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

The Park Service Assumes Responsibility

Doubtless influenced by the publicity campaign, Congress passed the National Park Service bill in August 1916, and the new bureau began operating the following year with Mather as director and Horace M. Albright as his assistant. Heavy publicity to promote and aid park tourism--and thereby to stimulate increased Park Service appropriations--continued under Yard, who became chief of the Service's "educational division" (a nonofficial capacity in which Mather continued to pay his salary). Yard turned out a second edition of The National Parks Portfolio in 1917 with added sections on Hot Springs and the lesser parks and monuments, omitted from the original publication. The Service also disseminated more than 128,000 park circulars, 83,000 automobile guide maps, and 117,000 pamphlets titled "glimpses of our national parks" that year and circulated 348,000 feet of motion picture film to schools, churches, and other organizations.[8]

A letter from Secretary Lane to Director Mather in May 1918--drafted by Horace Albright--constituted the Service's first administrative policy statement. It reiterated the concept of the parks as educational media:

The educational, as well as the recreational, use of the national parks should be encouraged in every practicable way. University and high-school classes in science will find special facilities for their vacation period studies. Museums containing specimens of wild flowers, shrubs, and trees and mounted animals, birds, and fish native to the parks, and other exhibits of this character, will be established as authorized. [9]

Despite this high-level expression of support, the idea of the Park Service being in the education business--beyond dispensing basic tourist information--was not widely applauded. Yard later recalled the obstacles he faced during the bureau's first years:

Educational promotion wasn't much of a success at first. No one in Washington took any interest in it except Mr. Mather, spasmodically; Congressmen smiled over it; and with a very few exceptions the concessioners opposed it. Somebody politically influential on the Pacific Coast slammed the whole idea of education in national parks by letter to his Senator who called up Secretary Lane about it, and Lane phoned down to Mather that he'd better go slow on that unpopular kind of stuff. Thus the cause passed under a heavy cloud just as things were beginning to look hopeful. But I still kept my title, and hammered away as inconspicuously as possible. [10]

With Congress reluctant to support park educational activities, outside sponsorship would play a large role during the first decade of Park Service operation. Charles D. Wolcott, secretary of the Smithsonian, organized a National Parks Educational Committee in 1918. With Mather's help, it spawned the National Parks Association in May 1919. Yard moved over to become executive secretary of the association, among whose purposes were "to interpret the natural sciences which are illustrated in the scenic features, flora and fauna of the national parks and monuments, and to circulate popular information concerning them in text and picture," and "to encourage the popular study of the history, exploration, tradition, and folk lore of the national parks and monuments." [11]

In the parks themselves, most educational or interpretive programs were undertaken or aided by outside parties. In 1917 Rocky Mountain National Park examined and licensed young women as nature guides; the women were employed by local hotels. Mesa Verde National Park that year rehabilitated a ranger station for museum purposes and in 1918 installed five cases of excavated artifacts and photo enlargements of the park's ruins. There J. Walter Fewkes, a Smithsonian archeologist, lectured on his work in the park. The University of California extension division inaugurated a lecture series in memory of Professor Joseph LeConte at Yosemite in 1919 and continued it through 1923. Speakers the first summer included Professor Willis L. Jepson of the university on botany; William Frederic Bade, John Muir's literary executor, on Muir; Professor A.L. Kroeber of the university on local Indians; and Francois Emile Matthes of the U.S. Geological Survey on geology. Matthes stayed in the park, giving additional talks in the public camps and at Sierra Club campfires.[12]

Notwithstanding precedents elsewhere, the first reasonably comprehensive interpretive programs directed by the Park Service blossomed at both Yosemite and Yellowstone in 1920. Visiting Fallen Leaf Lake in the Tahoe region the year before, Mather had been impressed with a program of nature guiding and evening lectures conducted by Professor Loye Holmes Miller of the University of California at Los Angeles and Dr. Harold C. Bryant, educational director of the California Fish and Game Commission. Mather persuaded Miller and Bryant to transfer their activities to Yosemite the following summer. There Bryant organized and directed the Yosemite Free Nature Guide Service. The program included daily guided hikes, evening campfire talks, and lectures at Camp Curry illustrated by motion pictures. "The response has been so great that we are sure there will be sufficient demand not only to continue the work in Yosemite National Park but to extend it to other parks," Bryant reported of the first season's activity.[13] At Yellowstone, Superintendent Horace M. Albright made Ranger Milton P. Skinner the Service's first officially designated park naturalist. Employed earlier by the Yellowstone Park Association, Skinner had long studied the park's natural features and advocated an educational service. With two seasonal rangers hired by Albright for interpretation, he now conducted field trips, gave lectures, and prepared natural history bulletins for posting in the park.[14]

Yosemite and Yellowstone simultaneously advanced in museum development. Ranger Ansel F. Hall organized the Yosemite Museum Association in 1920 to plan and raise funds for a new park museum. The next year he began converting the former studio of artist Chris Jorgensen to museum use. Containing six rooms designated for history, ethnology, geology, natural history, botany, and trees, it featured a scale model of Yosemite galley built by Hall and mounted birds and mammals prepared by Chief Ranger Forest S. Townsley. The museum opened in June 1922. Hilton Skinner started Yellowstone's park museum in 1920 in a former bachelor officers' quarters at Mammoth Hot Springs (the building still functions as a museum there). His exhibits included mammal specimens prepared by Chief Ranger Sam T. Woodring. [15]

Director Mather's 1920 annual report called for "the early establishment of adequate museums in every one of our parks" for exhibiting regional flora, fauna, and minerals.[16] Because appropriated funds for park museums and related programs were not forthcoming, it became customary to seek outside support. The case of Yosemite exemplifies this pattern.

