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Review Of National Park Service's Approach To History Points To Weak Support For That Mission

Another report has taken the National Park Service to task for its weak support of history in the national parks. White House Ruin at Canyon de Chelly photo by Kurt Repanshek.

History, both protecting vestiges of it and interpreting it, is one of the central missions of the National Park Service. But a new report says the agency is largely failing that mission, both from a lack of investment as well as from an approach to telling history almost with blinders on. As a result, the report says history in the parks is considered to be "endangered."

Those findings, reached by the Organization of American Historians, come in the wake of a similar report from the National Parks Conservation Association that also said the Park Service's history programs and resources were suffering from problems ranging from landscapes being impacted by development and artifacts affected by “decay and damage" to even "outdated scholarship."

The latest studyImperiled Promise, The State Of History in the National Park Service, was performed at the request of the Park Service. It was prepared by Anne Mitchell Whisnant (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Marla Miller (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), Gary Nash (University of California, Los Angeles), and David Thelen (Indiana University). They reached out to more than 1,500 Park Service staff with some responsibility for history with a questionaire that was completed by 544. Additionally, the study was prepared with insights from retired and current NPS administrators, managers, and "official" historians. 

We found that much is going well. Our study identified nearly 150 examples of historical projects and programs that NPS personnel regard as effective, inspiring models. We ourselves observed many instances of high-quality scholarship and creative interpretation. More than a dozen of these successes are profiled herein, as lamps lighting the path ahead.

But we also found that the agency’s ability to manage its sites “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”—let alone achieve its highest aspirations to become the nation’s largest outdoor history classroom—has been imperiled by the agency’s weak support for its history workforce, by agency structures that confine history in isolated silos, by longstanding funding deficiencies, by often narrow and static conceptions of history’s scope, and by timid interpretation.

As a consequence, one of our survey respondents wrote, history in the NPS is “sporadic, interrupted, superbly excellent in some instances and vacant in others.” Our findings describe many specific aspects of the state of history practice today—an uneven landscape of inspiration and success amid policies and practices that sometimes inhibit high-quality work.

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The Innis House at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Report: NPS Gives History Short Shrift

Among its criticisms, the report said the Park Service places:

• An under-emphasis and underfunding of historical work as priorities shifted to natural  resources, law enforcement, and other concerns; 

• An artificial separation of cultural resources management from interpretation;

• An artificial separation of natural resources interpretation from cultural and historical  interpretation; 

• An overemphasis on mandated compliance activities at the expense of other ways history can be practiced; and

• A misperception of history as a tightly bounded, single and unchanging “accurate”  story, with one true significance, rather than an ongoing discovery process in which narratives change over time as generations develop new questions and concerns,  and multiple perspectives are explored.

To address these issues, the report suggests that the Park Service organize a History Leadership Council involving "the agency’s most talented and influential historians and interpreters," and a History Advisory Board that would be comprised by "the nation’s leading public history professionals from beyond the agency—the most innovative curators, the most insightful scholars, the most savvy administrators."

"With these two bodies providing much-needed leadership, other needs (dissolving internal barriers and fostering interconnection, better engaging the agency’s own history, and learning of and from some of the most exciting developments both within and beyond the agency) should fall more readily into place," the report said.

More broadly, the report recommends that the Park Service restructure its approach to history. For example, the agency should look beyond its individual park borders when recounting the history of a location, "acknowledge that history is dynamic and always unfinished," recognize the agency's own role in shaping the history of its parks, and don't shy from exploring controversies that occurred in the past as well as those that arise while discussing the past.

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Cavalry bunkhouse at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Just The Latest Report Criticizing NPS

How the Park Service might respond to the critiques and recommendations in the report is hard to say, although this is not the first report critical of the agency's handling of history. Indeed, some of the criticisms and recommendations made in the OAH report were made as long as a decade ago.

Among other reports that contained criticisms of the agency's approach to history was the National Academy of Public Administration's Saving Our History: A Review of National Park Cultural Resource Programs (2008), the National Parks Second Century Commission's Advancing the National Park Idea (2009), and the National Parks Conservation Association's State of America’s National Parks (2011).

...Some themes emphasized in these recent reports were, indeed, already evident in earlier ones. A decade ago, in a landmark report commissioned by the National Park System Advisory Board, historian John Hope Franklin and his colleagues encouraged NPS to make many of the changes we will recommend herein: to embrace the agency’s educational mission and promise, to expand interpretive contexts well beyond particular parks, and to better integrate understandings of nature and culture. The Franklin report also urged more funding, better support for professional development, and improved scholarship...

Many of the problems stem from a lack of staff dedicated to history in the parks, the OAH report notes. As an example of how dire things are in this area, the report noted that of the Park Service's 22,000 employees, fewer than 200 carry the official title of "historian." And yet, the National Park System is rich with history, from sites protecting landscapes ranging from the Revolutionary War and Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, the Indian Wars, and even the Cold War. It could be argued that the system is richer in history than in scenic landscapes, as history overflows even in the iconic Western landscape parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.

