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The National Park Service/National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Conference

The National Park Service/National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (NTF) Conference was held September 11-14, 2019, in Niagara Falls. The title of the conference was Crossings: Bridging the Authentic Underground Railroad Past to the Present. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) was a partner.

Below are the multiple keynote addresses given during the conference plus a few of the sessions. So many of the individual sessions were case studies about what specific communities have done that it is impossible to present them in a blog without duplicating the entire conference program. Therefore only a few have been selected because they directly relate to the keynote speakers or are of a general nature.

The speakers are not presented in order of appearance. I start with the more general ones and conclude with a local focus on Niagara Falls, the host site of the conference.

The first speaker asks us to look beyond the individual site to the larger network involved.

The Underground Railroad in the North: From Myth to History
Judith Wellman

Historically, research on the Underground Railroad in northern states has often focused on individual safe houses, usually owned by European Americans. Using examples from New York State, this presentation suggests that, instead of focusing on individual houses, research can more usefully focus on the Underground Railroad as a network. The focus becomes not only European American families who kept safe houses but also African Americans who escaped from slavery. Many freedom seekers settled in northern states. Finally, the network includes allies who raised money, collected clothes and food, found jobs, and often sold property to those who chose to settle in the North. Sources for studying the story of the Underground Railroad in North are sometimes similar but often different from sources available for southern states. This presentation will review a variety of sources, with a special focus on state and federal census records. Finally, it will suggest a five-point scheme for evaluating research on potential Underground Railroad sites.

The second speaker follows up on the last line of the previous abstract by focusing on the task of identifying individual sites within the network.

What You Know, What you can say, What you can verify: Strategies for Researching Underground Railroad Sites
Cheryl LaRoche

Researching Underground Railroad sites, people and events can be a complex minefield filled with false leads, mistaken identities and doubt. When we think of oral histories and especially of half-truths, we often focus on the “half” rather than on the “truths.” Researching and authenticating sites with an African American historical component can be especially challenging. The research strategies presented in this talk will begin by discussing how to work responsibly with conjecture, speculation and oral history in the early phases of identifying potential new sites or undiscovered participants. Using escapes by water around Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay as her case study, Dr. LaRoche will demonstrate the “building blocks” that lead to verification. Understanding the interrelationships among local, regional and national as well as international histories leads to identification of potential Underground Railroad “markers.” These markers, in turn, help establish authenticity for potential Underground Railroad sites.

The third presentation addresses the issues of organizing the sites of the network and how to make the message public.

Keeping the History Alive – Underground Railroad Consortium of NYS
Mary Liz Stewart; Judith Wellman; James Hotchkiss

While NYS was heavily invested in the institution of enslavement, it was, as well, a bastion of antislavery effort. Over the last twenty years much research has been conducted by academic and community researchers that has resulted in the emergence of a large body of locally focused Underground Railroad documentation. With this documentation comes the question, ‘What do we do with it?’ Do we leave it to the academic researchers? Do we take it out to the public? What, if any, is our responsibility to those whose inspiring voices had been written out of history and were being uncovered?

We are a storytelling species. This next presenter brings a personal touch to the storytelling as a descendant of someone involved in the Underground Railroad and is based in Niagara Falls.

Present Day Freedom Seekers and The Power of Our Stories
Saladin Allah

What is your story and how does it serve to inspire, empower and educate others to bring beauty to this world and repair what is broken? Is this important and why?

Present Day Freedom Seekers and the Power of Our Stories is an enlightening presentation about knowledge of self, the value of our heritage and the journey of self-discovery through accessing, articulating and preserving our story. Through sharing my personal story as a descendant of famed underground railroad freedom seeker Josiah Henson, my professional work in the area of youth outreach and community engagement, I discuss the importance and urgency of everyday people finding the sense of agency in their legacy as modern day freedom seekers.

I chose this presentation because it speaks of the role of the state tourism department in promoting visitations to the sites of Underground Railroad in the state. I suspect that the story varies from state to state in the support of the state tourism departments at all or beyond gestures devoid of substance.

A Generation in the Making – Maryland as the World’s Most Powerful Underground Storyteller
Marci Ross

Over the last 20 years, the Maryland Office of Tourism has led the effort to open up Maryland’s
Underground landscapes and waterways to a world-wide interested audience. The initiative has survived numerous challenges all while continuing the effort of cross-cultural and consistent stakeholder engagement, world class visitor experience development and effective consumer messaging. The initiative has been successful for many reasons, among the most significant has been the partnership with the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

During this session attendees will learn the process the Maryland Office of Tourism and their partners utilized to research, fund, build, market and sustain the Underground Railroad and Network to Freedom stories that make it an Underground Railroad travel destination second-to-none.

The following three presentations are about the host site, Niagara Falls. The first one provides an historical perspective. The second talk addresses a specific site. The third one focuses on the local tourism effort (not the state).

