by Julia S. Bachrach, Chicago Park District Historian
Educating the public is an important aspect of any historic preservation initiative. It engenders respect and knowledge, and helps the community value its historic resources as a legacy worth saving for future generations. The Chicago Park District has taken an active role in producing books, exhibits, tours, podcasts, and other programs to educate the public and inspire enthusiasm about its valuable collection of historic resources. These projects are often conducted with partners. For instance, the Chicago Park District historian has served as a curator of exhibits that highlight the park district’s archival collection at the Chicago History Museum, the Chicago Cultural Center, Water Tower Gallery, and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Books have also been produced in this manner. The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago’s Parks was authored by the Chicago Park District historian and published by the Center for American Places in association with the Chicago Park District.
Recent educational efforts include the development of internet-based projects. These tend to be less expensive to produce than published documents, exhibits, and bus tours. And, they are more fluid because they are more easily changed and updated. These include audio tours of historic parks, providing a keyed-in map and audio tracks. Participants can print the map and download the tracks on an MP-3 player or burn them to a disk so that they can take the audio tour as they walk through the park. Another internet-based project is a series of oral histories in which older Chicagoans describe their memories of the 1933-34 World’s Fair in Chicago. A somewhat more didactic internet-based project was designed to teach students and adults how to “read” the landscape. This focuses on Columbus Park as part of a series entitled Cultural Landscapes as Classrooms, produced by the Cultural Landscape Foundation with assistance from the Chicago Park District.
One of the most effective ways to excite the public about historic parks is through on-site tours. It can be difficult for a park district or nonprofit agency to have a large enough staff to provide tours, so a volunteer docent program is a good alternative. For the past five years, the Chicago Park District has partnered with the Lincoln Park Conservancy to recruit and train volunteers to give tours of three sites: the Lincoln Park Conservatory, the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, and North Pond. After the docents receive six weeks of training from historians, horticulturalists, ecologists, and other professionals, they sign up for three-hour shifts in which they give free tours to the public. Last year, 84 docents gave more than 2,200 hours of volunteer time providing guided tours to the public.