Last Friday — the 13th, no less — a spectacular thunderstoom settled ominously in the San Juan Channel as locals and tourists bustled about Friday Harbor, filling the restaurants, shops, and cafes along Spring Street. By 8 pm that evening, darkness descended, power to the island was lost, and soon people could be seen hurrying for home, to hotels and bed and breakfasts, while others gathered on porches and decks to watch the sky light up.
The next morning I arrived early to American Camp but there was no “beep, beep” of the motion sensor to greet me. We had power, yes, but no telephones or computers — our network service was down.
A second day passed. Apparently there were outages in network service all the way to Anacortes, it would take time before they could be restored. How long? Well, it would be difficult to say. We are, after all, on island time.
By 10 am on the third day, one telephone line was restored to American Camp, though internet and the remaining lines were still down. The technician looked flummoxed. Working backwards from American Camp down Cattle Point Road, he eventually located the break in the connection and service was restored. By this point, though, my 4 day workweek was all but through. The 4th day would be out in the field and I would not have an opportunity to work on my primary task: coming up with a plan for implementing a digital interpretation program for the park.
For this particular park unit, interruptions in network service are not out of the norm — poor coverage is typical of the island, in fact — and the visitor experience as currently conceived suffers little for it. We’re still very much a word of mouth, artifacts in physical display cases, get out and tour the grounds with a ranger, kind of park.
Yet as the National Park Service attempts to integrate digital media into interpretive practices, parks like San Juan Island National Historical Park will need particular attention. Current site conditions suggest a need for investment:
– The visitor center at American Camp, for example, is a double-wide trailer installed in 1979 as a temporary solution. The building hosts a range of static exhibits and artifact displays, a far-cry from the interactive interpretive content now being pursued across the system and being modeled by the program at the Washington Monument.
– The IT resources used by park staff are dated and minimal. There is no WiFi in the building and a limited number of workstations, meaning at times — summer in particular — staff and volunteers jockey for access.
– And despite the goal of integrating digital media into interpretive programs, there is no part or full time staff member with the express responsibility of reenvisioning interpretation for the 21st Century. That job falls to the Chief of Interpretation, who is also the Park Manager, and who does the best he can given a host of day-to-day responsibilities ranging from leading tours, organizing events, developing park publications, volunteer management, and community relations.
This is not meant as criticism, nor lament (I’m having a fantastic time!) — just assessment of the facts. The needs of this park unit in terms of preparing for a 21st Century interpretive and resource management program demonstrate the difficulties of park modernization that are likely common to many small parks, particularly in remote regions of the US.
While the NPS is reluctant to construct new visitor facilities there is an argument to be made that for parks like SJINHP, an outdated visitor center that impedes moving the park into the 21st Century of stewardship and interpretation. New facilities need not be architectural icons, nor elaborate in design and planning — modular could work, as it has here and here — but the facility plays a crucial role in supporting the technical and interpretive aspects of the park program. For SJINHP, the visitor center at American Camp is an impediment to implementing a 21st Century NPS program.
In the next post, I’ll explore in greater detail the makings of a 21st Century visitor center and assess siting and viability here on the island.