Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 3)

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

fort and ocean

Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park, Key West, Florida. Photo credit: Matthew Paulson.

~ Christine Arato, Chief Historian, National Park Service, Northeast Region

After Imperiled Promise landed with something of a magnificent thud almost two years ago, I liken the NPS response to a progression along the five stages of grief articulated by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I’m not sure where the agency is as a whole, though I think that our public conversations at Rutgers-Camden earlier this month intimate that some members of the family are striding towards healing and new life. And while I’m not certain if the grieving metaphor is entirely apt—since the Organization of American Historians (OAH) report suggests that the patient was merely moribund—I do think that the OAH’s rather grave prognosis has helped us to introduce some healthy exercise regimens, including the initiatives described by my colleague Lu Ann Jones, both at Rutgers-Camden and again, here, in this virtual forum, which articulate and embody the assertion that history is at the heart of the NPS and, more importantly, is a pillar of civic life. Continue reading

Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 2)

fence with sign

Signs at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Colorado. Photo credit:

Continued from Part 1

~ Seth Bruggeman, Associate Professor of History and Director, Center for Public History, Temple University

I’ve been fortunate to have had several points of contact with the Imperiled Promise report since its release, from attending early conference sessions with its authors to being a conversation facilitator myself and, most recently, speaking about where it may lead the NPS’s history program.  From the outset, I’ve worried that the report, like so much grey literature commissioned by the agency, would languish on some forgotten shelf.  So far, at least, that is not the case, thanks largely to the authors—especially Marla Miller and Ann Mitchell Whisnant—and others who’ve played a critical role in ensuring an audience for the report.

Who that audience is, however, and how it discusses the report, raises another set of questions. Continue reading

Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 1)

Editor’s Note:  On November 6, 2013, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers University-Camden convened a public forum to explore the changing presentation of history in US national parks.  The gathering took as its starting point the 2011 report “Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Parks,” which has sparked other similar conversations over the past year and a half (for example, this one a year ago in Boston).

In this three-part series, some of the participants in the event reflect on the state of the conversation about history in the Park Service and their personal and professional takeaways from the gathering.


skeleton of house

Outline of Benjamin Franklin’s house, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Shana L. McDanold.

Charlene Mires, Director, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities

At the forum at Rutgers-Camden, the Imperiled Promise report framed the conversation, but it was clear that we had turned a corner from reviewing its findings to thinking about its implications for our work.  The event created time and space for discussion and reflection on individual practice. Whatever may occur at the level of agency reform, change will require action on the ground by individuals such as those who participated.  I hope that ways will be found to highlight their transformative work as models for the future.  While I was glad to see how the conversation is evolving, I also came away from the forum concerned about the need to widen the circle of participation.  Nearly all of the university-based scholars who attended were faculty in public history programs — what will it take to interest more of our colleagues?  If the state of history in the national parks cannot muster greater attention within the profession, what are the chances of building public and political support for the resources that the Imperiled Promise report identifies as essential? Continue reading

NCPH 2013 Group Consulting Award (Part 2): Synergies and cross-purposes

report coverEditors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is the second in a two-part series by Marla Miller and Anne Whisnant, two of the four authors of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, winner of the 2013 NCPH Excellence in Consulting Award in the group category.

In Part 1 of this post, we reviewed some of the progress that has been made in the year since we finished Imperiled Promise.  Today, we raise some concerns about how two more recent high-profile NPS reports could work at cross-purposes with ours, and suggest how our colleagues can help keep the conversations about improving historical practice in the agency moving ahead.

Two NPS reports that could work against the recommendations in Imperiled Promise were issued last summer, a few months after our report debuted.  Revisiting Leopold, written by a committee of prominent scientists, focused on the future of “resource management” (both natural and cultural) in the NPS.  And Identifying Best Practices for Live Interpretive Programs in the United States National Park Service, completed by a team of researchers from Clemson University and Virginia Tech with backgrounds in environmental education and conservation, offered a study of immediate visitor responses to NPS interpretive programs.  Both reports, commissioned (as ours was) by offices of the NPS, are receiving high-level circulation among Service leadership, and, in the case of Revisiting Leopold, the endorsement of the Director himself. Continue reading

NCPH 2013 Group Consulting Award (Part 1): What next for Imperiled Promise?

report coverEditors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is part of a two-part series by Marla Miller and Anne Whisnant, two of the four authors of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, winner of the 2013 NCPH Excellence in Consulting Award in the group category.

