Sample Interpretive Text for Museums, Interpretive Trails, Publications, & Video

Museum Exhibit Sample

When the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History decided to stage an exhibit focused on Walter Cronkite, Ron worked with center staff and Riggs Ward Design to create “Walter Cronkite: Eyewitness to a Century.” Ron’s introductory text set up the exhibit storyline.

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“I had a pretty good seat at the parade. I was lucky enough to have been born at the right time to see most of this remarkable century.”  Walter Cronkite

As the 20th century paraded by, Walter Cronkite observed with unapologetic curiosity. Decade by decade, story after story, he honed his reporting skills, adapting to and shaping the tools of mass communication—print, radio, film, and television. Thanks to his watchful eyes, his way with words, and his journalistic professionalism, he used his baritone voice like a soothing instrument to tell multiple generations the unfolding stories of their times.

This exhibit explores those stories, how Cronkite chose to tell them, and why millions decided to trust what he said.

Following the success of the Cronkite exhibit, the Dolph Briscoe Center returned to the Riggs Ward team to re-imagine the exhibits at the Sam Rayburn Museum. Rather than present the traditional chronological biography, Ron suggested a thematic approach organized around Rayburn’s leadership philosophy. Once again, the opening panel for the exhibit explained the theme and its contemporary relevance.

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The Leadership of Mr. Sam

Sam Rayburn is one of the 20th century’s most significant political leaders.

First elected to the House of Representatives in 1912, Rayburn served as Speaker of the House of Representatives for a record 17 years.

His leadership as Speaker, Democratic minority leader, and elder statesman coincided with the New Deal, the Second World War, the early years of the Cold War, the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, and the introduction of John Kennedy’s New Frontier.

His leadership philosophy, honed by decades of public service and re-introduced throughout this exhibit, still offers insights into political success.

Throughout the exhibit, the text uses Rayburn quotations to illustrate his leadership style.

Homestyle Politics

Sam Rayburn practiced “homestyle” politics.

In addition to personal honesty and humility, Rayburn insisted on maintaining close ties to his Texas constituents. “When Congress is in session,” he advised other members of Congress, “your place is [in Washington, D.C.]” But “when Congress is not in session, your place is in your district.”

This commitment to the common folks of rural Texas influenced his insistence that the Democratic Party maintain its status as the “party of the people.”

To Get Along—Go Along

Texas politics taught Rayburn many lessons including how to govern when lawmakers split into powerful factions.

The U. S. Congress, particularly after the 1930s, required leadership that could encourage loyalty, nurture close personal bonds, mediate and build bridges among Republicans, conservative Democrats, and moderate/liberal Democrats.

Rayburn described himself as a “progressive conservative or a conservative progressive,” and refused to allow party affiliation to translate into personal contempt.

His leadership style embraced one of his classic pieces of advice—to get along, at times you had to go along.  “You can’t be a leader and ask other people to follow you unless you know how to follow too.”

Poverty is Very Dangerous

The New Deal provided Rayburn with important opportunities to stand up for his own constituents and for rural Americans around the nation.

He aligned the federal government on the side of the poor against large corporations and banks. A regulated economy, he thought, could limit economic stratification and income inequality.

Rayburn spoke plainly: “The people of America must rise or fall together. One segment can’t be poor and needy, while the rest is rich and prosperous.” Born poor, he judged poverty “not only a very sad thing to me, but I think it is very dangerous.”

 

Museum Exhibit Sample

Two exhibits, one in Virginia followed by another in New York City, explored the continued relevance of Magna Carta using a 1215 original copy of the document as the central artifact. This text introduces the exhibit theme.

Power Concedes Nothing:

Magna Carta & the Quest for Individual Rights

Magna Carta still resonates across time. “To this day, Magna Carta remains a beacon for nations and peoples committed to the ideals of democracy and individual freedom.” Sandra Day O’Connor, Associate Justice (Retired), United States Supreme Court

As this exhibit illustrates, the ideas recorded nearly 800 years ago on aging velum have spread, interpreted and adapted by one generation after another. The rights demanded by English barons have expanded far beyond noble men. Across time, in many places, for different causes, Magna Carta has inspired challenges to power and demands for individual rights.

Section quote

Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will.”  Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist

 

Museum Exhibit Sample

It’s important to introduce an exhibit theme by both title and text. The title creates expectations that text, images, and artifacts fulfill.

