I was a math major in college and worked in
computer science for 35 years, way before computers were cool. So I feel
comfortable working out one right answer.
Imperiled Promise: The state of history in the National Park Service
shows in a 143-page report that history and the interpretation of
history of our national parks are complex and nuanced. There isn’t
necessarily one right, immutable answer. The report was undertaken by
four academic historians (Marla Miller, Anne Mitchell Whisnant,
Gary Nash, and David Thelen) and published by the Organization of
American Historians at the request of the NPS chief historian’s office.
Recently, the study won the excellence in consulting award (group) from the National Council on Public History.
As a national park aficionado but certainly
not a historian, I found the report fascinating. The report is peppered
with insightful comments from NPS historians, interpreters, and
The basic premise of the report is that the
National Park Service takes care of and interprets some of the most
important historic sites in the country. The NPS is the keeper of our
history as well as the protector of natural vistas. Over two-thirds of
the park units are historic in nature, yet culture resources funding has
been lost in favor of traditional NPS emphasis on natural resources and
law enforcement. There’s little support for historians and more
professionally trained historians are needed. Funding is poor–no
surprise here. The report was started in 2008, so it doesn’t focus on
any particular budget crisis.
The NPS concept of history is narrow and
static and interpretation is timid but this isn’t a new problem. In a
1988 report, Bob Krick, Chief Historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, wrote that even
when the consequent attitude toward history is not outright disdain,
there is a dreadful tendency to view historic sites as somehow
emasculated by the absence of geysers, waterfalls, granite grandeur, and
genuine law enforcement challenges (quoted on pg. 14).
The report writers feel that the public
perceives history as a boring set of facts that they had to learn in
school or a lot of debates on esoteric subjects. I never felt either in
school. Rather even then, I thought that history overemphasized wars,
battle tactics, and sports to keep the boys occupied. This is still true
The report describes what it felt was a good way to engage the public. At Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site,
a program examined the issue of segregated high school basketball teams
as an example of Jim Crow laws. This topic drew 450 people to the park,
double the number commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Brown v.
Board of Education decision. Talking about sports brings in visitors.
At Antietam National Battlefield,
we can be Confederate soldiers looking up at the distant hills as we
imagine Union troops coming over the crest of the hill. One park
interpreter has the audience line up and then the reinforcement line up
behind. We’re trapped and Union troops can mow us down. That’s a good,
though emotional, example of interpretation.
Many battlefields were preserved while
Reconstruction itself was still fresh in many minds. So the sites became
memorial and commemorative sites, rather than places that prompted
The focus of interpretation, according to
several survey respondents, is to have visitors make emotional, not
intellectual, connections. Stories help you to remember better but
history and heritage are not the same. Professional historians aren’t in
charge of interpretive exhibits or programs in historic parks. The
actual visitor programs are left to rangers who are probably not
historians or to poorly trained seasonal workers. But that’s true in
every field. Your primary care doctors don’t conduct medical research;
they interpret it. And how many of us remember being taught by teaching
assistants in college?
This distinction between history and
emotional interpretation explains my major annoyance about ranger talks
in historic units. Their talk always seems to end at the conclusion of
the battle or the life of the great man. The battle of Antietam occurred
in 1862. What happened to the site, the buildings, and the artifacts
afterwards? Who owned the land? How and why did it become a national
park unit? We’ve all heard the joke about the visitor who asks the park
ranger “how come so many battles were fought on national park sites?”
Most of the time, rangers fill in the gap
between then and now when I engage them in a private conversation later.
If there’s a long line of people who want to ask more questions of the
rangers, they may not want to spend a lot of time with any one visitor.
Websites are no help in explaining how the site became a national park.
Sometimes, even the park’s founding date is difficult to find.
One of the major report findings was that
history in the National Park Service is perceived as a “single and
unchanging ‘accurate’ story with one true significance. Hey, were they
talking to me? Rather narratives in history change as generations
develop new questions and perspective.
More trained historians are needed. Now only
4% of employees in national battlefields are historians. National
Historical Parks have the highest percentage of historians who work in
the field, 10%. Most NPS historians are located in regional offices or
in the Washington, DC office.
New technology always seems to be the
answer. Yet, as one respondent argues, and I agree whole heartily, there
is no substitute for a park ranger. Ask most people about a visit to a
NPS site. Do they remember the electronic message at a stop? No, they
remember talking to a ranger. A website will encourage visitors to come
to the park, not replace the visit.
Engagement on the National Park Service
Facebook page is limited to “liking” or commenting on issues raised by
the Facebook administrator. You can’t start a new topic. When I looked
at a random selection of individual national parks on Facebook, I found
that some allowed original comments and others didn’t.
The report recommends that the National Park
Service pay more attention to its own history and hopes that this will
happen at the NPS centennial. The agency sees itself as a transparent
interpreter of outside histories that happened before the area in
question became a park. The report points out (pg. 98) that meaning
resides both in the event and in the act of remembering it. That’s why
historical narratives are always changing and there’s no one right
In Finding 10, the report argues that
“history in many sites seems to be understood as having ended at the
park’s creation and stopped at its boundaries.” But reinterpretation and
competing perspectives are at the heart of the historical process.
That’s tough for parks to accept as they practice “defensive history.”
Countless interpretive materials are woefully out of date. Many were
installed during the Mission 66 era (1950-1960s) or in the 1970s. The
thinking might be “the past doesn’t change” but approaches to history
They’re watching me; they’re watching you
The NPS is cautious in what they feel
visitors can handle. So they tend to present generalized information and
non-threatening information so not to upset or offend them. Other
cultural institutions, such as museums, have created the field of visitor studies to develop ways of engaging the visitors. Yet, most NPS staff knew little about this new field of study. There is a NPS website on civic engagement but the report feels that it may be used to contain controversies.
Freeman Tilden, considered the father of historic interpretation in the national parks, said that provocation
was the most important function of interpretation. But the NPS may not
be comfortable with admitting errors or discussing controversy. For
example, Civil War sites have focused so long on battles that they had
trouble emphasizing the importance of slavery in the war. This is
discussed in another report The Need for Intellectual Courage, the History Leadership Council, and the History Advisory Board by Timothy S. Good. My impression is that sometimes the controversy is all that visitors remember and retells when they get home.
So what conclusions did I take away from the award-winning report, Imperiled Promise?
* The NPS needs more professional
historians. Their work should be incorporated in interpretive materials
offered to the visiting public.
* Provoking visitors is to be encouraged. They can handle it.
* Though the historical events can’t be
changed, scholarly interpretation and studies of the event are dynamic.
There’s no one right answer when it comes to interpreting National Park
Service historic units.