Tag Archives: National Park Service

What Public Historians Can Learn from Fourth Graders

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!

 

Cheers

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The National Park Service Releases its “Civil War to Civil Rights” Summary Report

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.

Cheers

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.

Cheers

Interview with Mental Floss About the National Park Service

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!

Cheers

The NPS Turns 100: A Personal Reflection on Working for the National Park Service

NPS Logo

The Junior Ranger Program is one of the most successful education initiatives the National Park Service has ever rolled out. Kids of all ages work on activity books as they go through a particular unit of the Park Service and, upon completion, get a Junior Ranger badge modeled after the badge that we park rangers wear on our uniforms. Almost every unit of the NPS participates in the program by creating their own unique educational activities. Some Junior Rangers may only go to one, two, or five parks during their youth, but others collect literally hundreds of badges. It’s a nice program that provides a chance for kids to learn about national parks, and I work really hard to provide an enjoyable learning experience for Junior Rangers who go on my tours.

One of the Junior Ranger activity books that we offer at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site includes a page where Junior Rangers are required to interview a Park Ranger. One of the interview questions is the following:

Which NPS value is most important to you? Why?

Caring for People

Caring for Places

Caring for Nature

I have thought a lot about this question and what my answer to it would be.

There are now currently 412 units of the National Park Service. Some of those places teach us about nature, wildlife, and the importance of protecting natural resources, while others tell us stories about our history and the importance of understanding the past. Some of the best sites find ways to incorporate lessons about both in their interpretive programming. Each NPS unit has a unique story. Some of those stories–ones the remind us of the wrongs of slavery, Indian removal, Japanese internment during World War II, the horrors and bloodshed of war–expose our country’s shortcomings and faults, forcing us to remember that there is much work to do in striving to create a more equal society that promotes liberty for all. Other stories remind us of the natural beauty of our country and the possibility of a better tomorrow that learns from and avoids the pitfalls of the past.

But while caring for places and nature is definitely important, the most important value to me, by far, is the importance of caring for people. What’s the point of taking care of a historic place or a natural wonder if nobody came to visit that place? How successful would the National Park Service be in executing its mission of preserving and providing access to America’s natural and cultural treasures if caring for people wasn’t the first priority? It is only when we care for people first and foremost–both the people who visit and the employees who dedicate their lives to this work–that we’re in a better position to care for historic places and natural wonders.

I have worked full-time for the National Park Service for two years and throughout my life I’ve visited probably 25 or 30 units of the NPS throughout the country (I’ve got a lot of work to do still). I love visiting every site, whether big or small, historic or scenic. My passion for history and the discovery that I could possibly find work educating people about history outside of a traditional classroom inspired me to give up my efforts to become a high school history teacher and pursue a career with the Park Service. It was an amazing feeling when the Grant site in my native St. Louis offered me a full-time job, and my role as a steward of the NPS and American history is not something I take lightly. That love of history initially drove me to the NPS, but it’s the people I interact with on a daily basis at my job and the people I meet during my own travels that make the NPS special to me. It’s the friendships I’ve made and the thoughtful people I’ve met from all over the country who inspire me to put on the green and gray uniform every working day and strive to do a better job tomorrow. I’ve given tours to TV personalities and NFL football players but also eight graders from Ferguson, senior citizens enjoying a life of retirement, and hard-working everyday people of all ages and backgrounds whose desire to learn from and enjoy NPS sites inspires them as they traverse thousands of miles around the country to find each unique place.

The NPS has its challenges going forward. We need to be a more inclusive place, both in our visitation and in our hiring practices. Not every day on the job is a great one. Working with the public can sometimes be a double-edged sword, like those times when a kids yells and screams during a tour or when I’m told by a visitor that my understanding of history is “completely wrong.” I have hopes for moving up the NPS career ladder, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen right now. Working any job for 40 hours a week is bound to be mentally grinding and monotonous at times. But the people I meet on a daily basis make my job a special one; the visitors who share their stories with me and take my tours; my co-workers who make my work environment a pleasant one and who challenge me to be a better historian and educator; those moments when a visitor smiles and says “I learned something new today.” That’s what the National Park Service is all about.

Here’s to another 100 years of preserving America’s natural and cultural resources.

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 🙂

Cheers

U.S. Reconstruction Beyond the South

Are the Indian Wars--including the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn--a part of Reconstruction history? I emphatically say "yes." Photo Credit: Charles Marion Russell, "The Custer Fight" (1903).

Are the Indian Wars–including the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn–a part of Reconstruction history? I emphatically say “yes.” Photo Credit: Charles Marion Russell, “The Custer Fight” (1903).

