June 20, 2013

Fort Raleigh exhibit pumps new life into old visitor center


Long lambasted for its fusty and dull displays, the visitor center at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site finally has an exhibit that does justice to the site’s extraordinary importance in American history.

This week, the park, which is located outside Manteo on northern Roanoke Island, is inviting Outer Bankers to see the expanded and vastly improved exhibit at the rehabilitated Lindsay Warren Visitors Center. It’s the first time the exhibit has been updated since the building opened in 1965.  

The fresh look of the 72-year-old park coincides with the release of the park’s first management plan. The draft document provides details on the long-term direction and goals for the park. 

“In many ways, Fort Raleigh is a small park in the scheme of things,” said Josh Boles, National Park Service Outer Banks Group North District interpreter. “But it’s going through a renaissance.”

The $500,000 upgrade of the exhibit was part of the 2010 overall rehabilitation at Fort Raleigh that included the center and two administration buildings, said Mary Doll, National Park Service chief of interpretation.

Doll said that the new exhibit matches the park’s mission, which was expanded in 1990 to include interpretation of Native American, African American and Civil War history.

“When people think of the park, they automatically think of the Roanoke Voyages,” she said. “But our park is so much more than that.”

When the park was authorized in 1941, its location on the north end of Roanoke Island was believed to be the site where the ill-fated Lost Colony built its settlement in 1587 and where Fort Raleigh was erected. Neither supposition has been proven, although archaeologists have found the remains of a 1585 science center and numerous other Elizabethan-era artifacts within the park.

The Roanoke Voyages, conducted by Sir Walter Raleigh from 1584-1587, included three major expeditions to Roanoke Island.  The 1587 settlement disappeared without a trace and remains one of the oldest mysteries in American history.

But the north end of Roanoke Island was also the site of early Civil War battles, as well as the Freedmen’s Colony, the state’s first settlement of freed slaves. It is also where Reginald Fessenden in 1902 sent the first complex radio signal -- some believe it was the first musical tones -- to Buxton.

Doll said that the new exhibit emphasizes the importance of the 1585 voyage, when scientists Thomas Hariot and Joaquim Gans conducted experiments, cartologists mapped more than 200 miles of coastline, and artist John White sketched native people and the flora and fauna of the region. White was later the governor of the Lost Colony and grandfather of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.

What the English learned in the 1585 voyage, Doll said, was taken back to Europe, and led directly to future exploration of America, including the Jamestown expedition in 1607. 

People looking at the new exhibit are connecting the dots a lot more than they did before, Doll said.

“In watching visitors at the exhibits, one of the things we’re real pleased with is that they’re immediately engaged with the exhibits,” she said.

The first display after entering the room is a large “tree” under which visitors can learn about different mysteries that happened in certain years. On one side is the Elizabethan Room, which is constructed of the original 1585 wood paneling from an Elizabethan estate. The room includes a 1587 map, portraits and John White drawings, and interactive displays.

On the other side is the more expansive exhibit area that includes displays about the Algonkian Indians, the Roanoke Voyages, and the English colonists and explorers.  Separate displays provide information about Fessenden and the Freedmen’s Colony.

One of the most popular parts of the exhibit, Doll said, is where the pros and cons of all the theories are laid out about what happened to the Lost Colony. In the coming months, visitors will be encouraged to enter their favorite theory on a card, which will be able to be compared with others.

Another favorite is the arrowheads, pottery, smoking pipes, and other items that were found during archaeological digs at the park, which are still continuing.

“In that exhibit room, the artifacts are definitely the centerpiece,” Doll said.

The park’s former exhibit, which inspired comments like “pathetic” and “embarrassing” in travel reviews, featured a diorama of a fort and English soldiers, and another of the colonists; several examples of English and Indian garments, armaments and tools; numerous statues, and illustrations and educational plaques.

 Clothing on the life-sized figures, which visitors could touch, had to be occasionally removed and taken home by rangers to wash.

“Everything we had heard,” said Michael Zatarga, a seasonal park ranger, “was ‘How come this doesn’t look like Jamestown?’ or ‘These are old and dated.’”

Zatarga said that visitors have been much more interested in the new exhibit, which was installed starting in April. They also seem to understand the story and history of the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island a lot better than before.

“Now they see a lot of European artifacts and they’re convinced,” he said.

In the near future, another part of the exhibit will be completed that will be an interactive video about the 1585 voyage, Boles said, that lets a person make choices about metallurgy, mapmaking, and ethnology.

“It’s going to be very kid-friendly,” he said, “and invite them to take part in these various roles. It’s almost like a cartoon interactive.”

Boles said that a model of an Elizabethan ship will be installed in July. 

Visitation, which averages about 350 to 400 people a day in the busy season, has remained about the same, he said, but people are spending much more time visiting.

Eventually, the goal is to further improve the cultural, historic, and natural resources at the 513-acre park, with the general management plan serving as guidance. With the public comment period closed on June 4, the comments are in the process of being reviewed and responded to, said David Libman, park planner the National Park Service Southeast Regional Office.

In addition to the Waterside Theatre, the venue for “The Lost Colony” outdoor play, Fort Raleigh includes wooded trails -- the -mile Thomas Hariot nature trail and the 1 -mile Freedom Trail. It also is the site of the Elizabethan Gardens, a private non-profit that leases the 10-acre site from the National Park Service. 

Work on the management plan began in 2003, he said, but its completion was complicated by the increased complexity created by issues like climate change and environmental regulations.

The proposed plan has not spurred much public participation, with about five people attending a public meeting, and a similar number submitting comments, in addition to agency comments, Libman said.

It is expected to be finalized in the fall, but any action will depend on future funding. No funds have been provided or identified in the plan, Libman said.

Shoreline restoration of the eroding beach along Roanoke Sound is one goal mentioned in the plan. So far, rip-rap has been installed behind Waterside Theatre to protect it from erosion.

“We have proposed doing a shoreline management plan which would involve more public outreach because it’s an island-wide issue,” he said. “We haven’t selected any particular strategies in this plan.”


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