Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 3

July, 1941


By Dorr G. Yeager,
Assistant Chief, Museum Division,

My first visit to a museum occurred, as I recall, at the impressionable age of ten. The museum was in connection with the college in the mid-western town in which I lived. This first visit was the last. Although I continued to reside in the town for 15 years, and most of my college work was done on the floor below the museum, I had no desire to see it again. The long scientific names and the dusty bones and the moth-eaten birds held no interest for me. The whole place was dingy and ill-lighted, and reminded me of a dark attic full of stored objects which were of no use, but which sentiment prompted the owner to save.

I wish to cast no reflection upon my home town, my alma mater, nor upon the good man who first laid out the exhibits. I understand that the museum stands today, much as it stood when I was a boy, a monument to one who was a collector. If so, it is not unique. It does not differ radically from so many other contemporary museums in similar localities. But the day of the "museoleum" has passed, and the modern conception is a radical departure from the old stereotyped product.

In that same college I studied astronomy and for some unexplained reason, received a "B" credit in the course. Never was I able to visualize the movement of stellar bodies nor the phenomenon of an eclipse, nor the magnitude of space. The single fact that light travels at the rate of 186,000 miles a second remains with me. My recollection of the course is as void as the space with which it dealt. It was not until years later, when I visited a planetarium, that I recovered from my attack of cosmic indigestion. There it was in front of me, or rather above me. The stars were being put through their paces and were performing exactly as they did in nature. They were there just as the Greeks and the Egyptians, and even the Mayans had seen them. The planetarium had brought the sky down so that man could examine it piece by piece. It had enslaved the stars and forced them to move so that an inquisitive people might understand.

The planetarium is a specialized museum. Its appeal is in the blending of light and motion into a single exhibit that simplifies the complex and clarifies the mysterious. It is a most successful example of visual education. The modern museum, as the planetarium, takes advantage of a visitor's response to color, light, and motion. Not only does it cater to the natural curiosity of an individual, but it is in itself the result of painstaking psychological study. Will the visitor be attracted to this or that; will he go here or there; which label will he read first? These and a hundred other questions must be answered by museum technicians if the displays are to function properly. The modern museum beats the visitor to the "punch" at every turn. It directs him through the rooms in a preconceived and carefully planned manner by the subtle use of light, color, and motion. Even in the matter of labels, his thoughts must be anticipated and his questions answered before he asks them. This is the museum functioning at its greatest efficiency.

Prior to 1934, the national parks' museum program had received scant financial support, with the exception of the Yosemite and Yellowstone projects which were sponsored by the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial. Most of the museums were the result of the initiative and perseverance of park naturalists, or a few interested superintendents. Usually, the exhibits were home-made, and the buildings were structures which had been outgrown or discarded by some department in the area.

The picture has changed since 1934. Through emergency projects and funds, the program has made rapid strides during those 7 years. So active and important has this work become that the Museum Division was established in the Branch of Research and Education to care for the increasing needs along museum lines. Not only have new museums been built and old exhibits augmented, but what is even more important, a fuller understanding of museum possibilities and needs has been recognised among national park administrators. More and more park superintendents are realizing that a museum is a vital adjunct to the interpretive program--the hub around which all such activities radiate. The Santa Fe Conference of Superintendents recommended that "the importance of park museums in presenting the results of research, aiding in interpretation, and providing laboratory and library facilities be recognized", and the last Washington Conference again recommended that "the paramount importance of museums to preserve and interpret, through material objects, be stressed." These recommendations and the friendly rivalry which exists between certain areas over the effectiveness of their museums are most encouraging.

Few sections are more museum conscious than the Southwest. Most of the Southwestern National Monuments staff are interpreters, and rightly so. No areas within the National Park Service lend themselves better to interpretation. It seems to me that here there is a minimum of recreational activity, in the sense that recreation is organized play. There are admittedly exceptions, but in most of these areas, the visitors come not to dance or ski, to fish or to relax in scenic beauty. Primarily, they come through an interest or a curiosity in history, in archaeology or natural phenomena.

It is significant, therefore, that so many museums both large and small are located in these parks and monuments scattered over the Southwest. The museum plays a vital part in the interpretive work. One cannot imagine Casa Grande, or Tumacacori, in Arizona; White Sands, or Bandelier, in New Mexico; or Mesa Verde, Colorado, without their museums, now that they are established and functioning. Before there were museums in those areas, the work of interpretation must not only have been difficult, but somewhat superficial as well. Personal contact with a guide who conducts a group through a ruin is excellent, but it is not enough. He cannot hope to impart the information which can be obtained in a museum within the limited time at his disposal. No matter how interested or how hard he tries, a guide must in time give a "canned" recitation. Few, if any, can sparkle with originality after giving the same talk a thousand times. A museum, on the other hand, continues to serve its visitors day after day, and the exhibits, if adequate, do not cease to sparkle, no matter how many persons use them.


When one enters such museums as those in Mesa Verde or Tumacacori, he cannot fail to sense the difference between these and the "museoleum." There is a predominance of harmonious color, there is light, and there is animation. In Tumacacori National Monument, an outstanding example of modern museum practise is a diorama depicting the interior of that old mission during mass. Candles flicker realistically on the altars, sunshine streams through the miniature windows, and a background chant of choir music makes the picture live. Is it effective? Were it not, Mexicans would not drop to their knees and cross themselves, upon viewing it for the first time.