Startlingly, "Unlike at other points in NPS history, neither the chief historian’s office, nor any other single entity within the service, clearly speaks on history’s behalf or has responsibility for overseeing all history work throughout the NPS. Indeed, that fact is one of the issues this report seeks to address."

Dr. Robert Sutton, the Park Service's chief historian, declined comment on the report, relaying through Park Service communications personnel that his staff was "reviewing its findings." Also unanswered was whether -- and if so, how -- the agency was reacting to past criticisms of its approach to addressing history in the park system.

At the NPCA, Catherine Moore, the group's cultural resources program manager, said she has "not seen any indication from NPS that anything to do with Cultural Resources has improved since our report was released last summer."

"But that's not a lot of time for the kind of changes we recommended to be enacted," she added. "They are so desperately trying to keep things from getting a lot worse, budget-wise, that I don't think there's been much opportunity to focus on how to improve conditions."

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, the chief historian for the Park Service from 1995-2005, agreed with the OAH report's conclusions. 

"Whether the NPS will address the recommendations that will lead to systemic improvements to the history program remains to be seen," he said, adding that the greatest impediment to change in the Park Service is "organizational inertia."

What he meant by "organizational inertia," said Dr. Pitcaithley, is that the Park Service "by and large is comfortable with the status quo."


"I suspect the reason why the NPS has not completely embraced those past recommendations is that real change -- fundamental change of the kind envisioned -- takes a great deal of time and energy and the NPS by and large is comfortable with the status quo," he said in an email. "In addition, life in the NPS is hard from too little money and high expectations from the public and Congress.  Employees are working flat out just to stay afloat, leaving little time to think differently about how the agency should develop and monitor its interpretive/educational programs."

Dr. Richard West Sellars, who had a long career as a Park Service historian, agreed with Dr. Pitcaithley that the agency can dig its heels in when it doesn't want to be budged by outside concerns.

"The NPS is indeed tone-deaf whenever it wants to be--so much depends on timing and personalities--not so much on laws, regulations and management policies," he said. "For example, I know you are very familiar with (Paul) Berkowitz's excellent book (The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post), which exposes more tone-deafness than one can imagine."

But when the agency is led by officials willing to listen, and the message is keen, change can occur, said Dr. Sellars. Such was the case in the wake of his book on how the Park Service conducted science in the park system, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History.


"The reason Preserving Nature spurred the Natural Resource Challenge was because it laid out a sound reason for change --AND, most important-- the timing just happened to be good when the book came out," Dr. Sellars added. "For instance,there were people in Washington who were receptive--(then-Director Robert) Stanton, (former Associate Director Mike) Soukup, (then-Deputy Director Denis) Galvin, et al.  Without them and others, the NRC would have died in its cradle."

NPS Asked To Revitalize Approach To History



The authors of Imperiled Promise noted that in his Call to Action, a 5-year plan intended to guide the agency to its centennial in 2016, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis requested an update to the Leopold Report that addressed wildlife management in the park system. The authors of the OAH report called on the director to make a similar commitment to history in the parks.

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An exhibit on the U.S. Life-Saving Service at Cape Lookout National Seashore. Kurt Repanshek photo.

"Our report constitutes a no less urgent call to reinvigorate history in the NPS, to make the highest quality history research, scholarship, and interpretation central to the agency’s management and even worldview," they wrote.

But the report also doesn't place the shortcomings entirely on the shoulders of the Park Service. The greater community of historians beyond the agency also are somewhat responsible, the report pointed out, for not actively driving home the importance of "sound scholarship" on both the Park Service and other policymakers.

"While we will argue ... that there is much the NPS can do to raise professional standards of history in the agency," the authors of the OAH report said, "we agree that the history profession must also examine itself and find ways to strengthen, support, engage, and partner with the agency most central in the presentation of its work to the American public.

"For far too long, academe’s own culture and structure have prevented many talented scholars from engaging with history in the national parks—in effect reinforcing the insularity that NPS practices build from within, and preventing us from recognizing and nurturing our common purpose. Working together, the profession and the Park Service must face the future as full partners, rearticulating the public and civic role of history."


Dr. Whisnant said the report will be presented to the OAH executive board in April. Hopefully, she said, the board will appreciate and act on "the importance of the ongoing partnership between history scholars and the NPS that helps those of us on the outside to support and encourage the best possible practice of history on the inside."

Can the Park Service change its approach to discussing and exploring history in the parks? Dr. Pitcaithley believes it can.


"I don't believe the agency has become too cumbersome to manage its affairs efficiently.  But change of the kind envisioned in this report and the past reports is that, in part, the recommendation will require a change in the organizational culture of the NPS," he said. "And cultural change in any organization is difficult....not impossible, just difficult.  When it wants to, the NPS can move quickly to improve its programs.  One needs to look no further than the Natural Resource Challenge to see how the agency can change the way it envisions its future."