The National Park Service recently announced that it would be publishing an official handbook on the history of the Reconstruction era to be sold at Civil War and nineteenth century historic site gift shops within the agency. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book that I just finished reading, and yesterday I sat in on a one-hour webinar the agency hosted about the book and the NPS’s ongoing theme study to help designate a historic site dedicated to Reconstruction. No such sites currently exist within the agency.

I applaud all of these developments. It has been far past time for the Park Service to take Reconstruction history more seriously, and there are a number of crucial events that would make for an appropriate historic site worth preserving and interpreting. The recently-commemorated Memphis Massacre of 1866, for example, would be one such event worth commemorating in some way with an NPS site. Historians Gregory Downs and Kate Masur are in charge of the NPS Reconstruction Theme Study, and I have all the confidence in the world of their ability to lay out a blueprint for future NPS efforts. (I’d also add that there are plenty of Civil War-related sites that could be doing more right now to interpret Reconstruction in their educational programming, and this is something the entire agency should also be working on).

During the webinar, however, there was one element of the theme study that I found mildly concerning. For the time being the search for a potential site and the broader interpretive focus of the NPS’s educational programming on Reconstruction will be centered geographically on the former Confederate states and Washington, D.C. On the one hand I can understand this focus. The question of how to forge a political reunion between the former Confederate states and the rest of the country was paramount to establishing a stronger, consolidated United States in the future, and historians have traditionally emphasized the ways the South acted and was acted upon through the politics of the era. The political changes that occurred during Reconstruction include the establishment of three new Constitutional amendments, the expansion of federal power through government agencies like the Freedman’s Bureau and the Department of Justice (which was formed in response to growing Ku Klux Klan violence throughout the South), the expansion and protection of newly established civil rights for African Americans, and the process of transitioning white former Confederate soldiers and supporters into law-abiding U.S. citizens. To expand the NPS’s interpretive focus beyond the former Confederate states is probably too much at this point, and I understand that.

On the other hand, any holistic understanding of Reconstruction requires historians and the NPS to view the era as one of remarkable political, cultural, and economic transformation for the entire country, not just the South. The question of black voting rights was hotly contested and frequently rejected in statewide referendums throughout the North before the passage of the 15th amendment. Western settlement increased dramatically after the Civil War thanks the expansion of the country’s railroad infrastructure and the passage of the Homestead Act, which offered settlers publicly-held Western lands on the cheap. This westward expansion, however, directly led to some of the most violent clashes in American history between the U.S. Army and Indian Tribes all the way from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean as settlers encroached upon lands once thought to be protected for the Tribes through treaty agreements. The restructuring of citizenship and voting rights in the North and the push to impose a Northern “free labor” political vision for the West represent two additional goals of Reconstruction that furthered the effort to establish a stronger political Union within the entire country. We might also look to border Union states like Missouri and Kentucky–where the federal government’s Reconstruction policies did not apply but where some of the most vehement complaints against policy initiatives and government overreach emerged–as places where a stronger historical analysis of the period are sorely needed. Reconstruction history is not just about the South.

Again, I understand the approach of the NPS theme study and the organizers’ caution to make the study too geographically broad. I do hope, however, that future academic and public historians will use the 150th anniversary of the Reconstruction Era and beyond to expand our historical inquiries to include events that occurred in the North, West, and Midwest. Let’s get to work!

Cheers

Addressing the Lack of Racial Diversity in National Parks

A picture I took at Gettysburg National Military Park

A picture I took at Gettysburg National Military Park in 2014.

Over the past few years the National Park Service’s leadership has made a serious push to make its visitor base more racially and demographically diverse. A few years ago the agency established its Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion, and since then numerous studies have been conducted to better assess what can be done to make parks more diverse. In 2013 scholars Joe Weber and Selima Sultana wrote an extended study on the Civil Rights Movement and the future of the NPS; journalist Ryan Kearney wrote a piece the same year for The New Republic with a specific focus on camping and hiking; and now NPR has a piece by Nathan Rott on racial diversity that uses data from visitor use surveys. All of these works establish theories for why National Parks are mostly white and conclude that the lack of racial diversity is a problem for the agency. Few practical solutions are offered in these essays to amend the problem, however. That’s understandable, and I don’t think anyone has a good solution at this point. But in recent conversation with fellow NPS employees on our Facebook page I was struck by how many people argued that there really is no diversity problem within the agency.

