What do you think of when you hear the term “historical interpretation”? Perhaps a roadside sign? A brochure? Maybe a website? If so, you’re not alone. But in a world where the majority of Americans own smartphones and use their mobile devices to learn about history and culture, it’s critical that we rethink the means by which we convey information related to history and heritage sites. This is why when the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District (PUD) in northeast Washington State reached out to us a few years ago to develop 21st century tools to interpret the history of rural Pend Oreille County, we suggested the Next Exit History mobile app.
The PUD was in the process of relicensing the Box Canyon Dam hydroelectric project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and part of that process included development of a Historic Properties Management Plan that called for historical interpretation and education.
A traditional approach might have resulted in printed material such as brochures or rack cards (that get pitched in a garbage can), signage (that over time get riddled with bullet holes), or maybe a website, but the PUD opted for a more expansive approach to promote heritage tourism throughout the region via a mobile app platform. Pend Oreille County also lies in a remote corner of Washington, where cell phone coverage is oftentimes spotty, so having a means for users to download content to their mobile devices in advance of losing connectivity was also important.
At the heart of the process was the Cultural Resource Working Group formed by the PUD, which included the PUD, U.S. Forest Service, Kalispel Indian Tribe, and historic preservation officers for the states of Idaho and Washington. Collectively, the partners identified 46 sites throughout the county to interpret, with themes spanning natural resources, industry, early exploration and settlement, culture, and transportation. To ensure that individuals without mobile devices could access the same historical content available on Next Exit History, we also developed a website (www.pendoreilleheritage.com) that showcases all the same information available on the app. And never losing sight of the impetus for the project—i.e., the relicensing of the Box Canyon Hydroelectric Facility—we created a video virtual tour of the Box Canyon Dam so that even when tours are not available, visitors can get a glimpse of the innerworkings of facility.
The Pend Oreille Basin Heritage project is a great example of how marrying mobile technology to traditional forms of historical interpretation can both satisfy the letter of the law and also satisfy the spirit of the law by reaching new audiences and enhancing local economies in the process.
Stay tuned for a future blog post that discusses how the Kalispel Indian Tribe used Next Exit History to interpret its history and preserve elements of native Salish language.
David Strohmaier is a partner of Three21 Innovations, LLC, the developer of Next Exit HistoryTM, and a former historian with Historical Research Associates, Inc. He currently serves as a county commissioner in Missoula County, Montana.