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Interpretation Along Route 66

Presented at the
8th Annual US/ICOMOS International Symposium
on Heritage Interpretation
Charleston, South Carolina
May 5 - 8, 2005

“…the path and road stood for some intense experience: freedom, new human relationships, a new awareness of the landscape. The road offered a journey into the unknown that could end up allowing us to discover who we were and where we belonged.” John Brinkerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time


The challenges of interpreting significant cultural corridors are many, and often include complexities of geographic distance, layering of history, and diversity of cultural themes. Historic Route 66 characterizes many of these challenges, as the corridor is more than 2,400 miles in length; and passes through hundreds of communities along the length of the route. An additional challenge is the corridor’s relationship to the recent past, a period of time that is often under-valued or little understood.
This paper will discuss how the National Park Service (NPS) Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is working with stakeholders including private property owners, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies, to address issues of interpretation along the cultural corridor. The NPS program, established in 2001, is directed by the United States Congress to provide financial and technical assistance to stakeholders for historic preservation of the corridor. One of the roles of the NPS program is to encourage and support grassroots interpretive initiatives, in a deliberate effort to maintain the “idiosyncratic nature of the Route” (Public Law 106-45.) The diversity of interpretive medium and approaches such as wayside exhibits, museum and visitor center exhibits, oral history, and literature is presented in the paper. The needs, strengths, and effects of these grassroots interpretive efforts are discussed.

Historic Automobile Highways and the Significance of Route 66

The United States ushered in the automobile age in the early part of the 20th century, and with it came the symbiotic relationship of the car and the highway. History will look at this car culture era as pivotal in how people interact and conduct their daily lives. Auto highways can unite and provide efficient means to travel long distances. But they can also divide as witnessed by highways slicing through neighborhoods of the disenfranchised, separating the “haves” from the “have nots”. Highways have dictated how we live today, and how our city and suburban plans have developed.

As J. B. Jackson states in A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, “… the road has long suffered from neglect by historians and students of the landscape: dismissed as an unsightly, elongated, crooked space used by merchants and ravaging armies and highway robbers…”

Historic automobile highways throughout the world are finally being considered as important parts of our 20th century heritage. Highways such as the German autobahn system, the early designed Swiss auto routes, the Pan American Highway, and the designed roads within the U.S. National Parks are just a few examples. Even the U.S. interstate system, considered by many to be the largest man-made structure in the world, is gaining recognition as a seminal social phenomena that has changed, for better or worse, the way people interact and travel.

Route 66 is one of the best known of these highways. Even though its period of significance spanned only six decades from 1926 to 1970, the name of this historic corridor is recognizable by millions of people all over the world. Some would be reticent to consider placing Route 66 in the same category with other historic routes in the world such as the Silk Road, Camino de Santiago, the Tokaido Road, and the many Caminos Reales in the former Spanish Empire. However, Route 66 is representative of the enormous significance and large-scale impact of the automobile on the development, history, and culture of America. It is unique among other historic automobile highways because of its phenomenal relationship with the arts, and its popularity as an all-weather route connecting the industrial Midwest to the California coast.

Created in 1926, Route 66 cut across America through eight states from Chicago to Los Angeles linking rural communities to urban ones, and permitting an unprecedented flow of ideas and economic growth across the country. It saw the migration of Dust Bowl refugees; World War II troop movement; large-scale settlement of the West; and the advent of car culture and automobile tourism. For many people in the United States, the highway has come to symbolize the spirit and freedom of America, and the pursuit of the American Dream. It has gained legendary status through literature, song, film, television, and personal experiences, and represents an important developmental chapter in American history.

