Whitman Mission
Administrative History


Chapter Six:
THE INTERPRETIVE PROGRAM


While the new museum was under construction, the temporary museum exhibits were changed and rearranged in 1962. The exhibit cases included The Trip West, the Place of the Rye Grass, Missions and Missionaries, Cayuse Indians, The Oregon Trail, the Mission Children, Home Life at the Mission, and The Massacre. [30] These exhibits provided a focus until the new museum was complete. After 1957 the administrative offices were moved from the temporary museum to a house trailer and then to the old Frazier farm house--one quarter mile away. While this move freed space in the small museum, it was still inconvenient as Historian Thompson noted in 1962: "When unscheduled tour groups arrived, the interpreter had to dash to his car, drive hurriedly to the entrance gate . . . and attempt to start the guided tour before the group had spread itself over the trail." [31]

Such inconveniences were abated with the opening of the new visitor center in 1963.

The 1963 museum clearly reflected the current interpretive theme. The museum plan was developed by Museum Specialist, Western Museum Laboratory, Leland Abel and Assistant Chief Floyd A. LaFayette [32] in consultation with Regional Historian Hussey, Superintendent Kennedy, Historian Thompson, and Regional Chief of Interpretation Gale. The museum contained 22 exhibits [33] arranged in chronological order to portray the flow of events from the early traders and trappers through the establishment of the territorial government in 1848. In this manner the museum reflected a two-fold purpose; first, to explain northwest expansion and the Whitmans' role in it, and second, to interpret the Whitmans' religious mission as a noble and admirable commitment, worthy of respect. Finally, the museum's interpretive theme was summarized in the lobby statement of significance: "So long as men admire unfaltering courage and sacrifice for others, will the story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman be cherished." [34]

The museum remained the same for 23 years, although the Whitman story was subject to changing interpretations because of its strong emotional appeal. The 1960s and 1970s were no different except that a new side was introduced into the debate--that of the Cayuse. In true "Whitman Saved Oregon" tradition, an Oregonian article from as late as 1965 called Marcus Whitman a visionary, aware that "Americans had a jewel in their hands" and determined to keep that jewel (Oregon) for the United States. [35] In contrast, during the mid-1960s Whitman College students became less interested in Marcus and Narcissa. Due to dwindling interest and open hostility, the freshman class's annual visit to the park halted in 1967. [36] In 1973, Superintendent Kowalkowski defended the Whitmans against growing accusations: "Too often the Whitmans get blamed for the eventual fate of the Cayuse, when in fact the settler would have come with or without the missionaries." [37] By 1975, Chief Park Interpreter Larry Waldron commented that: "Two years ago I noticed a certain cynicism among some of our visitors, a feeling that the Whitmans were meddling where they didn't belong and deserved their martyrs fate. I don't notice that much anymore." [38]

Why all this criticism and then why did it seem to subside? The answer to these questions lies in yet another interpretation of the Whitmans.

One possible explanation for the strong criticism of the Whitmans was the new awareness of minority rights occurring in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 challenged established world views and replaced them with new outlooks and ideas. While the civil rights movement dealt primarily with black rights, a heightened awareness of all minority cultures, including Native Americans, surfaced. Superintendent Kowalkowski noted this trend in 1975: "During the 1970s there has been a wave of sympathy for the American Indian in this country." [39] As a result, the Cayuse were praised for their culture, the Whitmans criticized for theirs.

Another possible explanation for the cynicism perceived by Larry Waldron was the cynicism felt as a result of the Vietnam War. By the end of U. S. involvement in Vietnam in 1973, many people believed the U. S. had no reason for fighting in Vietnam; we were meddling in places we did not belong. Similarly, people might also interpret the Whitmans as meddling where they did not belong and question the merits of their crusade.

