U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
V. PLANNING FOR INTERPRETATION
Anyone can start the process. Maybe an owner who has just restored a house is hoping to find others interested in saving his neighborhood. Perhaps a Main Street manager is seeking ways to attract new businesses. A federal agency wants to use one of its historic installations to call attention to the importance of its mission, both historically and today. Representatives of an African American church want to ensure that their contributions to the life of their city are remembered and valued. Owners of a building restored with the Federal Investment Tax Credit are looking for ways to attract tenants and to call attention to a project in which they take great pride. A volunteer historian simply wants to share with other members of the community the fascinating stories uncovered in doing the research necessary for nominating a neighborhood to the National Register of Historic Places.
Interpretation can help any of these individuals or groups achieve their goals. The first step is planning. Effective interpretation requires thought and study. Whether decisions are made in an office, a board room, or around a kitchen table, it is important to take the time to ask a few questions and record the answers. Consider the nature of the story you have to tell and the audience or audiences you hope to serve. Determine what you can afford, in dollars, in people, and in time. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of each type of interpretation before selecting the one or ones you want to use. Interpretive planning leads to effective programs.
The following questions all need to be addressed:
1. What is the property you want to interpret? What stories does it have to tell? Is it the story of one specific place, or is it inextricably linked to with a wider area? What is its history? Research has already documented the history of some places. In other cases oral tradition records only the name of the person who may have built a house and the date it was constructed. Before deciding on how to interpret a story, you must know what story you are interpreting.
Who are the people who contributed to that history? Whose history are you trying to tell? People are always at the center of the stories of historic places. It is particularly important that all the people whose lives are intertwined around a historic place be included, not just the social elite that has so often been the focus of traditional history. Diversity is not new. Interpretive programs that confine the cast of characters to white males fail to reveal the rich textures of history. As with any happening in the news today, different eyes witnessed different pasts and multiple viewpoints come closer to telling the whole truth than any one individual's story could do. The answer is to find out as much as possible about all the participants in the history of the property. Allow historical characters to speak for themselves through letters, diaries, and oral histories.
Do not be afraid to deal with controversial issues. Controversy has always been a part of life. Interpretation that avoids difficult subjects presents an unrealistic and ultimately uninteresting view of the past. Because controversial topics like slavery are sensitive and even painful for many people, interpretation of the places associated with these themes must be planned carefully to ensure that the lessons they impart are not drowned out by their emotional impact. At Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, and other historic places in the South, interpreters openly address both the impact of enslavement on blacks and whites and the strength of the communities that slaves created for themselves within the confines of plantation culture. These programs and, more importantly, the interpreters who created them, can offer guidance to others who plan to address difficult subjects.
Case Study 2. Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County, VA (designated a National Historic Landmark on October 7, 1960)
In 1995, the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association sponsored the first Stratford Hall Plantation Seminar on Slavery, designed to help secondary school teachers incorporate the history of African American slavery into their classrooms. Funded through a variety of sources, the seminars bring 30 teachers to live for two weeks at Stratford Hall. Participants work with historians in the field of slavery through lectures, discussions, readings and research projects. The reconstructed slave quarters, the outbuildings and work areas, even the plan and design of the main house at Stratford, help seminarians appreciate the conditions under which slaves lived and worked. As the announcement for the 1999 seminar stated "the emotional . . . nature of the subject matter will challenge the participants to confront both themselves and one another, so that the history of slavery can be presented with honesty, fairness, and sensitivity in their classrooms."
As one of the field trips included in the 1999 seminar, participants visited Colonial Williamsburg to attend the "The Other Half" program, which tells the story of African Americans in the former Colonial capital of Virginia. An opportunity to tend tobacco in a plot next to the reconstructed slave quarters at Carter's Grove Plantation was a powerful experience for one of the attendees: "Although the exercise was brief, the 95-degree day with the humidity of Virginia gave seminarians a far greater taste of the brutal physical labor of slavery than they could have gained in the library."