The Underground Railroad in the Niagara River Borderland
Karolyn Smartz Frost

Borderland theory, originally coined to describe conditions in regions bordering modern nation states, has recently found a retrospective application in Underground Railroad studies. For people of African descent, the region bordering the Niagara River represented a transitional space from one where they could be considered enslaved, to the other side, where both laws and attitudes dictated that they could not. Collaboration was essential between African American and African Canadian communities on either side of the Niagara River to ensure not only the effective transportation of freedom seekers from one legal reality to the other, but also their safe resettlement in British colonial Canada.

In this the Niagara Frontier was a true borderland region, extending the Underground Railroad-era activism on behalf of freedom seekers far into the hinterland on either side of the international boundary between the United States and Canada. In the years before the Civil War, Black North Americans traversed the Niagara River border regularly and for myriad purposes, while enjoying the benefits, while that very real boundary line provided them protection from re-enslavement on the Canadian side. Karolyn will discuss the cross-border resistance movement aimed at securing freedom for thousands of formerly enslaved people, with particular attention to the borderland represented by upstate New York and what today is southern Ontario.

The Cataract House and the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls: History, Archaeology, and Transnationalism
Judith Wellman; Karolyn Smardz Frost; Douglas Perrelli

From the early 19th century until the present, Niagara Falls has been magnet for tourists from around the world. As one of the shortest crossing points between the U.S. and Canada, it also attracted people escaping from slavery on the Underground Railroad. This is the story of the Cataract House, its waiters, and some of those who escaped from slavery through this hotel, as revealed in documents, archaeological investigations, and transnational family histories.

Reimagining This Place: Heritage Tourism in Niagara Falls
Sara Capen

One of the most pressing issues facing the Niagara region has been a deteriorating economy, particularly in and around Niagara Falls, where the City of Niagara Falls has experienced a staggering 60% decline in population since 1960. Capen will share strategies that allow the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center (NFNHA) to return $6.10 in products and services for every $1.00 it receives in federal funding.

As the executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, a 15-mile Niagara River corridor, Capen will also share how heritage tourism projects have had a positive, measurable impact on the region. These include the Discover Niagara Shuttle, which contributed over $35 million to the local economy in its first two years of operation, and the creation of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, a nationally award winning museum that has anchored the north end of the city with a renewed sense of community pride.

I am not sure if this is an annual event or not. There was no mention of “next year’s conference” in the program. The welcoming letter mentioned “this year’s theme” suggesting there have been conferences in the past. It also states the conference this year was a “new format and approach.” I don’t know what the previous conferences were been so I can’t comment on the change. My impression from the use of the word “training” and “training experience,” that the hope was that the participants would bring back to their communities lessons learned from the conference that they can apply themselves.

Slavery Quadricentennial: The 400 Years of African-American History Commission

The Commission's logo symbolizes 400 years of African-American history: the drum stands for global communications and healing; segmented chains represent breaking the cycle of slavery and the perpetual struggle for equality; two stars depict balance between inspiration and aspiration.

You may have missed this federal legislation so I am providing a streamlined version of it. The commission expires in 2020 with the scheduled production of a final report.

H.R.1242 – 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act
115th Congress (2017-2018)
Public Law No: 115-102 (01/08/2018)

To establish the 400 Years of African-American History Commission, and for other purposes.

(1) Commemoration.–The term “commemoration” means the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies, at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619.

(2) Commission.–The term “Commission” means the 400 Years of African-American History Commission [of 15 people].

The Commission shall–

(1) plan, develop, and carry out programs and activities throughout the United States

– to recognize and highlight the resilience and contributions of African-Americans since 1619;
– to acknowledge the impact that slavery and laws that enforced racial discrimination had on the United States;
– to educate the public about–(i) the arrival of Africans in the United States; and (ii) the contributions of African-Americans to the United States.

(2) encourage civic, patriotic, historical, educational, artistic, religious, economic, and other organizations throughout the United States to organize and participate in         anniversary activities to expand understanding and appreciation of—(A) the significance of the arrival of Africans in the United States; and (B) the contributions of African-Americans to the United States;

(3) provide technical assistance to States, localities, and nonprofit organizations to further the commemoration; [FUNDING UP TO $20,000 per application!!!!!]

(4) Coordination. coordinate and facilitate for the public scholarly research on, publication about, and interpretation of–(A) the arrival of Africans in the United States; and (B) the contributions of African-Americans to the United States

(5) ensure that the commemoration provides a lasting legacy and long-term public benefit by assisting in the development of appropriate programs; and

(6) help ensure that the observances of the commemoration are inclusive and appropriately recognize the experiences and heritage of all individuals present at the arrival of Africans in the United States.

The strategic plan for the Commission can be accessed through the National Park Service website. It provides the following timeline.