Two other dioramas, "Father Kino on the Trail", and "The Attack on Tubatama", find a place in the Tumacacori Museum, and are the subject of much comment. Eventually, three more will be installed--"The Expulsion of the Jesuits", "The Departure of Anza from Tubac", and "The Storming of Hauikaua." When these are completed, the museum in this monument will strengthen even more its claim of being one of the outstanding in the Southwest.

The White Sands National Monument Museum is another of the more recent acquisitions. Although smaller than Tumacacori, the two rooms of exhibits tell a graphic story not only of the sands, but of the intriguing local history. With the installation of an adequate light plant, these exhibits will become better and better known, for nowhere in the world can a more detailed story of sand dunes be found. Here too, animation plays its part in making the exhibit a success. Case No. 3, "Nature Mines and Refines Gypsum", illustrates the action by which dunes are formed. Moving shadows are thrown upon a ground glass in such a manner as to give the illusion of sand being blown by wind to build up the great white hills.

One of the older of our Southwestern museums, the Yavapai Observation Station in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, plays a highly important part in the interpretive program at that point. Situated on the very brink of the canyon, it is so designed that it indicates to the visitor the various key points within the canyon - points which are chapter headings in the book of geology that is the canyon. These important features are brought to the visitor by means of powerful telescopes mounted on the parapet. The view as seen through these telescopes is duplicated by colored transparencies, adequately labeled, so that the visitor with a desire to learn can leave the museum with a clear picture of how the Colorado River cut through the sedimentary deposits like a great file, to form the world-famous gorge.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, claims the oldest and the largest, and in many ways the best museum in the National Park Service. The pioneering here is to be credited to Senior Archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum. Its high spot is the series of dioramas, some made in our Western Museum Laboratories, and some made in the park, dealing with the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde. These dioramas are acknowledged to be among the best in the United States. The exhibits of archaeology and ethnology are housed in good metal and plate glass cases, situated in large, well-lighted rooms. The whole atmosphere of the museum is expansive, and one has the feeling of not being crowded.

The Museum Division is on the alert for new methods of presentation. Some are initiated in the National Park Service laboratories, and others are borrowed from recent developments in museums over the country. Some of the first exhibits executed by the Museum Division were admittedly flat in design. Pictures, photographs, and maps were mounted on the monkscloth background of the case. An advancement in our technique came with the introduction of the display panel, which was shoved into a case and constituted the background. This came about more or less through necessity. Many areas already had museum cases, purchased from a manufacturer, which were designed wholly for the display of specimens. Some satisfactory means of displaying flatwork as well as three-dimensional objects were needed, and this panel answered admirably since it gave a wider latitude to methods of presentation. The type now being used evolved from the flat panel background; that is, a background whose flat expanse is broken by shelves, pedestals, and sloping surfaces. With the construction of many of our own museum cases, we are able to design the background panel and the case together, which is a happy solution and permits a more natural use of three-dimensional objects with the art work, as well as relieving the flat appearance of the exhibit.

As far as is known, the use of plastics in casting letters for museum case titles was first done by the Museum Division. Heretofore, painted plaster letters were employed, but the use of plastics gives a letter which is unbreakable, and is water and even acid-proof.

In the White Sands Museum, we were faced with the problem of telling two stories which would have taken considerable space or lengthy labels. These were the life story of Billy the Kid, and the fight between Indians and United States troops in Dog Canyon. Here a tip was taken from the popularity of the comic sheets in the newspapers. The stories were successfully told by a series of small, intimate sketches of incidents, following one after the other in chronological sequence.

Many visitors have expressed curiosity over the flickering candles in the mass diorama in Tumacacori, and the simulated movement of sand in White Sands. "How is it done?" they ask. The basis is the same principle as that employed in ornamental table lamps showing forest fires, ocean movement, etc. Heat rising from an ordinary electric lamp turns a delicately balanced cylinder in the same manner as wind turns the blades of a windmill. In the ease of the candles, the flickering light travels up a lucite rod whose end is tapered and painted to represent a candle. In the ease of the moving sand, intricate mittling on the celluloid cylinder casts the desired shadow effects.

There are many creditable exhibits in National Park Service areas scattered through the great Southwest; more exhibits than in any of the other western regions. Many of these will stand as an everlasting monument to the foresight of the late Frank Pinkley, Superintendent of Southeastern National Monuments. He was a master at the art of public contact and he knew the value of visual objects and graphic devices in putting across a story. If money was available, he used it; and museums like White Sands, Bandelier, Casa Grande, Aztec, and Tumacacori were the result, If money could not be had, a display of pots on wooden shelves was substituted for an elaborate exhibit.

The museum program of the National Park Service is in its infancy. Year after year sees our horizons widen and our possibilities increase. The museum work will go steadily forward - slowly at times, more rapidly at others, according to appropriations. Ours is the world's outstanding system of parks, and in these prarks some day we may have the most outstanding museum system ever known.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005