It is in the research phase of planning that National Register documentation can make perhaps its most useful contribution. Individuals preparing National Register nominations document the entire history of a property. They then must place that history within a broader context in order to evaluate the property's importance. This context can help determine whether the story to be interpreted should be that of one building, a neighborhood, a community, a state, or a region linked by a historic roadway, river, or other transportation corridor. The people who prepared the nominations may be happy to assist in planning interpretive programs, and may even be willing to do additional research to ensure that interpretation tells the whole story. Maps and photographs, particularly historic photographs, which sometimes are included with nominations, can be helpful. The bibliography included in every nomination can lead to additional sources of information.
Other parts of the National Register archives also can help enrich the stories interpreted to the public. The National Register Information System (NRIS), the nation's largest database of significant historic properties, can search listings by geography, resource type, ownership, architectural style, significant person, architect, historic and current function, construction materials, and areas or periods of significance. The NRIS can identify like properties within the same county or state and can locate properties in other parts of the country that are related to the same historical theme or period. A mill village in New England might be compared with a cotton textile factory and its related housing in Tennessee. Nominations for 18th-century German traditional houses in Pennsylvania might provide background for a late 19th-century German farmstead in Wisconsin.
Multiple Property Submissions (MPS), which nominate groups of properties tied together by a single theme, can also be invaluable in providing a broad context for an individual property. That information is found in the multiple property form's "statement of historic contexts" narrative. For example, the background documentation for an MPS from Pennsylvania contains a comprehensive history of changes in technology, management, and labor practices in the state's iron and steel industry.8 While some material is specific to Pennsylvania, much of this rich documentation can be adapted to related properties anywhere in the United States. The multiple property form's extensive bibliography provides a good starting place for additional research. This particular form also reproduces many historic views of factories and processes, which could be easily adapted to interpretation of iron and steel-related properties anywhere.
Although National Register nominations often can provide much of the information necessary for interpretation, this will not always be the case. Check the date of the nomination, look over the bibliography, and explore any recent research. Consult scholars to identify the latest published works on related topics. Ask whether social historians have suggested alternative ways to approach the traditional stories. Sometimes the need to ensure that interpretation tells a more complete story will require additional research. Volunteers working with someone who is experienced in historical research often can do the necessary work. Students at local colleges, high schools, or even primary schools might enjoy working on the history of a place as part of a class project. Even if it is necessary to pay professional historical consultants, the better interpretation that results will be well worth the investment.
2. Which of these stories should be the focus of interpretation? What are the interpretive themes? After all the details are forgotten, what do you hope will be remembered? What ideas do you want visitors to take away with them? The research you have conducted in order to answer Question 1 has probably uncovered many stories. Some of the people associated with the place were significant in a broader context and some were not. Some of the stories are supported by reliable evidence and some are not. Some illustrate important historic topics and themes and some do not. Condense the history you have discovered into one or two short sentences. These will form the themes on which effective interpretation will focus. Never forget that information and facts, construction dates and architects are the raw materials. Patterns and themes, connections and meaning are the interpretation. Make sure that the message looks behind the data. Always ask, "So what?" and "Why is it important that people know that?"
As you seek to identify the meaning of your property, move beyond what makes your place "unique." Identify ties with other sites. Avoid being satisfied with easy answers provided by chronology. Is it enough to simply describe a site as a Civil War battlefield, even as the bloodiest or longest battle? Think about the meaning of the Civil War itself--preservation of the Union, the rights of southern planters or enslaved African Americans to control their own lives. What does a presidential site tell about leadership and the values and experiences that define that elusive quality? What does a coal mine or textile factory tell about entrepreneurial risk-taking or respect for human labor? Without becoming simplistic, describe the essence of the story and think about how the search for that essence continues.
Here, too, National Register documentation can be useful. Each nomination should contain a paragraph summarizing what is most important about a historic place, must assign that importance to what is called an "area of significance," and must explain in a narrative why the property is important in that context. This information can be helpful in selecting a focus for interpretation. Nominations also identify the time period associated with the importance of the property. This "period of significance" can be invaluable in defining a temporal focus.
