Monthly Archives: October 2010

Getting the message across at King’s Mountain

My mentor in the public history business used to say, “A museum is a communication device.”  His opinion was (and still is, I suppose) that the primary objective of a museum or historic site is to convey information.  In this post and the next I’d like to look at some effective techniques that museums and historic sites use to communicate.  My examples will all come from my favorite site—King’s Mountain National Military Park in northwestern South Carolina.

Of course, as I write this, we’re just a few hours away from the anniversary of the Battle of King’s Mountain, so it seems like an appropriate example.  Plus, I just returned from a visit there, so it’s still fresh in my mind.  More importantly, KMNP has a first-rate exhibit, and if you want to illustrate how to do something well, you might as well look at the best there is.

It’s quite a bit harder to communicate with exhibits, objects, landscapes, and buildings than it is to use the written or spoken word.  Text and speech are linear; they’re composed of words that the receiver must take in a certain order, while sitting in the comfort of his or her own home or a in quiet library.  There are a few obstacles that can get in the way of the message, but a good writer can surmount them.  With a museum or historic site these obstacles multiply exponentially.  People are standing rather than sitting, they sometimes walk in the wrong direction or skip over crucial elements, there is background noise from other visitors, and so on.

King’s Mountain unveiled a new visitor center exhibit a few years ago, during the 225th anniversary festivities.  I was lucky enough to be there when it opened, and I was astounded at the remarkable job the Park Service did in putting it together. Here’s what you experience when you step into the gallery.

The exhibit set looks like a southern old-growth forest with massive tree trunks. This is what the battleground itself looked like at the time of the battle.  Today the trees on the slopes of King’s Mountain are younger and smaller, but in 1780 the militiamen fighting on the ridge found trees that were so large they provided cover. (One young participant remembered, probably with a little exaggeration, that the tree he used as a personal fortification was almost shorn of bark from flying musket balls during the engagement.)

The nifty thing is that these aren’t just mock-ups of trees.  This is more than an immersive environment.  The tree trunks also serve a more direct interpretive function because they’re the kiosks where the exhibit content is located.

Some of the tree trunks have door-like openings, and when you step inside you’re surrounded by the text and images that most other exhibits put on walls and panels. Adjacent to the trees are the artifact cases.  It’s an innovative design; it creates an environment that shows visitors what the conditions of the battlefield were, and then incorporates the other exhibit elements into that environment.

It also encourages exploration.  Visitors in a run-of-the-mill exhibit gallery will quickly get “exhibit fatigue” and start to bypass areas, missing important portions of the narrative.  Here, by contrast, the narrative is divided among the artificial trees, each of which hides much of its content within its curving walls while simultaneously inviting the visitor to step inside the door.  Like a good novel, this exhibit keeps beckoning you on, compelling you to see what’s around the next corner, inside the next tree.

Now, here’s the really cool part.  When you enter one of these tree trunks, an audio recording automatically starts up, explaining what you’re seeing in more detail and providing first-person narration from historical participants.  The interior of each tree also has a small video screen that provides running captions of the accompanying audio recording.  If a visitor is hearing impaired, they can still tell what’s being said by reading the text.

Note that the narration shown here is describing the contents of the exhibit case next to the tree.  The audio narration includes a detailed description of all the images and artifacts in that part of the exhibit.  Visually-impaired visitors can still “see” everything that a sighted visitor would experience by listening to the audio.  The narration even describes the graphics in each tree trunk’s interior.  (“To the right is a picture of a militiaman, wearing a dark slouch hat and with a blanket roll and rifle slung over his shoulder,” etc.)

So visitors that can’t hear can still read the narration on the screens, and visitors that can’t see can still hear the narration as it describes each component of the exhibit.  Visitors that are neither hearing nor visually impaired have the information reinforced by both hearing it explained and seeing it for themselves, and since they can receive it passively, they’re more likely to take it all in.  Nobody gets left out. This is one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated employments of technology in a public history setting that I’ve ever come across.

I’ve been to many museum exhibits where technology has become a snare rather than a tool for the designers.  They will sometimes employ a device without regard for whether or not it’s the best means to convey that particular message.  I suspect there’s a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality at work in the public history community, in which curators incorporate the latest gadget just because they have the budget for it, not because it’s the best tool for the job.  At King’s Mountain, by contrast, what you see is technology used wisely.  Every exhibit element serves a purpose, and every visitor gets the message.  The folks who designed this exhibit knew what they were doing, and they did it superbly.

Next time we’ll look at another innovative way the park is using technology to interpret the Battle of King’s Mountain.

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Patriots and plantations

While the relationship between England and her American colonies was turning sour, a Scotch-Irish settler named William Bratton migrated to northwestern South Carolina, where he became a local officeholder, a slaveowner, and a colonel in the militia.  His sons were substantial men in their own right; one of them, a doctor, built his own house a stone’s throw from the one where his father had lived, and later descendants continued to build on and farm the land near William’s original farm.  This collection of homes, plantations, stores, and taverns acquired the name “Brattonsville” from the family that prospered there for several generations.

