Saturday, January 15, 2011

Background on the State Historic Sites of New Jersey

The State of New Jersey first officially marked its historic heritage by placing a granite monument at the reburial site of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, beside the Old School Baptist Meeting House in Hopewell in 1865. Between 1873 and 1921, the State authorized the placement of sixteen cemetery markers, battlefield tablets and monuments. In 1874, the Legislature incorporated the Washington Association of New Jersey and appropriated $5,000 annually towards maintenance and perpetuation of Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown. This historic site became the first National Historic Park in the United States when the State of New Jersey conveyed its title and interest therein to the Federal government on July 4, 1933.

The State of New Jersey began acquiring and operating historic sites at the initiative of Governor Franklin Murphy, a member of several patriotic societies, including the Sons of the American Revolution. On April 2, 1902, the Legislature empowered a State commission to purchase and maintain the Old Indian King Tavern at Haddonfield. The provincial Assembly met here in 1777 and ordered substitution of the word “state” for “colony” in all public documents, decisively rooting political sovereignty in the principle of popular self-government. The State of New Jersey took possession on June 15, 1903, undertaking renovations between 1908 and 1910. The purchase of the first 100 acres forming the core of Washington Crossing State Park, including the Ferry House, was made in 1912 and the State acquired its interest in the Old Barracks at Trenton in 1917. Another historic site, the Walt Whitman House in Camden, came under State jurisdiction in 1925.

Between celebrations of the Sesquicentennial of American Independence (1776-1926) and the Washington Bicentennial (1732-1932), the State of New Jersey authorized acquisition and preservation of four more historic sites, namely: the Steuben House at River Edge in 1926; the Dey Mansion at Preakness in 1929; the Hancock House at Lower Alloways Creek in 1931; and the Wallace House at Somerville in 1931. Acquisition of Princeton Battlefield was authorized in March 1927.

The need to administer an expanding historic-sites preservation and interpretive program led to the formation of the Historic Sites Commission in 1931. It was empowered “to acquire by gift or purchase, or by the exercise of the power of eminent domain, areas, properties, lands, or any estate or interest therein, situate within this state, of historic interest or other unusual features which ... should be acquired, preserved, and maintained for the use, education and pleasure of the people of New Jersey.” At the time of its formation, this Commission was vested with the care and control of six historic homes, four Revolutionary War battle monuments and one Revolutionary War site. The Atlantic County Historical Society acquired the Somers Mansion at Somers Point in 1934 and conveyed title to the Historic Sites Commission. The Commission’s functions and properties were transferred to the Division of Forestry, Geology, Parks and Historic Sites in 1945.

Historic Interpretation

A Division of Parks, Forestry and Recreation was re-established in the Department of Conservation and Economic Development on May 27, 1966, and was vested with the responsibility to interpret New Jersey’s heritage through its historic sites. Under state law (Source: 13:1B-101, 13:1B-105), the Office of Historic Sites and the Historic Preservation Office are identified as “administrative units” in the Division of Parks and Forestry and are the current successors in “authority to the former Historic Sites Commission.” Under current law and regulations (Source: 28:1-4248), “The historic sites and historic preservation unit, with the approval of the commissioner, shall adopt regulations for the proper disposition and administration of any monuments or historic sites owned or maintained by the State pursuant to this chapter, or any non-State-owned monuments or historic sites for which the State has “responsibility.” The Commissioner has “the authority to establish by regulation such additional or subordinate administrative units within the historic sites and historic preservation unit as may be appropriate for the efficient and effective administration of the department.” (Source: 13:1B-15.101, 244 13:1B-15.102, 245 13:1B-15.105246)

Under “Powers and duties” (Source: 13:1B-15.105, 28:1-6247) the offices of historic sites and historic preservation unit:

a. Have responsibility for the custody and care of all monuments, the title to which is vested in the state, whether erected within or without the state, and which are not in the control or custody of any other state commission or agency. The historic sites and historic preservation unit may make suitable arrangements for the care of any such monuments with county or municipal officers, or with local commissions or societies, if, in its judgment, such arrangements are proper and desirable.
b. Formulate comprehensive policies for the preservation, restoration and public presentation of all historic sites within the State.
c. Make the necessary research, prepare exhibits and furnish the services required for a proper and adequate interpretive program.
d. Prepare and disseminate informational materials to inform the public with respect to New Jersey's historic sites.
e. Consult and co-operate with groups and organizations in order to advance the purposes of the historic sites program.