TIMELINE: (First quarter of 2019): SHOULD BE DONE BY NOW

Develop a framework for ways in which civic, patriotic, historical, educational, artistic, religious, economic, research-based individuals and institutions may partner with the Commission to ensure a successful 2019 across the Nation and collaborate accordingly.

Establish a clearinghouse for 2019 African American commemorative events.

–  Work with museums and other key organizations to calendar significant events.
– Create an online master calendar of events.

Secure adequate funds to support the Commission in achieving its goals

Utilize social media and African American community information sharing networks to share information about Commission-sanctioned programs, events, and activities.

– Hire a web designer.
– Recruit volunteers to maintain a robust social media presence.

TIMELINE: (Second quarter of 2019): SHOULD BE DONE SOON

Develop, disseminate, and provide technical assistance for requests for proposals (“RFPs”) in support of the Commission’s mission work.

– Define relevant proposal criteria.
– Widely publish the criteria.
– Assist those who wish to submit proposals.

Issue grants in an amount not to exceed $20,000 based on approved RFP guidelines.

Secure grant-making funding.

– Develop grant-making criteria.
– Disseminate grant opportunities.
– Develop team to review grant proposals.
– Develop grant award timelines and procedures.

The total project budget is $6M. Key budget items include:

Operating expenses $900,000
Website and online presence $10,000
Marketing (e.g., promotion and advertising) $2,450,000
Commissioner outreach (e.g., travel, lodging) $140,000
Grant-making; scholarships $2,500,000

The most recent item on the NPS website for the Commission is a press release on a meeting held on Wednesday, February 13, 2019, at the National Museum of African American History in Washington.

I became aware of this legislation and strategic plan because of my participation in the African American 400 Year Diaspora committee through the Westchester County African American Advisory Board. Somewhere around April, I decided to look up the legislation that was the impetus for the creation of this group. At that point I found the law itself and subsequently the NPS Strategic Plan.

As you might expect, my interest was peaked when I saw that organizations could apply for up to $20,000 in funding for related activities. Naturally I began to look for the application procedures and guidelines so we could apply. I found none.

I thereupon contacted my local Congressional representative to inquire about funding. It was while waiting for the return call later that afternoon that I did some additional research on my own and found the Strategic Plan. When I notice the first quarter time frame and that we were now in the second quarter, my hopes for funding diminished significantly. There was then and continues to be no vibrant web presence. There was then and apparently still are not funding guideline and procedures as we head into the final two-plus weeks of the second quarter.

When my Congressional representative office called, she confirmed my worst fears. Do not expect much. There has been no kickoff event yet. No website, No procedures. If you expect to do anything on or around August 19, 2019, do it on your own. Do not wait for or expect federal funding though the Commission. In fact the Commission will have to raise the funding privately itself.

At this point, it seems like the primary event will be by the NPS at the “Plymouth Rock” of slavery in the English colonies. [Note that Spanish-controlled lands are not included in this anniversary. It is limited strictly to the 13 British colonies that became the United States.]  There will be a new visitor center at Point Comfort, VA, at what is now Fort Monroe National Monument, in a partnership between the Fort Monroe Authority and the National Park Service.

Depiction of August 1619 arrival of first Africans to Point Comfort, Virginia (present day Fort Monroe). Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

If you want to more about the actual event in history, may I suggest a recent article in the Washington PostShe Was Captured and Enslaved 400 Years Ago: Now Angela Symbolizes a Brutal History” by DeNeen L. Brown.

In some ways it may be just as well that the national commission ends up being a mainly local event. After all, the story of slavery varies from state to state. The libraries, historical societies and museums in only one state are likely to have materials related to the 1619 event. In the other states, many such organizations may already have displayed slavery-related items during Black History Month. These organizations also may have events and exhibitions planned for August, a month that is more of a vacation time than visit your local museum time – you visit the museums of the places you travel to then!

Here in Westchester, we are thinking about what happened in Westchester and not Virginia…although Texas still garners attention due to Juneteenth. By contrast July 4, 1827, when slavery ended in New York remains unremembered. What we need here is a Bicentennial End of Slavery Commission.

There are four points to this rumination:

1. Each state has its own story to tell of the start and end of slavery in that state.
2. Each state has its own story to tell about the contribution of black Africans to their state from those brought here against their will to those who emigrated here just like white Europeans from Plymouth Rock to Castle Garden to Ellis Island.
3. The shortcomings in the African American Heritage Commission may be replicated in the American Revolution 250th Anniversary. If that Commission similarly focuses on 1776/2026 it will ignore or downplay all the events leading up the Declaration and afterwards until the British evacuation on November 25, 1783/2033.
4. History museums, libraries, and colleges provide great venues for facilitated discussions and conversations on the role of slavery in their community and the free black experience both during and after slavery. (The same actually applies for both Columbus and the American Revolution although I have not written those blogs yet.)