Today Historic Brattonsville is an outdoor museum and living history site, one of a chain of York County’s Culture and Heritage Museums, which range in subject matter from local history to the environment.  By preserving the homes and stories of successive generations of the Bratton family, the site allows visitors to explore the history of upper South Carolina from its settlement in the pre-Revolutionary years through the late nineteenth century.  I’d always missed it on my trips through that part of South Carolina, so this time I made it a priority, and I’m glad I did.  It’s worth seeing.

The Revolutionary backcountry is only part of the story told at Brattonsville, but it’s probably the one most familiar to many of the history enthusiasts who visit.  In fact, the property includes the site of a small but significant Revolutionary War battle in which William Bratton participated.  In the summer of 1780, as partisan militia rallied to harass the British who occupied South Carolina, a detachment under the command of the despised Captain Christian Huck of the British Legion came to the Brattonsville area looking to arrest Whig leaders.  One Loyalist threatened William Bratton’s wife with a reaping hook, an incident re-told in many accounts of the backcountry war.  On July 11 Huck and his men camped at James Williamson’s plantation, just a short distance from Bratton’s house.  Bratton himself was one of the militiamen who surprised them there the next morning.  It was a short fight, lasting only ten or fifteen minutes, and there were only a few hundred men involved, but it cost Huck his life and was one of the first Whig victories following the fall of Charleston.  It’s the kind of thing that would have made a rollicking sequence in The Patriot, and indeed some scenes from that movie were filmed at Brattonsville.  (Let me add a plug here for the thoroughly-researched book on Huck’s Defeat by historian Michael Scoggins, who works for Culture and Heritage Museums.)

There are about thirty historic or recreated structures to see at Historic Brattonsville, many of them original to the Bratton plantation but others moved from the surrounding region to illustrate life in upper South Carolina from the 1760′s to the late 1800′s.  They include William Bratton’s Revolutionary-era house, the large two-story “Homestead” built by his son, a couple of later homes inhabited by other Bratton descendants, some representative examples of backcountry cabins, various plantation outbuildings and barns, and a few slave dwellings.  The staff raise animals here, most of them breeds that were once common on American farms but are now quite scarce.  Adjacent to the buildings are several trails that wind among lovely woods and ponds and past the Huck’s Defeat battleground.

It’s largely a self-guided tour.  At the visitor center you pick up a walking map with information about the buildings, and a small exhibit area and orientation film help to provide some context for what you’ll be seeing.  A couple of costumed guides escorted me through the Homestead house, but you’re mostly on your own, and you can therefore wander around the grounds and through the open structures at your own pace.  The map and some signage provide the basics on names, dates, and uses, but you don’t always get the rich depth that a guided tour provides, although I enjoyed the freedom to explore.  The orientation room in the visitor center has some background information and a few display cases, including props from The Patriot.  I’d advise you to visit Brattonsville’s website, which has more detailed background material on the larger buildings and the Bratton family, so that you can get the most out of a visit.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many interpreters onsite.  Brattonsville has an active and exemplary living history program.  On the day I visited the focus was on antebellum slavery, and there were both lectures, demonstrations, and scripted reenactment scenarios, all of them very well-done.  The personnel were knowledgeable and enthusiastic; they fielded questions with ease, and the visitors were interested and having a good time.  The interpretations weaved the stories of the Brattons and their enslaved laborers together very deftly.

There is plenty to take in, but most of it’s within a fairly compact area.  To check out the buildings and hit the Huck’s Defeat battleground took me a little over two hours.  If you decide to hike the longer nature trails, expect to spend quite a bit longer, because they’re quite extensive.  The visitor center has a small shop, stocked mostly with gift and decorative items, but there are a few southern history books on sale, too.  It’s an extremely pleasant setting, in a rural part of York County; visiting would be an enjoyable experience even for people who aren’t particularly interested in history.

What I find compelling about this site is the fact that it encompasses such a panorama of South Carolina history—the frontier backcountry, the furious partisan fighting of the Revolution, the antebellum years, the Civil War, and the troubled era that followed.  Because the Brattons lived there during all these events, their story is essentially the story of the Carolina backcountry, from its settlement to the late 1800′s.  Historic Brattonsville is a fine example of preservation and interpretation, combining an intimate portrait of one family with the grand sweep of more than a century’s worth of history in one of the most fascinating regions in America.  Put this site on your itinerary when you travel to western South Carolina.

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Greetings from the Carolina backcountry

I’m sitting in a hotel room about thirty miles from my favorite place—King’s Mountain National Military Park.  I tagged along on a trip to southwestern North Carolina this weekend, dropped off my companions at their destination, and then hit the battlefield.  A good historical field trip always rouses up the blog muse, so I’ve got what I hope will be some interesting posts lined up.

In the coming days we’ll look at how the folks at King’s Mountain are using technology to interpret the battlefield.  I’m also heading to another historic site tomorrow, one that I’ve never visited before, which means one of my periodic site reviews will be popping up here.  I might end up doing some additional posts on the Revolutionary War in the southern backcountry, too.

Until then, I just finished an afternoon of historical sightseeing, I’ve got a full day of it planned for tomorrow, the wireless access here in the hotel is free, and there are two Mediterranean restaurants and a great used bookstore just down the street.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

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