The National Park Service and Route 66

Historic automobile highways are similar in many respects to officially designated National Historic Trails (such as the Oregon and Santa Fe) in that they are linear cultural resources with stories to tell, many of them thousands of miles long, crossing diverse cultural landscapes, and representing diverse public and private ownerships. However, historic highways differ from historic trails in that most historic highways are still in use, thus posing the challenge of balancing growth and safety needs of the traveling public with the need to preserve the character defining features of the highway. There is also no established program to deal exclusively with the preservation of historic highways in the United States, as there is with the historic trails through the National Trails System Act of 1968. Nonetheless, in response to the public’s desire to preserve the rich resources of what many have termed the “Mother Road,” the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program was established by Congressional directive. This unique program is administered by the National Park Service’s National Trails System in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Designed as a “seed,” or stimulus, program, it is scheduled to legislatively terminate at the end of fiscal year 2009, at which time a non-federal entity (or entities) will continue the program’s purpose. Route 66 is the first automobile highway in the United States to receive multi-year funding from Congress to assist in its preservation and continued use.

The program collaborates with private property owners; non-profit organizations; and local, state, federal, and tribal governments to identify, prioritize, and address Route 66 preservation needs. It provides cost-share grants to successful applicants for the preservation and restoration of the most significant and representative properties dating from the route’s period of outstanding historical significance. These properties include the familiar transportation related properties such as motels, gas stations, cafés; the engineered road and associated road features such as bridges, culverts, and guard rails; and the all encompassing cultural landscapes.
Cost-share grants are also available for research, planning, oral history, interpretation, and education/outreach projects related to Route 66, for the purpose of gaining insight into the history, context and significance of the highway, as well as to preserve the stories and experiences of the people and culture of the road. The program also serves as a clearinghouse of preservation information, and provides limited technical assistance.

National Park Service and Interpretation

NPS has been a leader and role model in professional interpretation in the United States and internationally for many decades. In the 1950s, NPS hired Freeman Tilden, a journalist, to visit the national parks and evaluate their interpretive programs. After visiting many park areas, viewing many indoor and outdoor exhibits, and attending many ranger-led interpretive programs, Tilden developed several principals that defined effective interpretation. These principals were the “mantra” for professional interpreters up until 1996. At that time NPS reevaluated and updated their definition of effective interpretation. Almost ten years later, this new definition has been accepted by most of the other land management agencies in the USA as well as non-federal visitor-use facilities such as museums, state and local parks, private nature centers, etc.

The biggest shift in the definition of interpretation is that rather than the ranger, volunteer, docent, etc. providing the interpretation for the visitor; the interpretation happens within the visitor. So, a personal service such as a guided walk, or a non-personal service such as a museum exhibit, provides the visitor an interpretive opportunity. It is up to the visitor as to whether they take that opportunity or not.

The essence of this “opportunity” is that it provide the visitor a connection to the emotional and intellectual values inherent in the resource. The person and/or the media serves as a catalyst for the visitor to make those connections. The emotional connections are those “universal” concepts that we as human share regardless of culture, country, or continent. These would include family, community, safety, fear, love, death, hate, survival, etc.

One of Tilden’s concepts that has not changed in 50 years is the essence of why we even provide interpretive opportunities in the first place, and that is—through interpretation comes understanding; through understanding comes appreciation; and through appreciation comes protection. We protect those things we appreciate!

The application of interpretive techniques along historic corridors is different from those within the boundaries of a National Park. Usually there is no controlled visitor experience, and there are no entrance stations. Many travelers along historic corridors are “accidental tourists” who may suddenly see a sign indicating they are on an historic route, or find a wayside exhibit along the road that interprets the location in context with the corridor. The stop at a wayside exhibit may be just to get out and stretch after hours at the wheel. The challenge is to transform these people’s momentary interest into captivation.