I mention the American Revolution because some efforts are underway here in Westchester and in New York regarding that event. I want to attend the Massachusetts History Alliance conference on June 24 and learn about what that state is doing before writing a blog about it.

In the meantime, we will keep moving forward on the 400th but will be thinking more and more what to do on an ongoing basis to tell the story of the black contribution to our county.

Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service Part II

This post is the second in a series investigating Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, an NPS-commissioned study with implications for the NPS historic sites in New York, the state counterpart with the NYSOPRHP historic sites, as well as for historic sites in general. For Part I, click here.

Imperiled Promise, proposes “a new vision of history” designed to “lift history out if its often marginal state” by stressing its place as a core activity.

So positioned, history can help the NPS better guard the precious resources in its care, and propel the agency toward greater relevance to American civic life….to fulfill its promise of creating an inspired, informed, and thinking citizenry.

The deliberate use of the word “civic” signifies the commitment to the vision of local/state/national history as in integral part of the social fabric of the community, a fabric that is being unraveled even more so today than in 2011 when the report was written. The ongoing controversies about Confederate memorials testifies to the power of historical memory to the present and of the need to bring it out into the open and see the light of day. Since many NPS sites are military battlefields, it should not be surprising that the NPS also is on the frontlines of the cultural battlefields as well. Similarly many other sites, especially colonial, have had the experience of re-evaluating the lives and events of the people associated with the site. Engaging the public in a discourse is fraught with danger and not something all historic sites are equipped to do. But ignoring the past is no solution either.

The authors of the study sent out over 1500 survey forms to NPS staff with history as part of their job description. The positions included rangers, historians, and curators and some archivists and archaeologists based on the government employment codes. Retired people were contacted, parks were visited, and group sessions were held at the annual meetings of the Organization of American History (OAH) and National Council on Public History (NCPH). It should be noted that former New State Historian Bob Weible had been head of the NCPH and that City of Rochester Historian and APNHYS board member Christine Ridarsky has become more involved with NCPH in the last few years. Marla Miller one of the authors who presented at the workshop in 2014 prior to the NYS History Conference is now the Vice President and she informed me at the Massachusetts History Alliance meeting in June at Holy Cross, that the annual NCPH conference would be in our area in 2019.

The Introduction to Part I of the report paints a dire picture. The actual word used by the authors is “distressing.” There appears to have been “a decades-long decline in the relative investment made in ensuring that history scholarship and interpretation remain sound and robust.” One source described the study as “a renewed reminder of the historical staffing crisis that has been growing like a noxious weed in the National Park System over the past decade.” The place of history within the organization is not good:

Even when the consequent attitude toward history is not outright disdain, there is a dreadful tendency to view historic sites as somehow emasculated by the absence of geysers, waterfalls, granite grandeur, and genuine law enforcement challenges.

This blunt and bleak assessment highlights the enormous obstacles confronting any serious attempt to elevate the status of history within the organization.

To gain a better understanding of what is really happening on the ground, the authors examined the history staff of the NPS. They found that these individuals “are dispersed and often only loosely connected.” Even the 182 individual “historians” by job title out of 22,000 total staff including seasonal and temporary don’t necessarily do “history” as someone outside the bureaucracy would understand it. One respondent wrote that history in the NPS is “sporadic, interrupted, superbly excellent in some instances and vacant in others.” A critical shortcoming identified is one which will resonate with the New York history community: “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.” Gosh, I wonder how that situation could exist or be a problem. I am shocked. Shocked to find out that no one is in charge here.

The authors, who themselves are historians by training and profession, recognized that there is a problem across all history organizations including museums, colleges, universities, schools, and public programs. The challenge they identify is to make history, historical thinking, and historical training relevant and intelligible. As an example of critical thinking, suppose a President of the United States claimed that a certain Secretary of State was the worst one in American history and that America has been a loser in all the treaties it has signed (so we are going to return Alaska to the Russians, thank you very much Secretary of State William Seward of Florida and Auburn, New York for that folly!). On what basis was that historical conclusion reached? On what basis can it be challenged?

The authors bemoan the popular perception of history as “either a boring recital or memorized facts or a series of arcane and tedious debates about esoteric subjects.” To those one might add that contrary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, people are entitled to their own facts. In this environment when people have the right to alternative facts it is difficult to make the case the NPS should encourage and foster critical thinking skills as part of a park visit. Of course, the report was written when there was a former professor in the White House. Times have changed. What do you as a ranger when confronted with someone who prefers an alternate universe? Rangers don’t have the option to change the channel.

The author’s discovered some ingrained institutional issues that compromised the position of history within the NPS. An internal divide is expressed through the shorthand of “nature” and “culture.” Within the culture realm there is another division, this time between:

Cultural resources management or the preservationists who protect the physical remains of the past, and interpretation or education-oriented processes aimed at fostering public appreciation for the resources and introducing larger narratives of the American story.

