Exploring the History of the National Park Service

Yours truly at the Grand Canyon.
Yours truly at the Grand Canyon.

On Monday, October 3 I’ll be giving a short talk to a local senior group about the origins of the National Park Service and the agency’s ongoing efforts to commemorate and celebrate its centennial year. I’ve used this opportunity to take a deeper look into the agency’s history and evolution from exclusively a nature-based agency to one that also incorporates the preservation and interpretation of cultural resources. I’m also exploring the tension between the agency’s twin goals of providing access to visitors by building an infrastructure to provide for visitor comfort and amusement at NPS sites and the agency’s mandate to preserve its resources “unimpaired.” To assist in my stuides I’ve been relying heavily on Richard West Sellars’s Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History and re-reading Denise Meringolo’s Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History for guidance.

These two books compliment each other nicely. Sellars does a nice job of assessing the Park Service’s early history and exploring the ways that various agency leaders have sought to simultaneously preserve and provide access to the country’s natural wonders. But as the title of his books suggests, Sellars completely omits any discussion of the preservation of historic sites throughout the agency’s history, just like when Ken Burns omitted historic sites from his 2009 documentary on the NPS. While I understand the desire to maintain a narrow analytic focus when writing a book, the omission of the history sites is another example creating a false dichotomy between “nature” and “history” sites and playing into a popular perception of the National Park Service as primarily–if not solely–a protector of natural resources. I believe the sort of detailed analysis Sellars gives for the history of nature preservation is still sorely needed for analyzing the agency’s history when it comes to historic preservation.

Meringolo’s book does a nice job of filling some of the gaps left by Sellars with her discussion of the agency’s expansion into historic preservation during the New Deal. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt issued two executive orders after consulting with NPS Director Horace Albright. The first one, Executive Order 6166, assigned the NPS with assuming responsibility for all of the parks and monuments in Washington, D.C. (what is now the National Mall) and overseeing all commemorative activities at those sites. The second one, Executive Order 6228, assigned 57 historic sites previously administered by the War Department and 17 monuments from other agencies to the NPS. Meringolo explores these developments while also analyzing the emergence of the Smithsonian and the role of government in preserving national history.

I always enjoy giving talks and I look forward to seeing how this one goes. If you have book recommendations on the history of the Park Service, let me know in the comments section.


Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon Are Not the Only National Parks in the United States

NPS Logo

If you’ve turned on the news within the past month and heard something about the National Park Service, it was most likely bad news. Indeed, the media perception of late is that the agency is crumbling apart amid the weight of too many visitors (and too many visitors behaving stupidly), broken down facilities, and staffing shortages. A baby bison died after visitors thought it was smart to put it in their car; a man died at the Norris Geyser Basin hot spring after walking off the designated trail; another group of six people were kicked out of a park after being spotted walking across a hot spring and putting their lives in danger. All of these events, of course, occurred at Yellowstone National Park, arguably one of the most popular national parks in the entire country.

It’s true that record-breaking attendance numbers, maintenance backlogs, and staffing shortages (!!) exist within the National Park Service. For these reasons the agency’s #FindYourPark Centennial campaign has been scrutinized in some quarters for privileging access to resources over the preservation of those resources, and a powerful essay from conservationist Erica Prather on Medium going around on social media now calls upon the Park Service to abandon the #FindYourPark campaign for a #ProtectYourPark campaign and for visitors to change their behaviors for the good of the natural and cultural resources now in danger.

I agree and disagree with Prather. She proves that EPA air quality standards and human-wildlife interactions are becoming a problem at many national parks, and I agree with the general sentiment that more visitor education about park safety and the importance of protecting our parks are sorely needed. But overall her essay is alarmist, exclusionary, and elitist.

Prather argues that one of the central flaws of #FindYourPark is that “social media [ensures] that they’ve already been found.” She comes to this conclusion, however, because she narrowly defines the NPS and the #FindYourPark campaign as applying only to the 59 sites designated as “national parks” and not the entire agency’s 411 sites that include national historic sites, national monuments, national seashores, national battlefields, and much else. The sites designated “National Parks” are apparently the only ones that count in Prather’s book. Yes, people are undoubtedly aware of most if not all of the “national parks” within the agency, but are they really aware of all 411 sites or the fact that the NPS includes not just sites with wildlife and scenic views but also historic sites that tell the story of the United States? I have my doubts. Recent studies indicate that historic site visitation throughout the country is actually down since 2002, and there are many non-“national park”-designated sites with less than 40,000 visitors each year who are struggling for audiences.

