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The earliest museums in parks were not established by an act of Congress or a central authority, but grew organically from their context in place.  Initially, they were rudimentary -- a 1904 arboretum in Yosemite, a table of artifacts in the ruins at Casa Grande by 1905, and even a museum in a tent at Sequoia.  This strong association with place is a characteristic that continues to distinguish park museums and collections.  Stephen T. Mather, the first director, recognized the power of collections that are preserved and presented in their original context when, in 1920, he called for "early establishment of adequate museums in every one of our parks."  One of the world's largest museum systems has grown from these early beginnings.  More than 350 park units preserve over 105 million museum objects, specimens and archival items to tell the stories of the places where many of the most exciting events of American history, cultural experiences, and natural phenomena have taken place.

Although the first rudimentary NPS museums were often the inspiration of a single park employee, park museums did not sprout in a vacuum.  Partnerships were integral to the early establishment of full-fledged museums in national parks.  The influence of outside factors led to three lines of museum development -- in natural parks, archeological parks, and historical parks.

Early museum exhibits were part of the campaign to build public support for the national park idea.  In 1917, Director Mather arranged a special paintings exhibit of park landscapes by artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and J.H. Twachtman at the Smithsonian Institution.  Many of these paintings are now in park collections.  At the request of Director Mather, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution led an early effort to promote the idea that national parks themselves are "museums of Nature."

Early Museum Partners

Universities and outside museums conducted research that created some of the earliest botanical, zoological, and archeological collections from parks.  Historical associations often helped to develop exhibits and furnish historic structures.  As early as 1914 the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, began a study of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians of the Yosemite region.  In 1933, Congress established Morristown National Historical Park, acquiring the Ford Mansion (General George Washington's headquarters), which the Washington Association of New Jersey had operated as a museum for the previous 60 years.  This acquisition and a similar arrangement at George Washington Birthplace called for close collaboration with non-governmental organizations.  In partnership with the American Association of Museums and with funding from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, the NPS developed model park museums in Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks in the 1920s.  Museums in these parks are characteristic of developments in parks established as natural areas.

Early Museums:  Natural Parks

By 1915, Yosemite had established a museum in its crowded headquarters building with exhibits of mounted birds, mammals, pressed plants, and watercolor sketches.  In 1922, the park opened a museum in the former studio of the artist Chris Jorgensen with rooms devoted to thematic exhibits.  A model museum, supported by the American Association of Museums, opened in 1926 featuring exhibits on natural history, ethnology, and park history.  In 1926 and 1929 Yosemite opened branch museums at Glacier Point and in the Sierra Club Lodge at Tuolumne Meadows.  The Yosemite Museum Association, another partnership, was established in 1920 and became the first of many cooperating associations throughout the National Park Service to assist park museum operations.

By 1922, Yellowstone had opened a museum in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters at park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs. Exhibits illustrated botany, geology, paleontology, and zoology.  In partnership with the American Association of Museums, the park opened model branch museums at Old Faithful, Madison Junction, and Norris Geyser Basin in 1928-1930.  In 1931, the Fishing Bridge Museum opened, though it featured graphics more than specimens in its exhibits.

Grand Canyon opened the Yavapai Point Museum as a model museum that included an observation station.  With support from the American Association of Museums and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, John C. Merriam, the president of the Carnegie Institution, developed the museum.  He created a museum where the canyon was the exhibit and the museum housed viewing instruments, labels, and guided interpretation.  The model was so successful that a generation later it was deemed a classic example of interpretive planning in parks.  In 1930, Crater Lake, following this model, received one of the first Congressional appropriations to build a new museum and observation station, the Sinnott Memorial.

Early Museums:  Archeological Parks

In 1918, Mesa Verde converted a log cabin ranger station into a museum exhibiting prehistoric artifacts from the park's cliff dwellings and large panoramic photographs donated by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.  By 1925, the park built and opened the first section of a new museum with donated funds.  In the 1930s, funding from the Public Works Administration supported an extension to the Mesa Verde museum, and constructed numerous other museums throughout the national park system.  In 1923, Casa Grande moved its nascent museum exhibit in the ruins into a proper museum with exhibits, a library, maps, an office, and a file/storage room.  In the 1930s and 1940s Civilian Conservation Corps archeological projects at Ocmulgee, Yorktown, and Jamestown amassed large collections.  In 1938, Colonial National Historical Park erected a museum at Jamestown that included an archeological laboratory, collections storage, two small exhibit rooms to orient visitors to the site, and windows allowing the public to view the storage room and activities in the laboratory.  The 'visible' storage and laboratory exhibit must have been one of the earliest such examples in the country.