According to the consultants, the past 40 years of the NPS has been a confining of history, historical research, and history programs to preservation. The story began in 1935 with the passage of the Historic Sites Act. Suddenly a nature and scenery organization had thrust upon it responsibility for historic sites (just as happened to the Office of Parks in New York). There already was an NPS Chief Historian beginning in 1931 tasked with an education mission for the nature sites. As it turned out, the Chief Historian had an academic history background and he envisioned the history sites as classrooms for the teaching of history. Therefore he needed a history staff. Since all this was happening during the Depression, he was able to hire Ph.D.’s in history and soon had a staff of 60. But the marriage of history preservation behind the scenes and history presentation to the public was a tense one.

By the 1960s, the preservationists had won the battle. Broad historical themes were out and targeted messages conveying specific information about the specific site one was in. With the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the new National Register of Historic Places operated under the umbrella of the National Park Service. The result of various shifts in department organization and practices was according to one survey respondent that NPS historians are “buried under compliance and a variety of bureaucratic mandates.” Instead of practicing the craft of history, the NPS historian survey respondent wrote: “Much of our professional talent in the cultural resources disciplines spends the bulk of its time on resource management” and not applied research. Furthermore, there is a gap between history or what passes for it in the NPS and the best professional, scholarly practices in history. That discrepancy is part of the reason for this study through the Organization of American Historians. That discrepancy is part of the reason why professional historians were asked to conduct the study. That discrepancy is part of the reason why professional historians with an emphasis on public history were asked to conduct this study.

With this background in mind, we can now turn to:

1. What was recommended?
2. How does it applies on the state level to government owned and operated historic sites.
3. What are the lessons for non-federal and non-state history museums and societies?

To be continued.

Imperiled Promise: History and the NPS (and OPRHP)

Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service is the title of a study commissioned by the NPS in partnership with the Organization of American History (OAH). Although first published in 2011, it was slow to see the light of day. In 2014, it was the subject of a pre-New York State History Conference workshop which I attended and wrote about during the NPS Centennial in 2016. I had intended to delve more deeply into the report itself which I downloaded but never quite got around to writing about it. In this post I wish to begin to address the findings of the study. As you will see, the comments are doubly important for New York State:

1. We have many NPS sites in the state
2. The issues raised frequently apply to state historic sites as well.

The findings also are related to the fledgling Massachusetts History Alliance’s efforts to forge exactly what the name says, a history alliance in Massachusetts. I recently attended its conference held at Holy Cross and will reporting on those developments in future posts.  There is a lot going on and it is difficult to keep up.

According to the Executive Summary of Imperiled Promise, history is at the heart of approximately two thirds of nearly four hundred national park units. At the time of the report, 182 NPS employees carried the job title of “Historian.”  However, the authors pointed out that people without the classification may do history-related work as well. I don’t know what the comparable figures are for the NYSOPRHP.

The attendance of the sites is part of the story. By way of perspective, a local news report in 2016 provided the following NPS attendance figures for 2015 in Dutchess County:

Vanderbilt Mansion drew 431, 961 visitors ranking 133rd of 368 NPS destinations but 6th for National Historic Sites. By comparison the White House had 526, 623 visitors.  Other NPS sites in Dutchess include, FDR ranked 11th and the related Val-Kill ranked 26th.  All these sites were outdrawn by Walkway over the Hudson, a state site with 448, 719 and some by the Dutchess County Fair with 394,422.

These numbers can be deceiving especially in a PowerPoint presentation. Vanderbilt Mansion on the Hudson River serves a community park much like Central Park. It is a lovely setting for painting, photography, dog-walking, jogging, and other park activities that just happen to occur on land which has an historic mansion. Similarly the Walkway over the Hudson River is another spectacular recreation setting. By and large both sites with free grounds access are day trips if not after-work visits. By comparison, the Grand Canyon drew an estimated 5.5 million people the same year. Besides the admission fees, people who visit it spend money on meals, souvenirs, lodging, and transportation. Attendance numbers need to be treated very carefully depending on what one is trying to prove or demonstrate. They also highlight a divide noted in the report between the recreational and historical sites managed by the same organization. As I recall at a preservation conference in 2016, even NYSOPRHP joked about the number of historical versus recreation sites under its umbrella. Obviously in New York, Jones Beach and Niagara Falls will outdrew any traditional historical site and that does affect the allocation of funding and management time.

Returning to the Executive Summary, the following observation bears notice. I know that my blogs can be very pointed but pay attention to what was reported in this NPS-commissioned study:

“[The NPS’s mission] 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.”

Not exactly subtle or complimentary. Do these conditions apply at all at the state level as well?

Naturally, the authors of the study have recommendations to remedy the situation. The issue of whether or not these recommendations were implemented or whether the report was filed on the consultant reports  shelf as one NPS Ranger delicately phrased it will be deferred until after they are presented.

