Recipient Biography

Marc Sagan

Marc Sagan (1928-       ) received the Pugsley Medal in 1987. He was raised in urban surroundings in Boston, Massachusetts, but frequently visited Franklin Park, a large area of woodlands, fields, a zoo, ponds, and gardens. This early contact with the natural environment gave him opportunities to observe and enjoy, exercising what Rachel Carson called "a sense of wonder."
At the University of Massachusetts in 1945, he studied outdoor education with Dr. William G. Vinal and was cautioned against "saving souls by dissecting earthworms." Vinal had worked as a naturalist in the National Park Service and encouraged students to pursue wide interests in natural science rather than "learning more and more about less and less."
Summer jobs with the Massachusetts Conservation Council gave him the opportunity to visit children's summer camps throughout the state, leading groups on guided walks, teaching counselors leadership skills, presenting evening programs and studying natural history from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. It was precisely what he would use in his early park service career. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1949 with a B.S. degree in biology.
As a graduate assistant at the University of Pittsburgh, he was inspired by Dr. Robert Griggs, leader of the National Geographic Society's expeditions to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which is now part of Katmai National Park, Alaska. The university was conveniently close to the Carnegie Museum where the mammal collection gave him the opportunity to learn to identify mammals from hair samples. This proved useful to biologists studying predator-prey relationships. In 1951, he received an M.S. in ecology, then a relatively unfamiliar field.
During the Korean War, after four months of training in heavy weapons, he was assigned to a veterinary unit in Baltimore, where he inspected foods of animal origins. He found this less exciting than heavy weapons and was happy to return to civilian life when his tour of duty ended.
In 1954, he was appointed superintendent of Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland. A year later he entered the National Park Service at Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, best known as the location of Camp David. This was followed by two years as a naturalist at Grand Canyon National Park and another two years as an exhibit planner at the Museum Laboratory in Washington. The MISSION 66 Program, a 10-year program of expansion and development, was underway, and he planned many of the exhibits for new visitor centers throughout the system. This was followed by two years in a regional office and five years in the Washington office, where he created a planning method that had a profound effect on park planning and interpretation in the NPS. He later recalled:
In retrospect, it seemed like an easy progression, but I had a hard time selling my vision of a better way to approach interpretation. When I started, the NPS had a fixation on exhibits as the principal means of interpretation in every park. Having been an exhibit planner, I realized what that medium could and could not do.
He devised an approach to use media in a coordinated way, letting each medium do what it does best. He noted:
This was a very difficult concept to sell because roost park interpreters had no experience with exhibits and didn't realize their limits. I felt as though I was trying to make a battleship turn, swinging the wheel, but inertia kept the service going straight.
Eventually, he put his ideas in writing as The Interpretive Planning Handbook printed in 1965. It had a profound influence, receiving strong support from senior managers in the NPS. As interpretation spread to other federal and state agencies, the handbook became a basic reference.
He became chief of the division of interpretive planning, and in that position he moved in 1968 to the newly-constructed Harpers Ferry Center. He became manager of the center in 1974 and remained in that position until his retirement in 1986. Harpers Ferry emerged as the professional interpreters Mecca -- the place in the world that interpreters go to find the highest level of professionalism and quality of work in their business.
A steady stream of international visitors pilgrimaged to Harpers Ferry seeking inspiration, advice and education in the arts of interpretation. During the American Revolutionary War Bicentennial, he undertook for the center a $15-million program to provide special presentations throughout the NPS. Special exhibits, publications, motion pictures, and other educational materials for use by schools were distributed nationwide.
During Sagan's tenure as manager, the HFC provided over 3,000 museum exhibits in the parks, more than 5,000 wayside exhibits, over 100 motion pictures, and its publications when reproduced numbered well into the millions. In that timespan, the HFC received over 50 national and international film awards. Center exhibits, covering a decade  of work, won a Federal Design Achievement Award in 1985. President Ronald Reagan recognized the Center's Unigrid Design Program with a Presidential Award for Design Excellence.
Sagan was the father of contemporary interpretive planning and the father of scores of innovative programs and ideas; an Artists-in-the-Parks program, Craftsmen­-in-the-Parks, traveling exhibits, a major rehabilitation program, and many more.
When he retired from the NPS in 1986 at the age of 57, he continued his career for another 10 years as a consultant with conservation agencies in the US, Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the Caribbean.
To balance his work in the strnctured environment of organizational management, Sagan worked privately during evenings and weekends in several crafts. Working with stained glass, he produced an extensive series of designs based on simplified plant and animal forms. These are featured in the National Cathedral and Audubon Society shops. He also worked in blacksmithing and metal sculpture. After he retired, he became a noted photographer of dragonflies. All of these activities were methods of sharing his interest in the natural world.