Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons, with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. In this podcast, we hear NCPTT’s Maggie O’Neill as she speaks with Emily Beck, the manager of interpretation for the Coastal Heritage Society in Savannah, Georgia, as they talk about how to interpret a history spanning three centuries across five different historical sites.
Maggie O’Neill: Hey everyone – welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast. I’m Maggie O’Neill, and I’m sitting down with Emily Beck, who is the Manager of Interpretation at the Coastal Heritage Society in Savannah, Georgia. Thanks so much for sitting down with me today, Emily.
Emily Beck: You’re welcome – I’m so excited to be here.
Maggie O’Neill: Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Emily Beck: Well, um, I think I kind of have museums in the blood. Both of my parents were in the National Park Service, so I was always interested in history. When I came back here, to Savannah, to do graduate studies in history, I got this job. It started as a part time job while I was in graduate school, and then it turned into something much more permanent (laughs). I’m very happy for that.
The Coastal Heritage Society is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that was founded in 1975. We operate five museums in the Savannah area, including the Savannah History Museum, Savannah Children’s Museum, Georgia State Railroad Museum, Old Fort Jackson, and, most recently, Pin Point Heritage Museum, which is out on the south side of Savannah.
Maggie O’Neill: Emily and I are currently at the Georgia State Railroad Museum, in the Columbus Executive Car right now, recording this podcast. Coastal Heritage Society, specifically Tri-Centennial Park, which is where we are now, has a really interesting history. The site itself spans three centuries, so I wanted to talk to you today a little bit about the cultural landscape of the site and how you guys interpret that history at once.
Emily Beck: It can be difficult and challenging at times, but I think we are really fortunate at this site to have a lot of physical resources – a lot of structures from different time periods – that can help us get across to visitors that we have different time periods of history here. The land that the Railroad Museum is now on was a Revolutionary War battlefield in 1779, and the railroad began construction on their repair facility here around 1851 and completed it around 1855. We have half of a roundhouse left, a lot of the shops buildings in the back, and a working turn table, so we are lucky in that we have a lot of the resources to be able to illustrate to the visitors a lot of the different parts of the history of the site.
The History Museum – we very recently started having interpretation of the battlefield. We have costumed interpreters do a presentation about the battle of Savannah, and we also have a replica redoubt that his built out by the Savannah History Museum. That also helps us to illustrate that it was a battlefield, because it can be very hard for people to picture that this space is a battlefield, or anything other than a railroad facility.
Maggie O’Neill: Do you see any problems with your audience connecting all of this history at once? And how do you solve that if you do?
Emily Beck: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it is very hard to get people to understand that this was a battlefield because the section that we have sort of sectioned off from the battle field is a very small portion of it. So, we really have to emphasize – especially when we’re on the train ride – to say that this whole area was a battlefield and was not always a railroad facility. And, I think for us, it really helps that our History Museum interpreters are in costumed. That gives them sort of a visual clue that it’s an 18th century battle.
And um, as far as the Railroad Museum, we even have two different time periods for railroad interpretation. We have sort of steam day, in the early days of railroading in the 19th century and early 20th century, and we also have diesel engines that we use here, and that’s a little bit later as well. So even that, we try to indicate that using, not costuming but uniforms for our railroad operations guys. They can wear overalls and a shirt for steam days, and then they wear something that is much more mid-century for the diesel interpretation that we do.
Maggie O’Neill: And you guys were talking about the redoubt – Have you guys done any archaeological work to place where the redoubt is?
Emily Beck: There were several extensive archaeological surveys done before the redoubt was reconstructed and we actually had um, a couple of archaeologists on staff. Dan and Rita Elliot; they did a lot of work here to determine where everything was positioned. They found quite a few artifacts that we now have on exhibit in the History Museum. This was good for us because we can incorporate that into interpretation, and people are usually pretty interested in archaeological finds on site.
Maggie O’Neill: What are some of the challenges you face when interpreting all of this history at once?