The first recommendation required a commitment by the NPS to history as one of its core purposes. That commitment required the NPS to “invest” which has the implication that at some point money is required to do what the report recommends is needed to be done. The investment should be for:

1. creating a robust place-based visitor engagement with history
2. connecting the history of the site to the histories beyond the boundaries of the site
3. forthrightly addressing conflict and controversy in history and its interpretation in the present.

To achieve this vision, the NPS would be obligated to overcome the legacies that undermined the effort.  The negative legacies included:

1. underemphasis and underfunding of historical work
2. artificial separation of cultural resources management from interpretation
3. artificial separation of natural resources interpretation from cultural and historical interpretation
4. overemphasis on mandated compliance activities
5. a misperception of history as a tightly-bounded fixed and accurate story instead of being an ongoing process of discovery with changing narratives and multiple perspectives.

To address these concerns, the authors proposed almost 100 recommendations (which I will not list).  They involve the management, workforce development, and funding. In general terms, one may say there is an issue of the “historian” function at an historic site. What is the training necessary to become an historian? How does one maintain competence in the field or engage with ongoing scholarship to remain current? Are there organizational meetings devoted to history that staff at historic sites should attend? How can existing state and regional organizations support history in addition to curating and exhibit presentation? Would some kind of history certification process be beneficial such as teachers have using professional development to increase their salary? How relevant is all this for the local often volunteer municipal historical society and museum?

Two items in the Executive Summary recommendations bear special notice. They both involve bringing together and creating an empowered leadership. The authors of Imperiled Promise challenge the NPS to create two groups:

1. History Leadership Council, an internal group comprised of the most talented and influential historians and interpreters
2. History Advisory Board, an external-based group comprising the nation’s leading public history professionals, innovative curators, insightful scholars, savvy administrators.

The authors felt that if such groups were formed with legitimate leadership and authority from the NPS, the other challenges could be overcome. In-other-words, they proposed a top-down solution that would gradually impact the grassroots level at the individual sites. Care to guess what actually has happened?

In any event, one can readily observe that similar considerations apply at the state level as well. One may even add that historic sites are owned and operated not just by the states but by counties, cities, towns, villages, and privately.  As it turns out, all history organizations in the state would benefit if some of the recommendations were opened up to extended beyond the NPS itself. In future posts, I will explore in more detail what the Imperiled Promise report specifically recommended and provide some examples of what the NPS in New York actually is doing.

The National Park Service Centennial: An Imperiled Promise

Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service is a study conducted by the Organization of American Historians (OAH) at the invitation of the National Park Service (NPS) published in 2011. The study was featured in a pre- conference workshop on June 12, 2014, at the Henry Wallace Visitor Center located at the NPS site in Hyde Park. It was a free public program prior to the annual New York State History conference held at nearby Marist College. On this centennial day of the NPS, it is constructive to look back at that session.

The title of the session was “Imperiled Promise: Public History and Shared Authority at New York’s NPS Sites.”  The session was chaired by Patricia West McKay, Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.  The session is available online on its website.

McKay introduced the panel and called the study a critical analysis on the state of history within the NPS. She noted that the session was third occasion for a public discussion of the Imperiled Promise study, focusing here on the NPS in New York State. She spoke of the need to share authority, to listen to the audience, and to respond accordingly. McKay cited a blog written by New York State Historian Bob Weible on the tendency of people within the history community to be limited to their rut or silo and not to engage people outside that restricted view. The history community will never realize its untapped potential for making a difference in people’s lives as long as its practitioners fail to see the larger context.

As it turns out, on May 29, 2014, just two weeks earlier, I attended a history roundtable in Albany convened by State Legislator Englebright [and attended by staff aide Devin Lander on his last day in that position].  The word mentioned again and again throughout the meeting was “silo” as it applied to the various fiefdoms within the NYS history fiefdoms in the government. I confess that I had never heard the word used as frequently as I did during this period. This usage brought home the fact that all the questions being raised about the NPS also apply to the NYSOPRHP, a point to be elaborated on when I turn to the Imperiled Promise study itself.

Christine Arato, the Chief Historian, NPS Northeast Region

 Arato began her presentation with the disheartening comment that Imperiled Promise had landed with a glorious thud two years earlier. She expressed the hope that perhaps we now are ready to move beyond navel gazing. Arato characterized the report as a gift from strong allies and it addresses challenges many cultural organizations face not just government entities. This meeting was cited is a good platform for a conversation forum. Important issues included funding challenges, training, and grappling with the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to overcome the chasm between interpretation and history in the Park Service staff. This division proved to be a recurring theme for the speakers: there are those who do the research behind the scenes and those who are on the frontlines who deal directly with the public.

Arato noted the troublesome image of the concept of expertise in the current cultural climate. In that context, sharing authority becomes even more problematic.  According to current social learning theory as presented by Arato, learning is best served by meaningful experiences, social interactions, and the resulting self-discovery. The emotional and the intellectual work together in an audience-centered learning experience.

