SHIP INTERPRETATION - THE PRIME ARTIFACTby CAPT David R. Scheu USN (Ret)
Director, USS NORTH CAROLINA Battleship Memorial
The work in which we are all engaged is the work of history; history, which, in the words of the poet Stephen Spender, is "the ship carrying living memories to the future." Though his reference to a "ship" was not meant as a maritime vessel but as a container or holder of the historical information for subsequent generations, that very appropriate double meaning for what we do with our historic naval ships leads, fortuitously, to my thesis.
We are missing the boat by treating the historic vessel solely as a museum building to house exhibits or simply as an example of the naval architecture of a period. We need to do more than maintain the vessel, we need to interpret it as the prime artifact.
Depending on their desired level of involvement, visitors expect to be entertained, informed or educated. Compounding this issue is that visitors come from varied backgrounds, levels of knowledge about the Navy or the military in general, and varied learning styles. Nonetheless, what we present to the visitor must strive to meet all of these expectations and respond to the breadth of their experiential and learning levels.
Let us first look at some considerations to guide us in our interpretation then examine some illustrative examples on the international scene then at naval vessels.
The primary piece of guidance on how each of our historic naval ships individually view the vessel is through the organization's mission statement. In my case, the Battleship North Carolina's mission statement, which is contained in the North Carolina General Statutes, reflects that it is the State's memorial to its veterans of World War II and a tourist attraction. The Battleship Commission subsequently added a museum function to the mission statement with a focus on the capital ships named for the State of North Carolina. It is a reasonable assumption that at least two of the three basic missions would be well served by properly interpreting the prime artifact to more effectively carry out the missions of a tourist attraction and a museum.
To properly interpret the prime artifact, let us first look at the market segments that provide potential patronage to our vessels. While gender, economic background and cultural or national differences all have an effect on how we approach interpretation, in my view the most important because of ages or eras of our vessels is the generational differences. What do they know, or what don't they know, based on their age and education is the critical element in how your interpretation is structured.
Using the WWII - era battleship North Carolina as the basis, for illustration I have broken down the generational differences into four groups: the World War II Warriors (the people of the World War II era), the Baby-Boomers (their children, more or less), and Generation X (the grandkids of the World War II Warriors); and the Next Generation (Generation X's kids).
WWII Warriors. Relatively simple to interpret since many saw military service. Their knowledge, and interest, even if they weren't in the Navy, allows a simplicity in interpretation.
Baby-Boomers. With their parents as the warriors to provide some turn over of experiences and knowledge of the WWII period, and some with personal experience in Viet Nain, there now needs to be some explanatory information on the vessel itself and on the history aspect to ensure there is understanding of what is being experienced.
Generation X. Now two generations removed from WWII, there is a significant drop off in knowledge of that period, and there is a significant drop off even in comparison to what the Baby-Boomers were taught in school. Compound that with the significant changes in technology which are seemingly advancing at an ever increasing rate. Just how serious is the drop offs? The following is what is contained in the high school curriculum for WWII history in the county in which the Battleship is located:
* The book: The Americans, A History Jordan, Greenblatt & Bowes McDougall, LitteE & Company Evanston, IL,
* World War 11 topic is contained in a single chapter of 33 pages.
* "Chapter overview: The United States entered WWII in December 1941. In this chapter we will learn about the events that drew the U. S. into the war. We will also learn about the ways in which the Nation's economy was reorganized for the war effort. Then you will trace (underlined for my emphasis) the major battles and campaigns of the European and Pacific Theaters of war. Finally, you will analyze the results of the Allied victory."
* The European Theater is covered in 6 pages.
* Since the North Carolina was a Pacific Fleet asset throughout the war, the Pacific Theater is covered in 4 pages, and that includes photos and a map of the Pacific Theater. Guadalcanal gets 20 lines; the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas Islands get mentioned in just that much detail, the bloody battles are never named; the Leyte landing gets two sentences; the words Iwo Jima and Okinawa are mentioned in one sentence as if it was a dual assault.
The Next Generation. With another generation's history now causing a further melding and compression of what is being taught in a given segment of time at the various levels of American history, to what level of knowledge of GI history will this generation be exposed? Will they understand, or even appreciate, the level of technology in a WWII - era vessel? In this era of personal computers in most homes, will they even know what an analog computer is, or that the U. S. was the world leader in this technology at the start of WWII and how important that technology was to the winning of the War?
