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Geotourism in the Black Country

Graham Worton explains how geotourism is essential to the future of geoscience communication by breaking down the complexities of this discipline to engage local and international audiences

Words by Hannah Bird
30 November 2023

Bumble Hole, Dudley

One of the birthplaces of the UK’s Industrial Revolution, the Black Country in the English Midlands was designated a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2020. This accolade recognises the significance of the region’s natural and cultural heritage, and encourages engagement with geology via the public and education sector alike through outdoor and immersive collections-based learning that tells the stories of the landscape and the people who inhabit it.

Graham Worton, Black Country UNESCO Global Geopark Lead and Keeper of Geology at Dudley Museum at the Archives, worked as a professional applied environmental geologist in the UK and overseas while pivoting to the heritage sector over the past 40 years, where he now works full time. As Chair of the Black Country Geological Society, Graham is a passionate advocate for engaging local communities and amateur enthusiasts with the region’s palaeontological assets, geoconservation and geoheritage, now and in the future.

“Becoming a geopark was all about getting the added value out of such inspirational and special geological assets in the landscape, and the stories associated with them, to make the place better and more sustainable,” Graham explains of the project’s ambition.

“From the start, it was about trying to understand all the connections regarding what is special here in the Black Country and then to sensitively use this to build knowledge, respect and pride. Doing that creates a deeper sense of belonging and connection to a landscape – it changes perspectives and creates a much more positive, welcoming profile for a place. Geoparks are also, by definition, large areas with special geology that influences and shapes everything. The Black Country is certainly that.”

Expanding partnerships

The creation of the geopark has enabled the expansion of partnerships with local education groups, charities and government institutions to create a geotourism destination in the Midlands comprising 45 geosites that span 428 million years of Earth’s history. The park includes numerous nature reserves, quarries and canal tunnels that explore the region’s mining heritage, as well as an area devoted to glass blowing (the Stourbridge Glass Quarter) and even Dudley Zoo.

“I have loved seeing the seed of our geology become the foundation of a sustainable tourism destination that will grow to provide many more jobs throughout its heritage assets, its connecting infrastructure and their supply chains,” Graham enthuses. “To witness the beginnings of developing new educational resources and to see thinking shift towards holistic appreciation of the natural world, as well as blossoming community engagement, is inspirational and life-enriching.

“Growing local, national and international interest has manifested itself in invitations to produce geotrails, carry out presentations online and on sites, plus contributions to books, papers and special journal issues about geoconservation and palaeontological heritage. Locally, the geological heritage is being reflected more frequently in all sorts of schemes, from increasing information signposts to national Nature Recovery conservation projects, artworks for hotels, and even at the new Metroline tram stations throughout the Black Country.”

Geological stories

Blending geological and palaeontological educational elements with geotourism is vital to conserve interest in the disciplines and their relevance to the modern world. Making geoscience stories accessible to all ages can encourage a new generation of geoscience enthusiasts to explore careers in the sector and build upon the foundations of current work.

“If people don’t see the point in what we do, they will not support us with resources and opportunities. I see geoscience education as a bit out of balance, so ‘informal learning’ through tourism and leisure is a gift we can give to redress that balance a bit. Many of the museum’s collections are directly related to the local people and where they live, so hopefully we can embed a deeper connection and better knowledge retention.

“The process of creating such educational resources requires genuine empathy with the audience. We have all been guilty of not thinking about the relevance of a story to the audience or the type of language that we need to use to get the messages across clearly and with passion. Working in the museum sector, I have seen first-hand the impact of excellent communicators who know how to tell a story, and performing artists who know how to present a story with great visual and emotional impact – we should do more of this.

“Within the context of wider geotourism, the geological story of a landscape is largely undiscovered and seen as a challenge to tourism operators. Through the work of the geopark, however, we can reduce any fears about complex stories and vocabulary. If we do that well, many future opportunities will emerge with economic models that both promote knowledge of Earth science and generate resources for research and training.”

Geoscience renaissance

Graham’s optimism and vision for an emerging geoscience renaissance is driven by the real-time impact he sees in the geopark’s work every day, which is a shining example of how finding innovative ways to engage audiences can have long-lasting results.

“I want to witness more young people learning with us and growing in confidence as Earth and environmental scientists who can move forward with skill and enthusiasm. I want to see more people in general become aware of and appreciate their local heritage, and I would love to see nature conservation be more holistic between the geological and biological aspects.

“What drives me on in my day-to-day work is observing the change in people through what we do here. By simply sharing, placing objects and amazing stories into the public realm (and sometimes directly into the hands of people), witnessing the impact of that inspirational material on the faces of those seeing it for the first time… that is a daily highlight in my life and always makes me happy.”

Graham Worton

Graham Worton is Keeper of Geology at Dudley Museum at the Archives and lead of the Black Country UNESCO Global Geopark


Interview by Hannah Bird, a Doctoral Researcher in Micropalaeontology, Oceanography and Climate Science at the University of Birmingham and a member of the Geoscientist contributors team

This interview was originally conducted in collaboration with The Palaeontological Association

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