More Musings on the National Park Service

I’ve been thinking more this weekend about the role of the National Park Service in light of the issues raised last Thursday in On Recreating History. As an aside, would thinking about the role of the National Park Service on a weekend make me a geek, or a nerd? It goes without saying that I must be one or the other, but is there a distinction, and if so, which one am I?

To get to the point, however, the NPS is a federal agency, and like all federal (or even state) agencies, it has a diverse constituency, with lots of voices calling out for different things. So I don’t find it surprising that they may approach certain issues differently than I might because they need to appeal to a whole variety of interests. What I do think is interesting is that they appear to be changing course in at least some of their historic parks. Which leads me to do a little research to see what kinds of explicit policy statements or reports NPS has published in recent years that might shed some light on what the official thinking is. It’s a guarantee that no federal agency, least of all NPS, does anything on the spur of the moment. Spur of the decade might be a more appropriate phrase in this case. I’m not denigrating, just stating a fact that large organizations, be they public or private, just don’t turn on a dime and when they do turn at all, it’s usually preceded by lots of talking and writing. To those of us out here in the provinces, who don’t necessarily read all the preceding reports and white papers, the changes may appear random and sudden, but they’re not.

So, I came across this report by the National Park System Advisory Board from 2001 called “Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century.” This document’s purpose was to provide guidance and direction to the NPS for the next 25 years (maybe it should have been titled ” . . . for the First Quarter of the 21st Century”) and I think it might provide the clues we’re looking for when examining the changes at the Civil War parks. Here’s a clip from the Introduction:

As a nation, we are re-examining the effectiveness of our educational institutions. The Park Service should be viewed as such an institution. Parks are places to demonstrate the principles of biology, to illustrate the national experience as history, to engage formal and informal learners throughout their lifetime, and to do these things while challenging them in exciting and motivating settings. Parks are places to stimulate an understanding of history in its larger context, not just as human experience, but as the sum of the interconnection of all living things and forces that shape the earth.

And then their first point is:

I. Building Pathways to Learning

  • Education should become a primary mission of the National Park Service. Budgets, policies, and organizational structure should reflect this commitment.
  • Collaboration with organizations and scholars is essential to develop and expand the Service’s educational capacity.

So, it seems that NPS is now taking the educational part of its mission and elevating it to the highest priority–this would help explain why they now approach the Civil War parks primarily as vehicles to educate the public about the battle in question and the war in general, leaving commemoration and reflection (and maybe preservation and the environment?) clearly of secondary importance.

I guess I can’t complain about NPS becoming more education-oriented, but I am still concerned that they seem to only see one approach to educating about history–or maybe two approaches: one, to build large new visitor centers filled with expensive exhibits that can’t be changed for years because of the cost and effort involved; two, to strip away as much of the last 150 years to “return” the battlefields to their “hasn’t happened yet” condition.

Americans love “facts,” and to many of us, “knowing” history means finding out a bunch of facts. But a true knowledge of history encompasses an understanding about people and places and events and maybe most importantly ideas, realizing that all these sometimes fit together and sometimes don’t fit together and usually get jumbled up. As the blogger at Infinity Ranch noted, it’s not just too simple, it’s also dishonest for historians to try to “educate” the public by stripping it all down to one narrative, even (or especially) when that’s the currently acceptable narrative.

I’m in favor of focusing on education. I’m not in favor of simplifying history down to a supposed lowest common denominator. I believe the American public is capable of understanding the complexities of history, of both imagining the horror of war and acknowledging the very human impulse to heal and commemorate for which the battlefield parks were originally set aside. Isn’t a 150-year history of a place and the ideas that shaped it more interesting than a 3-day or 47-day story of facts, and doesn’t it tell a larger truth about ourselves than the “hasn’t happened yet” version?

Related Posts:


Categories: Historic Preservation, Museums, National Park Service, Preservation Education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: