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

--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

Museum Visitor Centers, and the New Look

Government spending for Depression relief under the New Deal beginning in 1933 enabled much park museum construction, an activity previously supported almost entirely by private philanthropy. By 1939 the National Park System contained 76 museums, about one-third with permanent exhibits in permanent buildings. In addition, there were then 37 furnished historic structures, including houses and fort buildings, classed as historic house museums. [13]

In 1935 a Museum Division was established in the Service's Washington office under Assistant Director Harold C. Bryant's Branch of Research and Education. Carl P. Russell initially headed the division, followed by Ned J. Burns in 1936. In his Field Manual for Museums, published by the Service in 1941, Burns outlined the special role of park museums:

While park museums perform the same general functions as other museums, they have a special character of their own .... Since the museum is interpreting the park, its main exhibits are concerned with the park features and such phenomena outside its boundaries as may be pertinent. The formal exhibits in the museum building are merely explanatory devices to make clear the natural and historical exhibits outside. In a sense the park as a whole may be regarded as an exhibit and the museum as an explanatory label. This concept underlies all park museum work.[14]

In a few cases, however, museums were developed in memorial or other park units lacking intrinsic natural or historic resources illustrating their subject matter. One, defined by Burns as "the largest and most complex historical museum project to be undertaken by the museum division," was the Museum of Westward Expansion at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. Assigned to the division in 1938, the project did not get underway until the 1960s. A historical research team under William C. Everhart then supplied content to John Jenkins, who completed a general layout plan in 1961 fitting more than 200 exhibits under 12 thematic units related to the westward movement.[15] The museum, relating only symbolically to the site, lies beneath Eero Saarinen's dramatic Gateway Arch. Other Service museums serving as attractions in themselves rather than "explanatory labels" for their locations include the American Museum of Immigration in the base of the Statue of Liberty and the National Maritime Museum at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

The design and production of museum exhibits required special facilities and talent. Exhibit preparation for eastern parks was carried on at Fort Hunt, south of Alexandria, Virginia, from 1934 to 1938; then at Ford's Theatre in Washington to January 1948, the war years excepted; then back at Fort Hunt for eight months; then at a garage at 21st and L streets, Northwest, in Washington to March 1953; then at a temporary building on the National Mall where the National Air and Space Museum now lies until September 1966; then in commercial space in Springfield, Virginia, until 1970. Exhibits for the western parks were prepared at the Field Division of Education at Berkeley, California, which became the Western Museum Laboratory in 1937. Dorr G. Yeager, formerly chief naturalist at Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks, then headed the facility as assistant chief of the Museum Division and supervised a staff of about 200 (most hired with New Deal emergency funding). Like its eastern counterpart, the Western Museum Laboratory expired during World War II; it was not revived until September 1957 for MISSION 66. It then occupied the old U.S. Mint until 1968, when its remaining exhibit production function moved east to temporary quarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Two years later the consolidated museum laboratory occupied the new Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry, its current home.[16]

The perception of park museums as explanatory labels for their parks tended to a narrative approach in exhibit design. This was especially true in historical parks interpreting "stories" or sequences of events. Museums in such parks through the mid-1960s commonly attempted to narrate the park stories through exhibits, heavy with text, laid out in sequential fashion--even while the stories might also be told in publications, films, talks, and other media.

This "book on the wall" syndrome came under attack in 1964, when George B. Hartzog, Jr., became Service director. Hartzog appointed a Museum Study Team composed of William S. Bahlman, chief of the Management Analysis Division; John B. Cabot, an architect; Harold L. Peterson, a historian-curator; and Assistant Regional Director I. J. (Nash) Castro of the National Capital Region. Its report, approved by Hartzog on March 31, called for a reordering of interpretive media. Museum exhibits would no longer be the primary medium backing up personal contacts; instead, "The narrative story should, generally, be presented through publications and audiovisual means."[17]

Rather than narrating, exhibits would serve to engage the entering visitor's interest with intrinsically visual materials like artifacts, artwork, and photographs in discrete displays. Acting Chief Wayne W. Bryant of the Division of Interpretation and Visitor Services explained the new approach in a memorandum drafted by Marc Sagan, a rising star among the Service's interpretive planners:

The usual reluctance to omit part of a story from a presentation in any medium stems from the fear that some visitors may miss some of the story. They will, despite our plans. We cannot assume the responsibility to give everyone every bit of the message in a complete flowing sequence. Visitors are going to "window shop" and sample our wares regardless of our approach. We therefore propose to put only the finest exhibit subjects into our introductory displays ....
...When we try to combine introduction with enrichment in one exhibit series, we produce a clutter that doesn't whet the appetite ...it discourages, it looks like work, it's heavy. Our first job as interpreters is to stimulate interest. We must drop our compulsion to tell the complete story through exhibits if we are to achieve a new look or, more important, if we are to improve our communication with visitors.[18]

The new role of exhibits as introductory rather than narrative was stimulated by the visitor center concept, a major contribution of MISSION 66. Whereas park museums were viewed as supplemental to the visitor experience, visitor centers--multiple use facilities emphasizing orientation--were seen as integral to it. According to the MISSION 66 prospectus published in January 1956,

The Visitor Center is the hub of the park interpretive program. Here trained personnel help the visitor start his trip and with the aid of museum exhibits, dioramas, relief models, recorded slide talks, and other graphic devices, help visitors understand the meaning of the park and its features, and how best to protect, use, and appreciate them .... Many parks lack visitor centers today, and a substantial portion of park visitors, lacking these services, drive almost aimlessly about the parks without adequate benefit and enjoyment from their trips ....
[O]ne of the most pressing needs for each area is the visitor center .... [19]

Before MISSION 66 there were only three visitor centers, so called, in the National Park System: one at Grand Canyon National Park and two at Colonial National Historical Park. By 1960 56 visitor centers had been opened or authorized. By 1975 the Service operated 281 visitor centers.[20] Some were former museums retitled as such. Some were historic buildings or other existing structures adapted, in whole or part, to the new purpose. Some housed administrative offices and even maintenance facilities along with their visitor service areas.

Ideally, visitor centers were designed and located to attract most park visitors and overlook significant park resources while not competing unduly with the resources for visitor attention nor intruding visually upon them. This difficult challenge was often met successfully; sometimes it was not. In some parks lacking intrinsic values, such as those established to commemorate persons or events leaving no physical traces, new visitor centers with their interpretive media properly served as the primary attractions. The facilities at Coronado and DeSoto national memorials, commemorating explorers who had traversed their general vicinities, exemplified this role. In some other parks with significant but relatively subtle resources, prominent visitor centers overpowered what should have been the focus: visitors might spend more time in them than viewing the features for which the parks were established.

The notion that every park needed a visitor center was clearly misguided. Some parks spoke very well for themselves; others, including most historic house areas, were best interpreted via personally conducted or self-guided tours with only the simplest on-site exhibits or labels. Unfortunately, a number of visitor centers--requiring costly staffing, energy consumption, and maintenance--were building such areas before the lesson was learned. "Today we are shifting emphasis away from building more centers that may, in fact, impinge on a visitor's limited time in a park to onsite, outdoor facilities and services that more directly relate to park resources," reported William W. Dunmire, chief of the Interpretation Division, in 1975. [21] The shift came too late for the new visitor center at Independence National Historical Park, where a rich array of historic buildings was sufficient to consume the attention of most visitors, and for Service involvement with the National Visitor Center in Washington, also being readied for the bicentennial year of 1976. (The National Visitor Center, intended to orient visitors to the National Capital but largely ignored by them during its five years of existence, ranks as perhaps the greatest fiasco in Service history.) As late as 1982 a superfluous, intrusive visitor center was completed on the grounds of the Frederick Douglass Home in Washington, a property requiring only good conducted tours through the furnished house to convey its significance. In such cases visitor center construction reflected a lack of confidence in personal interpretive services as compared to exhibitry and audiovisual media--the latter transmitting consistent if impersonal messages--and perhaps the tendency of the institution to publicize its presence.

