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The Case Against Interpretive Signage

May 10 2016

Perhaps the most visible program of the Baltimore National Heritage Area is our network of urban heritage trails. These trails encourage Baltimore’s visitors to explore beyond the Inner Harbor and discover our wonderful, historic neighborhoods.

Established in 2005, Heritage Walk was the first trail and features the most robust signage for wayfinding and interpretation. Large, four-foot by eight-foot “storyboard” signs are located at key locations along the trail. These signs have a trail map, photos of the trail’s attractions, and a narrative providing historical insights based on the location. Bronze disks in the sidewalk help guide travelers along the route. A printed map and guide was created, as well as a script for docent-led tours.

A similar array of wayfinding and interpretive signage was used for the Mount Vernon Cultural Walk (focusing on Charles Street from the Inner Harbor to Pennsylvania Station) and the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail that winds through Bolton Hill and Upton.

The heritage area is working on the next trail that will link together the historic sites and themes that define the neighborhoods around Lexington Market. As trail planning gets started, now is a great time to take stock of how we provide signage along the trail. Have past efforts and methods been successful? Do new technologies of the past decade suggest better ways to provide history and directions?

Storyboard Sign

A heritage area "storyboard" sign along the Mount Vernon Cultural Walk heritage trail. 


While signage is certainly useful for both visitors and residents, ten years of managing these trails has brought some insights in a case for limiting signage. Below are five issues that need to be fully considered before making the investment in continuing previous strategies in heritage trail signage.


Interpretive and directional signage is expensive. Each of those signs you see along Pennsylvania Avenue, Charles Street, or Calvert Street cost a heck of a lot of money:  between $5,000 and $8,000 to manufacture and install. Writers and historians are paid to develop the information on the panels, graphic designers lay out the text and images, and image rights are acquired. Considering that each trail has about twelve storyboard signs, costs can easily reach $80,000. Are new cheaper web- or smartphone-based technologies just as effective and useful?

It is difficult to gauge the impact of the signs. Do people actually stop and read the signs? Are tens of people actually stopping? Hundreds? We simply have no idea. Unfortunately we are not in a position to conduct costly visitor surveys. With a web or mobile app system, we would be able to quickly and easily gauge interest based on use. 

Signs need consistent maintenance and cleaning. Graffiti has definitely been a concern, and we have seen some vandalism of the signs. We have been lucky that our friends with the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and the Waterfront Partnership have been excellent custodians of the signs along Heritage Walk and Cultural Walk. As our trail network grows, the heritage area will need to find new partners who will help care for the signs and keep an eye on graffiti. But should staffing resources be spent in more productive ways?

Signs are relatively permanent and are difficult to change. We’ve all seen the changes in Baltimore. Old buildings come down, new ones go up. Office towers are converted to apartments, fire stations become brew pubs. This is typical of any built environment and presents challenges in creating interpretive signage. Dig into information on the Mount Vernon Cultural Walk and you’ll find references to the Bank of America Tower (now apartments at 10 Light Street) and the Contemporary Museum (since shuttered). New technologies, whether a website or smartphone app, allow for quick changes to keep information up to date with just a few clicks and little cost. Redesigning a sign, having it manufactured, and installing it can cost up to $8,000. The permanence of the signs also makes it prohibitive to incorporate new methods in interpretation as well as new pieces of history. For example, none of the signs in Mount Vernon speak directly to the neighborhood’s LGBT community; there is only a rather off-point reference to Mount Vernon’s “eclectic residents.”

Signs can add to the visual clutter of our neighborhoods and raises safety concerns. Installing four-foot by eight-foot signs along boulevards like Pratt Street makes sense – wide sidewalks ensure that foot traffic is not impeded and viewsheds are not negatively impacted. But what about neighborhoods with narrower streets and busier foot traffic? Placement of signage along the Historic Fell’s Point Trail has been difficult. Not only are adequate locations hard to identify, residents feel that there is already too much interpretive signage, especially around Broadway Market. Another consideration: law enforcement has expressed some uneasiness with the size of signage, noting that it could be used as cover or concealment.

Sign clutter along Charles Street

An array of signage at Mulberry and North Charles Streets provides wayfinding for pedstrians and motorists, parking and traffic instructions, and even affirmational signage notifying both drivers and pedestrians that Charles Street is a state scenic byway.

The above five points, gleaned from more than a decade managing trail signage, make a strong case against following the same pattern for interpretive signage along the new downtown westside trail. If the trail signage costs could be reduced, perhaps limiting a trail to just a handful of storyboard signs, the cost savings could be shifted to developing additional trails in other historic neighborhoods.

The next blog post will outline our thoughts on the new westside trail and how a combination of interpretive signs and new technologies might prove to be a more effective method to present the history of the neighborhood to Baltimore’s residents and visitors.

What are your thoughts on interpretive signage in historic neighborhoods? And what other neighborhoods could be highlighted and promoted with an urban heritage trail? Let us know what you think!

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