Feature Article - November 2007
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Parks with Purpose

Preserving the Past, Designing the Future

By Emily Tipping

Interpreting the landscape

Sometimes, the landscape hides secrets—historical and cultural context are lost among the changing leaves of trees and lapping waves of lakes. Parks that want to bring interpretation to the forefront can hire consultants to help them learn more about the history—both recent and distant—of their landscape, while preserving both landscape and other cultural artifacts for future generations.

"We develop interpretive plans, delving into what makes places special," said Anne Ketz, president and technical director of The 106 Group, one such consultant. "The work is very customized to each place and helps inform design, the work of the landscape architects and architects. We also assist with the design of the exhibits. That goes beyond signage—we look for ways to interpret the stories. It involves tapping into the place through a range of research, including archaeology, archival research, ethnography and more."

Spring Lake Park Reserve in Hastings, Minn., is home to 8,000 years of rich cultural history, but visitors would never have been aware of that fact, because the unique stories lie hidden beneath the landscape.

"The park is pretty untouched. Very few visitors go there—it's kind of a hidden jewel," Ketz said. "But there's 8,000 years of history there. It's very rich in natural resources, and the history starts with American Indians and continues right through to the early European settlers, when a little town was developed that later became a ghost town. All of this is invisible in the landscape."

In 2003, the 106 Group prepared a Cultural Resources Stewardship Plan for Dakota County, and later conducted an archaeological survey to identify unknown archaeological sites in the park. Then, they focused on a comprehensive interpretive plan to inform not only specific interpretive narratives for the park, but also a broader philosophy regarding their style of implementation. Finally, the team of consultants, architects and landscape architects worked to design and develop the site's circulation patterns, as well as a new Gathering Center. Currently under construction, the 3,500-square-foot center is expected to open in spring 2008.

"We've done a range of things. Part of our work helped inform the design of the cultural center, the Gathering Center," Ketz said. "We brought in artists that emphasized an outdoor space of sitting around a hearth and storytelling. An artist will be designing the outer portion of the hearth into beautiful wrought-iron work. We also developed a series of postcards with, for example, subjects like the edible forest or the ghost town, with an early 19th-century photograph."

The goal of the project is to ensure that the rich history of the park comes alive for visitors through meaningful design and interpretation. An interpretive trail loop called "The 8,000 Year Walk" recognizes the thousands of years of human habitation on the site and invites visitors to see the history all around them.

At another site, Diamond Point Park in Bemidji, Minn., home to a 3,000-year-old archaeological site, The 106 Group is helping with cultural resources planning for the park's redevelopment. In addition to conducting archaeological surveys to ensure minimal impact to the existing resources on site, the team is also facilitating tribal consultation and developing interpretive content and strategies for the park.

"This is a 3,000-year-old archaeological site, and there's a large Ojibwa population," Ketz said. "Developing the park creates some conflicts, so we recommended to the city, and they accepted the idea of bringing together an American Indian advisory committee," Ketz said.

Ketz added that some of the money for the project is going past the archaeological mission to help interpret the cultural resources of the site for the public. "We would tell the story of this place, and the shared experience of how many has wanted to use this place through time for picnicking and fishing and so on," she said. "It became a nice opportunity for building relationships between two cultures."

The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota gave the Diamond Point Park project its Archaeology Award for 2007, specifically citing the "notable and commendable" way that the 106 Group "worked with the City of Bemidji, local Native Americans and the public to not only make the project accessible, but to fully incorporate Native interpretive perspectives." The Alliance adds, "From personal interaction, to site tours, to brochures and interpretive signage, this project stands out as a model effort."

The biggest challenge with these kinds of projects, Ketz said, is the very nature of interpreting cultural and historical resources. "When you start interpreting people's history or culture, you're really getting to the heart of the matter, and you have to be sensitive and really listen to what people are saying, whether it's in public meetings with stakeholders or one-on-one oral interviews and ethnographic interviews," she said. "You cannot go in with any preconceived ideas."