Bridging the Gap Between “Nature” Sites and “History” Sites in the National Park Service (Part 2)

The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In my last post I pointed out that there exists a split–both real and perceived–between so-called “nature” parks and “history” parks in the National Park Service, so much so that some agency employees have expressed a wish to transfer history/cultural sites to a new agency. I stated that this proposal was mistaken and argued that the tensions behind this split have existed since FDR and Congress worked to add more than sixty historical sites to the agency in the 1930s, per the desires of NPS leadership.

I think most visitors to National Parks appreciate the diversity of the agency’s holdings in terms of its natural and cultural resources. At the same time, however, this persistent perception of National Parks as places solely dedicated to silence and solitude in nature (cogently expressed by Clay Jenkinson here) remains popular in part because the NPS often chooses to represent itself that way.


Nature Porn: Any active social media participant within the past five years has noticed what I’d describe as a “photographic turn” in the ways people and organizations share content online. Whereas the Facebook of 2006 was based largely on text-based status updates, users today are probably more likely to share something with a photo in it, whether it’s one from a personal phone or from a website. If you share a photo on Twitter, that photo is now displayed alongside the tweet rather than making users click on a “pic.twitter” link to see the photo (as was the case a few years ago). And of course something like Instagram exists because people love sharing photos.

The Park Service has embraced photographic social media and smartly exploits it for retweets, faves, likes, and shares to garner attention for the agency. And about ninety percent of those photos capture nature/scenic-type imagery: sunrises and sunsets, mountains, deserts, canyons, wildlife, and the general idea that you would get a lot of enjoyment being at these scenic landscapes in person rather than looking at them through a computer screen. While the Park Service Twitter and Facebook accounts do occasionally share pictures of buildings, battlefields, and other related cultural artifacts from historic sites on their feeds, I almost never see them sharing anything in terms of articles, blog posts, historic photos, or links to resources in which people have a chance to learn more about and conduct their own exploration into history. The Department of the Interior (the parent agency of the NPS) never shares anything history related on their social media feeds, even though they too have a role in the preservation and interpretation of U.S. history. This focus on nature porn is understandable but unfortunate given the large number of people who follow these accounts on social media, and it definitely shapes the way people understand the NPS mission.

NPS Logo: The NPS logo also presents its own challenges in conveying the historical and cultural mission of the agency:

NPS Logo

Some of the symbolism behind this logo is obvious. The bison at the very bottom represents wildlife, while the trees and mountains represent nature. These symbols also transmit a message of conservation, preservation, and scenic beauty. Less obvious, however, is the arrowhead shape and design itself, which is intended to represent history and culture. In a way, the NPS’s natural resources take on a more tangible representation than do the cultural. Would most people pick up on the cultural symbolism of this logo on their own? In my experiences, no. To be sure, I like the NPS logo and think it should stay the same. I am merely suggesting that the logo conveys certain messages about the agency’s mission better than others.

Interpreting Natural and Cultural Resources Through Different Disciplinary Lenses

I believe that at most park units the distinction between nature and history is false because almost every unit has elements of both within its boundaries. History sites have scientific and natural elements worthy of interpretation and nature sites have historical elements equally worthy of interpretation. Indeed, history is (partly) scientific and science has a history. Science has a very fascinating history of ideas and processes about the way the world works that interpreters should further explore. Some parks, no doubt, probably do a fine job of educating their audiences about the significance of their park through a multi-disciplinary lens (and more western parks are doing a better job of involving local indigenous groups in interpretive programming), but on a big picture level I think we can all do a better job of creating interpretive programs that push the boundaries of these disciplinary distinctions.

  • How cool would it be to go to Gettysburg and learn about the science behind farming practices in Adams County, Pennsylvania, leading up to the Civil War? Or what about a program about the formation of the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and how the Civil War influenced the creation of that agency?
  • How neat would it be to visit Yellowstone and learn about the political debates on Capitol Hill during U.S. Grant’s presidency (1869-1877) over whether or not the federal government had the right to protect federal lands from settlement in the interest of research and recreation? (Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872).
  • How interesting would it be to visit African Burial Ground in New York and learn about scientific theories of race in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how those theories helped expand and perpetuate African chattel slavery in the Transatlantic world?

These are just a few ideas I have about the sorts of programs that could help bridge this nature/history split in the NPS. Ultimately I think it’s in the agency’s best long-term interest to find ways to incorporate a diversity of disciplinary thought processes in interpretation and education rather than undertaking a costly endeavor to create an entirely new agency for the so-called “history” sites. I also think that building partnerships with history and science organizations could help this process. For example, if a history park doesn’t have any science specialists on staff, why not recruit partners in the local community (college students, citizen scientists, non-profits etc.) to help undertake this work in collaboration with that particular unit? Such a move represents a sharing of interpretive authority with local community members that could help foster a sense of good will and ownership in the NPS mission.

What do you think?


