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:
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?