We are pleased to have the opportunity to reflect on the consulting work that led to the publication of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service.  A year after the study appeared, what is perhaps most striking (and gratifying) to us is the ongoing nature of the conversation about NPS history, of which the study was a part.  Our greatest hope now is to nurture and propel that conversation forward.

We knew when finishing the study that a central challenge would be getting our hard-won insights (based as they were on the voices of hundreds of NPS employees as well as members of the academic community) noticed amid the stream of other reports and initiatives addressing related issues in the agency. We have spent the months since the report’s release working to ensure that it finds purchase among its target audiences, and have been deeply gratified to see colleagues both within and beyond the NPS embrace the study and the issues it raises. Continue reading

A seasonal ranger ponders “The State of History in the National Park Service”

report coverThe NCPH/OAH conference brought to light a subject near to my heart this afternoon – history in the NPS.  The panel consisted of Marla Miller, Gary Nash, David Thelen and Anne Mitchell Whisnant.  On the docket was the discussion of their report on how the NPS stacks up in the history department.  I have to admit, I haven’t read their report, Imperiled Promise.  And, as a detriment to my profession, I didn’t even know it was something that was being analyzed.  In considering this, however, I realize that my failure in having even heard of the study speaks directly to the findings.

As it turns out, a panel of historians gave the NPS a mediocre grade when it comes to their interpretation of history, and I’m not surprised.  I had found it odd, in my five seasons as an interpreter, at four different parks, that there had been a clear delineation between interpretation and history.  But, how could you have one without the other?  Yes, the material was there for me to research as I prepared my programs, but how was it that in my most recent position, doing only one program, a house tour (in costume, no less), I was told, in no uncertain terms, that no one had time to allow me access to archival material.  At my summer home, in Shenandoah, we are introduced during training about the most recent information on climate change, emerald ash borer concerns, deer populations, and weather and air monitoring, but only an hour was devoted to an introduction of the massive amounts of research material available on a cultural level.  Okay, some would say, it’s a nature park, but it also has a history that lends to the story as a whole.

The more I thought about the study, the less surprised I was to hear about the gap between interpretation and cultural resources within the park structure as a whole.  The more recent push to cohesively develop themes, objectives and construct connections for visitors to take away from interpretive programs all seems moot in light of the realization that I might not yet possess all the knowledge I need to do this.  When asked who was going to get this ball rolling and what would prevent this study from collecting dust on a shelf like all the others, the answer given was straightforward … you!  I’m willing to take that challenge, but at what cost?

A more in-depth discussion later with some of the panel members spawned a new thought:  who in the NPS was consulted on this study?  It turns out I already knew the answer.  Director Jon Jarvis was obviously a key component, but the others consisted of regional directors and other management level employees.  The problem with that … they don’t interact with the public on a daily basis like I do.  And who am I?  Just another seasonal staff member who shows up on Memorial Day and leaves with end of the autumn splendor.  So, I’m expected to get the ball rolling, but as I’m sure other seasonal NPS employees would agree, my voice is small and in what precarious position am I placing myself if I do push the envelope?  Sure, I might create a movement, spark an epiphany, give rise to a multitude of positive comments from visitors … or, I might find that next year, when the budget of our National Parks is trimmed yet again and another influx of returning veterans is vying for the same position, that I’ll be left out in the cold.  I’m going to push for an increase in more interdisciplinary work at parks and the ability for more communication across lines because my goal is to make the NPS a better and stronger unit.  They are, after all, my parks, too.

~ Jennifer Burns is a seasonal ranger currently at Shenandoah National Park.  She blogs at Ranger Talk.  (It may be restating the obvious, but this post reflects her ideas and not those of the National Park Service.)