Arato returned to the chasm which divides the NPS staff. The culture resource managers are document oriented – they study the artifacts from the past. That work contrasts with the delivery techniques needed to convey the information from the past to the audience of the present, the purview of the guides. The chasm between the two groups results in different approaches and expertises.

Arato then discussed three case studies to substantiate her concerns. The first involved the recent bicentennial of the War of 1812. The NPS sought to include the voices of the Indian tribes who had participated in the war by speaking to the descendants to gather their memories of it. The collection of these traditions were subject to an academic review to determine which ones and how they could be presented on the NPS website. She observed that the submissions from the Indian tribes were limited to solely Indian topics and that there was no such submission on Andrew Jackson, for example.

The second case study combined social learning and media focusing on the specific subject of women’s rights. The NPS invited students to create videos about these rights. Different approaches were taken as students from different genders, sexual preferences, and religions participated in responding to the general question of one’s place in America. The public presentation of the students’ work led to a vitriolic response as if the NPS had endorsed certain perspectives expressed by these students. One might add that the reaction to these student creations probably provided a better emotional meaningful learning experience based on social interactions than did the creation of the presentations themselves.

The third case study looked inward to the training and preparing of the staff to work in a climate of shared authority. “Authority” is an issue within the NPS. To facilitate conversations on social media is a new experience for the government organization. Arato asked what is the place of our institutions, what are we prepared to do, what is relevant? Again she referred to the chasm between cultural interpretation and shared authority in ranger-led programs.

She concluded with a call to action to the NPS in its second century. It needs to develop history lessons that are participatory events for new audiences so they may learn about their American heritage.

How will we make this happen? Teaching about the past is insufficient. There is a need to build the capacity for historical thinking, to create an inquiry based model. She used the metaphor of journey for identifying the mileposts for the development and evaluation feedback needed. Arato acknowledged that the shared promise [hopefully not imperiled] and tacit goal is to create informed citizenry with critical capacities. She declared an activist bent for the NPS and then asked: is this the right thing for the NPS to do in leading social change? What are the goals and expertise needed? What does the audience think? [Spoiler alert – there was no real facilitated conversation with the audience on the questions Arato raised.]

Justin Monetti, Site Manager at the Martin Van Buren Historic Site

Monetti brought an interpreter’s perspective on shared authority drawing on his own experiences in the field dealing with the general public. In the beginning, rangers drew on the military example. The NPS was a hierarchal organization with a uniformed staff. The tours were not history-based but guides in the parks where knowledge of what people saw in the hike was imparted to them by the expert. The ranger then was a figure of authority.

The situation has changed. Now there is a need to relate to others. The personal experience needs to replace sterile tours. Rangers need to know what they are talking about, who the audience is, and the delivery techniques appropriate to create a learning opportunity. Echoing the previous speaker, Monetti said memories are stronger when delivered in the context of an emotional response. There is a connection between the intellectual and emotional responses. Rangers must facilitate connections between our resources and the audience. They must craft programs tailored to audience responses. The one-dimensional programs where the only feedback is in the observation of audience by the ranger looking at them is out. The best programs produce tears!

Programs must be personally relevant and this necessitates a cultural consciousness of the audience. However, that audience is a high-volume one at many sites and it spends only a short time with the ranger.

During these close encounters of the brief kind, rangers typically avoid controversy. Public speaking can be scary! Especially for young part-time summer guides. There is a fear of the heckler or the know-it-all in tour. There is a fear of letting the visitor control the program. The culture of fear creates an anxiety in rangers over loss of control of the tour. Rangers also fear being chastised if they violate the official approved history they have been given and instead explore additional interpretations through the lens of the audience. That can be frightening.

Monetti recognized the need to develop techniques to invite engagement, to facilitate dialog, to promote civic engagement and civic skills. Rangers needed to overcome the current fixed and fearful approach to avoid controversy. He pointed out the audience (and got a laugh from this one) by saying that for rangers preservation of one’s job takes precedence over expressing creativity as a priority.

These musings raised the issue of exactly what the NPS should celebrate during the centennial. It presents an opportunity to encourage dialog on what we mean to society now. We need to recognize the desire to continue learning over one’s lifetime as part of defining the future for the NPS. Yet Monetti also noted a study that shows that visitors spend on average 3 minutes on rim of the Grand Canyon and 20 minutes in gift shop. How does one create conduits between past and present in that context? To change the format is a frightening prospect. How do we shift as an organization so people seek us out about the changed perspective?

