WSUV assistant professor National Park Service volunteer of year, shares 2nd award with historian

He coordinates mobile storytelling apps

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

America's national parks have a lot of human stories to share. A Vancouver researcher is breaking new ground in telling them, which is why Brett Oppegaard is the National Park Service's 2012 volunteer of the year.

Learn more

Check out the blog about the project.

Oppegaard and Greg Shine, historian and chief ranger at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, also received the John Wesley Powell Prize for historical displays on behalf of the team that worked on the "Kanaka Village" project.

Did you know ?

• The Hartzog Award honors George Hartzog Jr., National Park Service director from 1964 to 1972, and his family. Annual awards are given in six categories: individual volunteer; youth volunteer; enduring service; volunteer group; youth volunteer group; and park volunteer program.

• The John Wesley Powell Prize, presented by the Society for History in the Federal Government, alternates annually in recognizing excellence in historic preservation and historical displays. It honors the ethnographer and explorer who completed the first known passage through the Grand Canyon in 1869.

Oppegaard, an assistant professor at Washington State University Vancouver, was selected from among 257,000 Park Service volunteers as the individual winner of the George and Helen Hartzog Award. He coordinates the mobile storytelling apps for iPhone, iPad and Android devices that are the first of their kind in the Park Service.

The John Wesley Powell Prize recognizes the project's "Kanaka Village" module, which details a diverse community that worked at the Northwest headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company's trading empire.

Back when the site west of the reconstructed stockade was being cleared of blackberries, its storytelling potential was obvious; so were the obstacles, Oppegaard said.

"It's two locked buildings in an open field," Oppegaard said during a recent visit to the fort site. "How can you tell the incredible history of the village without a ranger standing by all the time?"

With mobile apps, you can tell it with video portrayals done by historical re-enactors. There also are audio elements and interactive features. Images include maps, and paintings and drawings done by visitors 170 years ago. There are links to archived documents such as old newspapers and diaries.

The application was designed by WSUV's creative media and digital culture program, in partnership with the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The Kanaka workforce was represented by the Ke Kukui Foundation, a local Polynesian-Hawaiian cultural group, and Portland State University also provided support.

A national model

"We've used this as a national model," said Shine, who is a member of the Park Service's digital media training team.

It's a pioneering approach to sharing history, said Bob Sutton, the National Park Service's chief historian.

The Powell Prize committee made the selection based on the use of modern technology to engage the public at a historic site.

"I'm very, very deeply honored that our work has been so well received -- especially by this group of professional historians," Shine said after the announcement.

A few parks have hired media developers to produce fairly simple digital content, but those are essentially enhanced guidebooks.

The "Kanaka Project" is about storytelling. And with 398 units in the National Park Service, there are a lot of stories to tell.

While spectacular landscapes such as Yellowstone, Crater Lake and the Grand Canyon are often seen as the park system's crown jewels, "A lot of National Park Service sites are about people," Shine said.

And even sites where you're overwhelmed by natural grandeur can come with compelling human stories, Shine noted.

"Yosemite and Yellowstone had long connections with Native Americans, and with immigrants' journeys to the West," Shine said.

When Oppegaard received his award in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., park officials from across the country asked him how to develop the applications, he said.

5,000 hours into it

However, the former Columbian reporter won't be producing apps from Death Valley to Valley Forge. They're neither cheap nor easy. So far, Oppegaard has mined almost $70,000 in grants to fund the Fort Vancouver app. In the past four years, he's put about 5,000 hours into it, although much of the research was part of his doctoral dissertation.

And that doesn't include all the other volunteers, who combined to donate about 3,500 hours in 2012 alone … plus about 2,208 volunteer hours contributed last year by the students in the WSUV digital storytelling class co-taught by Shine and associate professor Dene Grigar.

Oppegaard also called in a lot of favors from friends and colleagues -- something he wouldn't do again, Oppegaard said.

But Oppegaard does hope to create an open-source program. It will be a toolkit, he said, that people across the country could use with images and videos representing their local histories.

"It mostly would have to be funded fully by grants, or other resources, to make it work at other sites.

"That said, we have built a framework here that makes applications at other sites much more efficient and less expensive than the original app was," Oppegaard said. "We have developed techniques and expertise in this project that no one else in the world has.

"Once the app has been built, very little is needed in maintenance," he said. "They very well could be at the site forever, or as long as they have some value to visitors."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.