A common idea suggested in our discussion attributed cultural differences as the root cause of the agency’s whiteness. One discussant made the following observation:

The NPS makes a big deal over “cultural sensitivity.” The fact is that different cultures value different things, including different ways of recreating. That’s pretty much what “culture” is. If other cultures don’t enjoy parks, it’s not because we aren’t welcoming them or closing the gates to them. The crowd at a truck pull or rap concert won’t be “representative of America” either, but nobody loses sleep over it.

We are an overwhelmingly White organization, but we need to stop thinking that Black people, Latino people, Asian people, are just like us but have different color skin. They are different. They have backgrounds, different dreams, different ideas of fun, THAT’S diversity, not thinking we are all the same inside, just different on the outside.

Another discussant suggested that the NPS and “white liberals” were engaging in “cultural imperialism” by forcing different cultural groups to patronize National Parks.

The point is taken that people of different ethnicities maintain different cultural practices and traditions, but this line of thinking is wholly inadequate for explaining the issue. Each of the aforementioned articles discuss legitimate socioeconomic factors as well: inadequate transportation methods, lack of money to take trips to National Parks, and a lack of awareness about the presence and mission of the parks. All of these factors need to be taken seriously. By framing the lack of diversity solely to culture, an assumption is made that people from all walks of life have an equal opportunity to visit a National Park, but that people of color voluntarily choose not to visit because “they are different.” By this logic the NPS is wholly absolved of any responsibility for its racial makeup (both in its workforce and visitor population) because the onus is on communities of color to take an interest in National Parks. But the data convincingly demonstrates that the NPS is at least partly to blame for its lack of diversity. While the agency’s ability to spend money to get people from disadvantaged communities to a park is fairly limited, we can at least see that the need to raise awareness about the parks to communities who have historically had little stake in them is fairly acute.

I think the agency has done a lot of good work to make parks accessible and welcoming to all people, but that hasn’t always been the case. Numerous parks like Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains maintained racially segregated and unequal facilities for a long time after their establishment in the 1930s. Some of the federal government’s efforts to acquire land for national parks has been controversial and alienating to local communities: Stephen Hirst’s book on the Havasupai people of the Grand Canyon, for example, shows how the Havasupai fought for nearly 100 years to reacquire native land that had been taken from them under dubious circumstances. And the stories of people of color have often been absent from the agency’s interpretive programs at both nature and cultural sites. As I discussed in my last post, the push to discuss slavery and the causes of the Civil War at NPS nineteenth century history sites only came about in the 1990s. On the surface it could be easy to dismiss these factors as having all taken place in the past and are therefore irrelevant. But a young person of color whose parents and grandparents who might feel alienated at National Parks because of the agency’s past will most likely not come to the park on their own volition. Again, “culture” is only one element of a more complex picture that includes other socioeconomic factors, the agency’s own behavior and actions, and perceptions of those behaviors and actions by communities of color.

Making national parks more diverse is a great challenge with no easy solutions. But we as an agency will never achieve a workable solution to the problem if we don’t first perceive that a problem exists and that we should act to solve it. If the perception among NPS employees at all levels is that the agency’s whiteness is due solely to cultural differences, then I think we will continue to see a lot of the same faces in national parks that we’ve seen for a long time. That might okay for now given that the agency broke another attendance record in 2015 with more than 305 million people visiting a park, but I believe this drive is largely attributable to Baby Boomers who are retiring from the workforce and taking more opportunities to travel. These people won’t be around forever, so we’ll have to continue working to ensure that future generations will take advantage of and appreciate our National Parks.

Cheers

Fear and Loathing at St. Louis Civil War History Sites

A few of us at work had an extended conversation today about a Facebook post that is getting attention and making the rounds. The post came from a concerned parent here in St. Louis who visited two public history sites that interpret Civil War history with a school group and came away unimpressed. I urge readers to check out the post. I am not sure how well-versed this person is in Civil War history or museum education initiatives, but she does a pretty good job of highlighting how supposedly “neutral” Civil War sites often end up–whether intentionally or unintentionally–downplaying slavery’s role in the coming of the war while glorifying the Confederacy and lamenting its demise. She also highlights a particularly troubling discussion at one site about Civil War gun bullets that turned into a discussion about the sorts of weapons police officers used during the 2014 events in Ferguson.

For some practitioners and scholars in the field these complaints are nothing new. Indeed, the National Park Service’s efforts to revise its interpretive programs to more accurately discuss the causes, context, and consequences of the Civil War date back to the 1990s when Dwight Pitcaithley was Chief Historian of the agency. But what I see at play here is a continued disconnect between the work of larger federal agencies and non-profits and the work of some smaller publicly- and privately-run museums that are operating on shoestring budgets. Many of these places are run by volunteers or by employees who don’t have the time to dig into professional development sessions or new historical scholarship. They are too busy dealing with budgets, fundraising, outreach efforts, and the daily grind of working in a museum. For example, one time a small museum owner openly admitted to me that not a single employee of his had any sort of training in education or interpretation. I rarely meet people at professional development workshops or the annual National Council on Public History conference who are coming from the small museum world, and I understand why. Mary Rizzo wrote a brief article about small museums in Public History News that further explores the challenges these small sites face.