Ultimately I think it’s important to understand two things. One is that for all of our concerns about visitor stupidity, the vast majority of visitors are good park stewards who support the NPS. Roughly 25 people die at the Grand Canyon annually, which is obviously terrible, but there are also more than 5.5 million annual visitors to that site. Let’s not blow things out of proportion. The other is that what happens at the big national parks whose names start with a G or a Y are not necessarily indicative of what happens at other places. #FindYourPark applies to William Howard Taft National Historic Site and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument as much as it applies to Grand Canyon National Park or Yellowstone National Park. We should always value the importance of conservation and protection, but it doesn’t mean that we should ever stop promoting the value of all our national park sites and encouraging people to visit them. We can do all of this at the same time. Isn’t it a good thing to have lots of people interested in visiting your site as opposed to none at all?

National Parks enthusiasts also need to stop forcing park newcomers to experience these places the same way they do. I do not mean to suggest that breaking the rules and putting people and resources in danger is in any way acceptable. But let’s stop telling people to “hike without a camera” or portray people with cell phones as selfie-obsessed narcissists who view national park sites as “Six-flags style places to visit and check off the bucket list.” There are many ways to experience a national park site. Visitors should be allowed to enjoy their time in a way they see fit as long as they don’t break the rules.

Want to bring your phone? Great, just make sure to get my good side 🙂


Get Out of Your Chair and Support Historic Preservation and Education in Your Community

I always said, blacks need to stop bringing up slavery all the time. It was a long time ago. Why can’t they just move on and forget about it? But then they wanted to move on and get rid of these confederate statues, and I was all like, “Things that happened a long time ago are still important. You shouldn’t forget about them!”

The above quote comes from a really funny piece of satire that a friend shared with me from The Push Pole, a website based out of Southern Louisiana. Its title seems apt for the times: “Thousands of History Buffs Magically Appear After City Council Votes to Remove Confederate Monuments.” The piece is funny because it’s rooted in a partial truth about the complex and contradictory ways Americans often choose to remember their history: “Never Forget” is an arbitrary term that extends to historical events and people we care about, but when it comes to historical things we consider to be overblown or simply not worth caring about, “we need to move on” becomes the default response. (See Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s essential essay on “Never Forget” for more thoughts on the subjective nature of the term).

The taking down or altering of some public statues, monuments, and memorials honoring the Confederacy sparked a vigorous debate in 2015 about the place of Confederate iconography in America’s commemorative landscape and whether or not some of these icons–particularly the ones in places of public governance, public schools, town squares, and the like–should remain in their place of honor. The online discussion took place through blog posts, newspaper op-eds, and thousands upon thousands of comments. While some of these discussions were productive and enlightening, we were also treated to excessive and misleading cries of “erasing history” (which is a flawed argument to take when analyzing public iconography), poor analogies that compared changes to Confederate iconography to ISIS-led destruction of Middle Eastern history, and emotion-filled hysterics that often said more about the politics of the present than any actual grasp of historical knowledge. And while folks got emotionally heated about Confederate icons, other historical artifacts such as this 19th century Virginia slave cabin are being demolished or in other cases facing potential demolition in the near future, all amid the sound of near silence on and offline.

What is the point of preserving symbolic icons that commemorate historic events and people if the actual historical artifacts that act as tangible representations of these events and people go away; things like letters, historic homes, battlefields, and other material artifacts? What would happen if some of that energy expended on debating iconography went towards preserving local history, Civil War battlefields, slave cabins, historic cemeteries, material artifacts, or archival records?

You and I can write blog posts or comment on newspaper articles until our fingers break off, but none of it really matters unless we get involved in our local communities and work towards convincing our neighbors of the importance of preserving history. Contact your local officials and tell them why public funding is important for ensuring a future grounded in an honest, responsible understanding of the past. Tell them to support historic preservation efforts in your area. Tell them that it’s important to support history education initiatives in the k-12 classroom such as National History Day and humanities programs in community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Tell them to support local institutions like historical societies, museums, and archival repositories. Join a preservation group like the Civil War Trust or the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Go visit a nearby National Historic Site. Attend a historical reenactment. Ask questions and be willing to listen and learn about the past, even if it’s difficult and unpleasant.