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 On the Move

A History of Transportation in St. Charles County

This exhibit is about people on the move.

It’s a story of the rivers, roads, and railroads that have, for decades or even centuries, made travel around the county possible.

It’s about the ways that geography influenced transportation routes, and how transportation still influences where people live and work. It explores how travel affects interaction with the “outside” world.

As this story moves through time, it highlights changes in technology that made movement easier and faster, and shows how transportation reshuffled the social and commercial life of St. Charles County.

Come in and see a county in motion.

 

 Wayside Exhibit Text

Text for wayside exhibits, in parks and along trails, brings a different challenge. The need for brevity remains, but the subject of the text is a vista, landscape, environment, or building. A series of panels written for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway illustrates how to give a setting interpretive meaning.

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Learning The Land

Born nearby on Anthony Thompson’s plantation in 1822, Harriet Tubman spent more than 25 years living and laboring amid landscapes like these.

The environment shaped the nature of life here. Within this setting, Tubman learned how to navigate creeks and wetlands, forests and fields.  She knew where to find food, and how to move about unseen. Her mastery of these skills was vital to her success as one of the best-known conductors on the Underground Railroad.

In this park, and along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, many of the landscapes that surround you would look familiar to Tubman if she returned here today. Discover Tubman’s life story in the state park’s visitor center. On foot, by bike, or by kayak explore the Eastern Shore that shaped Tubman’s life.

Slavery’s Arboretum

The forests and waterways of the Eastern Shore, traditional homeland of the Choptank and Nanticoke Indians, provided the backdrop for the austere home life, backbreaking labor, and dramatic escapes of enslaved blacks.

Hundreds of acres of white oak, black walnut, poplar, hickory, and sweet gum trees, located near river transportation, provided income to local landowners. Harriet Tubman and her father Ben Ross not only graded and harvested the timber in these forests, but Harriet learned lessons for living off the land.

When fugitives chose flight, they applied these lessons to survive.  Fruit trees offered food.  Greenbrier thickets ripped clothes and scratched bodies. The spiked fruit of the sweet gum might painfully pierce hurried feet, but the tree’s resin soothed painful wounds.

Little things, learned by living here, spelled success or failure on the Underground Railroad. Walk the trails ahead and enter the natural lifeline that sustained, or hindered, a journey to freedom.

 

Emphasis on sustained storyline may be less critical for some projects. Instead, in many settings, installations can be more self-contained. While design features like layout, colors, fonts, and hardware make individual units part of a system, panel storylines often are focused on what is directly in front of the viewer.

Founders Park FMP (color)

Carroll’s Pride

Nurseryman Tim Carroll would be proud, but hardly surprised.  A one time resident of Australia, Carroll knew the potential grandeur of the Moreton Bay fig trees that he sold to Anaheim residents in the early years of the 20th century.  No one has a bill of sale, but the facts point to Carroll’s nursery as the source for the massive tree, native to Australia, that you see here.

What better introduction to the flora of Founders Park?  The walk beneath the tree’s shade and along the OK Trail, donated by a local patron of Anaheim history, winds through a botanical catalog of local plant history.  Carefully chosen to reflect the outdoor landscapes of 19th-century Anaheim, park plantings include grapes and walnut trees, ornamentals like roses, and native cacti and succulents.

An Architectural Sampler

The houses of Founders Park illustrate how 19th-century Anaheim architecture changed.

The modest Mother Colony House represents the first years of the Anaheim colony.  It reflects the hard work of creating a homestead around a simple, single-story house that seems grafted to the ground beneath.  While not the frontier, Anaheim colony was miles from the markets of Los Angeles, the nearest seaport, or the closest railroad depot.

The Woelke home, in contrast, soars. Decoratively ornate, it reflects the growing prosperity of Anaheim and the desire to bring the latest styles to the city.  The Industrial Revolution introduced mass production to housing construction including gingerbread details for Victorian homes.  The port at Anaheim Landing brought shipping closer, and the railroad rolled into town in 1875.

“Lured into the Open” 

Southern California’s climate, concluded writer George Wharton Taylor, lures residents into the open.  Throughout its entire history, Anaheim has proven Taylor correct.  Photo after photo shows families posing outside in the California sunlight amidst useful furnishings—fences and clotheslines—as well as decorative features—flower gardens and grape arbors.  Hand pumps share backyards with swings.  Chicken coops with horse barns.  Windmills, in a variety of shapes, catch breezes bred over the Pacific Ocean to pump water gathered below.

