Park and Recreation Structures
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BY THEIR PURPOSE and intent markers and shrines are differentiated from signs. Signs function to direct, regulate, or caution, whereas the marker and its close cousin, the shrine or graphic guide, serve simply to further the public's understanding and enjoyment of the cultural aspects of a park preserve. These cultural aspects may be in the realms of the natural sciences, history, archeology, and others.

As has been previously stated, it is possible for markers and related devices to capture and convey in greater degree than most other park structures the spirit of a particular area. It is their function, and by no means a minor one, to accent, to "highlight", what might be termed the essential personality of a park.

The markers and shrines of a park the glory of which is some unique or unusual outcome of natural forces can often clearly echo these characteristics to a welcome avoidance of the trite. Witness the nature shrine at Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone National Park, formed of basaltic columns of hexagonal section in their natural relation to one another, which formation is a phenomenon of this area. There are, as well, other examples herein presented which, through clever and skillful recall of a local feature, are neither banal nor fantastic but succeed in achieving great individuality and distinction.

To the scientific or historical story of a park area, markers are the footnotes and annotations. Judiciously distributed, they are a guide service at the constant command of the park visitor. They can render service quite as fragmentary and irritating, misinformed and obnoxious, as any personal guide service. Effort should be constant to avoid this. A marker, appropriately designed and placed, so as to be neither obscure nor obtrusive, will invite attention. A thoughtfully phrased legend, concise and accurate, will hold attention and stimulate interest without trying the visitor's patience. Its wording and content will meticulously avoid either talking down to the average reader or lifting him to some pedantic level where he is perplexed and annoyed. It will neither be verbose to the point of being tiresome nor so curtly brief that a normal curiosity is left frustrated. There is an interesting and growing movement to acquaint the using public with the details of a park area through the medium of maps. Informative or educational maps may take the form of simple painted diagrams showing, for instance, the course of a nature trail or historic overland route, the environs of an historic spot, or the reconstruction of remains of military earthworks or Indian mounds. The locations of points of historical, scientific, or scenic interest and the relationships between such notable features and the intensively used areas are graphically told to great advantage. Lately the educational value of the relief model reproducing at small scale the terrain of an entire park area has come to be more fully appreciated. Created of plaster, such models are already on exhibition in nature and history museums within our parks. Proposed of concrete construction, several have been talked of for outdoor locations. Such models, supplemented with suitable inscriptions, can offer comprehensive visualization of mountain building movements and subsequent erosion of the land by water, wind, and ice or can promote an understanding of a military engagement or vanished civilization that is unapproached by any other medium.

SHRINES OR GRAPHIC GUIDES are devices for bringing exposition to the very scene of an historic event or natural phenomenon, or to the natural abode of a faunal or floral species. Their aim may be to visualize geological cross sections, trace military maneuvers, or chart subterranean caverns. Again it may be their purpose to identify plant or animal species and to present facts pertinent to the habitat and habits of these. They are designed to "answer questions." The interpretative material displayed may be in the nature of specimens, photographs, charts, maps, and such other informative matter, supplemented by legends and detailed explanation.

There is tremendous educational and cultural value in such informative devices. They can supply lucid and at-hand interpretation of the specific features a park was established to commemorate or to preserve. They can offer a wealth of fact, appealing to a variety of interests. They can make possible a broader understanding of an area than endless tramping over the actual ground could give.

A nature shrine usually enframes and shelters one or more weatherproof shallow wall cases with shatterproof glass fronts. It is well to design the cases so that they may be removed and brought into the park headquarters for the winter months.

Since guide and shrine devices are unattended, they are that perfect guide service—the park naturalist or historian par excellence which, if found dull, may be "walked out on" without reason to feel the pin prick of conscious rudeness. Being thus disadvantaged through their inability to frown at a yawning spectator or physically to force him to remain attentive until the last bitter fact is told, these inanimate guide facilities should be accorded by their devisers all the benefits of interesting presentation and clear, concise exposition. As interpretative media they are in theory and in fact truly transitional between the marker and the museum. They are at once glorified marker and museum in embryo.

ALMOST WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the museum in a natural park or recreational area should confine its presentation to an interpretation of the immediate area. Rarely is there excuse for attempting more. Sometimes a unique, and frequently an unusual, natural phenomenon—be it beauty or science or richness of resource—is the primary reason for the establishment of the park. Wherever such is the case, it seems not unreasonable to hold that interpretative effort should focus intently on that conspicuous feature, unblurred and undistracted by side glances in the direction of the incidental or the commonplace. Few national parks, perhaps no State parks, are outstandingly representative of a vast assortment of natural interests. This might well mean that American park museums committing themselves to a presentation of the universe from Genesis through Revelations could properly be limited to few in number.