Early Museums:  Historical Parks

In 1917, when the National Park Service began operations, the system of 15 national parks and 21 national monuments included only four areas set aside primarily for their historical significance (excluding archeological parks).  These parks were Gran Quivira, Tumacacori, El Morro, and Sitka.  Only one historical area had a museum before 1930: Gran Quivira began developing a museum collection in 1925 and by 1929 had opened a modest operation.

In 1933, an executive order transferred to NPS monuments and parks under the jurisdiction of the War Department, including battlefields such as Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Kennesaw Mountain, Petersburg, and Shiloh; national monuments under the US Forest Service; as well as, parks and monuments in the National Capital Region.  In 1935, Congress passed the Historic Sites Act, directing the NPS to "restore, reconstruct, rehabilitate, preserve, and maintain historic or prehistoric sites, buildings, objects, and properties of national historical or archaeological significance" and "establish and maintain museums in connection therewith."  The number of historic sites in the system, and associated collections, increased rapidly.

Central Coordination and Leadership

The independent and geographically dispersed creation of early park museums soon led to the need to establish standards and coordinate development.  In 1929, NPS established a centralized Field Education Division at the University of California, Berkeley, which covered all park interpreters (i.e., guides and educators) and wielded considerable control over each park's interpretive personnel and program administration.  Carl P. Russell took a new position of "field naturalist-museum advisor" in the Division, becoming the first museum expert in a central support function.  In 1935 he became chief of the new Museum Division, which coordinated work at the Field Education Division, the new Interior Building Museum, a museum exhibits preparation laboratory at Morristown, New Jersey, (which moved to Ford's Theatre in 1936), and a model laboratory at Fort Hunt, Virginia. His influence led toward centralized rather than park-based exhibit design and production, which continues to this day.

The Harpers Ferry Center, established in 1968, in West Virginia, is now the only servicewide center providing exhibits and interpretive services.  These services include publications, wayside exhibits, audiovisual programs, museum exhibits, and historic furnishings.  The Center also provides interpretive planning, conservation of objects, audiovisual equipment repair, graphics research, replacement of wayside exhibits, and the revision and reprinting of publications.  The Denver Service Center, established in 1971, provides centralized services for designing and constructing museum facilities.

In 1934, NPS adopted a standard for a Museum Development Plan, closely linked with the evolving park Master Plan concept, which would guide the incorporation of museum functions and facilities into a park's total plan and operations.  These plans guided the New Deal public works programs that built many park museums and exhibits in the 1930s through the early 1940s, including Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Guilford Courthouse, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Morristown, Great Smoky Mountains, Hot Springs, Antietam, Fort McHenry, Mammoth Cave, Acadia, Aztec Ruins, Devils Tower, Scotts Bluff, Lassen Volcanic, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and Rocky Mountain.  A 1939 survey revealed that over the previous four years park museum operations had grown from 36 to 114 and the aggregate exhibit area exceeded that of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in Washington.  Similarly, in 1956, in response to a rapidly growing number of park visitors, the NPS launched a ten-year program, dubbed Mission 66, to build museums.  The new museums were called 'visitor centers' to emphasize the multiple visitor services offered.

Apart from planning and development of museum facilities and exhibits, there was a need to standardize and coordinate other aspects of museum operations.  In 1936, Ned J. Burns, who had coordinated the Morristown laboratory and production of the Interior Museum exhibits, replaced Russell as acting chief of the Museum Division, becoming chief in 1939.  In 1940, the NPS director issued guidance to define the proper scope of park museum collections and required standardized accession and catalog records. By 1941, Burns and his staff had published the Field Manual for Museums to guide parks in collections management consistent with professional standards and to standardize certain procedures and forms.  The 1955 passage of the Management of Museum Properties Act, authorizing donations, bequests, exchanges, and loans augmented the Historic Sites Act of 1935 in codifying the NPS museum functions.  In 1996, amendments to the museum act completed the authorities by adding transfer, conveyance, and destruction.

In 1957, NPS issued a Museum Records Handbook to address a problem of seriously inadequate museum records in parks.  Over the next eleven years additions to the handbook covered acquisition and care of collections, furnished historic structures, and exhibit maintenance and repair.  It was renamed the National Park Service Museum Handbook.  Ralph Lewis, who served as chief of the Museum Branch (1954-1964) and chief of the Branch of Museum Operations (1964-1971), revised and published the handbook in 1976 under the title Manual for Museums.  In 1984, NPS returned to the Museum Handbook title to issue revisions to the record keeping system, eventually issuing a complete revision and adding a new section on access and use of collections.  To address the need for detailed technical guidance on caring for collections, NPS initiated the Conserve O Gram series in 1975.

