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New National Parks Posters Keep the Spirit of the WPA Alive

The “Recreate Responsibly” campaign draws inspiration from classic 1930s park promotions.

“Wildlife Petting Chart” (all images courtesy Matthew Turner, National Parks Service)

Mary Poppins famously said, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” The National Park Service is employing this philosophy for its latest promotional campaign, which started in April. Drawing on prior campaigns about safety and wildlife distancing, Matthew Turner, a social media specialist at the NPS Office of Communications, created a series of posters to promote their 2020 campaign, “Recreate Responsibly.” They advocate for proper behavior within the parks through the lens of practicing social distancing and good hygiene (such as washing hands and staying home while sick). 

“Keep Your Social Distance and Keep Wildlife Wild”

Several posters advise giving animals a wide berth through the lens of social distancing. One cites the now-familiar rule to keep a six-foot distance from other people in public, expanding on it to recommend keeping at least 300 feet away from bears and moose. Others promote the idea of appreciating the parks at home with one’s computer. One draws on the mythology of Bigfoot, depicting a furry hand reaching for a keyboard. 

“Find Your Virtual Park”

Turner hopes that people will connect with the posters, laugh, and think twice before approaching any wild animals. He drew some inspiration from a March video of a reporter seeing bison, which he liked because it didn’t make light of the potential danger. Historian Nick Taylor, author of American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, explains the effectiveness of the technique: “less is more … [if you can] make people smile, you found a way to get them to do what you want them to do.” The posters notably draw upon the history and aesthetics of posters for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. From 1936 to 1943, the agency put numerous designers and artists to work. Their poster topics varied from theater productions and other WPA arts projects to travel, national parks, and later the ramp-up to World War II. 

Social Distancing Practices Chart

WPA posters advocating for specific national parks have their own unique history, since many were lost for many years. Doug Leen, aka the Ranger of the Lost Art, has spent the past few decades tracking down the 14 identified WPA National Park posters (other park-related works exist as well) after stumbling upon one of them in 1973. The originals were printed by Western Museum Laboratories in Berkeley, California, in batches of 50-100, since the silkscreen they were printed on deteriorated quickly. Of the 35,000 unique WPA designs and over 2 million posters printed, Leen estimates that only 1,400 featuring individual national parks were created, and few remain today. Intended simply to promote the parks, they weren’t valued highly at the time. Leen has found originals of 12 of the 14 known designs, and he hopes to eventually find the remaining ones. 

“Recreate Responsibly”

Turner drew on fonts, colors, and even imagery from WPA designs to create these new posters, valuing the “clean, simple look from the era, which was iconic for the Park Service.” He notes that people tend to gravitate toward a retro look. Taylor calls these new posters “worthy descendants.” They were created to be shared via social media, and even printed if desired. Turner says that people have reacted well to the posters overall, and that he hopes this “safety with a smile” campaign will continue to resonate as the parks reopen. The posters can be seen here and here, as well as on the Park Service’s various social media pages.

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