As the WWII[ Warriors leave us, we need to refocus our interpretation toward the other generational market segments which means transitioning from the simplistic or non-existent interpretive signage to one which targets the age and education of the visitor.
One other major consideration which will have a bearing on interpretive matters is learning styles. Behaviorists point out that people assimilate information in different ways. Some are visual, some audio and some are kinesthetic (hands on). Whereas the visual aspects are normally well addressed, there needs to be a conscious decision as to the extent to which audio and kinesthetic styles will be incorporated into the interpretation.
To illustrate the good and the bad of what I have discussed, lets take a journey to selected historic sites in Great Britain and the mainland of Europe and apply the above elements:
a. Guided tours. Guided tours means that the guides or docents must all be knowledgeable about the pertinent characteristics, unique qualities, level of technology and peculiarities of the site or objects within the site.
Ludwig's Castles. Ludwig's castles in Germany are prime examples of the proper way to highlight some of these elements. Because of the age of the castles, no visitor has first hand experience like the WWII sailors would have when coming to visit the Battleship North Carolina. The tour guides' knowledge must be broad based. Not only knowledge of the specific castle at which they are working but of the other two as well. More uniquely, some of the rooms were actually copied from other castles of Europe. Therefore, comparisons need to be made by the tour guides, particularly for those visitors who may have seen other castles previously, as it was in my case. At Herren Cheimsee, his unfinished island castle, state-of-the-art technology for the period was exemplified in a mechanism which raised a dining table from the kitchen into the dining room, allowing the staff to completely set the table and place the food on it before raising it to the dining room. Having the guide explain how the mechanism worked and providing the reason for it, which was that Ludwig was an extremely eccentric recluse, significantly added to the tour. Architecturally significant on the tour is that there is a matching stairway on either end of the castle. Going up to the upper floors is done on the fully decorated facade of one set. Coming back down to the main floor is done on the stairway that is structurally completed but which has no facade. Marvelous to look at because one can see how the stairway was constructed, the guide points out how this stairway is the mirror image of the other one and then describes how the facade was layered over the basic structure. It is one of the best examples of taking maximum advantage of what is in the site and then providing the tour guide with enough knowledge to be able to answer virtually any level of questions from the visitors. And in English too!
European Cathedrals. Knowledge of the topic is always of benefit when visiting a historic site. Whereas many of the cathedrals of Europe had tour guides, the guides knowledge of the edifice was very unique to that church; they lacked a general knowledge of the general elements of cathedral construction. For Americans whose general experience is with edifices which are less than 200 years old, one is really not provided with the technology or terminology of cathedral construction or a comprehension of what it took to build these significant structures in a much earlier, and less advanced, technological age. As the old adage goes, "you can't see the forest for the trees." An eye opener for me was how much greater an appreciation I had for what I was observing once I completed Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth which is a fictional account of cathedral construction in the Middle Ages. Not only does one get the construction terminology but also how the buildings were constructed in phases over generations, insights into carving columns and other decorative and structural elements. For me, it clarified the need to be able to step back and look objectively at how much we expect the visitor to know about what we are showing him, and how do we provide enough interpretive signage to raise the level of knowledge of some and yet maintain the interest of those who have some higher level of understanding.
HMS VICTORY. VICTORY, which is permanently drydocked at the Naval Base at Portsmouth, provided another unique element in interpretation. When I saw it, the vessel was undergoing a major hull restoration. The tour guides were all instructed in what is occurring in the restoration so that they could impart that information to the visitors. It gives the visitor a valuable insight into ship construction of an earlier period and, once again, uses a situation on the vessel to the best advantage. The staff did the same thing at Constitution during its 1990's drydocking.
