When WWT Consulting was appointed to develop the interpretation design and build at Severn Valley Country Park, we were delighted to discover a shared passion for joyful exhibitory with our client. Early stakeholder consultations captured aspirations for ‘plenty of joy’ in a visitor centre ‘where children (and adults) can learn by play’, discovering stories ‘about conservation and sustainability’.

The Park offers a brilliant palette for creating exciting visitor experiences. The visitor centre, which needed expansion, is perched high on the steep east slope of the River Severn, in a dynamic, historic landscape. Set within a Geopark, on an old mining and quarrying landscape, it boasts a heritage railway and cycle route through the Park. The landscape was transformed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, from a former mining site into a Country Park, by Shropshire Council which owns and manages the site for people and wildlife.

We created messaging focussed on the themes of A Centre of Industry, A Changing Landscape, River Wildlife and Our River. 

To bring joy, we created a series of interactive games and engaging exhibits to provoke dialogue and immerse participants in rich and valuable stories. Gameplay included a scaled-up board game, which tied into the work of the Heritage Lottery Fund Unlocking the Severn project. Players must work their way across a magnetic board playing as endangered fish species. They discover the perils of weirs and the joys of fish-ladders in their quest to reach the finish line. 

Other activities include; a Connect Flowers game; a reading Foxy Tales Book Bench, a Bee an Animal dressing-up table and a crawl-through Kingfisher’s Nest Burrow. We also installed a wildlife tracing table and a children’s Activity Table depicting the 18th Century landscape with interactive features of the period.

The exhibition was gently inspired by the learning philosophies of Montessori, Steiner and Reggio Emilia. The exhibits draw on the principles devised by Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio practice including the Hundred Languages of Children, inviting children (and adults) to learn in their own interactive way. Pale birch ply and a bright painterly colour range provide a wholesome educational feel.
The Park is populated with intriguing historical characters. We chose to interpret a few, including Alfred Head, a miner who spent his whole working life at the mines from age 12 until his last working days aged 72. His weekly handwritten payslips are displayed alongside carefully selected mining artefacts, providing an emotive insight into his life. This is one of many features embedded within a vast pictorial timeline; A Changing Landscape. This exhibit was designed to work for a range of audiences, with younger people able to visually ‘read’ the positioning of objects and engaged adults finding interest in dates and facts about the site.  

Severn Valley Country Park visitor centre officially reopened on 6 October 2019, thanks to generous part-funding from The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe investing in rural areas and part-funding by Shropshire Council.

Beth Morafon is a visitor experience specialist with 20 years’ practice as Senior Consultant at WWT Consulting and Senior Project Officer for WWT visitor centres in the UK. She is now Director of VisitMôr, a public realm and visitor experience consultancy. She can be contacted at: beth@visitmor.co.uk.