In 1970, the Museum Division moved to Harpers Ferry Center.  The Branch of Museum Operations became the Museum Services Division in 1973.  Arthur C. Allen was chief from 1974 until 1982 when a reorganization placed all functions, except conservation services, under a newly established Curatorial Services Division in Washington.  Allen and the regional curators had successfully argued for establishment of a Chief Curator under cultural resources management on the Director's staff.  Ann Hitchcock became Chief Curator in 1980 and managed the new division.

In the 1980s, the Service began annual assessments of the status of cataloging and preservation and protection conditions in exhibits and storage areas in parks.  The backlog of collections to be cataloged was far greater than previously assumed.  At the request of Congress, in 1987, the Chief Curator prepared a plan and cost estimate for improving the situation.  Congress responded by appropriating funds to address the cataloging backlog and improve preservation and protection conditions that continue to this day.  Concurrently, in 1988, the Service automated its cataloging system, calling it the Automated National Catalog System (ANCS).  A National Catalog office and vault had been established in 1977 to maintain archival copies of park museum catalog records and establish basic quality control.

Automation and new funding rapidly accelerated cataloging so that in two years, by 1989, parks cataloged more items than had been cataloged in the previous 85 years.  By 1998, ANCS had evolved into a total collections management system, called ANCS+, that supported not only cataloging, but also annual reporting of collections statistics, completion of a checklist on preservation and protection conditions, annual inventories, loans, deaccessions, conservation records, and housekeeping schedules.  With the advent of the Internet, Websites featuring park collections developed in the 1990s and a Web Catalog was established in 2002.  Although work continues to reduce the backlog, today the collections include 50 million cataloged items.

Park Staff and Regional Leadership

  Except for early efforts to centrally control park interpretive and museum staff, park superintendents have been accountable for park museum collections.  The duties of park curators have focused on collections management, rather than connoisseurship.  An ongoing problem has been the lack of staff with curatorial skills, especially when museum collections management was just one of many duties assigned to a park employee.  To help address this problem, a museum methods course was first offered in 1948 and continued to be offered in most years through the mid-1990s.  As of 2003, over 700 NPS employees have museum management responsibilities.  Over 50 percent have other primary duties.

  As the NPS grew, regional offices formed and took a leadership role in overseeing park museums operations.  In 1957, as part of a cataloging initiative, the regions recruited regional curators to assist parks.  Eventually, these positions became permanent, with occasional lapses.  These experienced curators were especially critical for parks that lacked full-time curators.  The regional curators, meeting in committees with park curators and curators in headquarters, played a critical role in ensuring that policies, procedures and servicewide initiatives addressed park museum collections management needs.  In 1995, the regional curators, chief curator, and representatives from centers formed the Museum Management Program Council, an advisory group to the associate director for cultural resources, in headquarters.

  Archeological centers, and more recently museum services centers, played another critical role in caring for park collections. In 1952, an archeological center was established in Globe, Arizona, to provide ruins stabilization in the Southwest and museum management support.  The Southeast Archeological Center has its origins at Ocmulgee in 1966, and serves similar purposes.  Subsequently, the Midwest Archeological Center, National Capital Region Museum Resource Center, and Northeast Museum Services Center were established.

The NPS Collections

Museum collections from over 350 units of the national park system are maintained in parks, at six NPS cultural resource centers, and at over 450 non-Federal repositories. These collections include 34.5 million archeological, 3.4 million historical, 1.9 million biological, 290,000 paleontological, 69,000 geological, and 28,000 ethnological objects and specimens, and 65.1 million archival and manuscript items. The collections include items ranging from historic furnishings in the home of John Adams, flags that flew over Fort Sumter, Thomas Edison's handwritten notes on inventions, to botanical specimens from Yosemite and archeological items from Mesa Verde. These museum collections are important not only in their own right, but also because of their direct association with the nationally significant sites in the national park system.

The parks that were established primarily for their natural history developed scientific collections early.  These nonrenewable collections document change in conditions, species, and habitat over time.  For example, the Yosemite collection has 50 specimens of the foothill yellow-legged frog, Rana boylii, which the Yosemite Field School collected in the 1930s.  This frog is now absent from the region.  The decline of frog and toad fauna is among the most serious and urgent conservation concerns in the Yosemite area.  In Everglades, a Florida cougar skull, collected solely for exhibit, later became important for its scientific value in helping to resolve taxonomic questions regarding the description of the subspecies Felis concolor coryi.