Certainly, prior to 1972, the park's interpretive program did not address any of these new concerns and ideas. Other than broadening interpretation "to stimulate environmental awareness to the average Park visitor," [40] management goals did not change substantially from 1964-1971. The only interpretive change in the 1964 Master Plan reflected a concern for religious freedom:"Sectarian issues are not to be interpreted . . . [because] the Whitman story is interpreted to pertain to all Americans." [41] Ironically, the Whitman story did not "pertain to all Americans" and would not until the Cayuse achieved a more prominent place in the park's interpretive program. Thus, the inclusion of Indians into the program in 1972 caused a pivotal change in interpretive philosophy.

By 1972, Chief Park Interpreter Larry Waldron acknowledged a marked interest in the Cayuse Indians:

There has been considerable interest expressed among the visitors to Whitman Mission about the Cayuse Indians. We get many inquiries concerning the present status of the Cayuse and whether there is "anything to see" on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. [42]

Because of this public interest and National Park Service Director Hartzog's encouragement of Indian involvement, [43] Waldron developed a program designed "to see the life style of the Indians stressed, hopefully to create empathy between them and the visitors." [44] Reactions to this first program, which included Indian food, dancing, drumming, and lectures, was favorable:

We have received positive responses--some concerning the program itself and some just with the idea of involving Indians . . . the important thing is that the ice is broken and Indian involvement can continue in its proper perspective. [45]

In order to present both the Indians and the Whitmans in proper perspective, a new interpretive theme was developed. By 1974, the idea "Conflict of Two Cultures," which compared and contrasted the Indians and pioneers, was the park's new interpretive theme. The theme was used first in the coloring book, "Life in Old Oregon: Two Paths," written by Larry Waldron, and then through the pioneer and Indian demonstrations. Since the museum did not reflect the new theme, planning began in 1973 to integrate the entire program around this "Cultures in Conflict" theme.

On July 11, 1973, Senior Staff Curator Robert G. Johnsson of the Division of Museums, Harpers Ferry Center, developed a museum proposal based on the two cultures theme:

The objective of the new exhibits will be to contrast the material cultures of the pioneer white society with that of the Cayuse (Nez Perce) . . . . The exhibits will show the profound differences between these two cultures and . . . they will also illuminate the philosophical gulf . . . .

A second objective . . . will be to demonstrate . . . the inevitability of white expansion into Indian land. Taken as a whole, then, the exhibits will help the visitor understand the background which led to the ultimate hostility and violence at Waiilatpu . . . [the visitor] will see the Whitman story as a special case of the general problem of the confrontation of two divergent cultures. [46]

Superintendent Kowalkowski responded positively to this initial proposal, "A comparison of the material cultures of the Indian and the pioneer white society is a logical use of the museum media." [47] Yet, Kowalkowski maintained that designing a slide show to tell the Whitman chronology was first priority, revising the museum, second. [48] Johnsson specified that the museum would convey concepts not easily portrayed in the brief chronology. [49] This new outlook recognized that the Whitman story required a two-sided presentation that was not simply chronological but thematic as well. Inherent in this two-sided treatment was the necessity of carefully evaluating and representing each culture. While seemingly clear, the introduction of the Indian perspective cast confusion and doubt over exactly how to interpret both the Whitmans and the Cayuse. This conflict was felt deeply by the mission staff and museum designers, resulting in several unsuccessful museum plans.

The first conceptual plan prepared by Robert Nichols, museum planner, and Ike Ingram, architect-designer, concluded that highlighting the Cayuse mobility against the settler's permanence was the best way to compare and contrast cultures. [50] Their March 1975 plan reflected this theme: "Needless to say, the nomadic Indian culture and the settled farm life of the Whitmans were light years apart." [51] The plan compared religion, medicine, and subsistence methods of the Cayuse and the Whitmans. The Indian quotations were reactions to the "strange ways" of the missionaries while the Whitman quotations centered around tension and frustration. Though it emphasized "Cultures in Conflict" this museum plan was revised twice; each time rejected for a variety of reasons.