On June 21, 1967, the Historic Sites Council was established within the Division of Parks, Forestry and Recreation to consult with and advise the Department Commissioner and the Division Director. It was authorized to recommend programs and policies for: (1) the acquisition, development, use, improvement and extension of historic sites; (2) the development of a broad historic sites preservation program on a statewide and local basis; and (3) the identification, authentication, protection, preservation, conservation, restoration and management of all historic sites within the State. The Council consists of eleven members who are known for their competence and experience in connection with historic sites preservation and related areas, appointed to a four-year term by the Governor with advice and consent of the State Senate. As presently constituted, the Historic Sites Council does administer a broad historic preservation program through its administration of State and Federal historic preservation policies and laws. It has never been active in the acquisition, development, use, improvement or extension of historic sites. While its activities related to the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places involve the identification, authentication, protection, preservation, conservation, and restoration of privately and publicly owned historic properties, it has never been directly involved with the management of State Historic Sites.

The Division of Parks, Forestry and Recreation joined the new Department of Environmental Protection in April 1970 and was designated the Division of Parks and Forestry in 1971.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Historical Interpetation: Connecting People to the Resources

Interpretation centers upon an age-old dilemma: How can I explain? Most dictionary definitions of the word “interpret” offer such meanings as “to explain the meaning of, to conceive the significance of, to present or conceptualize the meaning of.”

Interpreters work to explain whatever is the immediate object of the beholder’s attention and curiosity. The art of interpretation differs from academic teaching in that it seeks to shape the intellectual and emotional content of a first-hand experience. Heritage interpretation always strives to enlighten people as to their interesting and significant surroundings. It never merely describes or recites; it reveals. It does not simply ask us to look; it asks us to imagine. Heritage interpretation places past cultural and natural environments before our mind’s eye.

Heritage interpretation is the instructive act of building context around what is sensibly apparent, exposing, in a sense, the architecture of meaning. As naturalist John Muir once said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Context is any setting or set of circumstances that lends interest or meaning to an individual, object, act or event. As intellectual reconstructions, “contexts” continually evolve as better models are better able to explain what is sensibly apparent. Since good interpretation sustains curiosity, it is an open-ended process.

Heritage interpretation employs the skills of storytelling. It communicates through a variety of media and techniques, working to correct and clarify people’s perceptions of what they have come to experience. An interpreter may choose to blend into the interpretive setting, recreating, for example, the dress, language, skills and activities of a past environment. Or an interpreter may choose to join his or her audience as investigators, exploring and conceptualizing the significance of interpretive clues. But good interpretation is always resource-driven; its themes contextualize and explain the resource; it avoids preconceptions in shaping its message.

Good interpretation tries to capture the “big picture,” yet condenses it into an accessible and digestible storyline. Interpretation only succeeds when it engages the visitor’s level of experience and interest. It builds from a statement of significance, conveying useful information on the meaning and lasting value of the resource. Good interpretation offers insights and does not merely impose conclusions or advocate causes. It leaves judgments to the visitor.

We should acknowledge, however, that present concerns continually reshape our interest in the past and draw our attention. In particular, we search history for insights into the human condition that may prove useful in some present or future context. Without a proven method for predicting future outcomes, we can only look to the past for a sense of how humans have reacted to similar sets of circumstances.

Good and sufficient information underlies all good interpretation. A system of research and development hones conceptualization, performance and content. Professional peer review and visitor response build confidence and ensure accuracy and balance.

Culture can be described as a set of adaptations, which a particular group of people make over time to a particular environment and its resource-based opportunities. The relationship is subtle and reciprocal: people shape the land even as the land shapes its inhabitants. We must recognize that New Jersey’s state parks, forests and historic sites preserve cultural landscapes with nary an untrampled acre of true wilderness — every forest is regrown, every stream diverted to human ends, every lake level raised, and every floral and faunal community manipulated by human activities. Both historical and naturalist interpretations arise from a common resource base.

