Robert M. Utley: Founder of the National Historic Preservation Program

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Robert M. Utley (third from right) as a panelist at the Denver "New Preservation" conference, 1968.  The National Park Service held eight regional conferences to explain the National Historic Preservation Act and its broad implications for preservation to the new State Liaison Officers for the act and interested members of the public.   Image credit:   Washington Office, National Park Service.

Robert M. Utley (third from right) as a panelist at the Denver “New Preservation” conference, 1968.  The National Park Service held eight regional conferences to explain the National Historic Preservation Act and its broad implications for preservation to the new State Liaison Officers for the act and interested members of the public.   Photo credit:   Washington Office, National Park Service

An able administrator and respected historian, Robert Utley was selected at age 34 by National Park Service Director George Hartzog to become Chief Historian. The new official spent most of his energies from 1964 to 1966 overseeing historians who made recommendations for the interpretation of historical units of the National Park System and others who compiled theme studies of potential National Historic Landmarks. But Utley also played a crucial role in developing the organizational structure needed to launch the new national historic preservation program. Continue reading

Harvesting the romance of the past

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Growing up as an American Indian boy in Oklahoma, I struggled every April 22nd with “89er Day,” an elementary school mini-holiday that celebrated the 1889 opening of central Oklahoma to white settlement. We school kids were expected to dash across the playground and stake out “homesteads,” being careful to watch out for “wild Indians.” As the day wore on, we had “chuck wagon” lunches, sing-alongs, and square dances. The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 marked the formal end of tribal reservations in Oklahoma, itself a Choctaw word meaning “[place of the] red people.” This was the romance of the past as it played out across innumerable schools in the Oklahoma of the mid-1950s.

This 1899 poster for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show suggests that Cody also “harnessed the romance of the past” throughout his career. Courtesy LOC

This 1899 poster for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show suggests that Cody also “harnessed the romance of the past” throughout his career. Photo credit:  Library of Congress

Patricia Mooney-Melvin, in her 1991 article on “Harnessing the Romance of the Past: Preservation, Tourism, and History,” writes about a different sort of historical romance, using another kind of misremembered history as an example. As she describes, an elderly woman and young girl visit the Buffalo Bill Cody museum where the woman confuses Cody and Theodore Roosevelt. Taking place at a historic site, this story emphasizes both the enthusiasm of the heritage tourist and the need for a high level of historical accuracy at those sites. Continue reading

Pulling back the layers: Participatory and community-based archeology

Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.

Early on a July morning, as the sun rises above the trees that line the eastern half of our urban dig site, the crew prepares for work. They use modified milk containers to bail the rain of last night’s thunderstorm from the plastic-lined 1-meter square excavation units. We are all beginning to sweat as we remove the dripping plastic sheets from the squares, and resume our efforts to discover what we can about life in this 19th-century textile mill town.

Most of the crew, composed largely of Baltimore City High School students who live in nearby neighborhoods, prepare to man the screens. They will spend the next couple of hours searching soils, excavated layer-by-layer, for artifacts. A few with sufficient experience are asked to begin digging in the unit. We are at the bottom of a stratum, all of our notes are up to date, and we’ve drawn and taken photographs of the walls and floors of the unit. We’re ready to dig through the next level of soil, so I instruct my students: “Go ahead and carefully begin pulling back the next layer…,”

A HCAP student helps to survey a Hampden archaeological site. Photo by David Gadsby

A Hampden Community Archaeology Project student helps to survey a Hampden archaeological site. Photo by David Gadsby

One of archeology’s oldest and richest metaphors is “pulling back” layers of soil to reveal the remnants of a hidden past. Archeologists, concerned with drawing conclusions about the human past from multiple, sometimes fragmentary lines of evidence, can use their data to tell stories that complicate or revise conventional understandings of that past. In recent decades, a growing number of archeologists has sought to pull back the layers, or “lift the veil” on their research practices, to produce more inclusive interpretations of data, recruit people to form a more diverse discipline, and cede some authority to members of descendent communities and the public, as we did with the Baltimore project described above. Continue reading