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State of New York State History

History Peril Post-Mortem

Will the NPS Boldly Go into its Second Century? (Dane Penland / Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum)

What has happened since the NPS-commissioned study “Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service” in 2011?

In 2012, the authors of the study participated in a discussion published in The George Wright Forum (29 2012:246-263). I was able to download this publication because I have access to academic journals. One of the criticisms in the study was the absence of access by NPS staff to precisely such journals. That shortcoming has been resolved (see below).

Recommendation: I recommend that through SUNY, New York State provide access to academic journals to NYSOPRHP, NYC Parks, and others in the history community who are not at a college.

The opening presentation by Anne Whisnant summarizes the study and the information presented in this series of posts. I will not repeat it. One general observation she made does bear repeating: the aspiration to become the nation’s largest outdoor history classrooms “has been imperiled by the agency’s weak support for its history workforce.”

Question: Is that “highest aspiration” part of the vision of state, county, and municipal organizations which own and manage historic sites?

Question: How come NYSOPRHP participates in an advocacy day for the nature and recreation parks in its domain but not the historic sites?

One answer is that there is a friends group for the parks but not for the historic sites.  As reported in a previous post, https://ihare.org/2017/07/28/the-new-york-history-alliance/  Massachusetts is in the process of forming a history alliance to advocate on behalf of history sites in the state. There is no such group in New York.

In her presentation, Anne noted two key recommendations which also were stressed in the report:

1. create a History Leadership Council from within the NPS
2. create a History Advisory Board drawing on the external history community.

During the subsequent discussion, the moderator inquired:

“Of all the recommendations found in Imperiled Promise, what one or two measures can and should be implemented to effect substantive change across the system within the next three to five tears to generate steam for organization change within the NPS?

In response, Gary Nash specifically mentioned these two recommendations.

Marla Miller cited these two recommendations for having the greatest potential for meaningful change.

Anne Whisnant elaborated on her prepared remarks on behalf of these two recommendations. She added three concerns:

1.the challenge in identifying the right participants for these councils
2.the commitment of leadership to the recommendations
3.the strengthening of the chief historian’s office.

David Thelen echoed the above and added his own pet peeve. Previously he had spoken about the prevalence of silos within the NPS and the isolation of staff. In response to this question he advocated for a “cross-silo task force.” At the most basic level the activities of the task force could consist of monthly talks, i.e., brown bag lunches or something stronger, visits to colleges and historic sites, and a book discussions. Once again I am reminded about State Legislator Steve Englebright’s failed attempt to create a New York State History Commission to address precisely this problem

Question: Regardless of what did not happen at the national level, could such groups be created at the state and/or Northeast regional level?

Question: Could similar councils and advisory boards be created at the state level for government-owned historic sites (NYSOPRHP and NYC Parks) and/or for the history community in general? Couldn’t that state history advisory board become the basis for the friends advocacy group that is so sorely missing and needed and Massachusetts is trying to create?

In the discussion which followed, Anne reiterated her “alarming realization” about that disconnect between the NPS and the history profession.  In general terms of conferences, I consider her comments to refer to participation in the annual conferences of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the National Council on Public Historians (NCPH), and I will add the Society for the Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR) since so many historic sites are from the colonial to ante-bellum period. There may be other conferences as well.

Recommendations

1. NPS, NYSOPRHP, APHNYS, and MANY each send one representative to such conferences.
2. The representatives will report back to the state history community on the conference (sessions attended, general observations, issues raised) online such as through the New York History Blog, at sessions at state conferences, and in journal articles as appropriate (and if we still have a state journal).
3. The state history conference be revived.

Two long-term issues were raised in the discussion. One, as one would expect, relates to funding. I will return to this topic below. The second was civics. Some of the report’s recommendations directly related to the civic responsibility of the NPS and to the potential for civic transformation in encounters between the NPS and visitors. In this initiative, the authors paint a rosy picture of the magic which can occur as the result of a 30-60 minute tour on a hot steamy day to people who are standing up. To some extent that is true. We have all seen how politicians, ministers, and others can energize a massive crowd but that is a little different from the intimate setting of a tour. We also have seen how people with clenched faces and fists in immediate proximity to each other can erupt in violence despite the commercial of a pretty young girl offering a can of soda to a handsome young uniformed cop suggesting otherwise.

As I suggested in my posts, to have the desired civic transformation, a different type of visitor experienced should be considered.  Perhaps one of the first tasks of the proposed councils should be to reimagine the visitor experience so it isn’t simply a notch on the bucket list to be crossed off before getting to the next site.

The funding comment is historical in its now hysterical and frightening context. In response to the question about the funding needed, Gary Nash replied:

“It is possible that greater political support is forthcoming but only if President Obama is re-elected and has a Democratic Congress with which to work.”

