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Feb, 8, 2013

In the Omnimuseum, the automobile is as much a content delivery device as it is a means of access. In this feature, Dr. Ruth Hawkins, Director of the Arkansas Heritage Sites program at Arkansas State University, reflects on some of the strategies and challenges in linking a wide range of historic, scientific and cultural points of interest along the Arkansas Delta Byways.

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Arkansas Delta Byways, Implications for an Omnimuseum 

by Dr. Ruth Hawkins

Arkansas Delta Byways is a 15-county regional tourism promotion association in Eastern Arkansas.  Though it is a private non-profit 501(c)4 organization, its 45-member board (three representatives from each county) has a Memorandum of Agreement with Arkansas State University to serve as its administrative agent.  The director and assistant director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University serve as executive director and executive secretary, respectively, for the organization.

The Arkansas Heritage Sites Office at Arkansas State University has worked to develop several specific sites owned by the university:  the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, the Lakeport Plantation, and the Historic Dyess Colony:  Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash.  In addition, Arkansas Heritage Sites provides technical assistance and support for other communities/attractions in the region, as well as overall marketing and promotion for Arkansas Delta Byways.

Our region is known as Arkansas Delta Byways because it is crisscrossed by two National Scenic Byways.  To obtain National Scenic Byway status for the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Arkansas Great River Road, we had to do extensive Corridor Management Plans that included identifying intrinsic qualities in the region in six broad areas:  natural, archeological, historic, cultural, scenic, and recreational.  So we know a lot about our region. 

 In the process of examining ourselves, we discovered several major issues:

    We have a lot of interesting attractions, but most of them are not big enough on their own to attract significant numbers of visitors without packaging them to achieve the necessary critical mass that will draw from outside the region.  In addition, visitors often must drive great distances between attractions.   (Hence the importance of byways in linking attractions in the region together).

    The material culture associated with the rich heritage of the Arkansas Delta Byways region no longer exists in many cases and, therefore, is difficult to interpret.   (i.e.  Remnants of major Native American mound-building cultures have been leveled through farming.  Once-thriving river towns have fallen into the river or otherwise been abandoned as the river changed its course.  Juke joints that nurtured the blues and sharecropper shacks that once housed the region’s poor farm laborers have been torn down.

    What DOES still exist on the landscape is difficult to interpret through traditional methods, partly because
     of its seasonal nature and partly because of its repetitiveness:  i. e.  visitors are fascinated by the cotton
     crops in the area and always want to go into the fields and pick a boll of cotton.  But depending on the
     season, what visitors see is changing and may not be recognizable as cotton.  Additionally, after driving
     past several miles of cotton fields, the next 15 miles of cotton fields before arriving at the next attraction
     may no longer seem as interesting! 

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Cotton in pink bloom stage and in white boll stage

    The natural history of the region, while unique and interesting, is not readily apparent to visitors.  (i.e.  Crowley’s Ridge is a unique landform in the country, an erosional remnant from the Ice Age.  As such, plant communities stranded there during the Ice Age often differ from other plants in Arkansas.  Additionally, while the ridge rises as much as 150 feet above the otherwise totally flat Delta alluvial plain, the ridge doesn’t seem like a major deal to those used to driving in mountainous regions.  Yet there is only one land form like it in the world—the other being located in Siberia.  Visitors just driving along the ridge would not recognize the various natural elements that are unique about it without some sort of interpretation.  Yet any interpretation that interferes with the natural landscape seems inappropriate. 

All of these issues lend themselves to some sort of more interactive interpretation that would be controlled and brought to the experience by the visitor.  And the visitor needs to be in control of what he/she wants to see/hear/learn about the heritage that exists throughout the region. 

 

The following is an attempt to summarize where we have been, where we are now, and where we hope to go.

Where We’ve Been

    More than 25 years ago the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism divided the state into 12 regions for tourism promotion.  While most of these regions consist of three to six counties, the region that has come to be known as Arkansas Delta Byways has 15 counties. [Image 3:  Arkansas Regional Tourism Associations]

•    There has been a perception in the state that these counties along the Mississippi River are not a tourism destination (thus perhaps accounting for why they were all lumped into one large region, making promotion extremely difficult).

•    Despite the perceptions regarding this region, it has a rich natural and cultural heritage, with the oldest prehistoric and historic settlements in the state.

    There are several difficult issues associated with promoting the region to visitors, including the great distances between attractions, the lack of material culture, the changing landscape, and a natural history that is not readily apparent. 

    To attempt to deal with this linear region – which is more than 300 miles long and more than 60 miles wide in places – the Arkansas Delta Byways organization decided to create two National Scenic Byways to serve as spines throughout the region, with loops and spurs off the main routes, thus linking attractions together to create a critical mass.

    The goal has been to develop various themes throughout the region and create maps for interested visitors to guide them from one point to the next via the National Scenic Byway.

 

Where We Are Now

    We have attempted to develop critical mass by focusing on numerous important themes throughout the region (Native American heritage, music, agriculture, Civil War, flood control mechanisms, natural history, etc. etc. ). 

    We have created an Arkansas Delta Byways web site that identifies attractions and major themes throughout the region, including special trails and tours.

•     A tear-off map has been developed, with a number of potential routes and attractions for travelers.

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    We develop an annual comprehensive Arkansas Delta Byways brochure for the 15-county region.

    Separate brochures have been developed for the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway National Scenic Byway and Arkansas Great River Road National Scenic Byway, including maps.

    A themed agricultural brochure, showing the major crops (cotton, rice, soybeans, catfish farming), includes photos showing what each of these crops looks like at various stages

   A brochure that highlights African American history includes a map that shows locations of these sites in relationship to the byways.

    Music trail markers have been placed at important sites related to the region’s music heritage. 

    A combination CD/DVD, Sounds from the Soil and Soul, has been developed to focus on the music heritage of the Arkansas Delta, thus immersing people in the region while they are driving.  The CD features songs by 14 key musicians from the region (Johnny Cash, Louis Jordan, Al Green, Billy Lee Riley, etc.), while the DVD contains interviews with various living musicians from the area.  The liner includes (a) a map showing important music sites in relationship to the byways, and (b) information on the music trail markers that have been placed throughout the region.

    Other trails/themes are identified on our web site, including a birding trail and a Civil War heritage trail. 

    Many of our heritage attractions have been recreated in Second Life to allow virtual visits to the region via computer.  Our goal is to share our heritage with those who are unable to visit the sites in person, as well as to get people interested enough to perhaps visit the actual sites.

 

Where We Are Going

    Our current interpretation, for the most part, is very low tech.  We need to get to a place where we have content associated with GPS points throughout the region that can be delivered seamlessly to visitors, whatever route they choose to take through the Arkansas Delta.

     We need a way of interacting with visitors driving through the region, including enabling them to ask
      questions about what they are seeing as they travel, thus triggering an appropriate response.  For
      example, if a farmer has moved a pivot irrigation system into a field and the traveler asks, “What is that
      snakey looking thing on wheels?” --or however they describe it – there should be an explanation.

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    There should be stories and content related to particular areas (geographic or themed) that travelers can
     choose to listen to or not as they travel the sometimes lengthy distances between attractions.

•    The best tours we have given on Arkansas Delta heritage have been when we have placed a guide on a bus to talk to them about what they are seeing as they travel.  We need to be able to offer this same experience to visitors traveling in their own vehicles in a way that they can choose to listen to and interact with at times of their choosing. 

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