Posted by: Mysteries&Conundrums | June 14, 2010

Art as a tool for interpretation

From John Hennessy, NPS.  Click image to enlarge.

The Bloody Angle, by Richard Schlecht

Though we all love to write, and we like to believe that readers avidly consume our words, the fact is visitors to NPS areas don’t much like to stand in the beating sun and read, no matter how well we craft our prose. A hard reality for history types to accept sometimes is that museum exhibits, wayside exhibits, and even publications must dominantly be graphic mediums.  Reading is work, and most people won’t work very hard to get their information.  And so, graphics assume an immensely important role in interpretation.

We manage four major battlefields and two other historic sites that would, if they were farther apart, each be their own NPS unit.  All told, we have more than 100 wayside exhibits in the field or planned.  Each is at a key place, but sometimes the graphic material needed to illuminate a site just isn’t available.  When that’s the case, and when the significance of the site warrants an exceptional effort, we will sometimes turn to creating original art to help interpret the landscape or site.

This is pertinent because I received in the mail this morning our newest piece of original art–an aerial view of the Bloody Angle at the height of the fighting on May 12, 1864.  This will go on a new wayside exhibit (now in development) along a new segment of trail that will allow visitors to view both the Angle and the swale in front of it, where Union soldiers sought cover for hours that bloody day.  The perspective is from right above and behind the exhibit.  The Bloody Angle (which is in fact a barely perceptible turn in the works) is marked in this view by the lone oak tree just behind the Confederate works toward the right of the image.  The art is by Richard Schlecht, who has done this sort of aerial perspective for the NPS and National Geographic for years.   You are the first people to see it, besides a few members of our staff.

I post this not so much to make any immense point, but to share a little bit of the sorts of things we have in the works.  We are indeed lucky to be working in the profession we have chosen.


  1. I have been a fan of Schlecht’s work since Robert Jordan’s “The Civil War”, published by National Geographic Society in 1969. His aerial maps were a notch above David Greenspan’s work for American Heritage, although that is almost sacrilegious to say for some people I know. For many of us, as children, Greenspan’s maps were an essential lure for our interest in history, and you can’t beat that.
    The Park is doing some great interpretive work. I look forward to seeing it come together.

  2. I can’t wait to see the whole trail when it is laid out. This is one of my favorite places to visit, especially when I have Earl Hess’s book on the trenchs around the battlefield. Lots of good exploring in the winter time, when the bug population isn’t around.

  3. I think its great that the park is planning more interpretive signage at the Bloody Angle, but I have heard some rather disburbing rumors about the planned trail. Firstly, I heard that the park plans to remove the footbridge over the “angle” which inevitably will lead most visitors to walk over the walks, resulting in further destruction of already fragile resources. Secondly, I heard that the park plans to re-position/turn-around the regimental monuments so the monuments –placed by the veterans who fought there — are more easily readible to the visitor. Again, I have heard this news secondhand and would hope someone at the park could clarify these points. Protection of the “Mule Shoe” salient should be first and foremost for the NPS and the bridge — however ugly — serves an important function in protecting a key area of the fortifications. The bridge’s removal will lead to the eventual destruction of the Bloody Angle by thoughtless visitors (and dog walkers) who sometimes do NOT think before they tramp on America’s hallowed ground. Thank you.

    • Todd: Thanks for bringing up these issues. If they’re on the street, I am very glad to address them. Going last first, we are not rotating the two monuments just outside the Bloody Angle. The planning for what is about to happen at the Bloody Angle was done by a multi-disciplinary group of both NPS sorts, local planners, and some interested residents. During the initial sessions I believe the idea came up, and it was quickly rejected. But, it was enough to start a rumor apparently.

      Our planning for a new trail at the Bloody Angle was dominantly guided by two things. First, a desire to offer visitors a way to understand both the Union and Confederate perspectives of the battlefield. This entailed giving visitors visual access to the shallow ravine in front of the Bloody Angle. The art we have shared in this post is intended for use at that vantage point.

      Second, and even more important, was to develop a treatment that would encourage visitors to view and respect the Bloody Angle itself as they would a precious artifact, and thus to enhance its prospects for long-term survival. Part of that entails treating the site with respect ourselves.

      The plan, which I will try to post on here tomorrow for all to see, envisions a trail system with a crossing of the works at someplace other than the Angle itself. There are three reasons why visitors cross at the Angle. First, we offer no alternative; second we give them a bridge; and third, given the current access only from inside (CS) of the Angle, the monuments beyond the Confederate works are an irresistible attractor. Moreover, we believe the presence of the bridge, which encourages people to cross, is likely the reason the works immediately adjacent to the bridge are among the most deteriorated in the park.

      Our plan is to 1) route visitors from the parking area to the monuments first–all on the Union side of the Angle 2) leave no obvious attractor on the other side that would inspire them to walk over the works.. 3) Then cross them 50 yards or so down the works, in the direction of the East Angle. We will combine this with low-scale signage that constantly reminds them of the hallowed nature of the place, urges them to respect it, and not to leave the trail.

      By doing this, we hope to remove the reason for having a footbridge right on the Angle itself. There is literally no more intrusive modern component anywhere in our park than the footbridge at the Bloody Angle. It’s a bit like having an exterior elevator shaft to the front facade of the White House. This is arguably the most hallowed place in the park; certainly this is the most precious, evocative stretch of earthworks we have (and perhaps anywhere in North America); to have a bridge literally atop the Angle is something we should all seek to avoid.

      So, the big question: will our plan work? We’ll be watching nothing more closely than how people use the new trail (which will be open in the fall or winter). If we find that people ignore all we have done and choose to cross the works regardless, then we’ll be ready to act–even to the point of putting the bridge back. While your concerns about the Angle are well taken, please know that our planning is intended specifically to end the ongoing deterioration of the site–the root of your concerns. We hope that the guidance offered by a more formalized trail, a ready alternative to getting across at the Bloody Angle, and an inspired respect for the site will render a bridge right at the Angle unnecessary. We admit it’s a bit of an experiment, but it’s not a risk. We won’t let it become one. We all take our charge to preserve exceedingly seriously, and rest assured there are no people on earth more devoted to the Bloody Angle’s preservation than we are.

  4. Well put!

    I was there recently and the arial definitely helps you understand the scene.

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