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Interpretation Along Route 66

Interpretation Along Route 66

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US/ICOMOS International SymposiumInterpretation Along Route 66
by: Taylor, Michael R.; Kaisa Barthuli; Andrea Sharon“…the path and road stood for some intense experience: freedom, new humanrelationships, a new awareness of the landscape. The road offered a journey into theunknown that could end up allowing us to discover who we were and where webelonged.”
 John Brinkerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time
The challenges of interpreting significant cultural corridors are many, and often includecomplexities of geographic distance, layering of history, and diversity of cultural themes.Historic Route 66 characterizes many of these challenges, as the corridor is more than2,400 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 periodof time that is often under-valued or little understood.This paper will discuss how the National Park Service (NPS) Route 66 CorridorPreservation Program is working with stakeholders including private property owners,nonprofit organizations, and government agencies, to address issues of interpretationalong the cultural corridor. The NPS program, established in 2001, is directed by theUnited States Congress to provide financial and technical assistance to stakeholders forhistoric preservation of the corridor. One of the roles of the NPS program is to encourageand support grassroots interpretive initiatives, in a deliberate effort to maintain the“idiosyncratic nature of the Route” (Public Law 106-45.) The diversity of interpretivemedium 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 20
century, andwith it came the symbiotic relationship of the car and the highway. History will look atthis car culture era as pivotal in how people interact and conduct their daily lives. Autohighways can unite and provide efficient means to travel long distances. But they canalso divide as witnessed by highways slicing through neighborhoods of thedisenfranchised, separating the “haves” from the “have nots”. Highways have dictatedhow 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 longsuffered from neglect by historians and students of the landscape: dismissed as anunsightly, elongated, crooked space used by merchants and ravaging armies and highwayrobbers…”1
 Historic automobile highways throughout the world are finally being considered asimportant parts of our 20
century heritage. Highways such as the German autobahnsystem, the early scenic Swiss auto routes, the Pan American Highway, and the designedroads within the U.S. National Parks are just a few examples. Even the U.S. interstatesystem, considered by many to be the largest man-made structure in the world, is gainingrecognition as a seminal social phenomena that has changed, for better or worse, the waypeople 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 historiccorridor is recognizable by millions of people all over the world. Some would be reticentto consider placing Route 66 in the same category with other historic routes in the worldsuch as the Silk Road, Camino de Santiago, the Tokaido Road, and the many CaminosReales in the former Spanish Empire. However, Route 66 is representative of theenormous significance and large-scale impact of the automobile on the development,history, and culture of America. It is unique among other historic automobile highwaysbecause of its phenomenal relationship with the arts, and its popularity as an all-weatherroute connecting the industrial Midwest to the California coast. Created in 1926, Route 66 cut across America through eight states from Chicago to LosAngeles linking rural communities to urban ones, and permitting an unprecedented flowof ideas and economic growth across the country. It saw the migration of Dust Bowlrefugees; World War II troop movement; large-scale settlement of the West; and theadvent of car culture and automobile tourism. For many people in the United States, thehighway has come to symbolize the spirit and freedom of America, and the pursuit of theAmerican Dream. It has gained legendary status through literature, song, film, television,and personal experiences, and represents an important developmental chapter inAmerican history.
The National Park Service and Route 66
Historic automobile highways are similar in many respects to officially designatedNational Historic Trails (such as the Oregon and Santa Fe) in that they are linear culturalresources with stories to tell, many of them thousands of miles long, crossing diversecultural 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 publicwith the need to preserve the character defining features of the highway. There is also noestablished program to deal exclusively with the preservation of historic highways in theUnited States, as there is with 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 Programwas established by Congressional directive. This unique program is administered by theNational 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 fiscalyear 2009, at which time a non-federal entity (or entities) will continue the program’s2
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; andlocal, state, federal, and tribal governments to identify, prioritize, and address Route 66preservation needs. It provides cost-share grants to successful applicants for thepreservation and restoration of the most significant and representative properties datingfrom the route’s period of outstanding historical significance. These properties includethe familiar transportation related properties such as motels, gas stations, cafés; theengineered 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 insightinto the history, context and significance of the highway, as well as to preserve the storiesand experiences of the people and culture of the road. The program also serves as aclearinghouse 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 Statesand internationally for many decades. In the 1950s, NPS hired Freeman Tilden, a journalist, to visit the national parks and evaluate their interpretive programs. Aftervisiting many park areas, viewing many indoor and outdoor exhibits, and attending manyranger-led interpretive programs, Tilden developed several principals that definedeffective interpretation. These principals were the “mantra” for professional interpretersup until 1996. At that time NPS reevaluated and updated their definition of effectiveinterpretation. 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-usefacilities 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 interpretationhappens 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 interpretiveopportunity. 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 theemotional and intellectual values inherent in the resource. The person and/or the mediaserves as a catalyst for the visitor to make those connections. The emotional connectionsare those “universal” concepts that we as human share regardless of culture, country, orcontinent. 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 evenprovide interpretive opportunities in the first place, and that is—through interpretationcomes understanding; through understanding comes appreciation; and throughappreciation comes protection. We protect those things we appreciate!3

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