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I've often wondered why the exhibit at the Visitor's Center at Wupatki National Monument (Northern Arizona) only tells of the Navajo tie to the monument lands. The Hopi, whose ancestors lived there well before the Navajos arrived in the area, and who still view the ruins as sacred and living places in their history, are not included in the exhibit at all. The omission of the Hopi voice in these exhibits is wrong and hurtful, and should be corrected.

Just to complete my comments on the importance of timing, I would like to add this quote from the last paragraph of the comments I sent Kurt, which he mentioned and quoted from above: 

"But as you know, the political situation is disastrous for any CRM effort at this time.  I can't imagine a bi-partisan effort among politicians for CRM any time soon--surely most improvements will require cashola.  Pessimistic yes; and I hope that I am wrong.  I do not know what the Washington leadership is thinking now.  They have the skills to do it, but the odds are not in their favor."

Dick Sellars

hmmm.  .. im sure this survey didn't come to Gettysburg.  Though there are few who are officially paid and called historians, every ranger/park interpreter on site can share quite a bit about Civil War History.  Every other year the park puts on a historical Seminar to go in depth with the many stories associated with the Civil War.  And the majority of presenters are park interpreters - knowledgeable, 1st account research is relayed to over 200 in each seminar.  and during the summer no less than 20 programs are presented daily and from those programs, you can quiz any ranger on 'deeper' thoughts.  This study is skewed and without understanding who was 'questioned' and in what part of the country the test was given, its hard to justify it.  I can certainly drive a couple hours south of Gettysburg and visit a battlefield that might present only 2 programs each summer day and certainly that wont give you too much of the story.  But budgets play a huge part in these stories and the personnell to tell them.  Please dont come to Gettysburg and tell the staff their stories are narrow minded and incomplete .. we might not let you back into the park.

If it were not for the NPS, much of the nation's historical heritage would already be lost.

"The Hopi, whose ancestors lived there well before the Navajos arrived in the area, and who still view the ruins as sacred and living places in their history, are not included in the exhibit at all. The omission of the Hopi voice in these exhibits is wrong and hurtful, and should be corrected."
Almost the entire exhibit at Wupatki speaks of not only the Navajo presence in that area, but also of the Hopi's ancestors, the Ancestral Puebloan culture.  As well as other cultures that were living in that vicinity: Cohonina, Sinagua, Kayenta Anasazi, ect.  Being that it wasn't the Hopi per say, that lived at Wupatki, but their ancenstors from the Pueblo Culture, and being that almost the entire exhibit speaks of the Pueblo people living at Wupatki, I guess I don't understand your complaint?  The Pueblo lived there, and the Navajo after them.  Those stories are both told in the exhibits.  Being that there are many decendant tribes that come from the Pueblo people, don't you think it would be wrong to give an exclusive "voice" to just the Hopi story at Wupatki?  It is a sacred place that belongs to all Pueblos.  Not just the Hopi.  Many of the sacred sites that are open to the public at Wupatki, are actually Hopi words.  And here is text pulled directly from a Wupatki interpretive sign:  "Wupatki appears empty and abandoned. Though it is no longer physically occupied, Hopi believe the people who lived and died here remain as spiritual guardians. Stories of Wupatki are passed on among Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, and perhaps other tribes. Members of the Hopi Bear, Sand, Lizard, Rattlesnake, Water, Snow, and Katsina Clans return periodically to enrich their personal understanding of their clan history. Wupatki is remembered and cared for, not abandoned." 
Again, I don't understand your complaint?  It seems as if you haven't even read the exhibits at all. Perhaps you should take another visit to the visitor center and read the exhibits this time.

And, Bridge, when I worked at SUCR/WUPA a few eons ago, we'd frequently find Hopi paho (prayer sticks) in and around the ruins and at the entrance to the ice cave at SUCR.  They arrived during the night and no one was ever seen who might have left them.  Does anyone know if that still happens?

Yosemite National Park fails the Paiutes with completely erasing the story of The Mono Lake Paiute Chief Tenaya who created the Pah Ute Colony of Ahwahnee. The story as documented in the First Discovery of Yosemite dated 1851 is omitted by the park service. All through out the park, the information signs state the park was all Miwok, which is a falsehood. The Flag Ship of the National Park System, Yosemite National Park Service has failed interperate the Indian history with making the Paiute as visitiors. The Yosemite National Park Service has a 15 year contract with the Southern Sierra Miwoks non profit who reccomended the Park Service begin the Indian history at the year 1870. Remember it was the Miwoks who were the gold diggers for James Savage. Remember it was the Yokut Chowchitty who was the tracker for the Mariposa Batallion. Today all this is erased in favor of the Miwoks which is really sad the park service cant tell the truth!

Navajos or the Dine have only been in the Southwest since the 1400s. They came down from the north and are related to tribes in Canada and Alaska called the Dene. So they are new comers into the area. Meanwhile the Hopis have been in the area thousands of years. So any ancient struture is related to the Hopis not the Navajos. They don't even speak the same language. Most Americans do not know that Navajos are not indigenous to the Southwest.

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