If you live in a community where a statue, monument, or memorial is currently garnering controversy, read up on relevant scholarship about the historical event being commemorated and why a symbolic icon was erected to preserve the memory of that event. Honestly consider whether or not that symbolic icon should remain in a place of honor in your community. If town hall meetings or other events are taking place about the history in your area, go to them. Listen to the perspective of other community members and express your own thoughts as well. Work towards becoming an active member of your community and an advocate for history.

If 2015 marks the beginning of a renewed conversation about history and memory in American society, let us use 2016 as a starting point for a renewed effort towards advancing the importance of supporting, preserving, and educating people about the history that is all around us. Get off the message boards and get to work in your community.

Cheers to a great new year.

“Salvage City” and Historic Preservation

Photo Credit: http://www.thestlouisegotist.com/news/local/2013/december/21/st-louis-salvage-city-new-show-cfmoriginals-airs-tomorrow-discovery
Photo Credit: http://www.thestlouisegotist.com/news/local/2013/december/21/st-louis-salvage-city-new-show-cfmoriginals-airs-tomorrow-discovery

A friend on Facebook recently shared an article about a new reality TV show that made its debut on the Discovery Channel on December 22. The show is called “Salvage City” and it’s taking place in St. Louis, where a businessman in the downtown area is going into abandoned properties with a camera crew and finding items to repurpose and sell in his shop.

Apparently this businessman (Sam Coffey) has been searching for items in abandoned properties for years, and he readily admits that sometimes he goes onto private property without the permission of property owners. “Am I breaking the law?” remarks Coffey. “I think it is on a case by case basis. Sometimes I probably am . . . If I have to break the law [to save the item], I absolutely see the greater good.”

While highly unlikely in this particular situation, such comments remind me of the recent fire that burned down the historic LeBeau Plantation in Louisiana last month, where seven “ghost hunters,” frustrated because they couldn’t find any ghosts within the building, decided to burn down the property instead. Two completely different situations of course, but the attitude of “I’ll go there if I want to” appears to be the same in both.

Since the legality of such activities is rather dubious, the Discovery Channel has already made sure to receive approval from property owners before filming. Even if the legalities are taken care of, however, I’m still not sure if this method of searching for “repurposeable” items is in the best interest of historic preservation.

On the popular History Channel show “American Pickers,” the two pickers (Frank and Mike) go to properties and work with owners to purchase goods that they can resell at their shop. I think “American Pickers” is more fair to property owners that “Salvage City” because they discuss the historical provenance of a specific item, negotiate a mutually fair price for purchasing the item, and then make efforts to preserve the item and sell it to customers who will take care of the item. With “Salvage City,” it seems as if Sam Coffey’s decision making process is rather arbitrary. He alone assesses the historical provenance of an item, determines its monetary value without input from the owner, and repurposes the item for uses that he deems important. For example, the article I link above mentions that Coffey once grabbed a bowling pinsetter and turned it into a whiskey rack for his office.

I’m glad that Coffey and the Discovery Channel took efforts to gain permission from property owners before hunting on these derelict properties, and perhaps this whole idea of salvaging “trash into cash” isn’t a big deal. As long as the property owner says it’s okay, some will say, then there’s no problem. Nevertheless, sometimes what’s okay with a property owner is in direct tension with the need for historic preservation of buildings, artifacts, and human stories.

What do you think?


Update: Here is the Riverfront Times‘ take on “Salvage City.”

Highlights from the National Trust for Historic Preservation Annual Conference

From October 29 to November 3 (today) the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been holding its annual conference right here in Indianapolis. I was able to secure a scholarship to attend the conference for free (thank you IUPUI!) and I tried to attend as many different sessions as possible while still making time for school work. I am not an expert on historic preservation, but wow, every session I attended was amazing. I met a lot of people from around the country and was quite impressed by the variety of jobs these historic preservationists held. I came out of the conference having a much better understanding of what historic preservationists do and I could definitely see myself working in this field if the opportunity arises. Ultimately, I learned that historic preservation is more than preserving buildings; it’s about the preservation of stories, people, and communities too.

