Region III Quarterly

Volume 1 - No. 2

October, 1939


By Frank Pinkley,
Superintendent, Southwestern National Monuments.

Just offhand there seems to be no connection between scenery of any kind and a national monument man, and you might wonder where I acquired any authority to talk upon the topic. A careful reading of the basic act under which the 27 monuments of our southwestern group have been proclaimed, will show you that you can reserve a national monument for historic, prehistoric or scientific purposes, but nothing is said about scenery. The widely held popular opinion that second class scenery, just a little on the off side of making a good national park, can and should be reserved as a national monument now and then, has no real base in the law under which national monuments are made. A surprising number of our own National Park Service people have some peculiar ideas of what constitutes possible national monument material, and it might be a good idea to have some monument-minded person sit in on the arguments when we are about to knock the blocks out and send one of these scenic proposals down the ways on its temporary journey under the monuments flag until it is taken over by the parks group.

Admitting, then, that scenery is out of my particular field, maybe I can still say something about synthetic scenery, which is another thing and does lap over into our work. An example of synthetic scenery came to hand in the not too far distant past, which has enough general interest to discuss here. Louis Caywood, who has charge of the Tumacacori National Monument in Arizona had an idea which he discussed with me about building an arrastre to show his visitors how ore was crushed and treated in the days of the mission. I encouraged him to go ahead and construct his life-sized model, using an original stone which he had found over in the nearby hills for the drag stone. The total cost was about ten or fifteen dollars and he did what we thought was a right good job. The visitors to whom he showed it got a fine idea of what it was all about.

However, we got into some hot water about it, because one of the technical branches came along and found it and put us on the carpet partly because of its location, which, they said, was in the foreground of a view of the ancient ruins. We squirmed out of that the best we could by pointing out that the well seems to have been right in front of the mission and that the quadrangle of houses of the Indians made a large forecourt in which it is not altogether improbable the ancient arrastre might have been operated.

The other objection struck us as funny until it began to look as if we might get hanged if they made it stick. It was that we should have made a model of this arrastre and put it in an exhibit room in a glass case.

That, we submit, would be a fine example of synthetic scenery.

We asked a few exploratory questions and were told that a good model could be made for a couple of hundred dollars and a case for it wouldn't cost over two hundred more. Here, in our dumb way, we had been ignorant enough to build the real thing out on the ground, using an original drag stone, for only ten or fifteen dollars.

We still think it is best to use real scenery whenever you can.

Another technical man blew in our office one day and got us all stirred up with an exhortation to close up one of our fine ruins and build a model of it down in the canyon so we could give the visitor the treat of a compelete visit through the model of a ruin but not let him into the real one. Now this was an idea which we had developed among ourselves some years back and at the time this technician sprung it on us, we had a request up in the Secretary's Office to let us try it at one of our easily damaged places in the Southwest. We noticed, in the general arguments which followed this man's proposal, that the real difference between his pro and our con arguments was that he had convinced himself that his synthetic scenery was just as good as the real thing or maybe a little bit better. There I am pretty sure he was wrong. Nothing can equal the real exhibit for making an impression on the visitor, especially if it is explained by a man who knows what he is talking about. You can't dress up for mountain climbing and stand before a diorama of mountain climbers for a couple of hours and acquire a sunburn, or blisters on your heel, or very much geological information. Synthetic scenery may have its place but let us not go over to it lock, stock and barrel.

Just recently we have had a tilt with the men of the museum division over the never-ending question of traffic lines through exhibit rooms. As a sort of side argument, we pointed out that at Tumacacori where we got two rooms planned as we wanted them we had practically a 100 percent circulation over the story as laid out in the cases. In the third room where we kicked on the plan and had our ears knocked down, 34 percent of unguided visitors seemed to be circulating backwards on the story as laid out in the cases. The answer was that when one of the museum division men was present on a busy day when we had not enough guides and the music was turned on in that beautiful little diorama of the Mass, he noted how the unguided visitors were immediately drawn from all over the museum rooms and even through the open door, from the lobby, and he also noted how much pleasure they got out of the diorama.

He was perfectly correct in the statement, "Visitors get a whale of a lot of pleasure out of that Mass diorama." I have, however, yet to overhear the first visitor exclaim: "Oh! Now I see how these side altars must have looked when they were complete!" or "Now I see what you meant when you were telling me about the apparent extra height the low choir loft arch gave the ceiling of the nave." As a beautiful little piece of mechanism, it excites the interest of every visitor and gains admiration but we cannot say that it advances his knowledge or gives him a particle of additional information. Yet it probably cost three or four thousand dollars and with that much money expended along other lines, surely the visitor interest could have been held and his knowledge and information advanced at the same time.