Just as the interiors of the houses in Founders Park illustrate indoor life, the backyards reassembled here remind visitors that Californians, then as well as now, extend their home life out of doors.

 

On occasion, a wayside exhibit project may require connected stories. This was the case for a series of trail signs along the San Gabriel River in Los Angeles County where each panel explored a different perspective on the river.

San Gabriel Stories:  Jardin de Roca

Countless flash floods, spanning millennia, swept mountain debris—mud, gravel, and rock—into the San Gabriel Valley creating what the Spanish called a garden of rock—jardin de roca.

And lest you think that massive, water-born rockslides are history, the Santa Fe Dam stands as a four-mile long, 92-foot high reminder that the Army Corps of Engineers worries that the past could happen again.  Completed in 1949, the dam is intended to stop errant mud and debris flows from upriver and save downstream cities from burial.

Meanwhile, modern machines remove the stony deposits that collected here.  Several nearby quarries yield more aggregate—gravel and stone—than any others in the state, billions of tons since 1900.  As this redistribution of San Gabriel Mountain rocks continues, the jardin de roca is now embedded in buildings, parking lots, airport runways, and freeways all across Los Angeles.

San Gabriel Stories: Sanctuary

Whittier Narrows has a reputation for birds, native birds and migrating birds—300 species of birds.  With the Puente Hills rising on the east and west, as the San Gabriel River slips through this gap on its way to the ocean, this open land provides a natural sanctuary in urbanized Los Angeles.

The birds are here because of a mix of oak, sycamore, and willow woodlands plus marsh, grasslands, and coastal sage scrub.  Lakes and spreading grounds provide an added, irresistible attraction, particularly for ducks and geese.  There are heron along the river and in wetlands.  Songbirds—yellow-breasted chat, California towhee, and dozens of other species—prefer the grasslands.  Birds of prey—hawks and owls—thrive on the narrows’ small mammals.

Nurtured by this checkerboard of habitats, bird diversity is so great that one bird count reached 102 species on a single day.

 

Sidebar Text for Publication

The “sidebars” in The American Revolution Handbook provided an opportunity to write short, but more expansive interpretive stories than possible in exhibits.

 

Silken Slippers and Wooden Shoes

French philosopher Voltaire observed that “history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.” Usually, however, history reveals more about the owner of the slippers and little about the servant clad in wooden shoes.  We know volumes about George Washington, but much less about Thomas Stone (a signer of the Declaration). We know little about Stone’s wife, and virtually nothing about those enslaved on Stone’s plantation.

But there are ways to sidestep preservation biases. At national parks, history often is preserved in building fabric—scholars use house inventories, written accounts, land surveys, archeological, and architectural evidence for reconstruction and refurnishing. Morristown’s Ford Mansion reveals as much about Theodosia Ford, her children, and servants as it does about her wartime tenants—George Washington and his “family” of aides. The cabins at Morristown and Valley Forge reflect the lives of soldiers. Signers’ homes—Adams, Stone, Floyd, Pinckney—or the room where Jefferson wrote the Declaration, place the famous in parlors, bedrooms, and kitchens. Birthplaces—Adams and Washington—suggest influences on adult attitudes.

Many park collections include documents that widen perspectives on events—political cartoons, petitions, broadsides, and first person observations like the Spanish commander’s account of the British attack on Arkansas Post or the journals of the Baroness von Riedesel, wife of the commander of Germans fighting for the British. Personal diaries and letters of everyday people provide details of individual lives. Eighteenth-century newspapers overflow with information—what was for sale or who was in business. Notices describing runaway slaves or servants help document the extent and nature of American servitude. Oral traditions fill gaps in written records. Artifacts—like wooden shoes—illustrate the lives of servants, women, and children.

In a publication like the handbook, even the captions for book illustrations can, and should, be interpretive.

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In 1770, when King George III posed with Queen Charlotte and their six children (above), the royal family of colonies already showed signs of estrangement.  Disagreements over the exercise of authority, arguments over finances, and distance each played a role in growing imperial tension.  Between 1762 and 1783, while George III fathered 15 children, his paternalistic attitudes helped lose the American colonies.  “I wish nothing but good,” he said, but “everyone who does not agree is a traitor or a scoundrel.”

