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From the News column of the May 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

OAH Report Urges National Park Service to "Recommit to History"

Allen Mikaelian, May 2012

The National Park Service (NPS) has "imperiled" its own work in history with insufficient support to its history workforce, isolation of this workforce from the rest of the agency, underfunding, "narrow and static conceptions of history's scope," and "timid interpretation," according to a report undertaken at the invitation of the National Park Service and published in February 2012 by the Organization of American Historians. The report (available online at oah.org/programs/nps/imperiled_promise.html) urged the NPS, among other things, to "recommit to history."

Written by four historians—Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Marla R. Miller, Gary B. Nash, and David Thelen—Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, which is based on a study started in 2008, also reports finding about 150 "effective, inspiring models" of how history is being done well in the National Park Service, and offers 14 case studies of "lamps lighting the path ahead." The authors of the study gathered information from NPS employees conducting historical work, retired NPS employees at all levels, and professional historians outside the NPS who became stakeholders by virtue of their contributions to NPS programs and sites.

The report's criticisms are not directed only at the National Park Service. According to the authors, the historical 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." The "culture and structure" of isolation in the academy have tended to reinforce a similar isolation of historians with the Park Service, according to the authors, and "the profession and the Park Service must face the future as full partners."

Robert Sutton, chief historian of the National Park Service, wrote in an e-mail to Perspectives, "For many years we have been very interested in learning from our National Park Service historians what they think of the practice of history throughout the National Park Service," and, "We wanted to find out what we were doing well, and what we were not doing well." He added, "The survey team did an outstanding job of analyzing the survey results."

Although history is central to about two-thirds of all National Park sites, the report claims history is underemphasized in favor of "natural resources, law enforcement, and other concerns." Further, among the study's other findings were an "artificial separation of natural resources interpretation from cultural and historical interpretation," and "A misperception of history as a tightly bounded, single and unchanging 'accurate' story, with one true significance, rather than an ongoing discovery process…"

As an example of how an interpretation can help eliminate the artificial separation of nature and culture, the authors turn to the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site which has expanded its grounds and broadened its scope to put on display Van Buren's later life as a farmer, an occupation he "saw as an important expression of his political and personal values." The site further serves as a way to demonstrate the "dynamic history" of farming and "engage the public in a more sophisticated discussion about past and present food-supply systems." Other case studies cover reinterpretation of slavery and the Civil War, and the need to include a park's own checkered past within its historical offerings, as is being done in Shenandoah National Park.

Robert Sutton wrote to Perspectives that the Park Service is "determined that this survey will not just sit on a shelf somewhere." Although he underscored that some recommendations, "although absolutely valid, simply are not feasible at this time," he pointed to several actions that the Park Service is undertaking, including providing access to the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History for NPS historical staff and improving the ability to search the "over 4000 studies, reports, books, articles, etc." on the NPS web site. In response to the recommendation for improvements in history education and training, Sutton wrote, the Park Service is "working with our Harpers Ferry Training Center to create a historians academy that will provide distance training opportunities for our historians." In conclusion, he remarked, "we will establish committees to further implement as many of the recommendations as possible."

This report joins many other recent reports on the National Park Service, published in advance of the 2016 NPS centennial, including Park Service Director Jon Jarvis's book, A Call to Action, The State of America's National Parks, by the Center for Park Research, and Advancing the National Park Idea by the National Parks Second Century Commission.

Allen Mikaelian is the associate editor of Perspectives on History.