Notwithstanding Hurricane Sandy’s visit to New York City, new exhibits at Castle Williams, a War of 1812-era fortification at Governors Island National Monument in New York Harbor took first place in the wayside exhibit division of the National Association for Interpretation’s (NAI) 2012 interpretive media awards. The award was presented at NAI’s annual meeting in Hampton, Virginia in November.
The exhibit contains diverse elements such as a model of the fortification as it appeared in 1812, a 30' high scrim illustrating the important dates in the fort’s history, outdoor exhibit panels and numerous mechanical interactives. Designed by Stephen State of Formations, Inc. of Portland, Oregon, the exhibition was fabricated by Formations with major assistance from the exhibit’s chief writer Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier of Rutherford, New Jersey, RBH Productions of Dobbs Ferry, New York and Q Media Productions of Winter Garden, Florida. Neil McKay and Anita Smith of Harpers Ferry Center Northeast team managed the project on behalf of the park.
Castle Williams is a unique circular four story fort first built to defend New York City against naval attack before the War of 1812. Its design of enclosed and protected cells of cannons or “stacked casemates” influenced American coastal and harbor fortifications for nearly a century. It was later used to hold Confederate prisoners during the Civil War and as an army stockade until 1965. It final use was as a community teen center and landscape shop for the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the major priorities with the establishment of the national monument in 2003 was hazmat remediation and structural rehabilitation leading to the opening of the Castle to the public in May 2012. After a two-year, $6 million restoration featuring Formations' illuminating new exhibits, Castle Williams became the premier attraction on Governors Island, attracting a sizeable portion of the island’s 375,000 visitors during its 36 day weekends-only public season which runs from Memorial Day through the end of September.
Formation’s senior exhibit designer Stephen State faced a number of challenges in the exhibit design. There would be no electricity. Exhibit elements had to address issues of universal accessibility. Exhibit bases and panels had to be movable to allow for changes in visitor use and future stabilization work in the Castle. Various arrangements of exhibit elements had to be flexible enough to provide both for a linear presentation or random encounter by the visitors.
State managed to work all those requirements into his design. Exhibit panels are mounted on metal pipe and unfinished concrete blocks, replicating the unfinished concrete surfaces of the Castle’s prison era. Vertical monoliths also feature unfinished concrete surfaces and portions of red stone-like finishes that replicate the red sandstone of which the Castle is constructed. Hand powered audio stations bring forth actors reading oral histories of prisoners, soldiers and teenagers who were either detained or danced in the Castle. Finally exhibit elements had to be designed to handle a harsh maritime environment with gusty winds and salt spray.
One thing the park staff or exhibit planners did not contemplate was a hurricane. The exhibit was put to the test with the recent passage of Hurricane Sandy which brought 90 mph winds and a much unexpected 3.5 foot storm surge into the Castle from New York Harbor. “It was pretty much wash and wear” according to Michael Shaver, the park’s chief of interpretation. “The exhibit rode thorough the storm in good shape. The winds even took up the slack in the ropes holding the 30 foot high mural banner, saving us the need to do that next season.”
Interpretively the exhibit conveys a complex story of multiple uses of the harbor fortification over two centuries. The non-linear design allows for the exhibit to be viewed in chronological or thematic order and further allows visitors to go deeper into the stories. As New Yorkers often are in a hurry, they do the express run of engaging with a hands-on model of the Castle as originally built in 1811 and see the banner mural illustrating the four major historic periods of the Castle’s history in protecting the nation’s largest city. With that, they can still leave with a sense of the Castle’s history and purpose. But often many visitors do return for a second visit to more fully experience the exhibits and the massive structure.
The exhibit has a panel that allows visitors to write comments at the end of their visit. Park staff post the more interesting comments each week. Opening week had one young visitor write, "The Castle is out of this world!!!” The comment card featured a penciled drawing of the Castle rising up like a flying saucer, trapping and drawing up enemy sailing ships into a magical force field.