Ansel Hall met Chauncey J. Hamlin, vice president and later president of the American Association of Museums, in 1921 and impressed him with the need for a better park museum. Hamlin established and chaired the AAM Committee on Museums in National Parks (later the Committee on Outdoor Education), which included such long-time park supporters as Hermon C. Bumpus, John C. Merriam, and Clark Wissler. The committee sought "establishment of small natural-history museums in a number of the larger parks." Through its efforts, the AAM obtained a $70,500 grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in 1924 to build and equip a permanent Yosemite museum. Hall, who had become chief naturalist of the National Park Service the year before, was appointed executive agent of the AAM for the new museum (temporarily leaving the Park Service payroll). Carl P. Russell, Hall's successor as park naturalist, simultaneously replaced the Yosemite Museum Association with the Yosemite Natural History Association, broadened to promote a range of related programs. In addition to supporting development of the museum, it would gather and disseminate information on the park's natural and human history, contribute to the educational activities of the Yosemite Nature Guide Service, promote scientific investigation, maintain a library, study and preserve the customs and legends of the remaining Indians of the region, and publish Yosemite Nature Notes in cooperation with the Park Service. [17]

Hermon C. Bumpus, who had been first director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, had strong ideas about park museums and took virtual command of the Yosemite project. In addition to the museum planned for Yosemite Valley, he promoted a "focal point" lookout facility at Glacier Point as best representing what park museums should be about:

The controlling fact governing the development of educational work in the national parks is that within these reservations multitudes are brought directly in contact with striking examples of Nature's handicraft. To lead these people away from direct contact with Nature... is contrary to the spirit of the enterprise. The real museum is outside the walls of the building and the purpose of the museum work is to render the out-of-doors intelligible. It is out of this conception that a smaller specialized museum, the trailside museum, takes its origin. [18]

Architect Herbert Maier, who would have a long career in Park Service construction and management, designed both structures. The Glacier Point lookout was completed in 1925. The Yosemite Valley museum was finished in 1926 and served as park interpretive headquarters until 1968, when it was incorporated in an expanded visitor center.

The AAM also played an active role in museum development at Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks during the 1920s. Another grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in 1926 funded the observation station and museum overlooking the Grand Canyon at Yavapai Point. Ansel Hall continued in AAM employ on the project, and John C. Merriam-- formerly professor of paleontology at Berkeley, later head of the Carnegie Institution of Washington-- spearheaded it for the park museum committee. Herbert Maier again drew the plans. When the Rockefeller money ran out, Merriam personally paid for one of the large windows and got a $3,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to finish the work. The structure opened in 1930. [19]

Yellowstone was beneficiary of a $112,000 grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial for museum development in 1928. Over the objections of Park Naturalist Dorr G. Yeager, Hermon Bumpus decided upon small "focal point" museums at Old Faithful, Madison Junction, and Norris Geyser Basin rather than a single, major one. These structures, one at Fishing Bridge, and a "trailside shrine" exhibit at Obsidian Cliff were completed to Herbert Maier's designs between 1928 and 1931. [20]

In the fall of 1928 Bumpus arranged an extensive tour of American museums for Yosemite's Carl Russell, seeking to develop him as a museum professional within the Park Service. The next year Russell was promoted to a new position, of field naturalist specializing in exhibit planning and preparation for the parks. In this capacity, assisted by Dorr Yeager, Russell took charge of the exhibits and curation for the new Yellowstone museums. Among the interpretive devices he inherited were two portable working models of geysers, erupting to a height of 2-1/2 feet each minute, built for Yellowstone by the Service's Education Division in 1926.[21]

Mesa Verde and Lassen Volcanic national parks were among other areas benefiting from private philanthropy in museum development during the 1920s. Superintendent and Mrs. Jesse L. Nusbaum of Mesa Verde persuaded Stella H. Leviston of San Francisco and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to contribute $5,000 each for a new museum there, built between 1923 and 1925. In 1929 the Loomis Memorial Museum, previously built by the Loomis family on adjacent land, was donated to Lassen. Not until 1930 did federal money fund a park museum: the Sinnott Memorial, a stone observation station on the edge of Crater Lake, honoring the late Rep. Nicholas J. Sinnott of Oregon. Even then, the Carnegie Foundation paid for its exhibits and equipment. An information station-museum near Rocky Mountain National Park headquarters was jointly funded in this manner the following year.[22]



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

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