Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Speaking for the Trees

Posted in Behind the Scenes on May 27 2015, by Anna Toledano

Anna Toledano is NYBG’s Interpretive Specialist. She helps to produce signage, audio tours, and mobile experiences for the Garden’s special exhibitions and permanent collections.

What’s in a sign? At The New York Botanical Garden, the answer is quite a lot. In my day-to-day at the Garden, I tell the stories of the collection and of the special plants featured in our exhibitions. Our team works to communicate what our specimens can’t say about their histories and their significance solely by appearance. Our key tool to share these stories with you is signage, so that the lesser-known tales of our precious specimens are never far from reach on a visit to our sprawling 250 acres.

orchid show chandeliers
Pink and white enhance the palette of this year’s Orchid Show

The behind-the-scenes process of developing even the smallest plant sign is more complex that it might seem. When there are countless tomes written about the beauty of the cherry tree, how do we choose five sentences for a sign about it? We glean the expert knowledge of our curators and scientists for ideas and delve into the Garden’s rich archives in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library. We also try to survey our visitors—since what you want to read about is what’s most important—to see what questions you have and what you hope to discover.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once we’ve got the content down, we have to decide what the sign is going to look like. Our designers think carefully about colors to complement the plants in our particular collection or exhibition. Consider the signs in the Thain Family Forest, which are a warm orange like the foliage in fall. The signs in the nearby Native Plant Garden are a verdant green that blends with the changing warm and cool shades of the garden in every season. The goal is to merge our signs seamlessly with the landscape while gently calling attention to the specimens that we wish to highlight. We want our visitors who are hungry for stories to be able to find them, but without disturbing our visitors who just love to take in the view.

Native Plant Garden in Winter
Try as hard as we might, the elements win out

The sign is then reviewed by many colleagues to confirm that the facts, writing, and photos are perfectly right. After it’s approved, printed, and installed, it’s not over yet! As our living collections are in constant flux, we continue to update our work to adapt to the changing landscape. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the landscape has a say too: this past winter Mother Nature was especially vocal, covering many of our signs in a blanket of white.

We are continually offering new ways to communicate the fascinating stories of our plants to you to ensure that your next visit to the Garden is always more exciting than the last. Mobile experiences, audio tours, and exhibition catalogs are also in our storytelling toolkit. The more methods we use, the more ways that we can engage with all visitors in the way that you want to learn (and we can share our stories, even when our signs might be snowed in!).