From the President
Image: "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz" exhibit ©Scott Hess via Flickr
Art as Interpretation and Interpretation as Art
2015 has dawned. Can you believe we are already halfway through the decade? We at CSPF are looking forward to all of the work ahead of us in the new year.
As we plan our work for 2015, we have been thinking a lot about the interpretation of parks for a couple of reasons. One reason is that we are actively working with DPR and UCLA to raise funds for completing the interpretative elements of Los Angeles State Historic Park (LASHP). We are awed by this new digital approach to interpretation. It will allow park visitors to access historic photographs and content through a digital network and engage them in adding their own stories and histories to the database of the park. There is no question that if it is successfully implemented it will change the face of park interpretation.
We have also being digging into the final stages of design for the Yosemite Slough project at Candlestick Point State Recreation Area. This involves some key decisions about interpretation. We must determine what themes will be highlighted and how those themes will be illustrated. You have seen the basic ways parks all over the world do this with interpretative panels and docents. Those ways are tried and true. But the work being done for LASHP seems to imply that they should not be sufficient. There are new ways to express the complex intersections of historical and natural themes. There are real opportunities to approach interpretation in exciting ways that may engage participants in new ways as well.
As you will no doubt remember, CSPF and Save the Redwoods League published the Park Excellence Report in 2011. In that report we identified excellence in interpretation to be a key goal for obtaining a fabulous state parks system. There are many examples of sites throughout the California state parks system that capture profound historical import, everything from Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park to Angel Island State Park. These are places that do and should inspire deep thinking about what it means to be an American. Interpretation is not just good, but great, when it inspires you to think about its implications for today.
I was lucky enough to participate in some of the early planning for the interpretation of the Angel Island Immigration Station. The question posed by that interpretation was not just how to state the irrefutable facts of the place, but how to give visitors a taste of the feelings that those who were imprisoned at the Immigration Station experienced. At the Angel Island Immigration Station, art is a powerful communicator. The walls are inscribed with poems that speak to the loneliness and the powerlessness of being confined there.
Recently, I went to see the new art installations at Alcatraz by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei is living under house arrest in China for his outspoken views of Chinese policies on free speech as well as other human rights.
The “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” exhibition is a site-specific series of art pieces about the imprisonment of individuals around the world for acts of conscience. It is a very moving exhibition. It was also thought-provoking. I will not spoil it for you because I urge you to go see it before it closes on April 26, 2015.
Alcatraz, the famous prison, is a historic National Park in the San Francisco Bay which gets 1.2 million visit a year. What you may not know is that Alcatraz, before it was a criminal prison in the commonly understood sense, was first a military outpost and then a military prison. It housed Hopi who were incarcerated there for acts of civil disobedience. They refused to send their children to Indian Schools that were notorious for denying the rights of Native Americans to engage in their cultural practices and speak their native languages.
The placement of the @Large exhibit in a park, albeit a historic one, is thought provoking. The exhibition is critical of the United States government in general and the Obama administration in specific, despite being displayed in a national facility. It embodies brave art; but the act of exhibiting it is also brave. It is a collaboration amongst the National Parks Service, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and For-Site Foundation, an arts nonprofit dedicated to the idea that the arts can inspire fresh thinking and dialogue about our natural and cultural environment. This exhibit achieves that in spades. Bravo to all the organizations involved.
This goal of using the history imbedded in parks as ways of getting Californians to reflect on their past and its implications for our collective future seems critical. The history in parks are a terrible thing to waste. I know that more parks can express our most profound history in a way that may aid us all in living more thoughtfully together in the future.
These New Year’s musings spur me to work with all of you to make the implicit explicit in our parks, ensuring that the histories of our state are told fully, robustly and with an eye to the future. We are given a great gift of these places. I hope that part of the gift we will leave behind, a little bit this year and certainly in the years to come, will be that they will be thought-provoking places for all that experience them.
Thank you for giving us the space and time to do this work. We are very grateful.
Elizabeth Goldstein, President