature parks, whilst county protected natural areas are managed by their public institutions. However, this kind of defined administrative structure is still far from a guarantee that our interlocutors would succeed. Besides protection nature also needs – interpretation.

Heritage interpretation

According to the definition of Freeman Tilden, the father of heritage interpretation, it means the educational activity whose aim is to uncover the meanings and relationships of heritage values with the use of objects, direct contact and illustrative media, thereby not communicating just mere facts, but by transmitting their significance in a way adapted for different groups of visitors.

Funds for financing natural heritage

Until 2020, via the ‘Competitiveness and Cohesion’ operational system, which is part of the European fund for regional development, the Republic of Croatia will be able to invest funds in various areas, and in the field of natural heritage investments are made in the facilities and infrastructure for the education about nature, multimedia presentations, digital expositions, informative and educational tours, initiatives for education and the raising of public awareness plus new initiatives and contemporary forms of nature interpretation. However, what should be added to this information is that which is crucial to our dear interlocutors from the beginning of this text: only well-prepared heritage projects are assessed as being sustainable and profitable. But, how to prepare a project properly for financing? The problem arises as early as the setting of criteria by the funds for the financing of heritage projects such as interpretation centres. In most cases the architectural documentation is always considered sufficient for the establishment of the mentioned centres. However, in order that a centre can be established well, it is necessary to make an interpretation plan which is the basis for the establishment of the interpretation infrastructure before the creation of the conceptual architectural project. Such as plan is an integral part of the conceptual and working design of a permanent exhibition and open air interpretation.

Our experiences in the interpretation of natural heritage

In the period from 2013 to 2016 our team worked on the development of the interpretation and presentation of nature in conjunction with the EU Natura 2000 Integration Project. The project was led by the Ministry of Environmental and Nature Protection (today: the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Energy), and integration into the EU Natura 2000 European ecological network was one of the conditions of Croatia’s accession to the European Union. The project is financed by a loan from the Word Bank and it was the first project in Croatia which systemically approached interpretation planning. Over a three-year period thirty different interpretation plans were developed. Working documentation was made for the development of eight visitor centres, five interpretation-educational centres, and one reception and one educational centre. Besides visitor infrastructure indoors, in conjunction with the project also made was the documentation for seven educational trails and one mobile application plus a system of outdoor signalisation and interpretation for a network of protected natural regions of Croatia with unique visual identity - ‘Parks of Croatia’. Our multidisciplinary team for the interpretation and the presentation of nature consisted of museologists – heritage interpreters, and designers specialised in various areas of design such as graphic, product, IT and multimedia design as well as lighting design. Today visitors can visit ‘The Birth House of the River Kupa’ and ‘Gorski Kotar House of knowledge’ in the Risnjak National Park, ‘The Underground Secrets of Paklenica’ in the Paklenica National Park, the ‘Boathouse’ in the Brijuni National Park, ‘The Forester’s House’ in the Krka National Park, ‘Mountain Playhouse’ in the Northern Velebit National Park, ‘Mali Sakadaš’ in the Kopački Rit Nature Park, whilst other projects are still awaiting their financing and realisation phases.

The benefits of heritage interpretation

The planning of heritage interpretation projects brings numerous benefits to the local communities and visitors of protected areas of nature. In the long term it affects the improvement of economic, cultural and social sustainability of a place, enriching the enjoyment and experience of the visitors, and also raises the awareness of the visitors and their roles in the protection and preservation of natural values. With the encouragement of the concerns and interests of the visitors in the protected areas, interpretation contributes to the reduction in the destruction or damaging of natural values. Heritage interpretation projects have the great support of the public, and with local inhabitants they evoke a feeling of pride for their homeland, or the region, local and national culture and heritage. In this way the laid out story of natural heritage encourages entrepreneurship and the growth of the tourist offer of a place, generating new jobs, such as interpreters and tourist guides, employees in newly-opened visitor centres, employees for the maintenance of themed and educational trails, producers of handicrafts and souvenirs and so on.

At the end of the telephone conversation from the beginning of the text, Mr. Hrvoje and Mrs. Hrvojka decidedly submitted the preparation of an interpretation plan to the fund, happy that present and future generations of the local inhabitants and visitors would enjoy the preserved richness of Croatia’s natural heritage.

Do you love your homeland? Are you proud of your town? Do you want what you feel to transform into story about identity and share it with others? Send us your thoughts, your questions and suggestions and we will help you so that with our combined forces we form a unique fragment for a mosaic of the heritage of Croatia!

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