When the nature museum interprets one particular phenomenon at hand it may be little more than the nature shrine already discussed. When it exhibits in a permanent arrangement a variety of material found within the park limits, it is more accurately a park museum or what has come to be known as a trailside museum. If the nature museum strays farther afield and accumulates unto itself German helmets, Malay creeses, and the shaving mugs and moustache cups of the hardy pioneers of the neighborhood, we have no word for it. Degenerating into a mere repository for curios and oddities, it has sold out for a mess of pottage. The effectiveness of the park museum is never to be measured in terms of floor area or number of specimens. A bulk of heterogeneous material in a park museum, as in any other, can quickly obscure the very high lights that alone make a museum memorable.

The exhibits may be displayed as in the larger city museums, but there should always be a stressing of the immediate presence of the outdoors. The exhibit rooms should afford an occasional vista into the nearby woodland so that the visitor may have a feeling of being in the midst of the subject matter offered for study. It may be advisable to arrange the plan of the building so that a semi-enclosed courtyard obtains in which exhibits are displayed. Here may be growing flower and forestry specimens, labeled for identification, perhaps a vivarium containing a collection of living reptiles, in seminatural enclosures.

An interpretative policy which attempts to duplicate Nature should be avoided as far as possible. It is better to study living specimens in situ, where that is practical, than to attempt to reproduce them under a roof. A case in point is the advisability of studying wildflower collections actually growing in the field as compared to wax or preserved specimens reproduced in a museum display. As an opposite case, however, it is hardly possible for the visitor briefly visiting a park to make a comprehensive study of the local bird population, whereas a collection of mounted birds of the region will facilitate study materially and therefore is a proper exhibit. It should always be borne in mind that the best museum is that one which functions largely and most efficiently as an interpretative agent.

There is sometimes found in parks another facility for nature study often called a "working museum" or a "camp museum" for the lack of a better designation. It is a structure, usually small and semiopen, in which groups visiting or camping in the area—Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls, and other organized youth groups—arrange their temporary collections of leaves, insects, rock, and other specimens as a part of their nature study work under the guidance of nature counselors.

IN ITS ARCHITECTURE the park museum not only offers great opportunity for capturing the spirit and character of an area or region, but it may be said to exist in no small measure for that purpose. Unless there is the flavor of the locality in the structure as well as in the material it houses, it has failed of its particular assignment and potential accomplishment. There is wide latitude for individuality among museum structures, if each is intent on stressing some particular phase of Nature or of history in its structural expression no less than in its content.

The architecture of our park museums of natural history should above everything else reflect the outdoors. In the design of these buildings it is usually desirable to make use of indigenous materials in a novel way. In the case of one of our national parks the stone corner of the building is the local geological column.

Nearing completion at Lake Guernsey State Park, Wyoming, and Custer State Park, South Dakota, are two small museums that well typify the fitting structural gesture toward rugged untamed settings. The former is scheduled to memorialize the Oregon Trail to the Pacific, highlighting the geological facts that foreordained the trail location and the ensuing civilization so dependent on mining and reclamation. The Custer Museum exhibit will probably closely follow on a small scale the typical pattern for museums of the natural sciences. There are in natural parks examples of museums, too numerous to list, touching on one or more of the natural sciences from the regional or local angle. These may be specialized or mixed, and when the latter, it is sometimes in very shocking degree.

In the case of an historical museum building devoted to a specific era, the structural traditions and methods of that period are a well-justified theme for the design. At Boulder Dam State Park, Nevada, a museum has been built in the traditional adobe of the region, dedicated to preservation of the Lost City archaeological finds salvaged before the site of that ancient culture was inundated by the rising waters of lately created Lake Mead.

There is successful precedent for the restoration of an ancient building to display relics of historic significance or examples of early handcrafts. The old stone mill at Indiana's Spring Mill State Park appropriately houses a collection of farm and craft tools, household utensils, and furnishings of pioneer days. Serving as a nature museum in the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in Yosemite National Park is the rebuilt log cabin of a pioneer.

The techniques of organization, lighting, case construction, equipment, and storage for a museum are highly specialized—so much so that within present space limitations these can be touched on only to the extent of urging the importance of consulting trained experts before a museum project, even a minor one, is undertaken.

The interpretation of facts and phenomena of Nature can only enjoy vitality in parks as long as there is alert realization that the natural park in a desirably unmodified state is itself the museum, calling only for the creating of secondary and supplemental facilities to furnish reference, interpretation, identification. The wilderness itself is the book, as it were, requiring only marginal notes. With Mohamet philosophically now come to the mountain, there must be no lapse into the old mountain-to-Manhattan techniques of presentation. If natural beauty and phenomena, plant and animal life, are more desirably viewed under glass, then Times Square, by reason of its very convenience of location, must once again become the setting for the embalmed presentations.

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Last Updated: 04-May-2012