The Regional Review

Volume VI - Nos. 5 & 6

May-June, 1941

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The question of central museums to serve a group of nearby monuments cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. The fear of some that our museum program is in danger of overdevelopment is hardly warranted, since our great problem is one of underdevelopment. All our interpretive facilities still have a long way to go before they can be considered adequate. Possibly some of this misapprehension arises from a lack of understanding of the underlying principles of our interpretive program. Many people confine their ideas of museums to a building containing cases filled with relics and curiosities which does apply to a number of poorly arranged museums in towns and cities, but this conception of our park museums is not correct.

The proper approach to a correct understanding should start with the realization that our two fundamental objectives are to preserve and interpret our areas. Little need be said about the obvious need for preservation. A service program of this type is not confined to outdoor formations and structures. Many small objects which are an integral part of the park or monument cannot be protected in situ so they must be placed in a building equipped for that purpose. In principle this is no different from constructing a protective shelter over a large object in place out-of-doors.

Interpretation of an area may require a large museum building or a series of buildings for its proper function. The use of these buildings by the public is not necessarily confined to viewing exhibits. They usually contain libraries, lecture halls, research and administration quarters and other facilities. On the other hand some areas may not need a museum building, since a few trailside exhibits and labels may suffice. The extent of development in each park and monument can be determined only by the particular interpretive needs of that area. No arbitrary rule can be laid down for "a museum in every park or every other monument" any more than the number of administrative facilities or miles of road required for each particular park can be fixed.

laboratory and museum
Jamestown Archaeological Laboratory and Museum


The following was an AP story from London, Kentucky: "State patrolmen, deputy sheriffs and a Federal deputy captured a still in Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park. After the 'capture' they learned the still was 'a museum piece' being restored 'in natural setting' to add to the park's display of 'former mountain industries.'"

We regard the park itself as the exhibit and the museum building only as a functioning interpretive device for a better understanding of this outdoor exhibit. The important thing is to interpret the area on the spot through whatever means is indicated by a careful analysis of the individual needs of the monument or park. Guided trips, campfire programs, descriptive literature, lectures with slides and motion pictures have their useful functions but do not always suffice. When they are combined with the visual aid of exhibits and interpretive devices in doors or along the trails the sum total is effective.

In a few instances central museums serving several nearby areas which have the same general character and are approached from one common center may be effective. Central museums to house large collections of excavated or other materials from several related areas for study, such as Ocmulgee, have also proved to be desirable and effective. However, the separate needs for preservation and interpretation should not be confused even though they sometimes serve a double purpose as exhibits while being protected.

The use of graphic devices in close proximity to the natural and historic features of the park is essential to good interpretation. The National Park Service has a unique opportunity in this field. We place graphic devices inside buildings as smatter of convenience or necessity. The trailside exhibits, orientation maps, signs and markers out-of-doors are an integral part of the interpretive system. Whether the buildings, are large or small, one or many, is merely incidental.

historical exhibit
Historical exhibit at Stones River National Military Park, Tennessee

It frequently happens that outstanding examples of geological, archeological, and historical interest occur together or are in close proximity to each other in several small monuments or one large park. In determining whether or not to employ one central museum with several rooms, each devoted to a separate subject or to establish several small one-theme museums, consideration should be given the interpretive requirements of each feature rather than attempt a solution by geography a lone.

We recognize and are working toward a better coordination between related areas. Undesirable repetition should be avoided in our parks and monuments, but in eliminating this recurrence we must not forget the one time and first-time visitor. Occasionally repetition may bore a few "chain visitors" but should not if the great majority are first timers. We should always strive first to meet the needs of the great majority, and, second, to provide for the requirements of those special classes who are in the minority.

There is need for a closer integration of stories in all our parks and monuments and also with related areas under other federal, state or private control. Visitors want to know about the history and scenic features of the country they are visiting and have little interest in fine distinctions of jurisdiction. In telling the story of military campaigns, routes of migration, ancient buildings, or geological formations an introductory background must be supplied by reference to other related areas regardless of their ownership. The fault is not to be found in the principle of repetition itself, but with the method by which it is done. The same story can be told in many ways with emphasis on a new and interesting angle each time. Occasionally a visitor may grow tired of hearing a replica if exactly the same story in almost the same words on dendrochronology or pottery types after visiting the third or fourth archaeological monument. The trouble lies not with the subject, but with the stories themselves which can be made dramatic and interesting by a varied presentation for the benefit of the repeater as well as the first timer.

diagram of NPS exhibit layout
(click on the image for an enlargement in a new window)

We are still a long way from overdevelopment, but while we are trying to build up properly, sight will not be lost of the important need for proper integration on a national rather than a local scale. This calls for comprehensive planning which must be based on a thorough study of, first, what each area contains; second, its place in relation to other areas; and third, a study of the visitors who come to see it. The number and type of visitors, what their principal interests are, from where they come, how long they stay and where they are going after they leave, are important determining factors in developing a suitable program.

Obviously the tempo as well as the type must be carefully determined. A different approach can be used in the park where the visitor stays overnight or for several days. The same person, when at leisure in the evening with all arrangements for lodging and food completed, is in a receptive mood different from that when he is traveling in great haste along the highway trying to keep to a schedule and allowing only a few minutes to see some interesting sight along the way. Many factors outside the park and beyond our control shape different attitudes in the same individual. A previous knowledge of the park obtained from friends or through publicity channels causes a different reaction from the accidental discovery of an interesting site enroute. There is always a distinct reaction to the general attitude and behavior of other visitors and the "atmosphere" of the place which may provoke awe and reverence on the one hand or boisterous amusement on the other. The actions of the same man at a picnic is in contrast with his changed attitude while at tending a religious ceremony or a patriotic meeting.

Carefully planned presentation, good showmanship in its highest sense, is of paramount importance and should be consciously employed in conjunction with a knowledge of the unique and basic facts concerning each area. The whole consists of each of its parts and the success of our entire interpretive system will depend upon the individual success achieved in each park or monument. Sound policies have been laid down and their successful application depends on a full knowledge of the local needs and conditions in and surrounding each of our areas.

Kitchen at Washington's Headquarters, Morristown National Historical Park

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Date: 04-Jul-2002