New Jersey compresses every natural feature of the Atlantic slope — from Appalachian mountains to littoral sands — within a relatively short distance. It boasts many scenic works of nature, but few, other than the Delaware Water Gap, that may be described as filling grand vistas with monumental splendor in the way that the Grand Canyon does. New Jersey, however, encompasses many splendid and diverse cultural landscapes, from its mountains to its seashores. And our historic and natural heritage enriches us by its mere presence; the intricate web of life always evokes wonder and demands explanation.

The broad stream of history certainly flows in our midst. Speaking of New Jersey, the English historian Winterbotham, who published a history of the United States shortly after the Revolution, concluded that: “This State was the seat of the war for several years during the contest between England and America. Her proportionate loss of men and property was greater than any other of the thirteen colonies. While Washington was retreating through New Jersey, almost forsaken by all others, her militia were at all times obedient to his orders and, for a considerable length of time, composed the strength of his army, and the military achievements performed by New Jersey soldiers gives this State one of the first ranks among her sister states in a military way and entitles her to share praise that bears no proportion to her size.” And the story does not end there. Out of all proportion to her size, New Jersey also figures prominently in the political, military, cultural, commercial, industrial and technological development of the United States. But many people have come to believe that History is so remote in time and place that it has lost its power to inform our future. That is why it is now more important than ever to rediscover our Past in those places where it yet has the lively power to quicken the intellect and to enthuse the spirit.

Reviewing Interpretation in the National Park Service: A Historical Perspective, Barry Mackintosh writes:

“Generally speaking, historical parks need interpretation more than natural and recreational parks do. Natural parks, typically encompassing spectacular or outstandingly scenic natural features, may be enjoyed aesthetically by most visitors regardless of whether they understand the geologic or biologic phenomena underlying them. Relatively few visitors to parks established primarily for active recreation are receptive to interpretive programs. But although many historical parks have aesthetic appeal and some accommodate active recreation, few can be greatly appreciated without some explanation of who lived or what occurred there. At historical parks, too, altered or missing features are often restored or reconstructed to better ‘tell the story.’ In far greater proportion than at parks established for other purposes, the [National Park] Service's task at its historical areas — indeed, the basic rationale for its involvement with such areas — is interpretation.”

Institutional compression has made forest management and the interpretation of historic sites subsidiary to a system of recreational parks. This may unduly exaggerate the “recreational” aspects of historical interpretation and environmental education. Furthermore, with the advent of mass entertainment through cable television, the internet and “digital realities,” park interpretation competes with sophisticated nature shows and historical dramatizations for viewers’ attention. The advantage of heritage interpretation over both classroom and screen experiences resides in the inherent quality and value of the first-hand experience.

Oftentimes, scrutiny of a specimen or object opens the best approach to conceptualization in an interpretive environment — a specimen, for example, evidences advantageous adaptations to the particular ecological niche it fills. Likewise, an artifact offers insight into the world of its maker and users. The perception of “authenticity,” or “actuality,” powers the viewer’s imagination. Objects, appropriately described in relation to their original context, contribute significantly to our understanding of past persons, places and events. Arminta Neal, author of Exhibits for the Small Museum, knowingly said:

“A museum is the best device our culture has developed for the transmission of ideas to large numbers of people through the exhibition of genuine objects. This is a museum’s strength. This is what it can do better than any other kind of institution yet devised.”

The goals of the a good historical interpretation may be summarized as follows:

• Meeting the highest standards of scholarly research, develop good and sufficient information necessary to the fair, open-minded and inspired interpretation of our historic and natural resources.

• Relying only upon documented facts, interpretation must be accurate and not merely entertaining or agreeable to popular preconceptions.

• Recruit competent interpreters, possessed of the necessary communications skills, background knowledge and enthusiasm for their work.

• Train and equip them to do a professional job.

• Encourage a variety of interpretive strategies, methods and media, to reach the broadest possible audience.

• Address varying levels and fields of visitors’ interest and experience.

• Seek to inform and not to preach.

• Promote respect for the resource and infer the value of its preservation.

• Acknowledge disagreements and different points of view as helpful to the process of understanding.