Emily Beck: Um, one challenge we have specifically at the railroad museum is that we have a period of time – a significant period of time, after the Civil War and before the site was shut down, that the site was actually segregated. And so, we talk to visitors about this. Also, I mentioned we have a lot of physical resources – this is another thing that we actually have, an um, what was historically termed “the Colored Workman’s Washroom – we have on site. We have plans to go in and put an exhibit in there, about the African American experience with railroads. This is something that not a lot of other railroad museums actually talk about. Sometimes it can be a little bit awkward talking to visitors about that, but most visitors really show a really strong interest in that sort of social history of the site, here at the railroad museum.
Maggie O’Neill: How are you guys branching out through interpretation?
Emily Beck: Um, we, for a long time, I think we had not a very diverse audience that were coming to see the artifacts and the site of the railroad museum. And a lot of the history we have here, that used to be in the history museum, a lot of it was military themed – so it was a very – we were kind of afraid that we were missing out on getting a lot of families, perhaps women, to come and visit us. And so, we started to expand our interpretation to include um, stories that may not have been heard in the past. A lot of our revolutionary war interpretation deals with the battlefield, but we have just recently – the past couple months – we have been working on a program that deals with perspectives of African Americans and women who were here in the city during the siege of Savannah and leading up to the battle that happened.
The railroad museum – we make an effort to talk about social history, in terms of segregation on the site. We also talk about women who worked for railroads – especially with school groups. I think a lot of kids are kind of interested in that as well. When they can see someone who was like them worked on the site, it makes it more real to them, I think.
And, we also have a lot of girl scouts groups that come out here. William Washington Gordon was Juliette [Gordon Lowe]’s grandfather and he was one of the founding fathers of The Central of Georgia Railway, who owned this repair facility. So we have them come out a lot, quite a bit, and we’re actually getting into our “Juliette Family Tree Season” where we’re going to have kids come out here – lots and lots of scout troops – and we’ll take them through the History Museum and the Railroad Museum and talk about the Battle of Savannah and different elements of the history here.
Maggie O’Neill: So you guys have been – there has been interpretation on the Railroad Museum since 1990 – how did that progression go?
Emily Beck: Well in the early days of the Railroad Museum being open there was interpretation here, but it was mostly print interpretation. You might get a little guide and there were signs on site, but we really, really have expanded in the last maybe, um five or seven years. We started to get more of an emphasis on actual interpreters out in the field, talking to visitors about the site. I think that has really helped us, in terms of the popularity of our sites and sort of the reaction that people have about what is here. I think it is important to have a human connection with people who are speaking to you and who can converse with you and go back and forth and talk about different elements of the history of all the sites that we have.
Maggie O’Neill: So the history – it’s a very large site, especially this and Old Fort Jackson is a very large site, and so is Pinpoint [Heritage Museum]. How do you maintain them?
Emily Beck: Um, it’s very difficult. Sometimes, it depends. We have um different ownership here at Coastal Heritage Society. So some of this land is city land, some of it is not city land – some of it is privately owned. So sometimes it’s difficult to determine what maintenance facility or maintenance process you might need. The Fort – Fort Jackson – a lot of the interpretive staff actually does a lot of the maintenance out there. Like weed killing, cutting the grass, going out and cleaning the site, so it just depends. Here, at Tricentennial Park, because of the volume of visitors that we have, we actually have a maintenance staff our here. And our railroad operations – a lot of them double as maintenance or preservation staff. That’s another thing I think, for Coastal Heritage Society, everybody here has to have quite a few different jobs in order to make everything run smoothly.
Maggie O’Neill: You just mentioned preservation – how did you guys go about preserving all of sites?
Emily Beck: Well, in terms of preserving this site here, we did have … The site itself, most of the buildings were here. A lot of the people, in terms of preservation, will ask us “When are you going to close in the round house?” or “When are you going to complete the round house?” And this is a ruin – this site that we have here at the Georgia State Railroad Museum, and we will probably leave it as a ruin. In the future, there may be a possibility that we would enclose it, but I think that sort of helps us to give people a more authentic feels for the site by leaving it the way that it is. We preserve the site, we make sure it doesn’t deteriorate any further, but we really haven’t done a lot of reconstruction of all of the buildings, necessarily.