Here are some highlights, thoughts, and interesting points I learned while at the conference. I still don’t know a lot of the lingo behind historic preservation, so please forgive me for speaking in rather general terms:

  • On Wednesday, October 30 I had the opportunity to work with my friends at the Indiana State House (where I used to work) and help run a field session/tour that started at the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse and eventually made its way to the State House. The Federal Building was completed in 1905 and was also the main post office of Indianapolis when first completed. In 1974 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Amidst the Great Recession of 2008 federal stimulus money was used to renovate the building, which provided employment to many laborers in and around the area who had either been laid off or had their hours cut.
  • When the field session moved to the Indiana State House, we heard former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard speak about efforts to preserve the Indiana Supreme Court Room back to its original design. Starting around 2002 (if I remember correctly) federal funds were given to the state to undertake this work. Shepard talked about some of the challenges associated with the restoration, especially the strict scrutiny given to the project by some taxpayers. Sometimes preservation efforts are not readily appreciated by the public, who would rather see tax funds spent for other purposes. Being clear about the project’s purpose and the potential benefits of such work, argued Shepard, is integral to teaching the public about the importance of preservation.
  • On Thursday, October 31 I attended a rainy field session on reviving urban neighborhood centers. We traveled to various parts of Indianapolis, including Fountain Square, Irvington, 10th Street, and Massachusetts Avenue. Throughout the tour I was continually struck by the devastating impact of de-industrialization in Indianapolis, which started in the 1970s and has continued to this day. For example, a Ford automotive plant and a factory that made Duracell Batteries on East Washington Street have both shut their doors in recent years, leading to the loss of more than 10,000 jobs on this street alone. East Indianapolis has also suffered from some of the worst rates of foreclosure in the country thanks to de-industrialization, predatory lending, and the 2008 Great Recession. The best way to preserve a historic building is to find new tenants for it, but developing new uses for these buildings  has been a challenge for preservationists in the area. Thankfully, a program called the Super Bowl Legacy Initiative brought some much needed funds following the 2012 Super Bowl, and it appears as if these funds are being used for good purposes.
  • I was also struck by the number of abandoned theaters throughout the city that I saw on the tour. During the twentieth century, Indianapolis was actually well-known for its theaters. However, as the jobs went, so did the theaters. Some of these theaters have been restored as music venues (see, for example, the Murat Theater), but many are still completely abandoned. I would be really interested to read a historical study that analyzed changes in theater and fine arts in conjunction with changes in the built landscapes of the surrounding communities of these theaters.
  • I attended three sessions on Friday, October 1 and live-tweeted so many interesting points to #PresConf that my phone ran out of juice before the end of the day. All three sessions were excellent, but the first one (“preservation as a meaningful tool for addressing community change”) was really striking. Matt Cole and Jason Berry of Chicago and Michael Allen of St. Louis did a great job of reinforcing the importance of moving the historic preservation discussion from districts, tax codes, and the history of neighborhood creators to discussions about the people who currently live in these historic neighborhoods, which are often riddled with crime and poverty. Jason Berry summed this up by stating, “I love good windows, but things happen.” The job of Historic Preservationists is to help local communities handle change and address questions that are important to the community, not to act as community spokespersons or deciders of the future.
  • Another session entitled “Cocktails, Coloring Books, and Cyber Space” provided new strategies for educating local communities about historic preservation efforts. Members of the Landmark Society of Western New York outlined three innovative ideas they are experimenting with to try and raise awareness in Rochester, New York, and the surrounding areas. One (“Cocktails”) involves using drink coasters with QR codes at local historic drinking establishments that lead to LSWNY’s website. The others (“Coloring Books” and “Cyber Space”) are geared towards children and families. “The Littlest Preservationist” is a coloring book addressed for children, while the computer game “Historical Friction” challenges students to envision preservation efforts from the perspectives of both preservationists and developers. The site will be up and running in the spring of 2014. While LSWNY acknowledged that these initiatives are in their experimental phase and that the takeaways and outcomes from these educational initiatives is a bit murky, the goal at this point is to get kids looking around and thinking more about the built environment in their local area. I think these ideas are great and I look forward to seeing how these initiatives work out in the future.

