Ripple effects: The US government shut down and public history training

closed sign

Image: Flickr user Bryan Mills.

I was editing a student’s master’s thesis and came across a note stating that she could not access two key images because they were only available on the Websites of the United States Geological Survey and the United States Department of Agriculture. I was discussing another student’s research paper and tried to access a part of the Library of Congress’s Website that was unavailable. In conducting my own research, I tried to consult and got this message: “Due to the lapse in government funding, sites, services, and all online survey collection requests will be unavailable until further notice.” Minor annoyances, perhaps, but the cumulative effect of each dead end is to degrade the learning environment and restrict productive work for both students and faculty.

One of my colleagues and our first-year graduate students are preparing for a field trip to Washington, DC. The itinerary includes visits to the Smithsonian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and National Mall. Can you imagine taking a group of museum studies graduate students to Washington and not getting to see any of these things? Continue reading

Locked out, not shut down

NPS website with shutdown message

The main National Park Service website as it appeared on October 5, 2013.

I didn’t expect this shut down to bring back the 1995 shut down so vividly; that lock out was almost twenty years ago! But talking with friends and colleagues, I hear the same deep sense of unworthiness, of uncertainty, of being sent like a naughty child to my room but with all the work still piling up—and the deadlines remaining fixed. It feels dank.

We need to call this Shut Down the Lock Out it is—the effort to “prove” that government employees are either needed or extraneous, that they are either part of our security/military function or rightfully belonging to that dustbin of social causes. I strenuously disagree with the effort—and hope that as this Lock Out progresses the American people will see all the many ways that various parts of the federal government improve and protect their lives.  Continue reading

The lay of the land: Researching a national park’s administrative history

Mallard Island

Zenzen stayed on this island to learn about the Minnesota lake culture. Photo courtesy of Joan Zenzen.

I spent two weeks in July immersing myself in the life and feel of northern Minnesota, all in service of an administrative history I am writing of Voyageurs National Park.  I consider such experiential learning as another primary source that I can call upon when writing.  Public historians have the flexibility but also the challenge of identifying the needed resources for their topics.  What types of sources do I find most useful when writing about the establishment, preservation, and management of national parks?

Taking a tour and watching other visitors interact with features in the park are my entry to investigating the history of a park.  First, I need a sense of the geography so that when I write, I understand the lay of the land, beyond what I see on the park maps.  Second, I need that visceral experience, that “ooh-ahh” that explains why people fought to have the park established.  I need to feel that connection to the scenery and other features.  Third, I want to see how others react to the park’s beauty and mystery.  What grabs their attention?  What do they comment upon?  How do they move through the landscape?  I am not taking an official survey of visitors, but I am watching, learning, and mentally noting visitor reactions versus my own. 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.)