Chapter 1


--Before NPS

--The Park Service Assumes Responsibility

--Interpretation Institutionalized

Chapter 2

--Branching Into History

--The Importance of Historical Interpretation

--Inagurating the Program

--Historical Challenges

Chapter 3

--New Directions

--Audiovisual Innovations

--Museums, Visitor Centers, and the New Look

--Living History

--Environmental Interpretation

--Women in Interpretation

--Other Agendas

Chapter 4

--Interpreting Interpretation

Chapter 5

--Interpretation In Crisis






--Branching Into History

--New Directions

--Interpreting Interpretation

--Interpretation in Crisis



by Barry Mackintosh


National park interpretation began with talks, guided hikes or tours, and museum exhibits. Technological advances, increased visitation, lack of interpretive staff, the desire for consistent presentation quality, and sometimes just the lure of novelty inspired a range of new media and techniques over the years. Some stood the test of time to become permanent ingredients of interpretive programming; others proved of transitory value.

Guided automobile caravans were initiated at Mesa Verde and Yosemite in 1929, at Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Sequoia the next year, and at some of the battlefield parks during the 1930s. The interpreter in the park car leading the procession sometimes broadcast to his followers via a rooftop loudspeaker. As auto traffic increased this method became unwieldy and was phased out. Two new interpretive alliances with private enterprise were tried in 1932: naturalists accompanied privately operated airplane flights over the Grand Canyon and deep sea fishing excursions at Acadia. [1]

Slides, motion pictures, sound recordings, and other audiovisual media became increasingly popular as electronic technology advanced. Films and recorded voices could supplement or substitute for in-person presentations and reach more visitors with messages of consistent quality. On the negative side, they were less personal and subject to breakdown.

Electric maps, with colored lights signaling military action and other historical events, were in use at Vicksburg National Military Park and Tumacacori National Monument in the early 1940s. At a 1947 historians' conference, Superintendent James R. McConaghie of Vicksburg demonstrated a portable electric map that his staff took to schools. A decade later lighted maps that visitors actuated by pushing buttons proliferated in historical park museums. Because children loved to play with them, they often entertained more than enlightened.

The Washington Monument had a recorded interpretive message in 1947. Superintendent McConaghie then proposed to install coin-operated record players at Vicksburg tour stops, without result. By 1950 Petersburg National Battlefield had a recording at The Crater; it was judged successful after its 10-minute play was shortened. [2]

In the mid-1950s visitor-activated audiovisual devices came into wide use. By 1963, 90 parks shared more than 100 audio stations using speakers or handphones and several dozen fully automatic movie and slide programs. Most of the latter used Admatic machines accommodating a number of slides and 10 minutes of narration. The Division of Interpretation in Washington recommended these for orientation, suggesting that programs begin with a reference to the National Park Service and include several slides showing a man in uniform helping visitors enjoy the park. In addition, modern projection and sound equipment was installed in 46 amphitheaters and campfire circles.[3]

Acoustiguides were adopted at the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in 1963. Eleanor Roosevelt did the narration for these portable audio devices carried by visitors; her reminiscences of the house and its occupants and guests made for outstanding interpretation. Ethel Roosevelt Derby, Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, later did the same for Acoustiguides in her father's home at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.

MISSION 66, a ten-year program to improve park facilities for the fiftieth anniversary of the Service in 1966, funded most of these advances. "In 1954 no national park had any automatic audio or audiovisual installation in operation," a 1963 progress report stated. "Now, in less than nine years, automatic audio-visual devices have become indispensable tools for communication with park visitors."[4]

The devices did not always communicate well or appropriately. On a trip through Region III (later the Southwest Region) in 1958, Donald J. Erskine, a naturalist who would later head the Service's audiovisual branch in Washington, found that only Big Bend National Park had no mechanical problems with its Admatic. Erskine also sounded a note of caution about the bandwagon tendency he perceived: "There is some danger that those doing interpretive planning may become so enthusiastic about audio-visual devices that they will attempt to use them in situations where they are not really needed. We must recognize that personal service is almost always best and that in some situations 'silence is golden.'"[5]

Ironically, when the planners of interpretation for Fort Davis National Historic Site resisted the tendency Erskine feared, top Service management criticized their prospectus for its "complete absence of av interpretive devices" and suggested an audiovisual program in the visitor center and a few audio stations along the tour route. [6] At Fort Caroline National Memorial the tendency was not resisted. Because one of the Huguenots who came to the short-lived Florida outpost in 1564 had played spinet back in France, a specimen of that 16th-century keyboard instrument was procured for the visitor center and a button-actuated recording of a similar instrument entertained park visitors. Bugle calls, frontier forts and dialect voices at certain sites of ethnic distinction exemplified more effective and appropriate audio applications during the 1960s.

