Are Battlefields Museums of Interpretive Expression, Too?

From Hennessy:  Unlike most governments, whose planning horizons can’t extend too far beyond the next election, planning and management of an NPS site has to look forward decades, even centuries. These places are, after all, supposed to be as vivid and meaningful to Americans in 1,000 years as they are today.  At the same time, battlefields have become a setting where Americans across generations have expressed themselves toward their past.  The veterans were most ardent about this, of course, but later generations have also found need to leave a mark in the form of monuments–from the Centennial to as recent as last May, when South Carolina dedicated a monument near the Bloody Angle.  In the last fifteen years, the NPS as a whole has recognized the long-term implications of a continuous accumulation of memorial expressions and has put in place a very tough process for getting a monument in a National Park approved. Rightly so.

But we are left still with an even more numerous form of expression:  interpretive exhibits and signs.  At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP we do not have the old War Department markers that are so common at Gettysburg, Antietam, and other  battlefield parks created before 1933, but we do have a fondly regarded layer of interpretation dating from the 1950s: the Happel signs, mentioned by Craig Swain in his post of yesterday.  These are cast aluminum, text-only signs (a few later attempts at imitation include some simple graphics) intended to be read from your vehicle, planned and written by long-time staff historian Ralph Happel.  Here’s an example of a set on Grant Drive at Spotsylvania.

Like many, this set of signs includes a companion cast-aluminum map, also from the 1950s.  These signs are beautifully written, generally accurate, and their distinctive form has become closely identified with the park.  Some local developers have even copied the style, and a few grace local subdivisions.

But, they are upright and huge.  They were designed in a different age, when the intent was for visitors to tour the park in their cars, without much footwork on the ground (though over time they were often put in places only accessible to pedestrians).  And the maps that accompany them are invariably badly out of date. As an added joy, they need to be hand-painted every few years.

The park is in the process of installing new wayside exhibits throughout the park; indeed, Spotsylvania is the final component of that project.  Our wayside project stimulated an interesting, sometimes intense discussion about the future of the Happel signs.  Some staff members wanted them to remain, feeling them to be an integral part of the park’s identity and landscape–that our new exhibits should work around them.  Others in the NPS and public have argued that we should preserve them as historic–as manifestations of the park’s evolving approach to onsite interpretation over the decades.  Others among the staff and public were ambivalent (not necessarily disinterested).  I had strong views in the other direction.  Our ultimate solution:  we are keeping the Happel signs at sites that are “drive-by”–that is, at sites that we cannot have or don’t necessarily wish to have visitors get out of their cars.  Several, for example, will remain along Jackson Trail.  But where we want visitors to be on the site, we are removing them.

Here is an example of what’s going in throughout the park:

Why that decision?  [By way of background, please note that the Happel signs are NOT considered contributing resources in the park’s new National Register documentation).

Setting aside the positive virtues of modern waysides (vivid graphics, useful maps, low visual profile, changeability over time) to focus on the issue of retaining and preserving the Happel signs:  while I certainly understand and embrace the need to preserve commemorative expressions placed on the landscape by veterans and subsequent generations (though I do believe it should be VERY difficult to have a new monument approved for a national park), I am generally opposed to the preservation in-situ of the government’s own efforts to interpret these sites to the public.  Not only do these ancient forms of media have severe drawbacks (not the least of which is that they are billboard obtrusive in some places) when compared to what’s here and what’s coming, they have the potential to accumulate over generations.  Media in a park should turn over every 20 years or so (we’ve gone 50 for much at our park, I am sorry to say)–either due to the obsolescence of the medium itself of the information on it.  If every generation insists on preserving in place its own contribution to the evolving interpretation of the park, over the next century or two these resources will accumulate and these sites risk becoming little more than museums of commemorative and interpretive expression–leaving the fundamental resource (and the reason most of our visitors come) obscured or diminished.

Sure we should preserve Happel’s work and, some day, even examples of our own.  Perhaps the nation needs a museum of commemorative and interpretive expression, but not on the sites the objects in that museum were intended to interpret.

I thought it might be interesting to share a little insight into the unseen issues that we deal with (happily so) on a regular basis….  We work in a fascinating profession at a fascinating time…

5 thoughts on “Are Battlefields Museums of Interpretive Expression, Too?

  1. I certainly agree that we cannot allow the interpretation to clutter up the battlefield. Crampton’s Gap on South Mountain, MD is an example overly-interpreted, with the best of intentions, site IMO.

    What I have done within the bounds of my latitude as an editor on the Historical Marker Database, is enter the old markers with the appropriate tag of “replaced.” Where I know the full text, general location, and other details, I’ve entered the Happel markers.

    A listing of what Happels I know of from the Fredericksburg battlefield is here:

    And there is a link at the top right of the page to see those markers against a map.

    What I find fascinating about FSNB is the layering of interpretation that has occurred over the years. In some cases within a few feet one can read a “Freeman,” a “Happel,” one of the little brown monopole markers from the 1970s, and a more modern wayside. (and there is at least one other generation of marker I’ve cataloged in the park, but can’t speculate on the time frame.) All presenting the same basic message, but with different words and emphasis.

    • Thanks, Craig, for your post. I use your database all the time.

      As for the “layers”–in fact, we have nine of them that I have counted–Freeman, UDC, Happel, War Department (markers mostly), Sidney King paintings, anodized aluminum signs, 1980s wayside exhibits, and the current generation of waysides, and the usual run of directional signs (several varieties fo those too). All layers aren’t everywhere, of course (thank goodness),but as you say, in some places you might run into four or five diferent types of interpretive markers. This, obviously, is a problem we are trying to solve by removing what we can and reducing clutter and confusion. Most of the original Sidney Kings are off the field; anodized aluminum has been replaced by conventinal waysides, except in remote areas where we don’t anticipate adding modern exhibits, the Happel signs are being supplanted (though some will remain), and the 1980s panels will go eventually. We’ve made some good progress–of the four fields, only Spotsylvania is yet to be “done.” But, unavoidably, when we are done, several layers will remain.
      John Hennessy

    • Craig – A year or so ago, I put together a list of all known “War Department” plaques still on the battlefields. These include trench markers, road markers, etc. The list includes photos and approximate locations. A word of warning, FRSP was still having them made as late as the 1980s, so we’re a little unsure now which are “old” and which are “new.” I can supply this to you in a digital file. Please e-mail me at Eric_Mink at

  2. Craig: Yes, though it’s buried in one of those esoteric government databases that only a few know how to access. More importantly, it would be a record of what was because, as mentioned a while back, we are removing the Happel exhibits when they are supplanted by modern wayside exhibits. Let me check around a bit and see what I can come up with, but I am not optimistic that I can get a definitive list that can be transformed into something you or I could read.

    John H

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