The "new look" in museum design initiated in 1964 was part of a general reform of Service interpretation advanced by George Hartzog's chief of interpretation, William C. Everhart. (While superintendent of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Hartzog had been impressed with Everhart's work there and named him to the Washington post when he became director.) If exhibits were not to tell the whole story, closer coordination among the several media planners would be needed. Hartzog and Everhart reorganized and geographically consolidated the Division of Interpretation and Visitor Services to bring this about and made significant new appointments to modernize the Service's exhibitry, publications, and audiovisual production.

Carl G. Degen was hired from the Protestant Radio-TV Center in Atlanta to head the new Branch of Motion Pictures and Audiovisual Services, giving the Service its own motion picture capability for the first time. In the next years the branch would produce some highly creative films, like that for Booker T. Washington National Monument using a collage technique and that for Fort Frederica National Monument using actors amid the excavated foundation ruins of that site. The Service had already engaged Vincent L. Gleason, who moved from an advertising agency in 1962, to upgrade its interpretive publications. Gleason's branch redesigned the park brochures in new formats, including the minifolder, and engaged contemporary artists to illustrate park handbooks and posters. The new organization divided the old museum division into curatorial and design/production functions. Ralph Lewis, previously the division chief, took charge of the former activity; Russell J. Hendrickson, an exhibit designer who had briefly left the Service to become chief of exhibit production for the Agriculture Department, returned to head the latter.

Vince Gleason originated the concept of building a center to house all the interpretive design functions, then scattered in several offices and localities. In 1964 Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was tentatively selected for the new facility. It was not too far from Washington; it was the site of the new Mather Training Center for park interpreters; and it was likely to win the necessary appropriations with the support of West Virginia Senators Jennings Randolph and Robert C. Byrd. Hartzog obtained planning funds in the Service's 1967 budget, and Everhart engaged New York architect Ulrich Franzen, The Interpretive Design Center was constructed on the former Storer College campus at Harpers Ferry during 1968-1969 and was occupied in Hatch 1970. [22]

In late 1967 Everhart was elevated to the post of assistant director for interpretation and the functions under him were raised from branch to division status. With the occupancy of the Interpretive Design Center, Everhart was made director of the Harpers Ferry Center, a new unit outside the Washington headquarters organization. In addition to supervising the interpretive divisions, Everhart became responsible for the adjacent Mather Training Center and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which was to be "a 'showcase' to test and display advanced park management techniques."[23] The training center and park were under the Harpers Ferry Center only briefly. Another reorganization in 1973 returned Everhart as assistant director for interpretation, in command of an Interpretation Division in Washington under Bill Dunmire and the Harpers Ferry Center then and since headed by Marc Sagan. The assistant director for interpretation position was discontinued again in 1975, when Everhart became a special assistant to Director Gary Everhardt.

The "new look" in exhibitry, publication design, and audiovisual production fostered by Everhart, Sagan, Gleason, Degen, Hendrickson, and their Harpers Ferry Center colleagues was not welcomed in all quarters. Some Service traditionalists complained that innovative style and techniques were taking precedence over content. In 1970 Chief Historian Robert M. Utley crossed swords with Vince Gleason over the artwork Gleason had commissioned from Leonard Baskin, a prominent contemporary artist, for Utley's Custer Battlefield handbook. (Gleason omitted the most offending illustration but left a blank page so that it could be reproduced in subsequent printings.) A slide program prepared for Manassas National Battlefield Park was condemned because it used impressionistic modern watercolors rather than literal representations of the historic events there. Those enamored of the "book on the wall" approach thought the new museums, favoring fewer exhibits with less narrative and more eye appeal, superficial. Design critics, on the other hand, responded enthusiastically to the innovations. Service films won numerous awards over the years, and in 1985 President Ronald Reagan presented the Presidential Award for Design Excellence to the Division of Publications.

What did the public think? Survey evidence is lacking. Undoubtedly some visitors, especially "buffs" who had schooled themselves in the subjects presented, concurred in the charges of superficiality. Probably more were attracted than repelled, however, for a net positive response to the Service's interpretive design innovations.



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

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