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.

Natural heritage

According to the UNESCO Convention on World Cultural and Natural Heritage, natural heritage means natural monuments that consist of physical or biological formations or groups of such formations, and have world exceptional value from an aesthetic or scientific point of view. Furthermore, natural heritage includes geological, physical-geographical and precisely defined areas that represent habitats of endangered species of animals and plants of world exceptional value from the point of view of science and protection and preservation of nature. There are also famous places of nature that are of world exceptional value from the point of view of science, protection and preservation of nature or as natural beauty. The Croatian Nature Protection Act defines 9 categories of spatial protection. The most beautiful and valuable areas are protected in 8 national parks and 11 nature parks, while the county protected natural areas are managed by their Public Institutions. But such a specific administrative structure is still far from a guarantee that our interlocutors will succeed. In addition to protection, nature also needs interpretation.

Heritage interpretation and financing

According to the definition of Freeman Tilden, the father of heritage interpretation, it means an educational activity aimed at discovering the meanings and relationships of heritage values ​​using objects, direct contact and illustrative media, not only communicating mere facts but conveying their significance to different groups of visitors.

By 2020, through the operational program “Competitiveness and Cohesion” which is part of the European Regional Development Fund, the Republic of Croatia will be able to invest in various areas, and in the field of natural heritage investments in facilities and infrastructure for nature education, multimedia presentations , digital expositions, informative and educational tours, initiatives for education and raising public awareness, as well as new initiatives and modern forms of interpretation of nature. However, to this information should be added what is crucial for our esteemed interlocutors from the beginning of this text: only well-prepared heritage projects are assessed as sustainable and cost-effective. But how to properly prepare a project for funding? The problem arises when setting criteria by funds for financing heritage projects such as interpretation centers. Most often, architectural documentation is still considered sufficient for the establishment of the mentioned centers. However, in order for the center to be established in a quality manner, before the development of the conceptual architectural project, it is necessary to develop an interpretation plan, which is the basis for the establishment of the interpretation infrastructure. Such a plan is an integral part of the conceptual and implementation solution of a permanent exhibition and interpretation in the open air.

Our experiences in interpreting natural heritage

In the period from 2013 to 2016, our team worked on the development of interpretation and presentation of nature within the EU Integration Project Natura 2000. The project was implemented by the Ministry of Environment and Nature (today: Ministry of Environment and Energy), and integration into the European EU ecological network Natura 2000 was one of the conditions for Croatia’s accession to the European Union. The project was financed by a World Bank loan and was the first project in Croatia to systematically approach interpretive planning.

Thirty different interpretation plans were developed over a three-year period. Implementation documentation has been prepared for the development of eight visitor centers, five interpretation and education centers, and one reception and one education center. In addition to the indoor visitor infrastructure, the project also developed documentation for seven educational trails and one mobile application, as well as an outdoor signaling and interpretation system for the Croatian network of protected natural areas with a unique visual identity “Croatian Parks”.

Our multidisciplinary team for the interpretation and presentation of nature consisted of museologists – heritage interpreters, and designers specializing in various areas of design such as graphic, product, IT and multimedia design and lighting design. Today, visitors can visit the “Birth House of the Kupa River” and the “Mountain House of Knowledge” in the Risnjak National Park, the “Underground City of Paklenica” in the Paklenica National Park, the “Boat House” in the Brijuni National Park, the “Lugar House” in the Krka National Park. “Mountain playroom” in the Northern Velebit National Park, “Mali Sakadaš” in the Kopački rit Nature Park, while other projects are still waiting for their financing and implementation phase.

Benefits of heritage interpretation

Planning heritage interpretation projects brings many benefits to local communities and visitors to a protected nature area. It has a long-term impact on improving the economic, cultural and social sustainability of the place, enriches the experience of visitors, and raises visitors’ awareness of its role in protecting and preserving natural values. By encouraging visitors’ concern and interest in the protected natural area, the interpretation contributes to reducing the destruction or damage of natural values.

Heritage interpretation projects have great public support and inspire pride in the country or region, local and national culture and heritage. Such a complex story of natural heritage encourages entrepreneurship and increase the tourist offer of a place, generates new jobs, such as interpreters and tour guides, employees in newly opened visitor centers, employees on maintenance of thematic and educational trails, manufacturers of handicrafts and souvenirs …

At the end of the telephone conversation from the beginning of the text, Mr. Hrvoje and Ms. Hrvojka resolutely reported on the development of an interpretation plan to the fund, happy that current and future generations of locals and visitors will be able to enjoy the preserved richness of Croatian natural heritage.