Wednesday, March 7, 2018

New Historic Interpretive Panel at Winter Street Bridge is Misleading

You might remember that one of the conditions for demolishing the old bridge on Winter Street across Shelton Ditch was to install some interpretive signage about the history and significance of the bridge.

New interpretive signage on corner of Winter and Trade
The panel was silently installed - this winter, perhaps? - and it merits some comment. It's very strange, more than a little misleading. It's not that it is factually wrong; the information on it is quite good!

From here the problem seems to be several mismatches between the reader implied by the text as written and the actual, likely audience as intended. The facts don't line up with the right things for readers who cannot supply additional context. In language and in design the rhetoric is a little sideways, leading to disconnects on time and place.

Images don't always Align with Caption or Explanation

Take the header. "Civic Bridge Building in the Capital City: Salem Bridges 1927-1930."

New signage about the bridges of RA Furrow
The sign is installed on the Winter Street bridge, but what is shows is the Commercial Street bridge that was just replaced between 2012-2014. And it shows a "dissolve" between the old and new bridge.

So there are two big disconnects in time and in place here on the image:
  • The timeline for the image actually on the sign is not 1927-1930, but instead is more like 1930-2014
  • The image shows the Commercial Street bridge, not the Winter Street bridge, and does not explain this in an obvious way. It is mislabeled, really. (Even the photo credit in tiny print fails to identify the true place.)
There's an unforced randomness to the image-caption relationship! It is factually incoherent for someone who doesn't know about the two bridges already.

This disconnect is carried throughout both sides of the panel. It's really misleading. The sign is very handsome and all, but the information on it is somehow inattentive to a reader who doesn't already know something of the history. To make the facts line up, you have to fill in a lot of blanks.

But these gaps make for a mismatch between implied audience and the information that audience is likely to have. It's like the sign is talking past most people and actually talking to preservationists who already know about and already value Ray Archie Furrow, the original bridge's designer and engineer.

On the flip side is a map that shows the locations of all the bridges associated with RA Furrow and the Salem orbit of Conde McCullough's design sensibility and professional associates.

Bridge location map, with starred
"R A Furrow" bridge sites (detail)

Numbered key to location map (detail)
But the map and its legend is misleading, not exactly wrong, but again misjudging the most significant detail for the intended audience.
  • Bridge #1 on Pringle Creek (the header at top) was demolished and replaced in 2014. 
  • Bridge #2 on Shelton Ditch (the site of the sign) was demolished and replaced in 2016.
I believe some of the other bridges have been demolished and replaced also. Some of the stars on the map show former sites for the bridges, but that distinction between current and former is completely erased, and people who aren't already bridge fans wouldn't necessarily know this.

It's fine to have a map and narrative about these bridges, even a walking tour, which the map suggests, but it should also make clear which bridges are original, which ones have been modified and updated, and which ones have been demolished and replaced.

This is a non-trivial failure in the information design and rhetoric.

Is the Sign in the Best Place?

Rightly, the front panel also talks a great deal about the Church Street bridge, which is the finest of those bridges by RA Furrow remaining.

Moss, delamination and flaking, corrosion on Church St Bridge
earlier in December 2017
This is evidence that the panel really belongs at the Church Street bridge, which is intact, and desperately needs funding for repair and maintenance. Structurally it might be fine still, but as a stylistic exemplar and bridge to be enjoyed, its surfaces and ornament are in trouble.

If the point of the panel is to educate on the style and significance of this set of bridges, indeed to generate enthusiasm for the remaining ones, shouldn't it be installed near one that is remaining and intact rather than a 21st century replacement? Especially, near the most important one?

This seems like the panel's third major disconnect in time and place.

Will there be More?

Still, there's lots of other, good information on the panel. The information about Thomas Livesley and the role of hops was great to see!

But as part of a suite of "mitigation" actions for the bridge demolition, this sign concept didn't seem great when it was first approved, and now that it has been executed, it still seems wayward. From start to finish, from composition to the editorial and approvals process, it seems to have lost sight of its real audience and instead may be talking to members of the preservation club. And instead of allocating resources to preserving the Church Street or any other still existing bridges, to actual mitigation, it just made pretty pictures, which here anyway don't even tell a coherent story.

In multiple ways, this is just a real missed opportunity.

Happily, these things can be changed. Much of it is just editing. If there is a second edition of the sign, or of the project is expanded to the other bridge sites, here are two ideas:
  1. Put the main sign with the map, key, and master narrative at the Church Street Bridge. If there is a tour concept, make Church Street the start and finish.
  2. Install smaller, satellite signs on the other bridges, making reference to the Church Street key. Make it clear which bridges are still original, which ones have been modified, and which ones have been replaced.

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Edit: The phrase "intended audience" made a clunky idea worse, so swapped in "implied reader," which is still clunky, but hopefully clearer.)