Chase Fountain | TPWD
Welcome to the Exhibit Shop
State park team taps creative forces to make displays that inform and inspire.
There are three kinds of people who read park informational signs – you’ve got your streakers, your strollers and your studiers.
“With streakers, you might get two or three seconds,” says Penelope Ray, lead interpretive planner for Texas State Parks. “Strollers might give you 20 to 40 seconds. The studiers will give you as long as it takes.”
This is an accepted bit of wisdom among park planners, and the Texas State Parks exhibit team makes it a point to accommodate all three types on its signs, using its special alchemy of art, science, creative writing, graphic design, photography, psychology, learning models and the cold, hard truth that the park visitor may really just be looking for the bathroom.
“There is nothing wrong with any of these visitor models,” Ray says. “We’ve all seen all of these people, and we’ve all been all of these people. We’re just trying to understand our visitors so that we can match experiences to them.”
The TPWD team that makes these signs — and all the exhibits you see at state parks — is a remarkable and dedicated group of artists, craftspeople, writers, designers, dreamers, schemers, builders, creators and visionaries who can turn a park visit into an educational, inspirational and enriching experience. The nine-member group earned recognition as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Outstanding Team in 2022.
It’s a full-service shop: Members plan, research, write, design, construct and install signs and exhibits at all state parks.
“Our goal is to connect our resources to the hearts and minds of our visitors in order to make them care,” says Dana Younger, exhibit shop manager. “Our signs do that in a variety of ways. It could be an entrance sign where people get out and have their photo taken. It could be an informational sign telling them there’s a special animal or special plant or a mountain or something that they can go look at.”
A good orientation sign can send the signal that you are being cared for in a wild space, Younger says.
“If a visitor can find a sign that says ‘Here is where I am, here are the resources around me,’ it gives them capacity to go further in their own investigation of our wild spaces.”
Maegan Lanham | TPWD
Maegan Lanham | TPWD
TELLING THE STORY OF MONAHANS
THE TEAM recently reinstalled the exhibits at Monahans Sandhills State Park after repairs were completed at the visitors center, and the signs and interpretive materials there offer a revealing look into the creative capabilities of the exhibit team, who draw on their backgrounds in sculpture, literature, theater, archeology and other arts and sciences.
“The park has a lot of really interesting ecology and history,” Ray says. “It looks like dry sandhills, but there’s a lot more going on there besides sand.”
In addition to signs and panels, the team created a couple of custom-built features to tell the story of the park more fully — a video game to explain the park’s aquifer and a “Dune-o-matic” interactive display to show how sand dunes are formed.
“If we made a sign that said ‘Perched Water Tables,’ I don’t think very many people would read it. I probably wouldn’t read it,” Ray says. “An arcade game with a raincloud that flies around, with a joystick and buttons and lights and sounds, is going to attract more people. They’re going to give it a try, and along the way they’re going to learn about perched water tables. That is going to help them understand one of the reasons Monahans Sandhills is one of the special wild places of Texas.”
The exhibit team had never made a video game before, but they decided this was the right way to explain the complex aquifer system to visitors. One team member figured out how to build an arcade cabinet with a joystick and buttons. Another learned programming and graphics.
“It was a huge team effort,” Ray says. “It really allowed all of our shop’s skills to shine.”
TPWD’s scientists and park staff do the work to gain a deep understanding of a park’s resources, and the exhibit team uses its creative talents to translate that science for the visitor. Sometimes, that means anticipating the most basic questions.
Why is there sand here?
“If you’re excited about sand sledding, you might not stop to wonder about that, but it’s a good question,” Ray says. “That’s one of the big questions we try to get people to think about: Why are there dunes here?”
The exhibit’s displays point out how the park’s sand is different from the sand at Mustang Island’s beaches or the sand along a riverbank. Electron microscope scans of different sands allow visitors to see the difference.
In the Dune-o-matic, a big Plexiglass dome that contains a fan and sand, visitors can use a lever to adjust the wind speed to see how it affects dune formation.