Tumacacori Museum

The argument seemed to be that a diorama which could draw people from all parts of the museum and cause exclamations of delight must be a perfect success. Of course, if that is what you set out to do, then I suppose you may call the result a success, but tell me why you wanted to call people away from other exhibits and out of the lobby to see this piece of mechanism work. The diorama was put here to give people who had been through the ruined interior of the church, which is your real exhibit at this monument, an idea of what the church looked like in the old days when it was complete in all its interior details, and services were being held within it. To those people who came in from the lobby and saw the mechanism working, it could tell little because they had not yet seen the real church and were thus not prepared to benefit by the contrast of the real thing with the model. To those whom it called away from other exhibits, it came in the manner of an interruption and thoroughly broke up a sequence of interesting facts we were trying to establish in the minds of those visitors. Thus, if we analyze it a little, the diorama, in calling visitors from the lobby and from other exhibits, was not only not a success but was a blamed nuisance if we were trying to tell those visitors a well-thought-out sequence of facts about our real exhibit, the Tumacacori Mission.

What I want to know, and what he didn't tell, is, did the visitors go back, afterward, to their respective places in the exhibit rooms and follow the story, as given by the exhibits, through in its logical sequence? If they did not, then something needs revamping. Maybe the synthetic scenery had better be re-studied with the idea of getting the information it was to convey across somewhere else and somewhat cheaper.

Our talks and writings about exhibits have for several years been full of the phrase, "the story we have to tell." I can't say I like the phrase but it is commonly current and every one seems to be using it. If we were telling our story in book form, it would seem important to me to put the chapters in sequence so the reader would not stumble on the last chapter about the middle of the book and would not be called away from the middle of the fifth chapter to express his interest and get excited about a lovely picture which would normally come much later in the story. If the book is put together that way, I fear our story will get somewhat confused in the minds of our visitors who try to read it.

I wonder, sometimes, if we aren't so busy making the synthetic scenery that we overlook the scenery the Lord made, or at least if we don't pity Him because He didn't make His a little more like ours. I wonder if we don't get so busy with those little exhibit rooms of ours, sometimes, that we lose our sense of relative values and get to thinking that they are the thing the visitor comes to see. Maybe once in a while we should stop and check up on our perspective and realize anew that the finest exhibits we can ever build are just footnotes on the real story at the monument; explanatory, it is true, but just footnotes all the same; minor matters compared with the real thing we have to explain.

Don't misunderstand me and think I am talking against exhibits or exhibit rooms. They are of the utmost importance when used with discretion but we don't want to let them get the upper hand and make us their slaves. And when we put them together so poorly that 34 percent of our visitors read the story wrong end to in one of our rooms without ever becoming aware that they are doing so, it is time for reflection, not time for congratulating ourselves that our synthetic scenery goes over with a bang.

A recent memorandum has decried our "Turnkey methods" of trying to explain our monuments and their exhibit rooms to the visitors by the use of guides. Now here is an experiment I have tried hundreds of times and it scarcely ever failed. Go into an exhibit room where five or six parties are scattered around the cases, reading a few labels but skipping about eight-tenths of them as is commonly done, and skipping every other case as they move forward and backwards around the room. Begin talking in an ordinary tone of voice to any one of the four or five groups about the material in the case before which they stand. If you know your subject, the other parties will gravitate to you within three or four minutes. Change your base to the proper case and go through the room as the exhibits were designed to be seen. Study and test the parties after you have finished the room and compare them with other parties who have not been guided. Do all this as I have done it hundreds of times, and then write out all the arguments you can think of, showing how much more the visitors learn by wandering at random the wrong way around your carefully planned exhibit rooms over the personally conducted tour. Take plenty of space and a wide margin; use the back of a postage stamp!

Some day I think I may rise up in my wrath and smite these critics hip and thigh who now and then tell us out of their large stock of inexperience that conducting visitors through exhibit rooms is an old-fashioned and unnecessary way of getting the information over. They feel so certain that they can build synthetic scenery and mechanical gadgets, which, causing the visitor to clap his hands with pleasure at the interesting ingenuity of their construction, can allow us to do away with the oldest, and thus far the best, way of imparting information, telling it by word of mouth.

Of course, I can hear my critics say it would be quite in keeping that they be smitten with the jaw-bone of an ass.

And maybe they are right!

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Date: 17-Nov-2005