Being the social media manager for REER was a high honor and something I take great pride in as a public historian. The chance to participate in the formative stages of a new National Park Service unit’s overall development is rare; that REER is the first NPS unit to make Reconstruction a central interpreting focus of the site is all the more significant. So it was pretty exciting when I got a call from folks in the NPS Southeast Region seeing if I’d be interested in helping to promote the site online. The reason I got that call, I should add, is because of my social media presence on Twitter and my writings on this blog. Someone noticed my historical scholarship and my passion for Reconstruction, and that in turn opened this door for me.
I can’t stress enough to readers how time-consuming it can be to create a good social media post. In addition to having a strong knowledge of a given historical topic, one must work to write and re-write drafts of their posts so that they are clear, concise, and interesting. They also need to find compelling images and make sure those images are copyright-free. For REER I had to come up with an idea, conduct research, write a draft, have that draft reviewed by historians at the NPS Southeast Region, make any necessary changes, and then schedule the post for publication on Facebook and Twitter.
I was in a unique situation with REER because I am based in St. Louis and have never been to South Carolina before. I have a good general knowledge of the Reconstruction era but needed to read up on South Carolina’s particular circumstances during that period (Thomas Holt, Willie Lee Rose, Richard Zuczek, Stephen Wise, and Lawrence S. Rowland helped me a lot). Since the site is currently closed to the public, there were few events going on and I wasn’t part of the daily, on-the-ground experiences at the site. I therefore focused largely on historical content–both nationally and relative to Beaufort–and the historiography of Reconstruction studies. As I mention in the essay, REER had more than 1,100 Facebook followers and 700 Twitter followers by the time I finished. Not bad! It was sometimes challenging to find enough time to consistently update and keep an eye of REER’s social media accounts, but overall I’m proud of the work I did and I hope I can keep helping the site in some capacity moving forward.
There was a bit of minor news made in the public history world last week when Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill changing the name of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis to Gateway Arch National Park. Within my circle of public history and National Park Service colleagues the name change has been greeted with mixed reviews. And, of course, there had to be at least one disgruntled St. Louis Post-Dispatch reader who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the actions of “politically correct” politicians who allegedly changed the name simply because they wanted to “avoid honoring those who brought white privilege to the Plains.” I guess we shouldn’t bring up slavery, Sally Hemings, or anything mildly critical of Jefferson around this guy, or else we’ll have to face claims of hating history and America.
In any case, my opinion is that the name change is half good and half bad. “Gateway Arch” is good, “National Park” . . . not so much. Here are a few thoughts on the name change:
The name for the site came before the Gateway Arch existed: The U.S. government began looking for a suitable monument to Thomas Jefferson in the 1930s. Civic boosters in St. Louis advocated for the memorial to be placed there to symbolize Jefferson’s role in the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion, but also to revitalize a decaying downtown riverfront infrastructure. The Gateway Arch structure designed by Eero Saarinen was not created until 1947 and not completed until 1965. Whether intentional or not, the Gateway Arch complements Thomas Jefferson’s legacy but has also superseded it as a symbol of the site. People don’t visit the site because it’s associated with Thomas Jefferson – they visit because they want to see the Arch.
Nobody calls it “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial”: The vast majority of people who visit the site don’t call it by its official name, which, again, was established before the symbolic centerpiece of the site was established thirty years later.
Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is important, but it is not the sole theme for site interpretation: Thomas Jefferson never lived in nor visited St. Louis or the state of Missouri. His home in Virginia–Monticello–is a national shrine, as are national significantly places where he lived and worked, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. While his role in advancing westward expansion is no doubt significant, he is not the only person who had an important role in encouraging white westward expansion, especially within the context of Missouri. It could be argued that “Lewis and Clark National Expansion Memorial” would be an equally relevant name for the site, especially since they had a direct connection to the area.
Equally important, the site interprets other stories connected to westward expansion that go beyond the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Old Courthouse, located across the street from the Arch and a part of park’s holdings, was the site where Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. In this sense the site also interprets the antebellum politics of slavery’s westward expansion, manifest destiny, Indian removal, and the coming of the American Civil War. Additionally, the historical scholarship that informed the decision to name the site after Thomas Jefferson in the 1930s has admittedly evolved and been revised. Western history has become more complex and critical of territorial expansion and its negative consequences for the Native American Indian tribes that bore the brunt of this expansive vision. A simple interpretation of the expansion of freedom and American liberty to the west in the 19th century is no longer sustainable.