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Like the members of Congress, the furnishings in Independence Hall’s Assembly (above) ranged from modest to flamboyant.  Uncarpeted wood floors and simple green table covers contrast with the elegant silver inkstand made by Philip Syng (above) probably used to sign the Declaration.

 

Washington (above) fought from beginning to end.  From the day the Second Continental Congress chose him to command the Continental Army in 1775, until the day he resigned his commission in 1783, Washington built an impressive record for military resilience.  He not only survived battle, he outlasted political intrigue and the jealousy of rivals.  At war’s end, he even survived success, choosing to retire voluntarily to Mount Vernon.

 

Ron prepared a similar series of captions and sidebar essays for a handbook about the War of 1812.

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Governing can be contentious. As political factions formed, Federalist Roger Griswold and Democratic-Republican Matthew Lyon fought with cane and fire tongs on the floor of the House of Representatives.

 

Teyoninhokovrawen, Major John Norton, lived in multiple worlds. Born in Scotland, he joined the British Army, moved to Canada, was adopted by the Mohawk community, and defended Canada against American invasion.

 

Battle art often contains fact and fiction. Romanticized 19th- and early 20th- century images rarely showed the full composition of Jackson’s New Orleans army–regulars, militia, Choctaw Indians, and free men of color.

 Hiram Cronk

Hiram Cronk:  Icon of an Era

Hiram Cronk belonged to an elite fraternity of sorts, a small group who not only survived bloody conflict but who outlived all their fellow comrades in arms.

Men like: Jonathan Benjamin, the last veteran of the French and Indian War;  Lemuel Cook, the oldest official veteran of the American Revolution; and Owen Thomas Edgar, the final survivor of the Mexican American War.  History remembers these veterans not for battlefield exploits, but because each lived long enough to become an icon.  As each passed, another era seemed to end.  “A time always comes,” observed a New York Times reporter, “when the very last veterans of a war pass away.”  At that moment, we “relegate the cataclysm they saw with their own eyes to the bloodless abstraction of recorded history.”

Cronk illustrates this inevitable reality.  As a teenager, he enlisted in the New York militia that defended the shipyard at Sackets Harbor in 1814.  He served perhaps 100 days.  Yet when he died at the age of 105, in 1905, the West

Virginia Bluefield Daily Telegraph, anointed him as “the last link connecting the simplicity of Jefferson’s day with the strenuous complexity of the present.”

Thousands lined the streets of New York City as his funeral cortege, “an imposing and unusual spectacle,” passed by.  Police, military units, and city officials, including the mayor, joined the procession.  Cronk lay in state in City Hall before burial in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill Cemetery.

Another chapter closed and the War of 1812 slipped from living memory.

Presidentess

Although some dubbed the War of 1812 “Mr. Madison’s War,” it was Mrs. Madison—Dolley Madison—who burnished her reputation with wartime grit.

Even 200 years later, history books retell how Mrs. Madison saved George Washington’s portrait.  As British invaders approached, Dolley directed White House slaves to break the portrait’s frame, remove the canvas, and rescue it from capture or incineration.

Mrs. Madison’s fame, however, rested on a lifetime of accomplishment not one event.  Born into a Quaker family, Dolley met James Madison in Philadelphia after the death of her first husband John Todd.  She occasionally served as widower Thomas Jefferson’s White House hostess.  But her real contribution can be traced to her own tenure as “presidentess.”

Biographer Catherine Allgor argues that Dolley’s social activities and her ability to build bipartisan bridges “legitimized her husband’s administration to the nation and the world and went a long way to establishing Washington City as a capital.”  She masterfully used “conciliation to disarm and defuse a violent political culture.”

Only after Mrs. Madison brought her blend of intelligence and charm to the White House did an enduring role for the president’s spouse emerge.  Her parties delighted guests with surprises, perhaps apocryphal, like a “magnificent pink dome of ice cream.”  Her open houses added a sparkle of the ceremonial to the democratic, and a dose of the resolute in time of crisis.

Thankfully, President Zachary Taylor takes credit for retiring the title “presidentess” by using of the term “first lady” for the first time, at Dolley Madison’s 1849 funeral.

