Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Interpreting Two Centuries and Counting at Mackinac State Historic Parks

History is plentiful and comprehensive in and around Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. This will be the first of two posts that cover the historical character of the area, probably the more traditional of the two posts. (My second post will look at the more subtle history and interpretation of tourism in the area.)

View of the Straits of Mackinac from the Fort Michilimackinac Palisade Wall
To start, I have to rave about the organizational acumen of the Mackinac State Historic Parks. The Parks Commission is faced with no small task. It is in charge of two major historic forts, five historical buildings on Mackinac Island, an art museum, a lighthouse, a "discovery park" and the trails and natural features of Mackinac Island State Park. Together, these sites encompass almost three centuries of regional history and a   century and a half of administrative history. From its website to its admissions procedures, the Mackinac State Historic Parks are a model of public engagement, commitment to research, and preservation best practices.

Although this past week marked my second trip to Mackinac Island, it was my first time visiting more than just Fort Mackinac and the Mackinac Island State Park. Having driven south from Munising on Michigan's Upper Penninsula, my family and I decided to stop at the Visitors' Center under the Mackinac Bridge to learn about visiting Colonial Michilimackinac, about which we knew little. We were drawn in by the value of the triple choice combination ticket which granted us admission to both historic forts, the Mackinac Island Art Museum and the assorted buildings of historic downtown Mackinac Island for the normal price of admission to just two of the sites. Although my past experiences at Fort Mackinac were overwhelmingly positive, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the marriage of professionalism and accessibility that pervaded all of the sites we visited (we did not get to the Light House or the Discovery Park during this trip). 

View of current row-house reproduction and archeological dig at Colonial Michilimackinac
All of the Parks' historic sites are marked by a commitment to living history style interpretation.  For the sake of coherence, this necessitates an overall association with a particular time period (although museum exhibits tucked away in various corners can stretch the interpretive chronology). Colonial Michilimackinac is set in the 1760s, during British occupation and the height of the beaver fur trade which employed Chippewa and Ottawa tribesmen and French voyageurs and hivernants. The interpretive staff were incredibly friendly and informative, navigating the delicate balance between portraying a particular character and relating to the experiences of contemporary visitors.  The physical architecture of the fort is mostly reproduction, but reproductions are backed by an astonishingly comprehensive archeological program in partnership with Michigan State University and ongoing since the 1950s. The website boasts rich online exhibits about the archeological programs within the parks, and a subterranean exhibit beneath one of the traders' homes within the Michilimackinac fort showcases real excavated artifacts within multiple contexts. 

My husband, Matt, holding a reproduction musket in the Fort Michilimackinac Guardhouse
Most artifacts accessible to the public are reproductions, enabling the paradoxically authentic experience of interacting with objects from the past. 

On Mackinac Island, highlights of historical interpretation include early 19th century cooking demonstrations at the Biddle House and multi-media medical history exhibits at Fort Mackinac in addition to a band of merry, roving 1880s American soldiers who were responsible for the fort when it was briefly part of America's second national park

It's heartening to see such a healthy, thriving example of state-level historical interpretation.

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