Naming the site after the Gateway Arch–a symbol of westward expansion and the title that visitors already give for the site–is a positive move that offers a more inclusive interpretation of the history of westward expansion. Jefferson’s vision of a westward “Empire of Liberty” won’t be erased by this name change. He’ll still be interpreted by park rangers and have a prominent place inside the park’s museum. But perhaps Jefferson’s political views will occupy a new interpretive space that sits in tension with other conceptions of westward expansion and its consequences, giving visitors a range of perspectives to contemplate during their experience at the park. From an educational standpoint this development is a positive one and will not, as the disgruntled letter to the editor writer suggests, lead to a simple interpretation of Jefferson bringing “white privilege to the plains.”
Calling the site a “National Park” is a mistake: The National Park Service includes more than 400 units throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Islands. 59 of these sites are designated as “National Parks.” The Gateway Arch is the 60th such site, and it is nothing like the others. It’s located in an urban center, has only 91 acres in size, and has a remarkably different interpretive mission than the other National Park sites in terms of content. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the other NPS units designated as “National Parks.” Missouri’s Congressional delegation pushed to have the site named a “National Park,” however, because the other 59 sites are the crown jewels of the agency and its most popularly visited sites. In other words, calling the Gateway Arch a “National Park” is motivated by tourism and money.
There are more than fourteen different park designations used by the NPS. This designation system, in my opinion, is overly cumbersome and confusing for visitors. Any sort of semblance these designations offer is made all the more confusing by designating a place like the Gateway Arch as a “National Park.” If I were in charge of things I would consolidate the park designation system to make it more user friendly, and I would have implemented the name “Gateway Arch National Monument” instead of Gateway Arch National Park for this particular site.
Over at the NPS Employees Facebook page there was a recent, fascinating conversation about the need for National Park Service units to have a social media presence. The conversation was prompted by this comment:
The NPS should not be building a social media presence. Do [sic] to resource issues related to visitor impacts, it is not in the best interest of the parks to promote and advertise themselves. A social media presence is also counter to the ideological foundations of the park system as a whole. Parks are the safe haven and the escape from “modern life”, why then are we building straight into that?
I strongly disagree with this point of view. For one, the NPS Mission statement says nothing about creating safe havens and escapes from “modern life.” The historic and natural sites the NPS runs are in actuality a part of “modern life”: they are living, breathing entities that are preserved, interpreted, and patronized by and for humans living in a modern world. Moreover, the NPS exists for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone. Contrary to the above statement, it is imperative that the agency “promote and advertise themselves” to the very people whose tax dollars help subsidize the agency’s operations. The sites exist for their enjoyment.
There is ample justification in the agency’s mission statement for the NPS to have a social media presence. The statement calls for the NPS to promote “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” of the agency’s natural and cultural resources. NPS social media promotes these goals. Off the top of my head I can think of five ways NPS social media advances the agency’s mission:
Provide updates on park conditions & news (particularly important when non-NPS related social media can often share incorrect information across social media and NPS websites take more time to update than social media).
Make announcements for upcoming programs and events at NPS units.
Share relevant scholarship through books, journal articles, online articles and research conducted by NPS staff.
Promote safety and conservation of history and nature.
Expose the agency’s holdings to an online audience that may not have the opportunity to visit a site in person (one commenter pointed out that his friend enjoyed looking at pictures on his phone of NPS sites shared on social media during his lunch break, which is a fantastic example of promoting the NPS Mission to an online audience).
At the end of the day, if you’re interested in getting away from “modern life,” you have the freedom to log off social media and enjoy NPS sites without technology.
I wrote an essay for the American Association for State and Local History about doing educational programs with fourth graders and what we as public historians can learn from such experiences. Check it out here and let me know what you think!
During the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the National Park Service undertook an ambitious plan to commemorate and educate people about the war’s history and connect it to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. “Civil War to Civil Rights” included more than 100 units of the NPS and lasted from 2011 until 2015. The NPS recently published its summary report of the commemoration and you can read it here.