Interpretation that is effective, and that makes places come alive, is usually brief. It gets to core ideas quickly (Payne). NPS interpretive strategies strive to stimulate that exhilarating sense of connection with place, and to bring to life the most compelling aspects of a story. Interpretation that presents large amounts of text or too many panels, tends to interfere with the visitor’s ability to experience the story that is waiting to be conveyed. The profession has learned when to interpret, and when not to interpret; what to interpret and what not interpret. It has evolved to be sensitive to the country’s multi-cultural complexity. The NPS philosophy is in-line with the philosophy put forth in the Ename ICOMOS Draft Charter, in that “interpretive programs must play second fiddle to the actual place, that they remain discreet; and that the authenticity of the site – in whatever way the host culture or associated communities may conceive it to be – never be sacrificed for the sake of an interpretive program” (US/ICOMOS Newsletter, number 3, third quarter of 2004). Of course, along a 2,400 mile route such as Route 66, there are many opportunities for interpretation without being obtrusive.

Route 66, NPS, and Interpretation

In the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act of 1999 that established the NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, Congress directed that:

“The Secretary (of Interior) shall assist in the preservation of the Route 66 corridor in a manner that is consistent with the idiosyncratic nature of the Route 66 corridor”

There are probably very few instances in which Congress has used the word “idiosyncratic” in an official congressional Act. What was Congress’ intent? From a number of public scoping meetings held along the 2,400 mile route in the 1990s, NPS heard requests for the federal government to provide technical assistance and cost-share grant funds for preservation. Implied in these meetings was the desire to not have the federal government develop an overall interpretative plan or approach for the route, but rather to maintain the idiosyncratic character of the route through various interpretive media expressed locally along the road by grassroots, local, and/or regional entities. In its Route 66 Special Resource Study, NPS stressed to Congress the importance of the idiosyncratic nature of the road.

The Act also states: “The Secretary (of Interior) shall develop a program of technical assistance in the preservation and interpretation of the Route 66 corridor.” The key word here is assistance. The Act does not instruct the federal government to lead or manage interpretation. So what role can the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program play in interpreting the corridor?

Route 66 - Fact and Fiction
America has always had a love for the highway. The arts have nurtured this obsession with roads through such works as: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, the movie Easy Rider, and the plethora of songs written about highway travel, such as Get Your Kicks on Route 66. The most widely known image of Route 66 is the one of two young Anglo men in a corvette from the Route 66 television show who are looking to find themselves on the open road. The story evokes the “good old days” of the 1960s with fast cars, wide open spaces, roadside architecture, and beautiful people filling the screen. Re-runs of these episodes are still being shown in Europe and Asia and are one of the reasons for such widespread international recognition.

But how about the lesser known stories? There are many layers of history to be told along most historic corridors, and Route 66 is no exception. Much of Route 66 follows the 35th parallel that has served as a natural travel corridor for millennia. Along many parts of the route, traces of the Trail of Tears, the Santa Fe Trail and the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trails are underneath the pavement. There are many American Indian stories to be told, many stories of the early Spanish and French exploration and settlements, and the later conquering of the West by the Anglo culture. During the time Route 66 was commissioned, the road was known as Bloody 66 because of the tragic accidents caused by traffic congestion and fast cars. There are many stories as well about how Route 66 was rerouted around downtown areas to alleviate congestion, leaving businesses along the former route without customers. Termed the Road of Flight in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 was used as a migrant route for people searching for better lives during the Depression. There was segregation of services along the road, as there were along most roads throughout the country. Even though the road was public, the services were not. If you were Black and traveling along the route up until the 1960s, you could not sleep at just any motel, or eat at just any restaurant, or gas up at just any filling station. You had to know where to stop for the services, or you were in trouble. This was also many times the case with Latinos, Indians, and other minorities.

Identification of existing types of interpretation on the road

The road interprets itself
Interpretation of Route 66 is really the experiencing of Route 66. In many ways it interprets itself. Even though Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, 85% of it can still be driven. Route 66 is traveled by thousands of people every year who are seeking an “authentic” American experience. The route has become a heritage tourism destination for regional, national, and especially, international travelers. This heritage tourism brings economic enrichment to many small, rural communities. Travelers want to experience the car culture on the open road, the wide-open spaces, traveling for days without borders, visiting drive-in theatres and drive-up diners. The visitor knows that to travel Route 66 is to experience the “real thing”; that is, the authentic, idiosyncratic America, which is very different from the formulaic Disneylands. Route 66 has no pretensions, no waitresses with canned chained mantras such as “my name is Laura and I will be your server today”. The waitresses, and other service professions, are often the best, first person, interpreters the road offers.

