Discovering stories of human interactions with nature in Yellowstone National Park
By Chris Rurik
B.A. English, minor in Geological and Environmental Science, 2011
As a museum curatorial intern at Yellowstone National Park this summer, I catalogued more than 300 postcards, installed exhibit cases, built storage boxes for plates and mugs and screwdrivers and an old stovetop, searched for objects that went missing in the ‘60s, told tours all about arrowhead dating and F. V. Hayden’s 1872 expedition, and (yes) carefully vacuumed several packs-worth of wolf skulls.
I guess that wraps up my summer. I have to admit though – I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much. I certainly didn't feel like I had completed anything — until the end, when I was able to pull together an exhibit of objects from among the many disparate items in the museum telling some of the stories of interactions between people and nature in Yellowstone. That’s probably because the task facing the folks at the Heritage and Research Center (HRC) is strenuous and endless – in a park where spectacular nature trumps cultural history at nearly every turn, these curators, archivists, and technicians are fighting an uphill battle against comparatively minimal visitor interest and funding that often feels like an afterthought.
Even in one of the most state-of-the-art curatorial facilities in the Department of the Interior (the archives at the HRC is one of only 10 affiliates of the National Archives and Records Administration, where records may be permanently stored on-site rather than shipped to Denver), the staff is short-handed and the backlog of projects is immense. I probably put in well over 100 hours cataloguing and scanning postcards from the 1920s and got through three boxfuls. On the backlog shelves, 15 more boxes wait.
That’s not to say the situation’s desperate. There’s a streak of underdog attitude running through the museum collections staff – like if it weren’t for us, many aspects of human history in Yellowstone might be overlooked and lost. We swoop in and save everything we can get our hands on, from the earliest Clovis-style projectile points to this year’s best-selling trinkets.
Why bother? There are plenty of landscapes around the American West that reveal patterns of human involvement, why not throw all available resources behind the natural ecosystem at Yellowstone? Because the stories to be told at the nation’s first national park couldn’t be told anywhere else. With military uniforms and scrawled orders, we can tell stories about when conservation and tourism first collided, when the U.S. Army managed a land full of huntable animals, fashionable tourists, and entrepreneurs by the seat of their pants. Or with stained fire axes and photographs of buildings surrounded by worn-out firemen, we can tell of the 1988 fires, when a new, scientifically based “let it burn!” policy resulted in near-apocalyptic destruction (and rejuvenation) of a third of the park’s forests.
I’ve come to realize that everything in the collection storage rooms at the HRC is a whole concentrated jumble of these stories. One of my favorite activities in the collection room was to go to a wall of drawers and open them at random, marveling at the Yellowstone stuff packed into each – a single drawer might hold souvenir China plates, menus from a long-gone diner, travertine-encrusted horseshoes, and a 500-piece puzzle of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. At the end of my internship, in designing a display case, it was my task to cull a story from this repository of individual objects.
Wanting to bring seemingly disparate objects into an unexpected union, I eventually decided to focus on human interaction with hydrothermal features throughout the park. There were three parts to the exhibit. First, I found souvenirs emblazoned with images of Old Faithful. In their idealization of the geyser – especially on a golden pocket mirror – they showed how visitors are convinced that the geyser basins they have traveled so far to see are pristine and untouched natural landscapes. Second, to dash that vision away, I arranged coins and other objects removed from Handkerchief Pool in the 1920s with a silica-encrusted straw hat pulled from a hot spring in the 1950s. Lastly, to show that even park management has had a role in hydrothermal disturbance, I displayed geyserite and other rock samples chipped off of hydrothermal formations by scientists given permission to collect in the park. With explanatory signs, pictures showing further misconceptions and human meddling, and a thorough wipe-down of the tall glass case, the exhibit came together — another history gleaned from objects, just one of many histories resting dormant but safe in the Yellowstone museum collections.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »