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ASU offers new perspective of Grand Canyon

May 16, 2008

For most people, including many of the nearly 5 million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon, the geological icon in northern Arizona is a striking landscape – a majestic and physical place of wonderment.

But an ASU team of educators, comprised of graduate students and faculty members from the history department and graduate students from the School of Geographical Sciences, are out to deepen that perspective with a new interpretation of the Grand Canyon’s human history.

Their project, “Interpreting America’s Historic Places: Nature, Culture, and History at the Grand Canyon,” aims to paint a cultural landscape of the canyon through a suite of public educational materials, including a digital audio-tour, walking tour brochure, interactive Web site and DVD, and educational kits known as traveling trunks, with curriculum and classroom materials that can be used by K-12 teachers nationwide.

Supported through a significant $365,000 grant that spans three years from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a $200,000 investment from and partnership with the Grand Canyon Association, the project had humble beginnings with a $9,000 seed grant from ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research.

“Our aim in this project is to explore the cultural significance of the canyon to those people who have lived there, or passed through, during the past 400 years,” says Paul Hirt, ASU associate professor of history and the project’s director. “We will also explore the ways that this unique place has influenced American sciences, art, environmental values, popular culture, tourism and leisure.

“The project is designed to help Americans understand their own nation and how we came to be who we are – and that history happens in specific places,” Hirt adds.

ASU collaborators include Linda Sargent Wood, assistant professor of history and co-director; graduate student Yolonda Youngs, School of Geographical Sciences; and graduate students Patricia Biggs-Cornelius, Sarah Bohl and Adam Tompkins from the history department.

The team began working under the NEH grant last fall and since then has interviewed park rangers, experts and tourists to produce the first interpretative product – a digital audio-tour – that will be available to the public at the Grand Canyon in May 2008.

The 90-minute digital pedestrian audio-tour interprets more than 20 historic sites at the Grand Canyon Village historic district on the South Rim, including the El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge, the Kolb Studio, the Santa Fe railroad depot, and many other buildings and architectural features. It will be for sale at Grand Canyon bookstores and on the Internet from the Grand Canyon Association.

“The histories of the Havasupai Indians and other Americans who have called this landscape home are largely missed by most visitors to the Grand Canyon who lack the knowledge or the tools to perceive and understand the human experience embedded in this seemingly natural landscape,” says Hirt.

“As a consequence, millions of park visitors each year lose a unique opportunity to appreciate how nature, culture and history have long been bound together at the Grand Canyon and how that diverse and changing relationship reveals important features of our nation’s history.”

As a companion to the audio-tour, the project team is revising and enhancing the existing walking-tour brochure of the South Rim Historic District. Later, they will provide interpretative training for park rangers, concessionaires and bus drivers.

The traveling trunks are being produced by a team of Arizona public school teachers who are serving as consultants. Currently, the Grand Canyon Association loans out three copies of a “human history” trunk with curriculum and classroom materials developed in 2002. Under the NEH project, this human history trunk will be significantly updated with new curriculum and divided into two trunks – one for elementary students and the other for high school students. Five copies of each trunk will be produced for a total of 10 traveling trunks for loan use.

Each trunk will contain books, maps, videos, audios and illustrative items. The new curriculum is being evaluated this summer with plans to make the traveling trunks available later this fall. According to Wood, the trunks will be shipped free of charge to any teacher anywhere in the country.

Simultaneously, the project team is writing text and gathering historic photos and images for an interactive Web site and DVD.

“There will be many more sites and stories on our Grand Canyon Web site than on other existing Web sites,” Hirt says. “We will interpret some 70 to 80 historic sites.”

Another unique feature of the ASU-sponsored Web site is that many of the narratives will focus on the relationship between nature and culture, and the significance of the Grand Canyon in American history.

The National Endowment for the Humanities funding for the project comes from the prestigious “We The People” initiative designed to promote “knowledge and understanding of American history and culture.”

“The Grand Canyon Association is very pleased to be working in partnership with ASU on this significant human history project,” says Brad L. Wallis, executive director. “As one of the most visited natural history sites on the planet and a true international icon of natural places, the Grand Canyon has also had a fascinating human history story, and this grant will help visitors become more aware of this aspect of the canyon.”

More information about the project is online at