The sensory stimuli of the open road make the experiences real and alive: the slower pace of the two lane roads, opened car windows where you can experience muggy air, or a brisk, fall chill. The “thump, thump” of the car traveling over the concrete-seamed road. The smell of horse pastures and freshly cut hay. The sights of the landscape, of billboards enticing travelers to stop to see live rattlesnakes, of farmers in the fields, of vernacular house and vernacular art, of the roadside architecture with its gas stations, cafes, and motels. The sounds of nature, of local radio stations such as the ones in Navajo through western New Mexico announcing specials at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The contours of the road as it winds around hills and mesas, instead of through them. The commonplace, the vernacular, becomes special. For many, these sensory experiences don’t need to be interpreted.

One of the most widely used forms of interpretation is the guidebooks and maps that have been developed by historians, researchers, nonprofit groups, and others. These are available for travel in the individual states, and also for the national route. As different authors produce them, they vary in their approach, content, and format, but are typically readily available through bookstores, and Internet sources.

Since Route 66 was decommissioned, the various Departments of Transportation (DOT), in collaboration with Route 66 Associations and tourism offices, have marked exits along the interstates (that usually parallel Route 66 by within a half-mile) with distinctive “Historic Route 66” signs. In addition, many DOTs have marked the actual highway corridor to serve as pathfinders for those traveling the route. Some of the historic properties along the corridor have signs that have been installed by either private business owners, or by non-profit organizations. Within the last few years, Hampton Inn has placed 66 interpretive “points of interest” signs, with the company logo, at prominent transportation-related properties along the route. Hampton’s placement of these signs were many times done with media fanfare and work days where Hampton Inn employees would refurbish an historic property.

Visitor centers/rest stops
Each of the eight states has visitor centers and/or rest stops for the traveling public on the interstates near Route 66. Many of these facilities direct travelers to the old road, and provide informational brochures about Route 66. Some are Route 66 themed where the public is made aware of the Route’s importance through two-dimensional panels, three dimensional exhibits and audio/visual media. Two states that have capitalized on this are Texas and Illinois.

Wayside exhibits
There are numerous pull-offs along the corridor where wayside exhibits have been installed by various entities. These range from a wayside exhibit installed by the Illinois Route 66 Association interpreting a barn roof billboard, to wayside exhibits prepared and installed by the U.S. Forest Service interpreting historic road beds west of Flagstaff, Arizona, to the Bureau of Land Management interpreting the road alignment through the Mohave Desert. There are instances as well of schools becoming actively involved with interpreting the road. For example, a high school teacher in Towanda, Illinois developed course curriculum that involved his students in a multi-year project to develop and install outdoor interpretive panels on an abandoned two-lane stretch of Route 66 pavement, which now serves as a walking trail for both visitors and the local community.

Independent and city museums
Active interpretation along the corridor appears in small to medium sized museums operated by local municipalities, non-profit groups such as Route 66 Associations, and individuals. The majority of the exhibits in the museums are designed and implemented by local volunteers or paid local staff. The style and content of exhibits often depends on the amount of staffing and annual budgets. Some are open part-time or by appointment only. Many combine the interpretation of local Route 66 history with the history and traditions of the locale. Some of these museums have received public funding to design and implement the exhibits, and in some instances, to build a museum building or rehabilitate a historic structure such as a gas station or café for exhibit space. Others are developed by private and locally raised funds. There may be as many as thirty of these types of facilities along the route.

Larger museums
There are a few larger museums, two of which are run by the states of Oklahoma and Missouri, whose purpose is to exclusively interpret Route 66. These facilities have professionally designed and fabricated exhibits, and full time staffs, along with a core of docents who work to provide visitor services. Other larger museums are not located on Route 66, but have incorporated Route 66 exhibits. Of particular note is the Smithsonian National History Museum in Washington D.C. which has installed its largest exhibit ever titled “America on the Move”, in which Route 66 is one of the main themes interpreted.

