Saturday, April 9, 2011

History, the National Park Service, and the Public Good

I have waited until the conference was over to add my reflections to this blog, partly because I was not sure what to focus on. Plus, the conference was so busy! Now, relaxing in my room overlooking the highway flyovers the dominate parts of the Pensacola downtown landscape, I would like to pull together some insights before heading out to the beach for a few hours.

This year's meeting felt like a conference within a conference, as a majority of my time was consumed with conversations that relate in some way to the large three-year study I'm working on with colleagues Marla Miller (UMass-Amherst), Dave Thelen (Indiana University), and Gary Nash (UCLA) on the "state of history in the National Park Service." The project, originally conceived by former NPS Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley and carried forward by current Chief Historian Bob Sutton, is co-sponsored by the Organization of American Historians.

The project started in 2008 and has involved a large survey of NPS personnel working in and around history, dozens of conversations with current and former NPS employees and interested scholars outside the agency, and site visits to a number of parks and offices. We've met with top NPS leadership, including Director Jon Jarvis, and have conducted focus groups at NCPH meetings, OAH meetings, and the National Association of Interpretation meeting. The aim is to produce a survey of current practice and recommendations for the revitalization of history in the agency; a final report is due August 1.

As I'd expected, this NCPH meeting proved a productive time for getting some final input from many quarters. On Thursday, Marla and I conducted a session dedicated to discussion of our preliminary findings with about 40 people, many of whom have given input ever since we began. On Friday, Marla met with a about a dozen NPS historians, and on Saturday, we heard an inspiring talk in which the new NPS Associate Director for Cultural Resources, Stephanie Toothman, detailed her vision. We spent the rest of the meeting, it seemed, huddled in one corner or another having one-on-one conversations with NPS staff members or contractors we'd planned to meet.

What was somewhat unexpected was how well several sessions that were completely unconnected to our project fed us some fantastic ideas, information and insights. Let me share a few:

At a session on Thursday on "Integrating History into Landscape-Level Conservation Initiatives," three speakers (Catherine Moore from National Parks Conservation Association, Rachel Kline from Heritage Stewardship Group USDA Forest Service Enterprise Unit, and Alexandra Wallace from Colorado State's Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands) presented creative ideas for how history work done to fulfill the mandates of either natural resources conservation or federal historic preservation legislation can be repurposed to provide interpretive and educational historical outreach to public audiences.

Moore, for instance, gave examples of how thee parks, Rocky Mountain, Lake Clark, and Timucuan, have used an expansive and integrated definition of history that encompasses environmental history to both conserve and interpret. At Rocky Mountain, the nomination of East Longs Peak Trail to the National Register produced historical research and an oral history collection that the park has also used in wayside and museum interpretation. And at Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska, created in 1980, a mandate to conserve park lands historically used for subsistence has undergirded substantial research into the historical connections of people to the land in the park area, including oral histories with Dena'ina elders about the Telaquana Trail area. In a cooperative arrangement with the University of Alaska, the park has posted many of those oral histories online.

Efforts within the Department of Defense and the U.S. Forest Service to similarly mobilize compliance-related (Section 106, Section 110) work for educational purposes also provide inspiration for how NPS might address the key challenge of bridging the divide between cultural resources management and interpretation. This divide, our team has observed, hobbles the agency from making the most of the prodigious and often excellent historical research it sponsors.

Another NPS-related session on writing park (or forest!) administrative histories made a similar point. As described by the panelists (who have posted information about their session here), administrative histories need not be the boring documents many may imagine. Although their initial audiences are park staff who need to understand how a park (or in some cases a particular problem, like fires or grazing) has been managed over time, the panelists described ways to widen the reach of these studies.

Independent consultant Joan Zenzen, who has written four administrative histories, has published several of them with university presses (Battling for Manassas, Fort Stanwix). Forest Service Chief Historian Lincoln Bramwell described translating content from a lengthy administrative history into an electronic presentation with interactive timelines that allowed users to see both chronologies and thematic changes. (I wish he'd demonstrated this!).

Most interesting to me were insights offered by Temple University historian Seth Bruggeman (see Here, George Washington Was Born) and OAH Public History director Susan Ferentinos (who has managed about 15 administrative history projects done for NPS under the OAH cooperative agreement, including one I co-authored with my husband David Whisnant, Small Park, Large Issues: DeSoto National Memorial and the Commemoration of a Difficult History).

Bruggeman and Ferentinos observed that administrative histories often trace parks' struggles with evolving historical memory about people or events, changing notions of what is important in the past, and the National Park Service's own role as agent and history-maker. They offer, therefore, golden opportunities for parks to develop "self-reflexive" interpretation -- interpretation that recognizes and transparently acknowledges the agency of the interpreter in creating the story.

This approach could be fruitful at many sites where, by now, park service interpretation is old enough to have changed many times over. Certainly it would have been a creative way to re-interpret De Soto National Memorial, which itself is a product of a certain moment in De Soto historiography, now more or less discredited. (Some of those issues are described here.)

The panelists suggested that talking about how histories presented in parks have changed, and why, could provide visitors a window into how history works, and how the Park Service has both shaped and been shaped by history. Unfortunately, since, as Chief Historian Bob Sutton noted, there is presently no central dedicated funding for park administrative histories and no requirement that they be done, this process may proceed unevenly and slowly.

Finally, speaking of funding, yesterday afternoon I attended a screening of a new film on the WPA Federal Writers Project, which produced, among other things, the WPA state guides. The film, Spark Media's "Soul of a People: Writing America's Story," described the evolution, productivity, problems, and ultimate demise of the program between about 1935 and 1943. Authors including Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Studs Terkel worked for the program. Its interviews of former slaves produced an unparalleled archive of oral histories.

Yet, the film described how this creative program, whose cost as a percentage of the entire WPA was miniscule, was attacked and killed by right-wing opposition led by Texas Congressman Martin Dies, who led the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 30s and accused the Writer's Project of harboring communists.

Watching this film while considering the state of history in the National Park Service and observing the ongoing ideological battles dominating the budget negotiations in Washington, I felt profoundly sad. The combination of history and nature that the National Parks gives us feeds our souls, elevates our understanding, promotes thoughtful civic engagement, and costs us relatively little. Yet prospects for expansion of funding for the parks seem dim, and the very idea of the "public good" that they serve seems under attack. I leave this conference hoping that the optimistic, publicly committed spirit that is the core of public history work and that was on display here all week will ultimately prevail in our national discourse.

1 comment:

  1. Great to hear about this work. Sad to contemplate the gap between historical energy and thinking, and the funds and will to make meaningful history come alive in common spaces. I would love to see constituencies beyond the usual battlefield/re-enactor core group become galvanized nationally with a sense of purpose, that could help leverage resources in scattered local sites.