Tag Archives: National Park Service

Historic sites and sequestration

CBS News talked to NPS Director Jon Jarvis about how sequestration will affect services and operations at the national parks:

“Running a national park is like running a small city,” Jarvis said. “We do everything from utilities to law enforcement to search and rescue to firefighting to proving public information when the visitor shows up. And when you take 5 percent out of that, you have a direct impact on all of those services.”

Looks like we’re in for closed facilities, reduced hours, cancelled programs, and less maintenance (which means uncollected trash, uncleared paths, uncut grass). And it’s not just the parks themselves that will take a hit.

As many agencies have argued, blindly cutting the parks budget, Jarvis said, has a domino effect on local economies across the country. A newly released 2011 NPS report on benefits to local communities from national park visitation shows that park visitors spent $12.95 billion in local gateway regions, meaning within roughly 60 miles of the park. Nationally, that contribution created 251,600 jobs, $9.34 billion in labor income and $16.50 in value added.

To see how the cuts might affect specific parks, check out these articles on Guilford Courthouse, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, and MLK.

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Random stuff

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NPS battlefield report is ready for your comments

The report, which examines Civil War battlefield preservation over the past twenty years and offers some recommendations for the future, went online today at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/battlefields.  The NPS will be taking comments until October 12, so take a look and sound off.

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The brand

For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve gone on a road trip (either with my family as a kid or taking the wheel myself as an adult) I’ve collected brochures and rack cards at rest stops and hotel lobbies.  Actually, “collecting” is the wrong term, because I don’t have a collection in the formal sense of the word, just disorganized stashes and piles all over the house.  There’s really no reason to keep them, but for some reason I have a hard time throwing them out.  I suppose I could’ve created some system for organizing and labeling them, but it’s really more of an obsessive-compulsive habit than anything else.

Image from the NPS Harpers Ferry Center

The other day I made a passing, tongue-in-cheek reference to NPS brochures.  These standardized leaflets are familiar to every heritage tourist—an advertising device, tour guide, and teaching tool all rolled into one.  Most of the ones I’ve got are wrinkled and crushed from being clutched in a sweaty fist while tramping around on some battlefield.  To me, the sight of that white Helvetica font on a black strip has always been a sign that there’s an adventure in the making.

Modern NPS brochures use the Unigrid system designed by Massimo Vignelli in the late 1970’s.  It’s versatile enough to allow each site to customize it a little, but of course it also helps maintain consistency across the park system. Consistency and standardization are important, because when you get right down to it, the NPS is a brand.

That applies to interpretation, too.  Every public history institution has to develop an interpretive “voice” that works for its multiple audiences, but the NPS has the added task of maintaining a voice across dozens of different sites.  This puts some constraints on the people doing the interpreting, something I’d never really thought of until I read this recent post at Interpreting the Civil War.

When you’re a visitor, it’s easy to forget that the NPS is made up of individual people, each of whom have their own ideas about how to interpret a site and must work within the constraints of the brand.  Personally, I’ve always found NPS interpretation to be consistently superb.  Would any of you folks out there who wear the gray and green care to share your experiences and opinions about doing public history within an agency framework?

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History in the first person plural

The other day I was at UT’s McClung Museum, where there’s a fantastic exhibit on Native Americans in Tennessee.  The exhibit includes a film about the experiences of the Cherokee from prehistoric times down to the present day, with onscreen commentary from current members of the tribe.  Some of them use the first-person plural when talking about past events.  “What we decided to do when the whites came was such-and-such,” or, “One of our holy people said such-and-such,” and so on.  I’ve seen the film a number of times, and this use of the first person plural to discuss events that happened well over a century ago has always struck me.

Coincidentally, when I got home I ran across an interesting editorial called “No Longer Circling the Wagons: Many National Parks Get Indian Stories Wrong.” It’s worth reading in full, because it touches on some fundamental issues regarding historical interpretation and historical memory.

The main issue is that parks don’t give Native Americans as much interpretive “airtime” as they do whites.  I’m sure that’s generally true, but with mitigating circumstances.  For one thing, history is inherently and inescapably weighted toward people and events that left a paper trail.  It’s much easier to document the comparatively few years during which the U.S. Army battled its way across the West than it is to document the many centuries during which Native Americans had the continent to themselves.

The Cherokee Female Seminary in Oklahoma, with the class of 1875 posed in front. Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

Second, things are changing.  If you visit NPS sites that have recently undergone interpretive overhauls, I think you’ll find that Native Americans aren’t all that underrepresented.  To take an example from my neck of the woods, the visitor center exhibit at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, updated not too many years ago, includes substantial sections on the Native experience along the Wilderness Road, both before and after European involvement.  Sites with older exhibits and signage aren’t likely to be as inclusive, but you can’t change a park overnight.  Each park doesn’t have its own onsite exhibit fabrication team.  If I’m not mistaken, there’s one department responsible for fabricating and installing historic exhibit galleries for the enite park system.  They’ll get to you when they can get to you.