“Those dunes are made by wind,” Ray says. “It’s not obvious, since it happened slowly, how the dunes move and how they make those shapes that you see stretching off to the horizon.”
This was an exhibit shop brainstorm that required several rounds of experimentation before it worked the way they wanted.
Ironically, actual Monahans sand didn’t work.
“It was too dusty,” Ray explains.
Other types of sand proved problematic as well. They eventually discovered that tiny glass beads made the best dunes with the least dust.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, re-creations of wildlife species help tell the story of animal life in the park.
Younger is an accomplished sculptor — his work is exhibited in galleries across the state — and he sculpted a roadrunner and used a 3D-printer to make a model of it for the visitors center. The team enlisted a former exhibit shop artist to make a kangaroo rat sculpture and hired a snake expert to make a rattlesnake.
Maegan Lanham | TPWD
Maegan Lanham | TPWD
MORE THAN SIGNS
THE FOLKS who work in the exhibit shop are very aware that people don’t go to state parks to read their signs.
“Our contact with visitors is glancing,” Ray says. “We get them when they’re on their way to do something else. A well-placed sign might inspire them to stop and take a look and connect a little bit more with something they didn’t realize was there. We’re making signs, but we are also creating ways for visitors to make connections.”
At Tyler State Park, a sign on the Whispering Pines Nature Trail stops visitors in their tracks.
“Shhh. Hear that?” it says.
Before hikers reach a small waterfall, they are invited to listen for it. The sign points out that the Civilian Conservation Corps wanted visitors to enjoy the sounds of nature in addition to the sights and built the waterfall to enhance the gurgling, splashing sounds of the water.
“Our job is not about presenting information,” Younger says. “It’s about connecting people with stories and emotions.”
The team also is aware that sometimes a sign is the right tool and sometimes it’s not. They’ve worked to expand their bag of tricks. At sites such as Mission Rosario and McKinney Falls, the team has employed etched glass panels to show how a building or structure might have looked. When visitors come across a rock wall or set of ruins, they can look through the glass panel with a line drawing (which overlays the remaining structure) to visualize the building. At Mission Rosario, it’s a drawing of the mission; at McKinney Falls, it’s an old gristmill.
At Enchanted Rock, a bronze topographic sculpture at the start of the Summit Trail reduces the massive dome to digestible size and invites intimate exploration. The Franklin Mountains visitor center contains a scale model of the Franklin range that shows all the peaks and valleys and nooks and crannies of the desert mountains.
Mission Tejas has a pinball game “that helps people understand the trials and tribulations and randomness of trips down El Camino Real and all the different ways your trip can end in misfortune,” Younger says.
Caprock Canyons is engaged in ongoing prairie restoration, and the park wanted people to help document the prairie’s progress.
“We made this sign that has a notch where you can put your phone so that it always takes the picture from exactly the same place,” Younger says.
At Caddo Lake, exhibit workers are creating trail features designed to help visually impaired visitors, who can trace their fingers along a raised trail map and feel the shapes of leaves on bas-relief panels.
The exhibit team is tackling tougher issues as well. Recent signs and exhibits have addressed the history of enslavement at Cedar Hill and McKinney Falls. The new Tyler visitors center contains exhibits discussing the park’s pivotal role in the desegregation of Texas State Parks.
“Telling difficult stories and convincing parks that it is in their best interest to tell difficult stories is something we’ve been doing more,” Younger says. “These stories have to be told carefully and thoughtfully.”
One thing the exhibit team is always trying to do is to link a park’s resources to universal human themes and truths. Survival. Love. Family. Joy. Discovery. You can find these at Texas State Parks, and the creative team at the exhibit shop wants to help you find them.
“Connecting people — to the park, the land, the animals, the plants, the history — is really what it’s all about for us,” Ray says.
“Parks are for you. You have a place in parks and, hopefully, parks can have a place in your heart.”
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