One major complaint with the initial March 1975 plan was that the Indian quotes were often not from the Cayuse. In addition there was no mention of the Whitmans' death on November 29, 1847, yet Tiloukaikt and Tomahas were shown next to a picture of the crucifixion. [52] Although Superintendent Kowalkowski supported the conflict of cultures theme, he believed this plan ignored the park's enabling legislation. He commented to the Regional Director:

During the past three years at Whitman Mission we have involved Indians in our interpretive program . . . . But we have always tried to keep our Congressional mandate in mind and have kept the Whitmans the main thrust of our interpretive program.

The present museum study while representing much work, creativity, and deep thought, is weighted toward the Cayuse Indian. [53]

Kowalkowski acknowledged that Indian programs and participation was a rewarding experience for the public but indicated that increased emphasis on the Cayuse would be adverse to community relations: "This is a conservative part of the state and the early missionaries and pioneers are admired." [54] Acting Regional Director Edward J. Kurtz summarized the general reaction to the museum plan to Marc Sagan, Manager, Harpers Ferry Center:

The proposed plan is a drastic departure from the one now in existence. The Whitmans are now presented as faultless. The new plan shows them as being very human and relates some serious errors on their part. This is as it should be. However, we do not feel that a strong shift toward emphasizing the Cayuse Indian is desirable. Whitman Mission National Historic Site was established to commemorate the Whitmans and their interrelation with other forces of which the Cayuse Indian was certainly a very important one. The major thrust of the total interpretive program should be the Whitmans. [55]

Kurtz conveyed the obligation he and Superintendent Kowalkowski had to honor the park's enabling legislation while at the same time recognizing that a fair and honest portrayal of both the Whitmans and Cayuse was desirable. Their perception was that the museum favored the Cayuse which was unacceptable in light of the above criteria. Therefore, to balance the museum, a revised plan was submitted in August 1975, and then again in March 1976.

The final March 1976 plan presented an inevitable cultural conflict, "With cultures and traditions light years apart, was the clash between nomadic Indian and settled farmer inevitable?" [56] while interpreting the Whitmans' task as futile: "Unfortunately, they did not recognize the incongruity of impressing that culture upon the Cayuse . . . ." [57] Rather than explaining the Whitmans in context of nineteenth-century America, the proposal evaluated the missionary effort: ". . . In retrospect it is realized that the nineteenth century missionary effort was a mixed blessing to the native peoples." [58] Again, most quotes emphasized conflict and misunderstanding.

This final museum plan evoked strong reaction from Superintendent Kowalkowski who objected to the portrayal of both the Whitmans and the Cayuse: "The Whitmans come out looking, at best, stupid, and at worst, criminal; the Cayuse do not come out much better." [59] Frustrated with the museum's direction, Kowalkowski felt, "Perhaps the best course would be to drop the project. " [60] Within a month the museum project was deferred "for two to three years" while other interpretive needs in the Region took higher priority. [61] In effect, the museum planners failed to design a museum that portrayed both cultures sensitively. It was difficult to balance the Whitmans' human qualities against an enabling legislation that denoted them as "martyrs" to be "memorialized." It was equally difficult to present the Cayuse beliefs without romanticizing their simpler way of life. While the museum planners failed to acceptably portray the "Conflict of Two Cultures" theme, the rest of the interpretive program realized more success.