3. What audience(s) do you hope to reach? Who is likely to be interested in your historic place? Do you hope visitors will come to you or will you take your story to them? Think about demographics--age, gender, place of residence, etc. Do you hope to encourage local bus groups, school groups, or family groups? Local support is important and programs designed specifically for neighbors can have positive benefits. Each of these groups has special needs which you will have to respect if you wish your message to be effective. Many programs related to historic properties are designed for and appeal only to those already interested in history, historic structures, and architecture. If you want to reach out to new audiences and build support among new constituents, plan programs for existing supporters and for new friends.
Case Study 3. Chippiannock Cemetery, Rock Island County, IL (listed in the National Register on May 6, 1994)
The 1855 Chippiannock Cemetery, in Rock Island, Illinois, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a good example of a mid-19th century "rural cemetery," complete with Gothic Revival Sexton's House and 19th and early 20th century cemetery markers ranging from simple Victorian obelisks to Classical Revival mausoleums. Volunteers from the Rock Island Preservation Commission, Chippiannock Cemetery Association, and local community theaters celebrated the occasion with a three-hour presentation, "Epitaphs Brought to Life." At 15 carefully chosen grave sites, costumed actors briefly revived the Rock Island personalities buried there. Over 600 people of all ages attended, including many who did not usually come to events relating to historic preservation. Refreshments were donated by a local market. Not only did the program cost nothing, it actually ended up raising $900 from the $2 admission charge. The event, which received an award from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, has been repeated every year since, with different characters (merchants, bankers, inventors, African American Civil War heroes, exemplary women, and even a mass murderer), different grave markers, and different presentations.
Jill Doak, one of the organizers, had some useful advice for anyone considering this kind of event:
- educate actors about the significance of the site so they can answer questions between vignettes.
One of the wisest investments you can make is the creation of an educational program for school groups and home-school students. Students, after all, are the next generation of visitors and supporters for preservation. They also influence the involvement of parents. As a result of recent educational reforms, teachers are actively looking for ways to supplement textbooks with experiential, community-based learning. They eagerly welcome lessons at or about historic sites, including both field studies and classroom materials.
Many children visit historic properties with family groups. As every parent knows, bored kids destroy vacations for everyone, including unlucky fellow visitors. Intergenerational interpretation designed for the whole family can appeal to both the children and their parents, creating a successful visit that is likely to be repeated. Children respond well to story-telling, hands-on activities and publications written specifically for them. More and more historic places are using "touch it" displays, including reproductions of historic games, toys, and period clothing. These reproductions sometimes are readily available and not too expensive. Demonstrations of skills or processes relating to the theme of the property keep hands and minds occupied. It is important to take the time to develop programs that respect children's abilities and give them freedom to learn on their own.
While most educational programs concentrate on primary or secondary schools, colleges and schools of education can be another potential audience. Demonstrating how historic places can be used to teach can help train teachers of the future to see historic places either in their communities or farther away as resources they can use in their classrooms. Increased emphasis on experiential learning means that many colleges are looking for new ways to provide students with real life experiences. Community service now forms part of the curriculum for many high-school and college students.
Case Study 4. Swart-Wilcox House, Otsego County, New York (listed in the National Register, June 11, 1990)
In the late 1980s, four elementary school teachers and their students in Oneonta, New York, adopted the 1807 Swart-Wilcox House, the oldest surviving building in the town, that stood, badly deteriorated, within view of one of their schools. The teachers organized themselves into the Swart-Wilcox Committee and worked closely with the New York state historic preservation office to prepare a National Register nomination for the house. They then applied for and received grant funding to prepare a historic resource study that was used as the basis for an accurate restoration. Grant funding also was used to develop imaginative curriculum-based educational materials using the house, including a song and a miniature golf course. The students have been involved in every stage of this long-term project--even wearing hard hats to inspect the restoration as it progressed. At the dedication of the house following its listing in the National Register, costumed students served as tour guides. Parents and grandparents, state and city politicians, and one substantial local contributor joined the enthusiastic audience.
