Interpretation Part 6


The park's new museum reflects a decade of debate over how to present the Cayuse without ignoring the park's enabling legislation. The answer to this dilemma was found in the 1982 Statement for Interpretation which reconciled the need for Native American awareness with the enabling legislation:

Whitman Mission's enabling legislation refers to the 'Indian Mission and School,' 'administering to the Indian's physical and spiritual needs,' and being 'massacred by Indians.' Inherent in this legislation is the need to define and present the Indian people and cultures with which the Whitmans interacted. Without placing a proper amount of emphasis on Cayuse, Walla Walla, Nez Perce, and other significant cultures of the region with whom the Whitmans interacted, their story and importance to history would be cast in a cultural vacuum. Only through a sensitive, yet clearly unbiased setting of historical facts and perspective can the success, struggles and failures of the Whitmans be presented to visitors in a truly honest and "memorializing" manner. [73]

By broadly interpreting the language of the enabling legislation, both the Cayuse and Whitmans became integral elements of one story. When interpreted in this manner, comparing and contrasting the cultures became more than just a novel idea, but one, it was argued, mandated by the park's legislation. The museum's thematic statement, "All cultures are worthy of respect. They reflect the way people see the world around them and adapt to it" indicates a shift away from glorifying the Whitmans and instead represents two sophisticated cultures of equal value--though not of equal power. While the 1970s interpretation acknowledged that the Whitmans were human, the current museum reflects the 1980s acknowledgement that the Cayuse were human, too.

The museum consists of six areas--the Early Cayuse, the United States A Young and Expanding Nation, the Whitman Mission, the Late Cayuse, Medicine and Religion, and the Diorama of life-sized figures. The Cayuse worldview is depicted through quotations and exhibits about medicine, religion, and family life. The Whitmans' religious zeal and difficulty satisfying both the settlers and Indians is depicted against a background of industrial America. The diorama depicts the White culture represented by Marcus and Narcissa and the plow, cutting across the Indian world represented by Cayuse men and women, both old and young. The museum concludes with a final statement about the similarity of all people: "One might say that they were all telling differing versions of One Great Story." [74]


Once installed, the museum provoked immediate reaction--mostly negative. Both park and regional staff believed that Harpers Ferry had not carried out the plan as agreed. Regional Curator Kent Bush and Regional Interpretation Specialist Glenn Hinsdale felt some major conceptual changes and minor detail changes were needed. Regional Curator Bush felt the museum design was "slick" but failed to teach the complex components of the Whitman Mission story:

This exhibit should be an educational tool, to teach the visitor something about the events that led to the establishment of the Mission in 1836, its effect on the Cayuse People and the settlement of Oregon Territory; the events that led to the incident of 1847, and the effects of this incident upon both the Native and Anglo populations. The exhibit fails, miserably, on all accounts. [75]

Interpretive Specialist Hinsdale believed the museum exhibits failed to transmit the mission story for two major reasons. First, the approved design concept was not closely followed--for example, oversized murals, undersized label copy, and mistakenly placed photos were apparent in the museum. Secondly, the "symbolic" exhibits confused the "historic" exhibits and vice versa. For example, Hinsdale noted that care was taken to ensure "immaculately correct costumes" for the Indians, however, Marcus Whitman's costume was "intended to be 'conceptual only'" resulting in a confused message to the visitor. Finally, Hinsdale advised that "the museum should be fixed before it is opened to the public" but acknowledged that "most of the basic ingredients for a successful exhibit room are there." [76] After considering the objections of the regional staff and after compiling a list of comments for the Regional Director, Superintendent Herrera opened the museum on July 26, 1987. Superintendent Herrera noted to the Regional Director that the list of deficiencies

should not overshadow our feelings that for the majority of visitors, the museum will form a very favorable impression, due to the quality of work done by the National Park Service. If we can correct its deficiencies, the museum will be more informative to visitors and more historically accurate. [77]

Alarmed by the negative comments, a team from Harpers Ferry visited the park to evaluate the museum on July 28, 1987. Regional Chief of Interpretation Dave Pugh; Exhibit Planner Robert Johnsson; Chief, Museum Production, Mary Herber; and David Wright, Manager, Harpers Ferry Center met with Superintendent Herrera and Chief of Interpretation and Resource Management Roger Trick and discussed their impressions and conclusions. The consensus was that the symbolic representation of the "Cultures in Conflict" theme failed. The Indian mannequins and corner exhibits designed to portray progressing disassociation with the past did not convey this idea and therefore, did not appear to significantly contribute to the story. The Harpers Ferry team also agreed that information about westward expansion and the mission life should be expanded while the "medicine and religion" theme wall should explain the mission's significance in American history. The team left after setting some short-term goals: the park staff agreed to compile additional information about westward expansion and the Whitman Mission before October 1987, to allow a final plan to be developed and the museum exhibits revised. It is important to note that the Harpers Ferry planners consider this museum one part of an entire interpretive program that includes the slide show, lobby displays, and wayside exhibits. This perception of the interpretive program influenced the original museum design and will influence its revision, as well. The overall goal is to create an interpretive program that acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of both the Whitmans and Cayuse and treats both the Whitmans and Cayuse as integral parts of, as the museum states, "One Great Story."


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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