Click on the gallery below to see some pictures I took during the conference.

Preservation and Access at National Parks

NPS I am Not Ashamed

On October 1, a group of Massachusetts residents arrived at Yellowstone National Park to discover that the park had been closed thanks to the government shutdown. What occurred at that point was then described by the tour organizer in near-apocalyptic terms:

We’ve become a country of fear, guns and control. It was like they brought out the armed forces… They looked like Hulk Hogans, armed. They told us you can’t go outside. “Some of the Asians who were on the tour said, ‘Oh my God, are we under arrest?’ They felt like they were criminals… My father took a lot of crap from the Japanese,” she recalled, her eyes welling with tears. “Every day they made him bow to the Japanese flag. But he stood up to them. He always said to stand up for what you believe in, and don’t let them push you around.”

Another person in the tour group described their treatment by NPS guards as akin to “Gestapo tactics.”

Meanwhile, the National Park Service’s Facebook page has become a cesspool of misplaced outrage and vitriol, as many commenters blame the shutdown of America’s National Parks on the National Park Service itself, not the Congress that is in charge of funding it. One comment that particularly outraged me stated that they would do anything to subvert the wishes of the NPS:

Ha ha, I love this about America… That’s exactly what I’d be doing right now if I had planned and traveled to some of these open-air monuments and parks that are “shut down” for no defensible reason.

I have little sympathy for this tour group, especially because they defied the wishes of the NPS to leave the park and put themselves in potential danger by getting out of the bus to take pictures of nearby bison anyway. Many bloggers have correctly argued that the tour organizers–not the NPS–deserve further scrutiny for the organization of their trip. The government shutdown was anticipated long before October. Others that have expressed their wishes to defy the NPS also deserve little sympathy.

Folks, the parks are closed (except for Utah’s). It takes money to run a National Park, and even though the parks are owned by the American people by virtue of their tax dollars, it doesn’t mean that Americans have unlimited access to their parks, especially when their funding agency decides to cease all funds. What seems to get lost in many of these discussions is that one of the central educational goals of the NPS is promoting conservation and preservation of nature, wildlife, and historic artifacts. Much like practitioners in a library or museum setting, National Park Service employees must find a delicate balance between preservation of and access to resources. Access is important, but that access is meaningless if the resources being accessed are destroyed in the process of accession. When Congress stops funding the NPS, it means that our National treasures are no longer being preserved. Just because you “planned and traveled” to go see a National Park during the shutdown doesn’t mean your wishes will be granted. Rather than blaming the NPS, consider contacting your representation in Washington, D.C.

National Park Service employees fight wildfires, protect borders, provide aid to hikers, educate visitors about American history, and help set boundaries for safe usage of our National Parks (as evidenced in this case here, where someone didn’t follow the rules.). The importance of the NPS and its workers is also clearly laid out here. Sadly, some NPS employees lose their lives protecting visitors of National Parks, and it’s times like these when we need to do a better job of acknowledging the work of the National Park Service. Of all the things Democrats and Republicans disagree on, I’d like to think the NPS is one national organization we can all agree serves an important purpose in promoting and protecting our national heritage.

I am tired of hearing criticisms of the NPS. I stand with the National Park Service.

Twitter is Already Blowing My Mind

Screenshot from "The Digital Preservation Daily"
Screenshot from “The Digital Preservation Daily”

A few days ago I mentioned that I joined Twitter. Since then some cool things have already happened, but none cooler than this. I found a pretty neat article about Chinese Digital Caves  and how they’re re-creating the past while at the same time preserving what already exists. I tagged my digital history class on a tweet so that my professor and classmates could see the article. Today, Zeïneb Gharbi, a Research Analyst at Library and Archives Canada, picked up on the tweet and copied the article into her wonderful digital publication, The Digital Preservation Daily.

This sort of “connectivity” makes our world so much smaller. The idea of me having access to an article from the BBC and being able to share it with people in another continent is something that would simply have not been possible fifteen, even ten years ago. I have been active in social networking since 2006, but I don’t think any of my interactions up until this point demonstrated to me just how amazing the internet can be as a communications system. All in all, a good day in which I learned a lot.