Think about adult audiences for educational programs as well. Groups interested in themes relating to your historic place, such as Civil War Roundtables, might appreciate a seminar series. Elderhostel groups are always looking for educational experiences. They enjoy travel and are often eager to visit historic sites. Local groups and organizations welcome speakers at their meetings and might enjoy special tours, presentations, or other activities. Sites that succeed in gaining the interest of these groups have also gained potential supporters and allies.
A recent survey showed that almost half of the 104 million U.S. adults taking family vacations planned to visit historic sites. Perhaps you hope to attract some of these people. Check with those who make tourism their business--local chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus, for example. What information do they have on visitors to the area? Other local attractions may have data on visitation that they would be willing to share.
4. What do you want interpretation to achieve? Remember that the interpretation of historic places seeks to help visitors understand the place and make connections between the past and the present. Its long-term goal is an understanding of the importance of places as documents of the past, ultimately leading to the creation of a sense of stewardship.
Perhaps the immediate goal is to educate members of your local community about who or what you are. Perhaps your organization has stated goals. How can interpretation address them? Maybe there is a need to protect a landscape or archeological site, which is vulnerable to damage because its significance is simply not known. Interpreters at many historic properties struggle to change stereotypical romanticized views of their site, story, or time period. Antebellum plantations were not bastions of hoop skirts and parasols. Slaves, the source of the wealth that built the "big house," were not invisible.
What memories do you want to create? Are there experiences that you can provide that will reinforce your stories? Perhaps you will decide that words are a poor substitute for a short walk across a battlefield where many men fought and died. Machines in motion, producing inhuman sounds, might do more to explain working conditions than a lengthy dissertation. Think about how you can use each of the senses effectively. Whenever appropriate, consider hands-on activity, well-conceived to offer your audience the gift of experience.
Finally, consider what you want visitors to do. What actions do you hope your audience will take, either right away or, perhaps more importantly, after they return home? Are you creating new constituents who will attend public meetings and support preservation? Do you need additional volunteers? Will landlords and shopkeepers begin to look with different eyes at proposals to revitalize Main Street? Will ethnic groups share more of their heritage with and feel more a part of the broader community? Will teachers begin using your place in their classrooms? Will school children bring their parents to special events? Will foundations or governments approve grants? Will tourists bring in new sources of revenue to local businesses?
5. Where can you find the money, people, and space to support an interpretation program? Does your organization have a budget that can cover all or part of the cost? Are there local organizations or individuals that can provide monetary support?
What potential partners are available to donate goods or services to help develop interpretive programs? To what extent can you rely on volunteers?
Do you have space available that can serve as a meeting place, where interpreters could be trained, visitors welcomed, exhibits displayed, audio-visual materials shown, and publications sold? Can space be found elsewhere in the area?
Cooperation has enriched many programs. Develop a support network and share talent. Other organizations that already have successful programs are often willing to share training, cooperate in presenting seminars and workshops, or even set up employee exchanges. If a contractor is going to be doing some of the work, other places with interpretive programs can provide invaluable advice. Satisfied customers are happy to share information about the people who made them happy.
6. What interpretive techniques make the most sense for your property, given the answers to questions 1-5? Now you know what you want to accomplish, what groups will benefit from your labor, and what resources you have available. In effect you have a set of blueprints for the tasks you face. Look at the interpretive tools described in the next section, with their advantages and disadvantages. Take the time to consider the full range of options before deciding on the most effective interpretive technique for your place. Demonstrating the process of operating a printing press is not the best way to interpret a story about the power of a free press. Resist the temptation to create an audio-visual program simply on the basis of a wonderful video or slide program you saw on vacation last year. Similarly, the fact that some of the best known historic sites dress interpreters in period clothing does not mean that costuming necessarily makes sense for your property. Match the medium to the message, the management goals, and the audience(s). Make sure the program you select is appropriate, given the nature of your property and the available resources. Talk to historians, interpreters at local historic sites, teachers, and others to help ensure that the medium you select does not leave out essential parts of the story.