In 1977, Harpers Ferry finished a slide show called "The Whitman Saga" that presented the two-sided story as the museum had not. The Whitmans were characterized as "extra-ordinary people with drive and determination" yet with "human failings, too." The Cayuse perception of their changing world was noted, "The flood of settlers passing through upset the Cayuse, who feared the emigrants might take their land." Finally, the significance of the uprising on both cultures was explained: "The uprising was a disaster for the Cayuse who were driven into two years of hiding before surrendering five members for hanging," while it was the Whitmans' tragedy "to be misunderstood both by those they came to help and by history." The Whitmans were interpreted as sincere Christians, "inspired to serve mankind" who "in death may have accomplished more than in life." [62] "The Whitman Saga" reflects the type of interpretive approach desired during the late 1970s. The differing views of white and red man were explored although the emphasis was clearly the Whitmans, sympathetically portrayed. Thus, the slide show satisfied both the legislative mandate and the new Indian cultural awareness. The new wayside exhibits, installed in 1978, reflected the same awareness. Care was taken to ensure unbiased audio messages and exhibit copy. For example, the mission house included two panels--one about the mission activities, another about the Whitmans' deaths. In the audio script, the word "murdered" was changed to "killed." The slide show, wayside exhibits, and special Indian cultural days combined to achieve what the new museum plan had failed to do--present a culturally sensitive interpretive program within the perimeters of the park's enabling legislation.

Three unsuccessful museum plans indicate that it was not easy to achieve a balanced interpretive program. It was difficult to foster Indian participation given that most Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla Indians of the Umatilla Indian Reservation had neither visited the park nor been asked to participate in its programs before 1972. Superintendent Kowalkowski understood their hesitancy: "The Indians, if they had an idea of what had happened . . . might have animosity toward Whitman Mission. And those that were willing to come over here and share--are they simply forgetting about what happened before?" [63]

The park's "Two Cultures" theme depended upon good relations between the park and the reservation which took several years to build.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (Public Law 95-341) resulted in a reevaluation of relations between the National Park Service and Native Americans. The results at the park included a Cayuse cultural weekend, employing Indians both seasonally and permanently, and drafting a Statement for Native American Interpretation--sections of which were later used in the Park's Interpretive Statement. The Statement for Native American Interpretation says, in part: "If the Park Service is to do its job well, it must deal with this history in a sensitive, balanced but un-watered down manner. It will take our best efforts in the future." [64]

Indeed, a great effort was required, and was given, during the 1970s to establish a more culturally sensitive and balanced program. Yet, by 1980, Chief Park Interpreter Dave McGinnis still believed more of the Indian story needed telling. [65] The most logical way to further the Indian story was through the museum which still presented the viewpoint of the 1960s interpretive program. Therefore, an effort was once again made to bring the museum up to standard, beginning with a new conceptual plan, approved in 1983. The new conceptual plan, prepared by Harpers Ferry Staff Curator Gary Roth and Designer Dick Brown, presented the "Cultures in Conflict" theme symbolically. Regional Director Daniel J. Tobin described their idea:

The design for the new museum is a significant departure from the conventional, with a primary dependence on conveying to the visitor a quick grasp of the symbolism employed. The central theme of the proposed exhibitory is two columns of figures--Indians and Whites--moving on a collision course toward opposite diagonal corners of the room, where their respective futures will be symbolically depicted. [66]

Superintendent Amdor called the design, "a novel approach to a very difficult story" but advised that consultation with the Native Americans was necessary for the project's credibility. [67] Again, like Superintendent Kowalkowski, Amdor cautioned, "The Park's enabling legislation requires that we 'memorialize' the Whitmans. It is imperative that we balance the story between the two cultures." [68] Regional Director Tobin did not feel the "Cultures in Conflict" theme would preclude compliance with the enabling legislation but neither did he anticipate "that the language of the enabling act should be repeated in any museum exhibit." [69] The exhibit planners were, once again, confronted with the interpretation established by the enabling legislation and the interpretation established by the park during the 1970s--each of which reflected two very different viewpoints. Therefore, the topics presented for the museum in July 1984 included The Whitman Mission, Cayuse Beginnings, U. S. in Early 1800s, Oregon is a State, Two Cultures, and the lifesize Cayuse and Pioneer figures. [70]

By January 1985 planning stalled. Superintendent Amdor noted to Deputy Regional Director William Briggle that Harpers Ferry planners had visited the Park three times, yet nothing was finalized: "We get one more chance in January to agree on the design . . . . A signed formal agreement must be reached at that meeting, or the project fails." [71] The plan finally presented by Harpers Ferry Staff Curator Jim Mount to Superintendent Amdor and regional representatives in 1985 was approved except for a few changes which included: additional theme statements, reducing the size of "manifest destiny" while increasing the size of the Whitman story, addressing the Whitmans' deaths, and finally, increasing "the dramatics in the center exhibit, by arranging the figures in an interactive posture." [72] Otherwise, the exhibit plan submitted in May 1985 was essentially the one constructed for the museum from May-July 1987 by SEE Design of Salem, Oregon, and supervised by Ron Roos of Harpers Ferry.