My own perspective on what happened across the agency during the Sesquicentennial is fairly limited. For most of the commemoration I was away from the agency working as a teacher and going to graduate school; I only started working for the NPS during the last year of the Sesquicentennial. Nevertheless, there are a few broad takeaways I have about this report and the program as a whole:
I had issues with the “Civil War to Civil Rights” theme, which I previously wrote about here. Overall I thought the theme was too limiting and exclusionary in that it tended to focus on the Black freedom struggle without giving appropriate attention to other important stories about gender, immigration, indigenous rights, and the very meaning of the Union and why it was worth fighting for. To cite one example, the story of this nation’s indigenous peoples is not one of “Civil War to Civil Rights” and does not fit nicely into that interpretive box. By extension, the time period from roughly 1880 to 1950 was largely overlooked. For most visitors I suspect that they made the connection between 1860 and 1960 but never thought too much about what happened during the bulk of the time in between those years. Connecting those dots, particularly with regards to the Reconstruction Era, will be another challenge to face moving forward.
At the same time, I thought the Park Service did a nice job (and continues to do a nice job) of interpreting the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. I am currently reading Robert J. Cook’s publication on the Civil War Centennial commemoration from 1961-1965, which convincingly shows that the Civil War Centennial Commission tasked by the federal government to commemorate the Civil War during that era largely ignored the stories of slavery and emancipation in favor of a “consensus” interpretation that extolled the mutual valor of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. We have thankfully moved beyond that interpretive model today.
During the Sesquicentennial I did some preliminary research on visitation to Civil War battlefields and related historic sites and found that overall attendance was up at many sites during the commemoration. The NPS final report seems to validate my findings. We don’t know what exactly each visitor took away from their experience and we still have much work to do in bringing new audiences to NPS Civil War sites, but overall I think it should be no surprise that the Sesquicentennial brought a much more diverse audience pool to these sites thanks to a more inclusive and accurate interpretation of the war and an expansive educational initiative that went beyond military tactics into the realms of economics, politics, and culture.
I can’t say that I saw a lot of radically dynamic programs within the agency that really broke the mold of traditional education/entertainment interpretive programs (e.g. battle reenactments, ranger-led talks, school and scout programs), but the agency did engage in a lot of thoughtful programming and updated its museum panels and technological media to reflect contemporary historical scholarship on the war.
This NPS report and a lot of the rhetoric within the interpretation and education wing of the agency has focused around talk of “multiple perspectives,” “moving beyond facts,” and “relevant” stories that speak to contemporary issues. In particular the ascension of facilitated dialogue as a legitimate form of educational programming was notable during the Sesquicentennial, although I think there are a lot of sites that continue to solely rely on traditional ranger-led interpretive programming. I believe these developments are good, but only to an extent. The root of any educational program must be planted on a foundation of historical scholarship and primary source evidence. It all starts with educating people about the actual history itself and the importance of studying the past today. I want to have good, meaningful dialogues with people, but if someone shares a perspective rooted in misinformation (“Thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy”; “Abraham Lincoln started the Civil War”; “Ulysses S. Grant is a terrorist”), I will call them out on it. Doing so, however, means I need to have an understanding of the evidence at hand. Having an ability to do interpretive programs like facilitated dialogue without an understanding of the history involved in the discussion is meaningless to me.
The overall cultural influence of the Civil War Sesquicentennial was shaped by two remarkable developments outside the agency. One is the emergence of the internet as a medium for learning, discussing, and writing about the war. For any contribution the NPS offered in enhancing the nation’s collective understanding of the war, the internet contributed in ways both good and bad on a level that far exceeded the reach of the NPS’s educational offerings. The second remarkable development was the rise of explosive contemporary events that accompanied the Sesquicentennial. The Ferguson unrest began a mere 30 minutes from where I work at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site and I imagine that it introduced a great number of people to the histories of racial violence, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement who may have not taken an interest if not for contemporary events. The shining moment for us at ULSG was most likely the effort to bring every eighth grader from the Ferguson-Florissant School District to the site to discuss these topics in early 2015, which I thought was pretty successful. Likewise, the Charleston shooting ignited a firestorm over the appropriate displaying of the Confederate flag in today’s society. Visitors were not hesitant to share their thoughts with me on that topic, which in turn led to (mostly) good conversations about the meaning of the flag and the origins of the Confederacy. Ultimately I believe the NPS’s Sesquicentennial events were successful, but were in many ways overshadowed by what was going on in the larger world.
We’ve still got a lot of work to do – let’s keep it up.
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.
A few months ago I was interviewed by the website Mental Floss about working for the National Park Service. The finished article went live a few days ago and I was quoted a few times, including an anecdote about one of the most memorable tours I’ve ever given. You can read it here. Enjoy!