Parks encourage and permit scientists to collect specimens, which, if permanently retained and not consumed in analysis, become museum specimens.  Prior to 1984, many of these collections went to universities and non-NPS museums for storage, without adequate tracking by NPS.  New procedures, introduced in 1984, require that NPS catalog the specimens and manage them in NPS facilities, or place them on loan to non-NPS partners.  A servicewide initiative that began in 1999 to inventory natural resources in all parks accelerated the growth of natural history collections.  In spite of this growth, biological, paleontological, and geological collections represent only two percent of the total NPS museum collections.

By contrast, archeological collections, which also originate within the boundaries of parks, represent 33 percent of all NPS collections.  Sometimes these collections are made before a park is established and they go to other museums.  For example, the artifacts found by the Swedish scientist Gustaf Nordenskiold in 1891 at Mesa Verde are in the National Museum of Finland.  More often, NPS archeologists collect the artifacts as part of park-sponsored research or recovery and mitigation projects prior to construction or other actions that would destroy the site.  Nearly every park has at least some archeological collections from within its boundaries.  Collections may be "prehistoric" (from a cultural group without written history), such as those at Bandelier, or "historic," such as those at Jamestown, or a mixture, such as those at Pecos, where both prehistoric Native American and Spanish occupations were present.

Some historic collections are acquired nearly complete as part of the acquisition of property for the park.  For example, in 1946, when the Adams Memorial Society, donated the property for Adams National Historical Park, the home and library came fully furnished by the generations of the Adams family that had occupied the site for 139 years. Other situations require the park to research and identify those collections that should be acquired.  For years Martin Van Buren National Historic Site has tried to acquire the dining table that the President used in his home in Kinderhook, New York.  The park had made a replica, but efforts to acquire the original at auction have been unsuccessful to date.  Some historical objects are mundane, such as the kitchen tools at Grant-Kohrs Ranch; others have intrinsic national significance, such as the derringer that John Wilkes Booth used to shoot President Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln cane that Mary Todd Lincoln gave to Frederick Douglass after the President's death.  Yet, all are valued for their connection to the place where important events or cultural experiences occurred.

Ethnological collections include items acquired from living cultural groups, primarily Native Americans.  In 1976, the Jackson Hole Preserve donated the Vernon Collection of over 1,400 items from many tribes to Grand Teton National Park.  By contrast, collections at Nez Perce National Historical Park, authorized in 1965, focus on a single cultural group.

Early in its history, the NPS sought to place archival collections related to parks in other institutions.  This approach gradually changed.  The largest archival collection is at Edison, which includes business records, family papers, laboratory notebooks on experimental work, audio recordings, photographs, and motion pictures mostly donated by Edison businesses and the family between 1956 and 1968.  Another extraordinary archival collection is devoted to the photographs, landscape plans, and drawings associated with Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, established in 1979.  The archival collections at most parks include the records associated with resource management, including archeology, the sciences, and historic structure preservation. Archival collections are estimated to represent over 60 percent of the NPS collections, though more than half remain to be described and cataloged.

Ideas and Influence

The challenges of acquiring, documenting, preserving, interpreting, and providing access to more than 105 million items in over 350 parks in the national park system have called for big scale solutions to local problems.  New developments in national park museums have often had a ripple effect in the museum world.  For example, parks and other museums have benefited from the procedures, guidelines, and automated systems that NPS has developed.  The NPS Museum Handbook (and its precursors, the Field Manual for Museums and Manual for Museums) and Conserve O Gram have been adapted for use by other museums, cited by the AAM in its reference services, and used in museology programs.  They have been sold through the Government Printing Office and more recent publications have been made available on the Web.  When the Automated National Catalog System was developed for park museums, many small to mid-size museums adopted it as well.  The current customized off-the-shelf system is commercially available to other museums as the "National Park Service" version.  The Exhibit Conservation Guideline CD-ROM, with over 1,500 copies distributed, is an idea that took hold quickly in the 1990s and remains popular.  The 'visitor center' concept, pioneered by the National Park Service in the 1950s is now widespread in parks at local, state, and national levels.  NPS has exported ideas abroad, including interpretive planning concepts, the park brochure grid format, and the integration of exhibits and interpretive media in a visitor center.  The parks, and park museum collections, have been a testing ground for preservation ideas and strategies.

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Ann Hitchcock
Chief Curator
April 2004

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