In 1958 the Division of Interpretation became interested in "sound and light," the dramatic medium used at several historic monuments in Europe including Versailles and the Chateau of Chambord. Ronald Lee, its chief, received French sound and light entrepreneurs the following year and began planning for installations at Independence National Historical Park, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, Fort McHenry National Monument, and San Juan National Historic Site. The Fort HcHenry plans were shelved and those for San Juan deferred, but Independence and Castillo de San Marcos had shows ready for the summer of 1962.

The Castillo program, produced and operated under concession contract by the Sound and Light Corporation of America, featured the voices of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Ralph Bellamy and music by Bernard Green performed by members of the New York Philharmonic. The installation required 294 lights, 64 stereo speakers, more than 15 miles of cable, and seating for 750. Because of the need to minimize the visual impact of the installation during the daytime, much of the equipment had to be mounted before each performance and removed afterward. Adult viewers were charged $1.50 and children 75 cents. The program was judged reasonably successful from an interpretive standpoint, but its high operating cost and inconsistent patronage led to its demise in 1965. [7]

"The American Bell, " the program focusing on Independence Hall, was written by Archibald MacLeish, narrated by Frederic March, and accompanied by music composed and conducted by David Amram with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Lumadrama, Inc., the producer and concessioner, ran the show for the same admission charged by the Castillo operator. The program was criticized for attributing undue significance to the Liberty Bell. Because it was too costly to install the lights and speakers for each performance, they were left to clutter Independence Square. Even so, the operator lost money with the inadequate paid attendance. The Park Service took over the program and operated it free until 1984, when maintenance and replacement of the obsolete equipment was no longer feasible.[8]

While regional director in the Philadelphia office, Ronald Lee urged Lumadrama to do a sound and light program at Gettysburg in 1963, but the company was already losing its enthusiasm for the medium and declined. Ford's Theater National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., was next to try it: in 1968 the Service gave Guggenheim Productions a $300,000 contract to design, produce, and install a program in the theater. It opened July 21, 1970, to good reviews, but it was costly to operate and its equipment became obsolete and difficult to maintain. It was discontinued in September 1974 and replaced the following summer with "informances," a series of skits performed under contract by University of Maryland drama students depicting lifestyles, personalities, and attitudes during Lincoln's era. Sound and light finally came to San Juan National Historic Site in 1976, installed by a French company at the behest of Puerto Rico's tourism bureau. High maintenance costs and poor attendance led to its demise within a year. [9]

Another audiovisual extravaganza was planned for the bicentennial fair of 1976 in Washington, where the Service converted Union Station to the National Visitor Center. In the middle of its grand concourse was dug a great Pit into which the expected hordes would descend and view PAVE--the Primary Audio-Visual Experience. PAVE involved 100 Carousel projectors behind 100 screens beaming a "Welcome to Washington" program--overwhelming triumph of medium over message. The hordes did not come, National Visitor Center folded after five years, and the primary legacy of PAVE was 100 surplus Carousels.

The bicentennial prompted another advance in electronic interpretation at Independence National Historical Park. As part of the development at Franklin Court, site of Benjamin Franklin's home, some 50 telephones were provided on which visitors could dial various historical figures for their opinions of Franklin. The voices were recorded on 100 Labelle Playmatic message repeaters. The bicentennial development at Franklin Court was visually remarkable for its "ghost" reconstruction of Franklin's house; because evidence for a traditional reconstruction was lacking, only the envelope of the house was outlined with steel members. The responsible architectural firm, Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, won an American Institute of Architects honor award for the Franklin Court design.

Bicentennial improvements at Kings Mountain National Military Park, South Carolina, incorporated yet another imaginative technique. The battle there pitted American loyalists against revolutionaries. To portray this civil strife in the new park visitor center, groups of figures representing each side were placed at opposite ends of the exhibit room and engaged in a recorded argument. "Unfortunately, the exhibit did not work," a historian of the park has reported. "The shouting match between the loyalists and the patriots confused visitors. The exhibit's audio system began automatically as visitors walked into the room. The audio and visual portions of the exhibit were rarely synchronized. One part of the story would be playing on the tape, while the lights would be directed to a different part of the room."[10] The idea was good, but as sometimes happened with audiovisual innovations, technological shortcomings proved its undoing.

In 1975 the national parks had a total of 707 audiovisual programs. [11] Beyond increasing that total, the bicentennial prompted numerous other interpretive developments and activities. "Interpretive programs in all parks should incorporate special Bicentennial activities during the year," the Service wide goals for interpretation for 1976 stated.[12] The Mid-Alantic Regional Office in Philadelphia produced and distributed throughout the System a Bicentennial Daybook, providing a day-by-day account of significant events during the revolutionary period. The Harpers Ferry Center sponsored two traveling plays, "We've Come Back for a Little Look Around" and "People of '76," that portrayed figures of the Revolution. "Playlets" depicting episodes of the period were held in the unfurnished rooms of the restored Thomas Nelson House in the Yorktown portion of Colonial National Historical Park. All revolutionary battlefield parks held special observances on the 200th anniversaries of their battles, culminating at Yorktown in 1981.



Last Modified: July 9, 2000 09:35:00 pm PST

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