6 thoughts on “Bridging the Gap Between “Nature” Sites and “History” Sites in the National Park Service (Part 2)

  1. Some great points here! I’ve never been to an NPS site, but we have a similar system here with Parks Canada – however I don’t know if it suffers from quite the same identity crisis. When I think of P.C., I think of natural parks and historic sites such as Fort Langley equally (although as I heritage professional I’m probably biased). Your analysis of the NPS logo is particularly thought-provoking. Is it possible that the choice of projectile point/arrowhead shape (which clearly references early aboriginal technology) inadvertently perpetuates the idea that NPS only protects natural resources? After all, there are still widespread misconceptions that all pre-contact American peoples were “closer to nature” and less sophisticated than Eurasian societies. This is not to suggest that NPS supports these misconceptions, only that their logo may inadvertently create this association. Would a different cultural symbol be more effective? To what extent do you think people base their ideas and assumptions of an organization on its symbols?What about the name “Park” itself? This post has brought up some interesting areas for further discussion!

    1. Hi Ashleigh,

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. To be sure, I don’t want to overplay the extent to which this nature/history split exists, but it certainly does. I think you make a great point about the arrowhead shape itself perpetuating the idea that NPS only protects natural resources. At the same time the NPS formed in 1916 academics in anthropology, ethnology, and other related fields made distinctions between “prehistoric” native peoples” and “historic” white people, and perhaps we can see those same ideas in the Arrowhead design today. I’m not sure if a different cultural symbol would be more effective.

      The NPS makes many distinctions between park units and their purposes, I think something like seventeen. So we have National Parks, National Battlefields, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, etc. etc. So the history/cultural sites are inadvertently “sites” or “battlefields” or “historic homes” but not necessarily “parks.”

      Thanks again for commenting!

  2. Nick,

    I think the point you make about the real/perceived divide between what have been designated as natural resource parks and cultural resource parks is true to some extent, but I think the staff at many if not most parks have gotten past that divide and are actively interpreting and educating about both. Yes, there is still a perception amongst the public that the NPS is all about the big natural resource parks, which has been encouraged most recently by Ken Burns series that ONLY mentioned those 58 places designated as parks; a small number compared to the now over 400 total sites within the system. Wouldn’t it be great if he did a similar series on the “other” parks in the system? Think of the awareness that would create!

    As you said, many of these other sites came into the NPS in the 1930s, mostly transfers from the War Department–battlefields, forts, etc. My research indicates that it was agreed by most that the War Department really wasn’t the best department to operate these sites, and the NPS was seen as a logical agency to administer them. The 1906 Antiquities Act had already given the federal government the authority to proclaim and reserve “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on lands owned or controlled by the U.S. as “national monuments.” (See Shaping the System, p. 13).

    I honestly think you would be hard-pressed to go to any unit of the NPS and only hear/see either the natural or the historic aspects of that place. The NPS has been working for years (at least 20 that I know of) to tell multiple perspectives and stories. Can it do everything at every site? No–not only the mission of each site, but the time each visitor has to spend precludes that. Can the NPS as a whole do more to create awareness of everything it has to offer? Certainly. I do know that some of the things planned or suggested for the Centennial of the NPS in 2016 will try to do that; here’s hoping it gets the attention (and funding) it needs!

    1. Hi Pam,

      Thanks so much for jumping into the discussion with this wonderful, perceptive comment. I have no doubts that the agency as a whole has worked to bridge these gaps in recent years and continues to do so today. It’s not easy to incorporate such a diversity of interpretive programs given the amount of time we have with park visitors and the budgetary challenges we often face, and I certainly don’t want to overextend my argument about this split to make it seem like there are clear battlelines between history and nature parks. There are parks doing great things from an interpretative and education standpoint. But that said, I agree 100% that the NPS–from a big picture perspective–can do more to promote awareness of its mission and purpose. Hopefully the Centennial will be a big success in this regard!

  3. I think that you have an excellent point with this (and the previous) post. I did want to relate one experience I had working as an SCA intern at a history park.

    The park had, within the last 5 or 10 years, turned over what had been a cotton field to natural grasses. The cotton field was important to the battle, but no one was willing to farm the land for the park and the park decided that it was time to put some more work into the natural resources of the land. I had several comments over the course of the summer about “Don’t you guys have a lawn mower?” One lady in particular was very insistent that the natural grasses were ruining the look, and purpose, of the park. I finally explained that the park I was at, despite being a history park, had a responsibility to the natural resources of the park the same way that Yellowstone or Yosemite did. That seemed to finally get through to her and really made her think.

    I wonder if maybe the dichotomy goes two ways? People who are most familiar with the battlefield sites are concerned that history is overlooked to take care of the natural while people more familiar with the Western parks are concerned that history is supported at the expense of the natural.

    1. Hi Amanda,

      Thanks so much for the nice comment and for sharing your story as an SCA intern. I think your response to that women about the need to preserve natural resources–even at a designated history park–was perfect.

      I definitely think the dichotomy goes both ways, no doubt. We should all work to best of our abilities to incorporate multidisciplinary approaches in the ways we create, design, and implement interpretive programs for our visitors. This is not something relevant to only historians or only scientists. Thanks again for commenting!

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