The park's new museum reflects a decade of debate over how to present the Cayuse without ignoring the park's enabling legislation. The answer to this dilemma was found in the 1982 Statement for Interpretation which reconciled the need for Native American awareness with the enabling legislation:

Whitman Mission's enabling legislation refers to the 'Indian Mission and School,' 'administering to the Indian's physical and spiritual needs,' and being 'massacred by Indians.' Inherent in this legislation is the need to define and present the Indian people and cultures with which the Whitmans interacted. Without placing a proper amount of emphasis on Cayuse, Walla Walla, Nez Perce, and other significant cultures of the region with whom the Whitmans interacted, their story and importance to history would be cast in a cultural vacuum. Only through a sensitive, yet clearly unbiased setting of historical facts and perspective can the success, struggles and failures of the Whitmans be presented to visitors in a truly honest and "memorializing" manner. [73]

By broadly interpreting the language of the enabling legislation, both the Cayuse and Whitmans became integral elements of one story. When interpreted in this manner, comparing and contrasting the cultures became more than just a novel idea, but one, it was argued, mandated by the park's legislation. The museum's thematic statement, "All cultures are worthy of respect. They reflect the way people see the world around them and adapt to it" indicates a shift away from glorifying the Whitmans and instead represents two sophisticated cultures of equal value--though not of equal power. While the 1970s interpretation acknowledged that the Whitmans were human, the current museum reflects the 1980s acknowledgement that the Cayuse were human, too.

The museum consists of six areas--the Early Cayuse, the United States A Young and Expanding Nation, the Whitman Mission, the Late Cayuse, Medicine and Religion, and the Diorama of life-sized figures. The Cayuse worldview is depicted through quotations and exhibits about medicine, religion, and family life. The Whitmans' religious zeal and difficulty satisfying both the settlers and Indians is depicted against a background of industrial America. The diorama depicts the White culture represented by Marcus and Narcissa and the plow, cutting across the Indian world represented by Cayuse men and women, both old and young. The museum concludes with a final statement about the similarity of all people: "One might say that they were all telling differing versions of One Great Story." [74]

Once installed, the museum provoked immediate reaction--mostly negative. Both park and regional staff believed that Harpers Ferry had not carried out the plan as agreed. Regional Curator Kent Bush and Regional Interpretation Specialist Glenn Hinsdale felt some major conceptual changes and minor detail changes were needed. Regional Curator Bush felt the museum design was "slick" but failed to teach the complex components of the Whitman Mission story:

This exhibit should be an educational tool, to teach the visitor something about the events that led to the establishment of the Mission in 1836, its effect on the Cayuse People and the settlement of Oregon Territory; the events that led to the incident of 1847, and the effects of this incident upon both the Native and Anglo populations. The exhibit fails, miserably, on all accounts. [75]

Interpretive Specialist Hinsdale believed the museum exhibits failed to transmit the mission story for two major reasons. First, the approved design concept was not closely followed--for example, oversized murals, undersized label copy, and mistakenly placed photos were apparent in the museum. Secondly, the "symbolic" exhibits confused the "historic" exhibits and vice versa. For example, Hinsdale noted that care was taken to ensure "immaculately correct costumes" for the Indians, however, Marcus Whitman's costume was "intended to be 'conceptual only'" resulting in a confused message to the visitor. Finally, Hinsdale advised that "the museum should be fixed before it is opened to the public" but acknowledged that "most of the basic ingredients for a successful exhibit room are there." [76] After considering the objections of the regional staff and after compiling a list of comments for the Regional Director, Superintendent Herrera opened the museum on July 26, 1987. Superintendent Herrera noted to the Regional Director that the list of deficiencies

should not overshadow our feelings that for the majority of visitors, the museum will form a very favorable impression, due to the quality of work done by the National Park Service. If we can correct its deficiencies, the museum will be more informative to visitors and more historically accurate. [77]

