For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve gone on a road trip (either with my family as a kid or taking the wheel myself as an adult) I’ve collected brochures and rack cards at rest stops and hotel lobbies. Actually, “collecting” is the wrong term, because I don’t have a collection in the formal sense of the word, just disorganized stashes and piles all over the house. There’s really no reason to keep them, but for some reason I have a hard time throwing them out. I suppose I could’ve created some system for organizing and labeling them, but it’s really more of an obsessive-compulsive habit than anything else.
The other day I made a passing, tongue-in-cheek reference to NPS brochures. These standardized leaflets are familiar to every heritage tourist—an advertising device, tour guide, and teaching tool all rolled into one. Most of the ones I’ve got are wrinkled and crushed from being clutched in a sweaty fist while tramping around on some battlefield. To me, the sight of that white Helvetica font on a black strip has always been a sign that there’s an adventure in the making.
Modern NPS brochures use the Unigrid system designed by Massimo Vignelli in the late 1970’s. It’s versatile enough to allow each site to customize it a little, but of course it also helps maintain consistency across the park system. Consistency and standardization are important, because when you get right down to it, the NPS is a brand.
That applies to interpretation, too. Every public history institution has to develop an interpretive “voice” that works for its multiple audiences, but the NPS has the added task of maintaining a voice across dozens of different sites. This puts some constraints on the people doing the interpreting, something I’d never really thought of until I read this recent post at Interpreting the Civil War.
When you’re a visitor, it’s easy to forget that the NPS is made up of individual people, each of whom have their own ideas about how to interpret a site and must work within the constraints of the brand. Personally, I’ve always found NPS interpretation to be consistently superb. Would any of you folks out there who wear the gray and green care to share your experiences and opinions about doing public history within an agency framework?