IKE'S COMMAND CENTER. The Wardroom at HMS Dryad, which is the Royal Navy training center north of Portsmouth, was used as General Eisenhower's war room for the Normandy Invasion. While the base, and consequently the Wardroom, is not open to visitors, I had the opportunity to see it with a Royal Navy officer. The command has reproduced the situation wall which lays out geographical region, invasion beaches, etc. It also includes weather synopses for the days leading up to the Invasion. With limited personnel, they use a cassette tape to walk the visitor through what happened on the base during that period then describe the elements of the situation wall. While lengthy tapes are not something I would normally ascribe to because of the limitations to address the levels of knowledge of the visitor, this was an example of how such a tape could be used effectively.
b. Self-guided tours. The best and worst were in England, and one is extremely well known.
The BEST, the Roman Baths at Bath. The presence of a high sulphur content, hot springs and the years have significantly deteriorated the site. Nonetheless, what has been accomplished in interpretation within the physical constraints is outstanding. The interpretive signage is spectacular. Where portions of the individual bath areas have crumbled, they have taken the standing sections of walls, door lintels, etc. and used computer-aided graphics to reconstruct a schematic of the area, color coding the actual walls, lintels, etc. to show where they were located in the schematic. The signage allowed you to visually understand the layout of the baths as they existed almost 2,000 years ago.
The WORST, Stonehenge. Why? Because, the tour brochure does not provide sufficient information; there is no interpretive signage of any significance. One can walk out in the vicinity of the monument but one is no longer allowed free access to walk up and touch. I was fortunate to have a personal guide that day whose knowledge on the subject was prodigious. Not only did the printed material provided with admission not contain sufficient information on Stonehenge itself (one could get more by purchasing an expensive book on the subject, however) it also did not discuss the religious importance of the site to early generations. What was pointed out visually by my guide were a number of uniformly shaped knolls circling Stonehenge at varying distances. These were burial mounds. Over generations, various clans built these mounds to bury their warriors. Also pointed out by my guide, was a depression encircling Stonehenge which is, interestingly, obvious to the eye only when looking at a photo of Stonehenge in the winter snows. None of this is mentioned in the tour brochure. So not only is the printed material insufficient, the larger aspect beyond the mere structure itself is ignored for the average visitor.
Now let's examine selected, elements in interpreting the vessel, the prime artifact.
a. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck.... These are the easy elements such as the interpretive signage in the galley, mess decks, post office, berthing, etc. Here background information is not generally required since the subject matter is not lost between generations.
b. If it sounds like a duck, it may be a duck (or it could be a hunter with a call). The may be is a condition which sets the element apart or makes the element unique for the visitor. Two examples on North Carolina. First, as was common on most capital ships, the chaplain had a portable altar which allowed him to have religious services at various locations since there was no permanent chapel onboard. In the case of North Carolina not only was there a portable altar but there was also a triptych which had been hand painted and covered in gold leaf. Since the triptych is such a unique artifact, one portion of one of the mess deck areas was set up as if it were for a religious service. The interpretation includes the altar, triptych, portable organ, hymnals and church pennant but signage also provides the historical background on the triptych, the church pennant and presents a brief discussion of the purpose of chaplains onboard the ship. Second, there is a Warrant Officers Mess on North Carolina which includes a dining area and pantry. It was, however, not used by the commissioned warrants since they subsisted with the officers in the wardroom. During the War, the Warrant Officers Mess was used as the Training Room. It was here that the 20 and 40 mm anti-aircraft gunnery teams learned, among other things, aircraft identification. So in interpreting the space, would you treat it as the mess or would an interpretation as the Training Room be of more interest to the visitor? It could also logically allow a display of WWII aircraft models - in the case of North Carolina which was a Pacific Theater asset, display of U. S., Allied and Japanese aircraft. We have not yet done anything to interpret this space but when we do, we will take the opportunity to interpret it as the Training Room.
c. Rocket scientist needed. There are unique elements onboard vessels which, even though the technology may be 50 or more years old, require detailed interpretation because they are complicated systems such as the Battleship's 16-inch gun loading system, main and secondary battery plotting rooms or after steering. An example of newer technology is the Talos launching system on Little Rock.