Alarmed by the negative comments, a team from Harpers Ferry visited the park to evaluate the museum on July 28, 1987. Regional Chief of Interpretation Dave Pugh; Exhibit Planner Robert Johnsson; Chief, Museum Production, Mary Herber; and David Wright, Manager, Harpers Ferry Center met with Superintendent Herrera and Chief of Interpretation and Resource Management Roger Trick and discussed their impressions and conclusions. The consensus was that the symbolic representation of the "Cultures in Conflict" theme failed. The Indian mannequins and corner exhibits designed to portray progressing disassociation with the past did not convey this idea and therefore, did not appear to significantly contribute to the story. The Harpers Ferry team also agreed that information about westward expansion and the mission life should be expanded while the "medicine and religion" theme wall should explain the mission's significance in American history. The team left after setting some short-term goals: the park staff agreed to compile additional information about westward expansion and the Whitman Mission before October 1987, to allow a final plan to be developed and the museum exhibits revised. It is important to note that the Harpers Ferry planners consider this museum one part of an entire interpretive program that includes the slide show, lobby displays, and wayside exhibits. This perception of the interpretive program influenced the original museum design and will influence its revision, as well. The overall goal is to create an interpretive program that acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of both the Whitmans and Cayuse and treats both the Whitmans and Cayuse as integral parts of, as the museum states, "One Great Story."

The visitors' experience has changed drastically at Whitman Mission over the last 46 years. From the makeshift storage shed-museum, to the new visitor center, to a sophisticated $200,000 museum exhibit, the visitor facilities and interpretive emphasis have changed although the story remains essentially the same.

The Whitman story has always sparked controversy. Ever since William H. Gray lauded Whitman a "noble and self-sacrificing martyr" (1874) and Edward Bourne lamented Whitman's "extra-ordinary growth of fame after death" (1901), the interpretive debate has raged. Significantly, the park was organized at a time in the debate when the Whitmans were viewed as "martyrs," "massacred" by the Indians. For years the language of this enabling legislation and its interpretation was taken for granted. The park's first two museums adhered closely to the legislation as did Interpretive Statements and other planning documents of the time. It was not until 1972, when "the Indian side of the story" became an issue, that the ramifications of this legislation were re-examined.

The influence of the Indian Freedom of Religion Act and the Civil Rights Act were among the factors that resulted in (1) a realization that the Cayuse needed to be included in the interpretive program and (2) an unwillingness to go too far in implementing this first objective. The 1976 goal, "to present a balanced interpretive program," [78] while admirable was incompatible with the standard interpretation of the park's legislation at that time. The Indian programs, although educational and enjoyable, seemed to deviate from the park's mandate to "memorialize" the Whitmans. Therefore, the Indian programs continued but were viewed in opposition to the legislative mandate rather than in harmony with the mandate.

By 1982, a broader interpretation of the legislative mandate gained acceptance. Native American participation was viewed as a necessary component of an interpretive program designed to meet the legislative demands. Basically, the definition of "the Whitman story" was broadened to mean not the Whitmans alone, but rather the Whitmans and Cayuse together. Thus, the new museum exhibits attempt to present a more complex and thought-provoking Whitman story than ever before.

By treating the park's enabling legislation as a flexible document, administrators have met the public need while remaining committed to the park goals. By remaining flexible, the interpretive theme will continue to meet the challenges of the future and remain relevant to all people.

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Last Updated: 02-Feb-2000