Please remember that this was said in 2012 before the presidential election that year. Five years later, the primordial issue for the NPS is survival not development. The only open item for debate is whether the Russian mob or the Chinese will build luxury apartments at Trump Tower Grand Canyon. To be fair to Gary, he did acknowledge even back in 2012 that such funding was unlikely for years to come.

The authors of the study list their contact information at the conclusion of the article.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant, 9115 Laurel Spring Drive, Chapel Hill, NC 27516, anne_whisnant@unc.edu

Marla R. Miller, University of Massachusetts History Department, 614 Hertzer Hall, 161 President’s Way, Amherst, MA 01003, mmiller@history@umass.edu

Gary Nash, 1336 Las Canoas, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, gnash@ucla.edu

David Thelen, 4955 East Ridgewood Drive, Bloomington IN 47401; davidpthelen@gmail.com

Two guests were invited to contribute as well.

Lisa Mighetto, University of Washington, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program, 1900 Commerce Street, Tacoma, WA 98402, director@asch.net

In her contribution to the discussion, she referred to the report as “sobering.”  She expressed a concern over the absence of perspective of the visitors, the enabling legislation which confines the presentation of historical themes to the park boundaries, and touts many of the very same suggestions referred to in the study. One difference is holding the history profession itself accountable for not engaging with the NPS.

Timothy S. Good, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, 7400 Grant Road, St. Louis, MO 63123, timothy_good@nps.gov

As someone from the grassroots, he drew on different experiences than the academics. He did salute the two reco0mmendations for the History Leadership Council and History Advisory Board. He championed the need for intellectual courage specifically citing the Civil War, slavery, and civil rights as areas where it is needed based on his own observations.

In March, 2012, John Warren, editor, New York History Blog wrote a post about the recently released study.

In November, 2012, there was standing-room only NPS audience for “critical conversations” on the report in the Northeast.

In June, 2014, there was a public presentation at the Roosevelt site in Hyde Park, NY, immediately prior to the New York State History conference. I attended both events and wrote about the presentation in a previous post.

The California State Parks system sought to implement some of the recommendations relevant to its own state “peril.”

In 2016, a series of articles were published in The Public Historian (38/4).

John Sprinkle, NPS Park History Program, wrote about origin stories such as are commemorated in plaques and signs. In and of themselves they tell a story about what people considered important at different points in time.  He expressed concern about the maintenance backlog and called for a decennial survey of scholars to assess gaps in the nationwide system of preservation and interpretation.

Recommendation: Of course, we could use a good inventory updating of the history signs in the state not only to list them but to review the wording and information.

Seth Bruggeman, Temple University and National Park Service Special Projects Coordinator, wrote a 25-page article on training a new generation of advocates using his class at Temple as a case study. Interestingly, the teacher of these technologically-savvy youngsters noted that they craved authenticity, what he called the “analog” experience of the park sites and not the digital.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant and Marla R. Miller, two of the four authors of Imperiled Promise, provided an update five years after the publication and after the NPS centennial. In the fall of 2012, a joint letter was sent to NPS Director Jon Jarvis by the OAH, NCPH, AHA, and AASLM emphasizing the need for the two advisory councils to be created, the leading recommendations of the study. There was no reply and the effort to make the subject an agenda item at the NPS National Leadership Council failed.

The Chief Historian did purchase a subscription enabling staff to gain online access to academic journals.

The authors then reviewed the Findings in the original report one-by-one to give an update on what has transpired since it was issued.  Although they were “heartened” by the response at the regional and national level, they were less enthusiastic “about the level of adoption…at the all-important superintendent level. In other words, regardless of the talk-talk at the top, what are the principals and superintendents actually doing at the grass roots level?

They want to be optimistic because of the importance in ending the peril. “At stake is the state of history in the nation’s public life.” So what? That presumes that We the People think history is important in the nation’s public life. In a time of fake news where people are entitled in to their own facts, what are the prospects of a national commitment to America’s history? Remember the Teaching American History? It’s dead.  Preaching to the OAH on the value of history is preaching to the choir. The true audience to be convinced is We the People.

On January 8, 2017, Dr. Turkiya L. Lowe entered on duty as the National Park Service’s new Chief Historian. She holds a Ph.D. in African American history and a Master’s degree in United States history from the University of Washington, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in history from Howard University. Dr. Lowe returns to Washington Support Office (WASO) after 5 years in the Southeast Regional Office. Dr. Lowe is humbled by her new service, saying, “I look forward to the multiple and varied opportunities for collaboration, dynamic research and documentation projects, and the exciting challenges of leading the NPS’s Park History program.” Is she ready to be the public face of NPS history to We the People,  be the advocate to end the peril, transform the civic discussion, and boldly lead the NPS where the NPS has not gone before?

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