These challenges don’t excuse teaching bad history to visitors, however.

Two other points stuck out to me in this post. Speaking about parents and teachers on the trip she mentions that “no one wanted to discuss this history and its implications on this history field trip.” That’s a pretty astute comment. Different school groups bring different interest levels with them to these sites, but it’s always tough from my end when I interact with a group where things feel artificial and everyone goes on vacation mode. I blame that mentality partly on teachers and parents who don’t prep students for these trips and partly on public historians who put together bad programs and dull presentations.

The other point I noticed was the general feeling of intimidation students felt while at these sites. “You are told to say, Thank you,” she says. It’s unfortunate whenever someone feels this way while visiting a public history site, and I’m sure there are people in this field that would say the best museum is one with no one in it. But I think we need to be ones saying “thank you” to our visitors. We don’t exist if nobody comes to our sites, and in an age of Netflix, TV, and the internet to distract us 24 hours a day, we should cherish the presence of every visitor who takes time out of their day to visit a cultural institution. And we should do everything in our power to remove any semblance of an artificial hierarchy that puts our visitors in a place of submission or intimidation. You can see how easily this occurred at the two sites mentioned in the Facebook post. Hopefully we in the Park Service can use this opportunity to check our own practices and extend a helping hand to some of the small sites in our area.

Cheers

Talking About Museums, National Parks, and Diverse Publics

Last night I had an opportunity to speak to Dr. Jeff Manuel’s history students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville about working for the National Park Service and interpreting history to many publics. The talk went better than I could have ever expected. The students were extremely interested in what I had to say and had many thought-provoking questions to throw my way. I also got to listen to a very fascinating discussion the students held about a project they are working on to commemorate the life of Robert Prager, a German coal miner living in Collinsville, Illinois, who was lynched in 1918 amid a wave of World War I anti-German hysteria sweeping the United States. The students discussed questions over the most useful medium for interpreting this story (historical marker, digital website, pamphlets, a documentary, etc.), what audiences they wanted to address, what tone they wanted to take (a factual recollection of the event vs. a broader interpretation of politics and violence both then and now), and what guiding questions they would utilize to inform their interpretations going forward. It was all a lot of fun.

My talk was pretty straightforward and focused on the philosophical beliefs about public history that I embrace for the work that I do with the Park Service on a daily basis. I discussed the need for understanding the importance of communicating to multiple audiences, Deborah Perry’s Knowledge Hierarchy educational framework for meeting people where they are in their learning journey, my wish to get rid of all mission statements in museums, and my “three-legged stool” for good public history work: strong historical content knowledge, an understanding of interpretive methods, and a system for evaluating interpretive programs and visitor takeaways. I also gave the students a copy of the facilitated dialogue I used when all 8th graders from the Ferguson/Florissant School District visited the park last May (I’ll discuss this facilitated dialogue more in-depth on this website next month).

I’ve been working full-time for the National Park Service for close to two years at this point, and in that time I’ve observed a slow but evolving view on visitor interaction within some parks. Most parks, mine included, still employ “sage on the stage”-type activities like ranger-led tours of historical homes or battlefields. I think that’s totally fine and don’t see those activities going away anytime soon. But I do see a growing push to also employ “guide by the side”-type activities like facilitated dialogue that make connections to the present and, most importantly, give visitors a chance to share their own perspectives with each other and NPS staff so that all involved are simultaneously students and teachers in a shared learning experience. I think my Ferguson dialogue accomplished that, and it seems like our current staff at the park is receptive to trying that sort of thing again in the future.

There are certainly challenges with doing facilitated dialogues both logistically (time and space) and theoretically (connections between past and present are always contentious, some people aren’t interested in dialogue, historical facts and content could possibly take a back seat to personal opinions, biases, and assumptions, etc.), but I fully embrace dialogue as an effective learning method at public history sites. Some of my favorite public history initiatives, such as Connor Prarie’s “Follow the North Star” program, effectively use both historical knowledge and facilitated dialogue in conjunction with each other to spark visitors’ understanding of history and how it plays a role in our daily lives. These are the sorts of programs I would like to see at more public history sites across the country in the future.

Cheers