Since North Carolina literally offers the visitor a chance to climb through a 16-inch turret from the lowest powder magazine in the barbette up to the gun house, there needs to be not only interpretive signage at each physical element of the turret that the visitor sees but also there must be an interpretive sign that ties the individual elements together so that the visitor can tie together the elements seen or to be seen. This is particularly true when the visitor, because of the physical constraints of the tour route, may not view the elements in the correct sequence. As an example of what can be done to interpret the gun loading capitalizing on what is available, on North Carolina we installed a permanent exhibit which uses the three guns of Turret III to provide a three phase visual interpretation of the gun loading. In the first, the tray with the projectile on it is partially lowered; there is also a large photo in the gun room which shows the projectile being rammed into the barrel. In the second, the first three powder bags are show already split and the second three being rolled into place in the tray; the large photo shows the start of the six bags being rammed. The last shows the last two powder bags being rammed; the photo shows the breech coming up.
Main and Secondary Battery Plotting rooms on a WWII - era battleship are unique. They also are prime examples of the state-of-the-art technology which the U. S. had at the start of WWII. Because of the complicated nature of the systems and the need to meet the various levels of visitor education and technical background, a multi-faceted approach to interpretive signage was considered necessary. There is a set of signage describing the system in general. For those who are interested in further detail, each major piece of equipment in the system has its own descriptive signage. There is a topside photo of the ship which highlights those elements of the system not contained in the plotting rooms - the search and fire control radars and the main and secondary battery so the visitor can visualize the system. Status lights on the various switchboards are lighted continuously and the salvo warning alarm is sounded every 30 seconds to give the visitor a visual and audio feeling that the space is actually in use. And complimenting that visual experience, we have used our SINTRA figures to man the space so as to give the visitors a feel for what it was like when the sailors were actually operating the equipment.
After Steering is another space which needs to have detailed interpretive signage. Merely viewing the equipment in the space does not give the visitor an appreciation for what is actually being viewed since neither the rudder nor the helm on the Bridge can be seen. While the top of the rudder post and the ram can be seen and appreciated for its size, signage with the physical size of the rudder needs to presented. A concise description of how turning the helm on the Bridge turns the rudder is needed as well. Again, by using the actual bakelite schematics which are located in the space as the basis for interpretive signage which provides supporting descriptions, varying levels of the visitors education and technical experience can be met.
The technology issue is also very prevalent with the Talos launching system on Little Rock. As a naval officer with Terrier, Tartar and Standard Missile experience, it is relatively easy for me to visit Little Rock's Talos magazine and understand what I was looking at even though I had never been in a Talos magazine before. With the magazine bare except for a couple inert Talos missiles laying on transfer trays, the average visitor can not comprehend or visualize how the magazine works, how the missile gets on the rail and is loaded onto the launcher. The opportunity to use large photos and interpretive signage to step through the loading process would appear to be a good first step. Signage presenting how the missile acquires and homes on a target could also be advantageous so the visitor has the opportunity to understand how the whole system was designed to function. A rocket scientist's technological terms need to be carefully converted to a layman's description. Acquisition of a number of additional inert missiles placed in their storage trays would help to visually complete the space.
One last issue I on which I want to touch is the issue of focus and its impact on interpretation. For single period vessels such as North Carolina, which was in service only from 1941 through 1947, focus is simple. Restoration of the ship is logically done to maintain authenticity to that period. Interpretation follows that lead. But what about multi-period vessels such as Lexington in Corpus Christi which saw service from 1943 through 1993? Her modifications through the years, particularly major changes such as her angled deck, were designed to modernize her. There are negatives and positives in this situation. On one hand, more attention will be needed in determining the direction the facility will take in the restoration. Does one attempt to authentically restore to WWII or Korea or Viet Nam periods? An opportunity that I see here is to restore to the newest period but selectively restore elements to an earlier period where advantageous to do so. A prime example on Lexington would be to take the squadron ready rooms and restore each to a ready room of a different period. That would allow the visitor to see the differences over the years particularly if a comparison of flight gear of each period could also be presented. It could also allow a logical discussion of the evolution of aircraft types over those same periods. Another area of opportunity is berthing where a compartment could be returned to the pipe berths of WWII and compared to the habitability of current berthing spaces.
As an attraction, the authenticity that each of our historic naval ships provides is the "hook" which allows us to do more than merely entertain, to go where Disney, Busch or Six Flags can not. As a museum, that authenticity allows us to place the visitor "in the environment" of a specific period. Our challenge is to take that hook and that environment and interpret it in such a manner that offers the visitor the basis for a truly unique experience.