Selecting media for interpreting archeological sites requires special care. Sites are fragile. Tours are often inappropriate. Even signs may cause permanent damage. In many cases, there is little or nothing visible above ground. Artifacts, foundations, and even whole buildings are still below the earth's surface or have been removed following excavation. Even if ruins are visible, the original appearance of the building or structure may be hard for visitors to visualize. Some ruined churches interpret their stories by holding religious services there on special occasions. Archeological sites sometimes interpret the process by which archeologists learn about places. They invite the public to watch, or even participate in, excavations as they occur. This technique can be particularly effective in urban settings, attracting many visitors and considerable publicity.
Case Study 5. Lowry Ruin, Montezuma County, CO (designated a National Historic Landmark on July 19, 1964)
Through simulation, visitors can climb ladders to rooms in Lowry, examine apparently three-dimensional artifacts, and see how food was prepared, both in the past and in the present. A narrator tells about seasonal activities in the pueblo and the symbolism of the murals in the ceremonial kiva. Videos present messages emphasizing the importance of preserving ruins like Lowry. In a virtual archeologist's tent, visitors can select video interviews with the project's Pueblo advisors, look at photo albums and field notes from an excavation in progress, and determine the period of an artifact through tree-ring dating.
Remember that what you are choosing is a place to start. No single medium is going to reach everyone. The long-term goal is a mix of materials to appeal to all the audiences you hope to reach and to suit a variety of learning styles. Be patient and consider all the options, but don't be afraid to experiment. Selecting the mix of media that is best for your site, your audience, and your message is the heart of the interpretive planning process.
7. Can you actually accomplish what you are hoping to do? Is the plan that is evolving really practical? What will the interpretation cost in terms of both people and dollars? Can you afford it? Cost estimates are not impossible to obtain, if you find the right people to ask. Exchange information. Just like any other project, it pays to shop around to get the best price.
If it turns out you can't afford the interpretive program you have selected, do not be discouraged. Take heart in the knowledge that other places are facing the same difficult decisions. Look for a way to start moving towards your long-term goal. Many a successful interpretive program began with one oral history project, one newspaper article, or one special event.
8. How do you ensure that your plan is carried out? Which tasks should be undertaken right away and which ones should be considered long-term goals? Who will be responsible? When will the work be finished? Keep a written record of the answers to these questions and the decisions made. Create a simple action plan. List those tasks that you have decided to implement down one side of a page and then identify who will be responsible for the each task on the other. Include deadlines.
A plan should also include some way to evaluate the effectiveness of the interpretive program once it is put in place. Include evaluation forms or postcards with materials you distribute or sell. Collect brief questionnaires after tours. Check license plates on vehicles in parking lots at special events. Such measures help validate, or cast doubt on, general impressions formed in the course of visitor contact. Ask your visitors a few simple questions. Where did they come from? How long are they staying? How did they hear about your program? What did they like about it? What didn't they like? What other places have they visited in the area? And, of course, pay attention to attendance, still one of the most powerful forms of evaluating either content or publicity. If a more scientific approach is needed, contact a local college and ask for help in designing a survey.
Periodically recheck the plan and make sure that it is moving ahead. If things change, revise it. The worst thing you can do is ignore new conditions and new ideas and allow all of your work and analysis to become outdated. If a program doesn't accomplish all that you hoped, it can be modified or replaced with something better based on what you have learned.
Interpretive plans need not be elaborate. Anyone can follow logical steps, answer the questions posed in this bulletin, and develop a short, straightforward plan. With a plan in hand, the emphasis shifts from continually trying to figure out what to do to actually doing it. Actions become proactive rather than reactive. Potential donors recognize organization and are likely to be more generous. A sense of direction emerges and individuals know what is expected; with that knowledge they can be empowered to act.
8 Iron and Steel Resources in Pennsylvania MPS
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