The Organization of American Historians recently completed an evaluation of the “state of history” at the National Park Service. Four prominent historians–Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Marla Miller, Gary Nash, and David Thelen–led the study, which was based on more than 500 staff responses to an online survey, interviews with current and former staff, site visits, discussions at national meetings, and a review of past studies and reports.
Their analysis revealed that much good work is going on in such areas as reinterpreting slavery and the Civil War, negotiating civic engagement, sharing authority, developing interdisciplinary partnerships, encouraging conversations about history through new media, and collaborating with historians in colleges and universities. These are presented through a dozen profiles of projects at such National Parks as Manzanar, the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, San Antonio Missions, Harpers Ferry, and the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.
Although they discovered that good work is being done in a few places, it is not “flowering on the whole” due to several intertwined issues. Most significant is the report’s contention that, “the agency as a whole needs to recommit to history as one of its core purposes, and to configure a top-flight program of historical research, preservation, education, and interpretation so as to foster effective and integrated stewardship of historic and cultural resources and places and to encourage robust, place-based visitor engagement with history.” These concerns are presented as a dozen findings, and from my observations, many also reflect what’s happening at historic sites outside of the National Parks. For example:
- The History/Interpretation Divide. The intellectually artificial, yet bureaucratically real, divide between history and interpretation constrains NPS historians, compromises history practice in the agency, and hobbles effective history interpretation. The NPS should find and take every opportunity to reintegrate professional history practice and interpretation. [In museums, this is comparable to the tensions found between curators and educators, where those who conduct research are often separated from those who teach.]
- The Importance of Leadership for History. Without visionary, visible, and respected leadership at the top, and managers throughout the agency who understand, value, and systematically advocate for and nurture the professional practice of history, a number of consequences ensue: resources are directed away from historical work, and fragmentation, demoralization, and isolation become endemic across the agency. Stronger leadership for history at the national, regional, and local levels is imperative to encourage and capitalize on notable successes. [Where do you go for advice and leadership? Up, across, or outside your organization? Do the leaders of your organization have training or experience as historians? Staff also identified which organizations were most valuable in connecting with the wider professional field. The National Association for Interpretation stood far at the top, followed by the National Council on Public History, American Association for Station and Local History, and the Organization of American Historians.]
- Historical Expertise in Today’s Workforce. For an agency devoted to the stewardship of our most spectacular historic sites, support for professional expertise in history is surprisingly weak. Position qualifications for historians do not require advanced training in history, working historians have difficulty gaining the ongoing training they need to stay abreast of developments in the field, and most parks—even historical parks—have no historian on staff. Historical interpretation is often left to poorly-trained seasonal workers. For NPS to develop historical programs based upon sound scholarship across the agency, greater emphasis needs to be given to the acquisition and maintenance of a strong base of in-house, professionally qualified historical expertise. [Does your historic site have someone with an advanced degree in history on staff, on your board, or as an advisor?]
- Inadequate Resources for Historical Practice. History in the NPS has been underresourced for decades. Chronic underfunding and understaffing have severely undermined the agency’s ability to meet basic responsibilities, let alone take on new and bolder initiatives, nurture and sustain public engagement, foster a culture of research and discovery, and facilitate connectivity and professional growth among NPS staff. Reducing inefficiencies and forming productive partnerships can help address these gaps, but after decades of deferred maintenance, the history infrastructure seriously needs repair. [It’s not just a shortage of funds, it’s diverting the skills and expertise of staff to unrelated work, such as administration and housekeeping.]
- Fixed and Fearful Interpretation. The NPS’s interpretive approach has tended to focus on fixed and final conclusions or “themes” that are supposed to guide interpretation over the long term. This approach has artificially sequestered interpretation from the original open-ended experiences of historical actors, from dynamic, ongoing patterns of scholarship, and from engaging visitors with flexible, multiple perspectives on interpretation. This fixed approach, in turn, reinforces a tendency toward “defensive history”that seems to stem from a certain timidity in the face of controversy or criticism. These dynamics predispose NPS to underestimate visitors and view them as people to be instructed rather than listened to and engaged. [When was the last time your site’s interpretation, including tours and brochures, was thoroughly reviewed and updated? Does your interpretation include different perspectives? Are you willing and able to discuss controversial or sensitive topics? Is history at your site fixed or flexible?]
To overcome these challenges, they make many recommendations, but felt that two major tactics would have the greatest impact:
- creating a History Leadership Council, comprising the agency’s most talented and influential historians and interpreters
- creating a History Advisory Board, comprising the nation’s leading public history professionals from beyond the agency—the most innovative curators, the most insightful scholars, the most savvy administrators.
If you’re facing similar challenges in interpreting history and promoting historical thinking at your site, you might find the report, Imperiled Promise, quite useful. Perhaps you’ll want to create your own history advisory board, too!