Anyway, what really jumped out at me what this section:

Changes in interpretation have also been significant at Nez Perce National Historical Park, which includes more than 30 sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. After having built closer relations with the Nez Perce nation over the past 20 years, the NPS is ready to let the tribe tell its own story here. The new park brochure about the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana gives the tribe this voice. It opens with a greeting in the Nez Perce language and then speaks in a Native voice: “Far from our beautiful homeland, upon this quiet terrain of our Earth Mother, the spirits now forever bear silent witness to our people’s painful and tragic encounter with manifest destiny.” The tribe, and not the NPS, appears as your host at this site.

Done right, this approach avoids one of the biggest risks of national park interpretation—having the arrogance to tell someone else’s story your way.

The phrase “telling someone else’s story your way” seems along the same lines as the frequent use of “we” in the McClung Museum’s film.  There’s a definite sense in which some parts of history can become “our story,” especially when it’s the history of one’s own ethnic group, country, region, class, or whatever.  That’s the sort of history that one “owns.”

But there’s an equally important sense in which it’s all “someone else’s story.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We’re not the people of the past, and any belief that we can speak for them based on experiences we have in the present is usually a conceit.  We neglect the fundamental “otherness” of the past at our peril.  Sure, we all have our vested interests in the stories of particular groups, and concerns that these stories get told properly are legitimate.  But the fact of my membership in a group doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to have a particularly accurate appreciation of the reality behind those stories.

One has identities that coincide with those of people who lived in the past, but one also has an identity as a citizen of the twenty-first century.  This latter identity comes with a lot of baggage, and we’re unconscious of much of it simply because we’re so accustomed to it.  Anytime one invokes the historical “we,” there’s a risk of presuming that one can understand people of the past without any residue from our modern-day identities getting in the way.  The result is that we can easily misread both ourselves and our predecessors.

Let me stress that I’m not trying to imply that modern-day Native Americans aren’t “real” Indians, or that it’s none of their business how the NPS interprets Native history, or that an Irish-American has no business taking pride in Irish history, or anything along those lines.  I’m simply pointing out that our presence in the here and now puts limitations on our abilities to intuitively “read” the past.

History in the first person plural seems to be a more common practice among groups who have suffered misfortune, stereotyping, neglect, or defeat, which is perfectly understandable.  Native Americans have, of course, suffered more than most other historical groups.  It’s not surprising that all this cumulative experience would become an important touchstone for their collective identity, regardless of temporal boundaries.

The same thing happens among people who identify strongly with the Confederacy.  We did this, we experienced that, we were in the right, as if Sherman marched through Georgia last week and personally burned a row of condominiums.  Come to think of it, I once heard the exact same language used in a gathering of northerners.  For work-related purposes I once had to attend a dinner organized by descendants of Union soldiers. The keynote speaker referred to Grant’s assumption of overall command by saying, “Their winning team had been used to beating up on our losing team, but now they were finally going to have to face up to our winning team.” As the only southerner in the room, I couldn’t help but think this was a little comical.

None of this would be a big deal, except that this first person plural approach to history puts us at serious risk of presentism.  I think we all need a usable past, but our primary need is for a past that’s accurate.  There’s a healthy sympathy that we can bring to our attempts to understand historical figures, the kind that opens us up, makes us willing to accept them for what they were, and helps us to see their world as they saw it.  And then there’s an unhealthy kind of sympathy, which comes from an assumption that we’re basically the same as they were, making it impossible to get ourselves out of the way and appreciate the past on its own terms.

It’s never occurred to me to use the first-person plural when referring to events that happened more than a century and a half ago…but, of course, it wasn’t my ancestors that got dispossessed of everything they had and then sent packing to Oklahoma, was it?  Knowledge like that is probably going to make history more personal.

So do you guys think the “we” approach to history is appropriate?  If so, under what circumstances?  Sound off in the comments section.

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Fifteen kilotons of misplaced outrage

We just marked a significant but somber anniversary here in East Tennessee—the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, an event in which the town of Oak Ridge played an indispensable role.  Charles Johnson and Charles Jackson tell the story of the wartime city which sprang up virtually overnight in their fascinating book City Behind a Fence.

For some time now the National Park Service has been mulling over the possibility of a new park devoted to the Manhattan Project with sites in three states, including historically important locations at Oak Ridge, and last month the Secretary of the Interior gave it his recommendation.  The idea has some people pretty upset, for reasons that I think are not only mistaken but downright odd.

