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Conserving the story.

Educator Kurt Hahn said that it is wrong to coerce people into opinions, but it is a duty to impel them into experience. An example of this lies in two different ways of telling the story of horse-drawn vehicles. Both ways compel visitors into experience, both ways connect the audience to the artifact, and both ways sit on the opposite ends of the interpretive spectrum--conservation versus restoration or replication of horse-drawn vehicles. But, are they really opposite?


Many people believe, inaccurately, that they are conserving a horse-drawn vehicle by restoring it. Indeed, conservation of any artifact stabilizes the deterioration of it while also preserving the original luster and texture of the paint, decorative art, woodwork, carving, other materials, and identifying features. A completely original vehicle contains the materials it was originally constructed with--the original wood, paint, upholstery, and other components. It also contains, or more accurately, carries the evidence of wear and tear of its use throughout its existence, essentially appearing in "last-used" condition.

I like to use the Sistine Chapel to illustrate this idea. Michelangelo's artwork in the ceiling was conserved recently; the more recent paint and chemicals covering the original art work were removed and the original Michelangelo paintings revealed. It is a perfect metaphor for what interpreters do: reveal meaning or stories. Wear and tear of the work through the ages cannot be removed in the process of conservation, though continued deterioration can be slowed or even halted. The thought of restoring the Sistine Chapel--scraping the "old paint" off the ceiling and redoing the whole work of art to replicate its look right after Michelangelo finished it--well, the idea is not only impossible, it is simply not appropriate. The result of this absurd treatment would cause the entire meaning of the work and the story behind it to be lost. And is there even another artist who could "copy" the quality of the original artist's work? Restoration is done with horse-drawn vehicles and other artifacts. It has its place, but caution must be used if the goal is to preserve an interpretive story.

Historian and consultant David J. Glass says, "Conservation and stabilization, when and where applicable, allows retention of original materials and fabric of an artifact; essentially the observable record of what was made in the past. Restoration attempts to duplicate these materials and fabrics, and must only be regarded as such."

A restored vehicle may retain some of the original wood and other materials, but anything that is not like the vehicle was as a new one, freshly rolled out from the factory, is lost. A restored vehicle is one that has undergone extensive work: paint is removed, broken components are repaired or replaced, and upholstery is redone. Done well, a restored horse-drawn vehicle looks exactly like it was when first built, but it is nothing more than a silhouette of the original--useful to demonstrate how it looked as a new vehicle, but lacking in the real stuff. The real stuff was wood from an ash, hickory, or yellow poplar tree cut down in 1880 and paint and cloth manufactured from early North American factories.

What is truly important to the art of interpretation is the "real stuff" of stories--provenance, the story behind the artifact. How is the provenance of an artifact valuable to its interpretation? The provenance tells us the story behind the specific artifact.

There is an interesting story behind a panel of rock art at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, a national historic site in southern Alberta, Canada. The interpreter leading a rock art tour I participated in this spring explained it in such a way that it will always stay with me. This relatively recent piece of rock art was drawn by a First Nations person who rode to the Milk River Valley in one of the first automobiles of the time. The content of the art tells us a bit of the story, especially about when the rock art was created because it shows people riding in an early automobile. But it is the story behind the art, the provenance, that really sticks in my mind. Interpretive specialist Bonnie Moffet described how researcher Michael Klassen, in looking at archival photos for the new interpretive center displays, discovered a photo of a First Nations man, Bird Rattle, a Blackfoot person who lived from 1861 to 1937. The photo showed him standing at the base of the sandstone cliff in the process of carving that very image of the automobile!

It illustrated his personal journey from the new reserve, by special permit, to visit the spiritual place along the Milk River he remembered as a child. He had become friends with an engineer who was building roads in the area, and his new friend had driven him back to the sacred valley. And the return to the area riding in an automobile was indeed a life experience for Bird Rattle. The early caption of the photo showing Bird Rattle in the process of carving the art read:
  Piegan elder, Bird Rattle, carving the automobile petroglyphs at
  Writing-On-Stone on September 14th, 1924. Roland H. Willcomb

Roland Willcomb was the engineer who drove Bird Rattle that day. It is the only piece of rock art in the area that I have heard of where the exact time and date of its creation is known and the actual artist is known. Nothing replaces this story, and nothing can. Only being on that spot, at the base of the rock wall, looking at the original carved work and hearing the story from Bonnie made the connection for me. All I could say was, Wow.

How is a restored artifact valuable to the story? What can a silhouette tell us? It tells the active story, how the vehicle worked, how it was used, and what it looked like new. It could tell the showroom story, the factory story--general stuff. If you want particulars, the nitty gritty, make sure you have some of the original artifact left. On the other hand, you cannot underestimate the power of action, when providing the audience with a full interpretive experience. A restored vehicle, or better yet, a replica vehicle, can be used, adding the active component to storytelling. To see that pair of horses in traditional harness pulling the restored Yellowstone coach helps us understand early interpretive tours of Yellowstone National Park. Better yet, hop on and take a ride! This was the way travelers saw the first national park in America, at the turn of the century. You would never do this with an original Yellowstone coach; no matter how you treat the wood of a conserved vehicle, at 100 years it is not structurally sound and the use would destroy the visual clues to the story. But with a replica, the feel, the emotion, and the smell can be added to the story and it becomes an experience.


Charles Philip Fox, author of Horses in Harness, describes early visits to Yellowstone with his grandfather in the 1920s. When asked how he felt, Fox's grandfather, a horseman all his life, would inevitably answer, "Oh, head high, tail over the dashboard." One would not understand this response unless one spent a great deal of time driving a fancy horse "put to" (pulling) a nice little carriage. The person seeking understanding of the horse-drawn vehicle era might notice a horse "feeling his oats" while observing demonstration driving in an arena, but only when actually sitting with the driver, or as a passenger in a carriage, would "tail over the dashboard" come to a fuller understanding by the participant.

Whether you are seeking to enable your visitors' experiences with active interpretation, or to inspire awe with an authentic story, there is an artifact or a replica that can make it happen in many instances. Deciding what type of the horse-drawn vehicle story or experience to give visitors will help you choose where or how to tell the story. To tell a more complete part of our history, you need both the original artifact and its provenance, as well as the replica experience. Conserve the story with an original artifact where possible, and actively use a replica or restored vehicle in sound, safe condition to fully immerse yourself in the active historic experience.

For More Information

Klassen, Michael, James Keyser, and Lawrence Loendorf. 2000. "Bird Rattle's Petroglyphs at Writing-On-Stone: Continuity in the Biographic Rock Art Tradition." Plains Anthropologist vol.45, no.172.

Heidi Eijgel is a visitor services specialist for Southwest Alberta Parks.
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Author:Eijgel, Heidi
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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