Oral histories
Highways such as Route 66 are unique in that many people who traveled the road, worked at its businesses, or built the roadway, are still alive, their stories begging to be captured. These first person stories make places come alive. Over the years, there have been scores of oral histories recorded that have been used to interpret the history of the road. Most of these have been collected by local historical societies or libraries. Many of these have been used for interpretation at museums and for published articles.

Other interpretive media
In addition to the afore mentioned interpretive media, each state has a Route 66 Association that produces a newsletter or magazine. The extent and type of material covered in the publications varies from state to state. Many of these are available to the traveling public along the route at restaurants, motels, visitor centers, etc.

There are two national publications that come out quarterly: The Route 66 Federation News and the Route 66 Magazine. Each publishes articles on research/preservation related topics, and popular stories about the corridor.

There are frequent articles that appear in the more popular outlets such as the Smithsonian and Sunset magazines. In addition, numerous videos and other documentaries have been produced that interpret the popular culture of the road. One documentary titled Route 66: Neon Road, funded in part by the NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, documents the restoration of ten neon signs in New Mexico as told from the business owners and sign makers perspectives. This documentary, aired nationally on public television stations, recently won a Rocky Mountain Emmy award for best cultural documentary.

The Route 66 logo, typified by the Route 66 highway shield, can be found all around the world. Numerous businesses, having nothing to do with Route 66, have picked up on its usage.

Analysis of existing interpretation

How do the existing interpretive media effect the visitor experience and what is learned? Many times, the small, local interpretive efforts can be just as effective at interpreting the story as the larger, professionally designed exhibits. They are eclectic and unpredictable, like the road itself. There is a good mix of local, regional, and national perspectives presented. Granted, some locally designed exhibits may be too text heavy; others may not be exhibiting materials that are sensitive to ambient conditions such as light and humidity. But what is alluring to the visitor is the local story of what the road meant to people: the truck drivers, the café waitresses, the gas station attendants, the road maintenance crews, the citizens of the communities interacting with the mass flow of humanity at their front door step every day.

There is the danger of “too many” interpretative stops along the corridor. If there is not communication among stakeholders along the road, duplication of interpretive stories can occur, thus running the risk of “boring” the traveler. The “authentic experience” is also impacted if there is a preponderance of buildings preserved like house museums (interpretive stops). The challenge is to develop a good balance of interpretive stops, with buildings that are being used to service the community or traveler, such as motels, cafes, and gas stations. A positive example is the Palm’s Grill in Atlanta, Illinois. The building had been used as a café for the majority of its existence, but has not operated as such for a number of years. After much discussion among the community members as to whether the property should serve as a visitor center, where one could read about its use as a former diner, the community instead decided to rehabilitate it as a diner where one can actually eat a good mid-western meal and learn about its history and the town’s history from the employees. This is experiencing, and interpreting, the road at its best.

The oral histories that have been collected in the past vary in quality, content, and media durability. Most of these oral histories are not easily accessible to the public or to researchers wishing to learn more about a particular subject. Up until recently, there was not a planned effort to interview a good cross-section of persons who had been affected by the road.

With such a mix of interpretive media, and entities producing the media, there is varied quality in the visitor experience. This is in line with the sense of independence and idiosyncratic nature of the corridor, but can have the potential of providing the visitor with information that can be overly redundant, incomplete, or perhaps not reliable, making it difficult for the visitor to gain a comprehensive perspective of the road.

Response by NPS

The assistance role NPS is playing in the interpretation of Route 66 is multi-faceted.

NPS is creating an inventory of existing interpretive facilities, with annotations as to what and where the road is interpreted, and to what level. NPS plans on providing a forum for communication and information sharing between groups. The program is already sharing information with local, state, federal interpretive initiatives on request.

