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Interpreting Route 66

(Released: May, 2005)

The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act of 1999 that established the National Park Service (NPS) Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, Congress directed that: “The Secretary [of the Interior] shall assist in the preservation of the Route 66 corridor in a manner that is consistent with the idiosyncratic [emphasis added] 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’s intent?

From a number of public scoping meetings held along the 2,400-mile route in the 1990s, the 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 avoid having the federal government develop a standardized interpretative plan or approach for the route, and rather to maintain the idiosyncratic character of the route through interpretive media expressed locally along the road by grassroots, local, and/or regional entities.

Route 66 spanned nearly 50 years, and has many layers of history to reveal. For example, much of the route follows the 35th parallel, which has for millennia served as a travel corridor for American Indians, early European explorers and settlers, and the railway. Their stories, as well as those about the creation and development of the highway; how the highway shaped the local communities it passed through; and the highway’s impact on American culture are important to tell. Too, there are dark stories to be told, including those of segregation and racism on the road.

In many ways, Route 66 interprets itself through simply experiencing it. Even though it was officially decommissioned in 1985, 85% 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. Travelers want to experience American car culture on the open road, wide-open spaces, traveling for days without borders, and visiting drive-in theatres and diners. They know that to travel Route 66 is to experience the “real thing”; that is, the authentic, idiosyncratic America, which is very different from formulaic Disneylands. Waitresses and other service professionals are often the first and best interpreters the road offers.

However, interpretive venues such as the museums, visitor centers, brochures, guidebooks, maps, newsletters, magazines, signs, and markers on Route 66 are indispensable for providing visitors with a deeper understanding of the road. Today we see a good mix of small local interpretive efforts, as well as larger, professionally designed ones. Collectively, they present a broad range of local, regional, and national perspectives.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are potential problems when there are a large number of uncoordinated interpretive stops along the corridor. If there is no communication between interpretive entities, redundancy of interpretive information can occur or, alternatively, important parts of the Route 66 story may be left out. The “authentic experience” can also be impacted if there are too many buildings preserved as interpretive stops. The challenge is to develop a good balance between interpretive stops and buildings that are still actively used to service the community or traveler, such as motels, cafes, and gas stations. An example is the Palm’s Grill in Atlanta, Illinois, which was a busy café and bus stop when Route 66 was commissioned, but has been closed and in disrepair for decades. After much discussion among Atlanta community members, it was concluded that it would be preferable to restore the café as an operating business rather than as an interpretive stop. The thinking is that if a visitor can eat a meal and talk to wait-staff, visitor experience and understanding of both Route 66 and Atlanta are enriched. Meanwhile, the building is put back into use, while increasing economic opportunity for the community.

The NPS is working to assist with interpretive efforts in several ways. First, the Route 66 program will be creating an inventory of existing interpretive facilities to facilitate a forum for communication and information-sharing between groups. The NPS program has also been preparing/updating historic contexts in most of the states through which the highway passes. Each contains information about the history and significance of the road, and puts into context the societal issues during the period of significance. These contexts provide interpretive entities with research information on historical themes and facts. The program is also sponsoring a multi-year oral history program, in order to train citizens in the collection and dissemination of Route 66 oral histories that can be invaluable for interpretive uses. The program also distributes a resource guide that lists various funding sources for the design and implementation of exhibits, brochures, and so forth. Lastly, NPS interpretive standards are available, which provide a range of information including how to develop an effective story line, and how to fabricate cost-efficient, durable wayside exhibits. NPS interpretive staff members are available for consultation on request.

Interpretation is fundamental to the preservation of Route 66. Buildings may be restored and preserved, but the memory and significance of them can only be reinforced through interpretation. The NPS is dedicated to assisting stakeholders of Route 66 in ensuring that these memories are told. For more information, contact the NPS Program at www.cr.nps.gov/rt66, or call 505-988-6701.

Michael Taylor
Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program
National Park Service

 

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