These critics seem incapable of distinguishing between preservation and celebration, and between interpretation and glorification.  Here’s a recent sample of the brouhaha from The New York Times:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week offered his support for the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Park, and top leaders on Capitol Hill have already vowed to move a plan developed by the National Park Service through Congress in the coming months. But Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Maryland-based Nuclear Information Resource Service, said today that the effort runs contrary to the goals of the national park system.

“National parks are national treasurers, and glorifying a weapon of mass destruction is certainly not among the purposes of a national park,” Mariotte said.

No kidding.  Glorifying a weapon of mass destruction isn’t among the purposes of any sane person or institution. But we’re not talking about glorification; we’re talking about a national historical park.  National parks preserve and interpret.  Neither of those activities necessarily involves glorification.  I doubt the Polish government had glorification in mind when it set aside Auschwitz-Birkenau as a historic site.  It doesn’t amount to a statement about whether something is good or bad, only that it’s important.

Workers at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge during the war. From the American Museum of Science and Energy via Wikimedia Commons

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group in New Mexico, shares those concerns.

“We have to bracket a healthy historical interest with our moral sensibilities and with common sense, and that’s what’s not happening here,” said Mello, whose group has been lobbying against the effort for several years as the National Park Service has conducted a feasibility study ahead of making its official recommendation.

“What we risk is harming the national park system as a whole and the idea of national parks just when we need to protect the environment the most,” Mello said.

Setting aside significant places for stewardship will harm the idea of national parks?  That’s weird, because I thought it was the idea of national parks.  These guys do know that the NPS maintains historic areas, right?

Mello and Mariotte said honoring the atomic bomb with its own national park would set a poor precedent.

Again with the celebratory language.  Who said anything about “honoring” the bomb?  Does Ford’s Theatre National Historical Site “honor” the practice of political assassination?

“Once you open the gate … a national park can be anything,” Mello said. “Why don’t we have a Disneyland national park or NASCAR national park; what’s the limit?”

The limit is that a national historical park or site must be deemed significant enough to warrant federal ownership and administration.  Within those guidelines, you can have national parks dedicated to any number of aspects of American history—textile manufacturing and whaling, to name just two examples.

Here’s a rather bizarre line of argument from a recent editorial by Russ Wellen at Scholars & Rogues:

It’s always a mistake to assume that much of the public favors the United States leading the way on disarmament when other states retain nuclear weapons. But you can be fairly certain that the public either lacks knowledge of the extent to which nuclear weapons still exist since the end of the Cold War or it locks said existence in a tiny room in its mind. In other words, isn’t the Manhattan Project National Park a vast investment of money in an attraction for an audience that’s strictly niche?

Wellen chastises the American public for their ignorance and indifference regarding the important issue of nuclear weapons, and uses the fact of their ignorance and indifference to discredit a measure that would inform them and engage them with that very issue. It’s as if someone blew off a proposal to encourage literacy by arguing that people didn’t care enough about reading books for it to work.

In any case, I think Wellen’s assessment of the American public’s indifference is off the mark.  Elsewhere in his editorial, he refers to Richard Rhodes, whose prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb has been in print for twenty-five years and sold hundreds of thousands of copies despite the fact that it deals with highly technical subject matter and clocks in at some 900 pages.  The success of this volume indicates that there is indeed a public interest in the historical aspects of this issue.  The tremendous popularity currently enjoyed by WWII literature and media of all kinds also bodes well for the success of the proposed park.

A piece in The Oak Ridger applies some much-needed good sense:

Creating this park provides an opportunity to interpret and discuss an incredibly important piece of American and world history, and to allow contemporary society to better understand the complex and difficult decision to use the bomb.

Experts with divergent views will be consulted during the development of the educational materials to ensure the materials are balanced and informative. Park rangers can share the stories of participants and decision-makers with visitors to allow them to be better informed about these decisions.

“The decision of whether the bombs should have been dropped will always be subject for intense debate, and the public should have access to the places instrumental in the development of atomic power so they can reach their own conclusions,” said Ron Tipton, senior vice president at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Because the government already owns the land and historic Manhattan Project properties, the costs associated with the creation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park will be modest. In fact, the Department of Energy will be saving an estimated $100 million or more by preserving the Manhattan Project facilities such as the famous B Reactor at Hanford, Wash., rather than destroying and disposing of them. The National Park Service study recommends that it make use of existing museums and interpretive centers such as the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, and the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum in New Mexico.

The story of the Manhattan Project isn’t just the story of the bomb, but of the people and places involved and all the momentous consequences that followed.  The NPS has been in the historic interpretation business for quite some time, and they’re rather good at it.  Let’s at least see how they plan to tell these stories before condemning the effort altogether.

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