Developing Historical Context and Statements of Significance
Resources of the recent past present special challenges. In the case of Route 66, its close relationship with popular culture, for example, has resulted with some frequency in the creation of romanticized interpretations of the highway, at the expense of historical fact.

The NPS program has been instrumental in updating or developing historic contexts in most of the states through which the highway passes, as well as an overall national historic context to help alleviate this issue. These contexts are the basis under which individual National Register nominations are prepared. Each of these contexts contains information about the history and significance of the road that is concise and multi-faceted. They put into context the societal issues during the period of significance, as well as discuss the impacts the road had on such groups as Indians, Blacks, Latinos, road builders, the trucking industry, and the local businesses. These contexts are available on the NPS program web site and are available to all media sources. Tied in with this initiative is the nomination of fifty transportation-related properties along the road. These nominations can also be used for interpretation at various media outlets such as visitor centers, museums, informational brochures, etc. As a result of the national register nomination work, a National Register Travel Itinerary is being developed on the web that will enable heritage tourists to access information through a GIS program about National Register properties along the route.

NPS Interpretive Standards
NPS Interpretive Standards are already being shared with partners through our web site and by one-on-one visits when requested. These standards range from how to develop an effective story line, to how to fabricate cost-efficient, durable wayside exhibits. Interpretive staff within the National Trails System can also provide the highest quality of mentoring and training when requested by partners along the route.

Resource guide
The Program also distributes a resource guide in hard copy and on the web that lists various private foundations and government sources that provide funding for design and implementation of exhibits, or other interpretive media such as wayside exhibits and brochures along the corridor. Training opportunities are also posted, such as those through the AASLH (American Association of State and Local History), and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Oral History
The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is in its third year of an oral history project in which ten oral history workshops have been held along the route to instruct amateurs on the techniques of collecting oral histories from a cross-section of informants, and how to use these stories in the future for interpretation. The project has also inventoried, annotated, and conducted a condition assessment of the oral histories encountered from over three hundred entities queried, and is investigating which archival repositories would be most accessible and responsible to house oral history collections from each state.


The NPS Program has been fulfilling its directive from the U.S. Congress to maintain the idiosyncratic nature of the route, and to assist with its interpretation. Part of the eclectic experience of traveling Route 66 is appreciating, and learning from, the various types of grassroots interpretive media sprinkled among the small towns and rural businesses. These represent the wonderful stories already being told on the road. NPS offers assistance in telling these stories in ways that can enhance the visitor experience.

Cultural corridors are, in essence, linear heritage sites that should have a prominent role in discussions dealing with heritage site interpretation as outlined in the ICOMOS Ename Charter for the Interpretation of Cultural Heritage Sites (third draft). The NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program embraces the charter’s objectives, and acknowledges that interpretation of cultural corridors is an integral part of the preservation process and fundamental to positive preservation outcomes.

The ICOMOS Specialized Committee on Cultural Corridors has been very active in promoting an understanding and appreciation among ICOMOS members and the general public for the importance of cultural corridors. The thoughtful work evident in the Ename Charter draft, compliments the current initiatives of the Cultural Corridors Specialized Committee.

Professional affiliation of the authors:

Michael Taylor, Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program Manager, NPS; voting member of the ICOMOS Specialized Committee on Cultural Corridors

Kaisa Barthuli, Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program Assoc. Program Manager, NPS

Andrea Sharon, Interpretive Specialist, National Trails System – IMR, NPS


Jackson, John Brinkerhoff. A Sense of Place a Sense of Time. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1985.

“the challenge of interpreting heritage places.” US/ICOMOS Newsletter number 3 – third quarter of 2004

Payne, Cherry. “Pearls on a String.” CRM, Cultural Resource Management, Volume 20, No. 1, 1977.

United States Department of Interior, National Park Service. Wayside Exhibit Guidelines. National Center for Recreation and Conservation and Harpers Ferry Center, 1998

United States Government, National Park Service Special Resource Study/Route 66. Denver Service Center, 1995


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