June 20, 2013
Fort Raleigh exhibit pumps new life into old visitor center
By CATHERINE KOZAK
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.
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
“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
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’”
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
“Now they see a lot of European artifacts and they’re convinced,” he said.
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.
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.
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
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 ¾-mile Thomas Hariot nature
trail and the 1 ¼-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
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.
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.
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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