Maggie O’Neill: So you’ve done all of this preservation on the site – how do you interpret that to visitors? Preservation can be kind of a difficult concept for people to grasp sometimes if you’re not familiar with it.
Emily Beck: That’s very true and we have a lot of staff members who are preservationists or who have some sort of background in um, historic preservation. We actually do hard hat tours of the site, where we have classes come. They do tours through the coach and the paint shops, some of our historic buildings. We talk about preservation and one very popular tour that we had was … We had a [train] car here from another museum that we were restoring. One of our staff members took people through it to talk about the changes that had taken place within the car. I think that there’s really a lot of interest in preservation as well, because people want to know what this looked like when you first got it and what does it look like right now and how did you come about doing that.
Maggie O’Neill: So you guys have also done restoration of not just buildings, but also of trains.
Emily Beck: Yes! Yes, we also restore railroad cars and locomotives. In fact, one of our biggest projects was the restoration of the #30, which is a 1913 coal powered steam locomotive that we actually use. That’s wonderfully – that’s a wonderful resource for us to have, because to talk about a steam locomotive is very different from actually seeing one moving and actually operating in front of your face.
Maggie O’Neill: One of the main draws of Savannah is the historical tourism – how do you think that affects your site, with the fact that you guys operate so many different museums in the area?
Emily Beck: Well, I think affects our um, tours that we have because we have to compete with a lot of other sites in order to bring people to our sites. We have a little bit of an advantage, especially at Tercentennial Park, because of the Revolutionary War element. I think many people who come to Savannah are looking for a Civil War sort of experience, or they’re kind of thinking of it as a Victorian city. But then they see, when they come here, that there’s a lot of 18th century history here as well. And, of course, that affects other sort of more practical things like how long your tours are or how many tours you offer in a day, because like we said, we’re competing with, you know, the whole of Savannah is trying to get people to come here and be able to work the tours that we have into their schedules when they come here.
Maggie O’Neill: So what is your interpretation like on site? How many tours do you guys have, what do you do?
Emily Beck: Well, if definitely depends on which site. The railroad museum here is probably our most structured, in terms of interpretation, where we have back to back tours from 10:30 in the morning until 4 o’clock. We have a little bit of break in the middle of the day for lunch, but especially if we have a lot of visitors, we may sort of forge the break and have extra people here to do extra tours. So, we do walking tours, of different sites, and we also do site tours with our train. We don’t go very far – we have a locomotive and one passenger car and we go a short distance but we go into some other buildings on the site, which is a new development for us and this is kind of exciting for visitors.
Maggie O’Neill: Do you guys do any special events?
Emily Beck: Um, We do special events on site – we have a Santa train, and that’s probably our most popular event out of all of our sites. That’s the most popular thing that we do, which is an all-day affair. It’s kind of like a Christmas festival that we have here. And then we have Santa here and we have the steam locomotive going, so that’s very popular. And one thing that we do as an organization, that we’ve done for many, many years, is this Siege of Savannah memorial march. Since most of Savannah – I think many people here are not really aware of Savannah’s Revolutionary War history; we have a march that commemorates the battle of 1779. October 9, 1779, when the French and the Americans and their allies were attempting to take Savannah back from the British. And it’s a sad story for the Americans and French – they lose the battle – a lot of causalities for that battle. It’s nice to sort of remember them. We take the same route – or approximately the same route – as they did. We march up Louisville Road and we have people lay wreaths. We’ve had some representatives from the Haitian government come, since the Haitians were a big part of the story as well.
Maggie O’Neill: Well thank you so much for sitting down with me today, Emily.
Emily Beck: Thank you! I’m so excited to always talk about the Coastal Heritage Society and what we do here in Savannah.
Maggie O’Neill: You guys can find more information about the Coastal Heritage Society at chsgeorgia.org.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our Podcast show nights at www.ncptt.nps.gov until next time, goodbye everybody.