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Film Script

 A script for film requires a different approach. The text must convert easily to the spoken word. Facts must be more than information. Everything—words, images, tone of voice–must support a unified story holds attention for minutes or fractions of hours.

 

General Grant National Memorial

General Grant National Memorial is the largest tomb in North America, a memorial to the ways that we select, commemorate, and enshrine the lives of past and present heroes.

Under the building’s dome lie the remains of an Ohio general who fought tenaciously to save the Union during the Civil War, and then twice won election as President of the United States.

After Ulysses Grant died in 1885 and his family agreed to a New York City burial, the Grant Monument Association started a fundraising effort and design contest for an appropriate tomb.   From among 65 contestants, architect John Hemenway Duncan emerged the winner.  His soaring neoclassical building required 8,000 tons of granite to complete and helped to elevate his popularity at the turn of the 20th century.  It dominates its location in Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson River.

Over a million people, including President William McKinley, attended the dedication of Grant’s tomb on April 27, 1897, the 75th anniversary of Grant’s birth.  Julia Dent Grant, the president’s wife, made her last public appearance at the dedication and, following her death in 1902, she also was laid to rest inside the tomb beside her husband. Her personal memoir ended tenderly. “The light of his glorious fame,” she wrote of her companion, “still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.”

Today, in a restored building that recaptures its 19th-century elegance, the Grants lie together beneath mosaics of the general’s Civil War victories—Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and General Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—added in 1966.

 

African Burial Ground National Monument

African Burial Ground National Monument, just steps away from Broadway, sheds light on one of the city’s longest but least well-known chapters in its history—the contributions made by free and enslaved Africans to 17th– and 18th-century New York.

Rediscovered in 1991, the burial ground holds an estimated 15,000-20,000 people of color.  For more than 100 years, acres and acres of Manhattan received the mortal remains and cultural legacy of generations of mostly enslaved Africans who could not, by law, be buried within the city limits.  The site is widely considered one of America’s most significant archeological finds of the 20th century.  Thanks to intense research and analysis led by Howard University in cooperation with scholars throughout the country, the monument helps fill out the mosaic of America’s ancestors and expand our understanding of who we are.

The burial ground also awakened the community and triggered a commitment not only to preserve but also to honor this chapter in U.S. history.  By presidential proclamation, in 2006, a roughly seven-acre portion of the burial ground became a national monument and a unit in the National Park System.  An interactive visitor center, artwork, and outdoor memorial ensure that the stories of these immigrants, transplanted by force, will not be forgotten again. Dramatic interpretive tours make this one of America’s more emotionally charged national parks.

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Lower Eastside Tenement Museum

 Everyday details of New York’s legendary immigrant history await visitors to the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum.  Built in 1863, the apartment now occupied by the museum housed nearly 7,000 working class immigrants over decades of use.

Buildings like 97 Orchard Street—the humble, refurnished rooms and the neighborhood streets lined with one, two, a dozen tenement houses—became the first American homes for family after immigrant family. Museum co-founder Anita Jacobson described 97 Orchard in 1988. “It was as though people had just picked up and left.  It was a little time capsule . . .” By preserving not the history of the rich and famous but stories of the common folk of their day, tenements link yesterday to today in compelling ways that everyone can relate to—working for a better future, making a new life, supporting a family with limited means.

One step at a time, the museum continues to expand. In 1992, the museum opened its first restored apartment, the 1878 home of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family.  More recently, apartment number six opened as the 1869 home of the Moores, Irish immigrants.

Guided tours invite you not only to step back in time and become immersed in tenement life but also to think about parallels to 21st-century debates on immigration and public health.

 

Conclusion

Once you enter the New York gateway there is so much to see and explore.  Nature, recreation, and history all await discovery. Whichever national parks you visit during your travels around the New York Harbor, you will find another national treasure.  Some national park stories are as familiar as Lady Liberty and George Washington.  Others may be new to you—the daily life of immigrant families transplanted to Lower Manhattan or the burying ground for thousands of enslaved Africans. All around the New York Harbor you can find stories of the people and ideas that shaped our politics, of the evolving defense of our boundaries, and of the immigrant families that infused new hope and different points of view into our national life and popular culture. Perhaps you will connect with a little known chapter in your own family’s past.

To adopt the sentiments of the legendary transatlantic pilot Charles Lindbergh, “Only New York can produce such a welcome.”

 

 

 
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