The Regional Review

Volume II - No. 3

March, 1939


By Herbert Evison,
Associate Regional Director.

A recent memorandum to field officers of the National Park Service sets forth in brief, concise form the policy of the Service governing the "Scope of Museum Exhibits in National Parks and Monuments." While that policy is enforceable by the Service only on those areas under its administration, the philosophy underlying it is one which can and should be applied equally well to nonfederal areas of similar character. That statement is made thus positively because failure to adopt some such policy not only will weaken the effectiveness of the park museum for its primary purpose but also is certain to involve any park administrator in an attempt to provide something impossible of even reasonably satisfactory accomplishment. The memorandum reads, in part:

"1. The story told in the park museum shall feature the story of the park or portions thereof. Usually the background of this account exceeds the park boundaries. In these instances related material usually will be included in the exhibits to create a satisfactory introduction, to clarify the park story, or to summarize the results of events or processes represented in the park. In all such cases, however, the chief emphasis shall be on the central motive of the park and all related material shall be treated in a subordinate manner.

"2. The space allotted to various aspects of the park's story -- history, prehistory, geology, biology -- shall be proportional to the relative importance of the subjects in the park. An index to these interests usually will be found in the justification for the establishment of the area. An attempt should be made to show the inter-relation of these various subjects so that the museum will present a unified story.

"3. An interpretative program cannot be justified solely on the number of visitors to a park, on the intrinsic value of the collection, or on the general interest of the subject matter. The justification must be found principally in the fact that an interpretation of park features is necessary."

To me, the most significant paragraph and the one which sets forth a principle most frequently overlooked in state park museum projects, is the first. Chiefly because, in many instances, no particular thought has been given to the philosophy of the undertaking, there has been a tendency simply to consider the park as a handy place to put a museum -- any kind of museum. Established to feature and interpret the story of the park in which it is located, a museum may attain, even in an area of mediocre quality, something very close to perfection. Established without definition of its purpose and without a determination to limit its exhibits to such a purpose, any park museum is almost certain to become a catch-all for every curio in the neighborhood which no longer is wanted by its owner or which may be considered the means of gaining some credit for generosity.

I believe it fair to state that, in the case of a majority of state park museums, they are established and their exhibits gathered together without any policy for them at all. In consequence, a prairie state museum contains Malay krises, German war helmets, and an Eskimo parka; a western New York museum, in a park possessing extraordinary geological and biological interest, and with an unusual Indian background, permits hundreds of exhibits unrelated either to those features or to one another.

A few weeks ago I visited, and was astonished by, the Audubon Memorial State Park museum in Kentucky. Within a comparatively short time an extensive and valuable collection of Audubonia has been assembled there, in a locality where Audubon lived and carried on his studies of the birds. But I was unfavorably impressed by two features. One was the failure of the museum to do what I should suppose Audubon would have wished it to do -- add to the visitor's knowledge and understanding of the park itself, which is lovely in many respects and a real haven for birds. The other was the tendency to devote valuable space to historical and sentimental exhibits unrelated either to Audubon or to the park which bears his name.

Representing near perfection in character and purpose is the museum now nearing completion at Mound State Monument, Moundville, Alabama. Its central section will tell the story, in properly arranged exhibits from the area itself, of the civilization that once flourished there; the two wings will provide shelter and protection for two exposed groups of burials, with the skeletons, trinkets and artifacts left where they were found in the course of the most meticulously careful digging. There will be no extraneous matter, nothing to divert the mind of the visitor from the extraordinary and fascinating story that is peculiar to the immediate area.

I am no museum expert. What I have written is simply the expression of the viewpoint of a layman who perceives the usefulness of sound museum policy and modern museum method, in which the National Park Service has established an enviable record; and who hopes that state and other park administrators ultimately will recognize a museum program for the useful park instrument that it can be.

sketch of lighthouse

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Date: 04-Jul-2002