Monetti touched on many critical issues. To continue the metaphor of the chasm and the Grand Canyon, he stands on the brink of change without directly seeing it.  The high-volume short-visit model probably is less applicable to historic sites than to natural sites where it is easier to wander around the visitor center and see the spectacular sights on one’s own.  The missing ingredient in Monetti’s analysis is the need to restructure the visit at historic sites by the tourist so the process of engaging the audience changes as well. Retraining the guides no matter how knowledgeable they become is not enough if the tour guide format remains the same. I will pursue this observation in a subsequent post on the Imperiled Promise.

Vivien Rose, Women’s Rights National Historical Park

Rose began by asking “When did you start caring about the past? About a dead person and then went on to learn?” She answered her own questions by recounting an experience she had in high school. That experience contributed to her obtaining a Ph.D. in history and her present job.

She called history the story we tell to each other about the past. It is not a static story or one of just stating the facts. At the site where she works, a question was placed on the bulletin board: “What will it be like when men and women?” Her review of responses led us to questions we didn’t even know we had. She challenged the people in the audience to share their passions. Yet she noted that the more she functions as a PHD, the less she can communicate with the public. Note – I wasn’t quite sure if she was referring to the time available to her given the requirements of research, the atrophy of skills since she had less opportunity to engage the public, or both.

For me, her talk was a natural follow-up to Monetti’s although not presented in that manner. The best way to have the research people engage the public is the way other research people, i.e., professors, do at colleges to students and in speaking to historical societies. I doubt there are any studies that suggest having people stand up for long periods of time often in the sun is the environment most conducive for learning. A better way is sitting down in a climate-controlled facility like the Wallace Center where the Ph.D. in history or the relevant subject can speak to the visitors, engage them in a facilitated discussion, and prepare them for what they are to see when they do walk around the site with or without a guide.

Marla Miller, University of Massachusetts

Speaking of history professors, the next and final speaker is one. I spoke with her after the session and she provided me the information about how to obtain a copy of the Imperiled Promise study which she helped write.

Miller began her engagement with this audience by expressing the hope that the study will gain traction within the NPS. The study was based on 544 detailed responses to a survey of NPS staff. The four historians who wrote the report had spent three years creating the survey. They concluded with roughly 100 recommendations and 12 findings [not all of which I will list in my future post!].

The chasm within the NPS hit the study team hard. It was something about which they had no awareness prior to delving into the inner workings of the organization. She forthrightly spoke of the challenge for NPS to overcome cultural resource and interpretation divide within the organization. Miller saw a long road ahead if the pernicious problem of this divide was to be overcome.

Miller mentioned the silo of history practice in NPS.

One critical finding of the study was the need to expose NPS staff to ongoing scholarship in the field. The staff needs to be current. The staff needs to be able to knowledgeably respond to the questions posed by the public. The staff needs professional development training just as professors do who attend history conferences and social studies teachers do in content-based professional development programs [the underlying principle of Teacherhostels which has visited NPS sites].

Miller noted the rapid changes in the NPS since 2008 when the survey began. One obvious one is the flourishing embrace of social media. She spoke of the preference people have to be where the messy stuff is, ironically, the exact the motif mentioned in a panel in which she participated at the SHEAR conference in 2016.

Collaboration with the public is the core principle. Miller provided two of the recommendations from the study as the most important:

  1. The creation of a history leadership council within the NPS. The purpose would be to identify the leading lights in public history practices internal to the agency which then cold be disseminated to others. One might ask as there ever being a NPS history conference at the Wallace Center? The Center hosts numerous history programs and I have used it for teacher programs and history community meetings. But to the best of my knowledge, the NPS history staff in New York never meets collectively, nor does the NYSOPRHP. Imagine if the two groups held such a conference!
  2. The creation of a history advisory board to bring in people outside the agency. Again the comments about the history leadership council apply. There are OAH sessions at its annual conference on NPS topics now.

Miller commented that the test was still to come on these recommendations. Since her comments were in 2014, it would be interesting to know what progress has been made on the report received with a thud.

In the Q&A, Debi Duke, Teaching Hudson Valley conference and NPS, asked about how this conversation can trickle down to other sites outside the NPS. Miller agreed on the need. Leaders can talk the talk but it is the frontline interpreters at the grassroots level who are left hanging when the leaders omit to walk the walk. That is the piece that often gets lost. Monetti added that to develop capacity, training programs for all levels are needed on how to develop dialog with audience especially for someone just out of college.

McKay ended the session with the words: “This is not the end, only the beginning of the discussion.” What discussions have taken place since here in New York?

Historic Preservation Round Table (August 22, 2016)

Secretary Jewell, Congresswoman Lowey and Commissioner Harvey invited regional historic preservation stakeholders and advocates to Bear Mt. State Park to participate in a roundtable discussion on the issues and opportunities associated with protecting and preserving the country’s historical and cultural sites and structures. Participants in the forum discussed challenges to historic preservation, what works, sustainability of historic sites, and ways to engage new audiences and cultivate the next generation of preservationists.  The dialogue provided valuable insight to the challenges and creative ideas that will shape historic preservation over the next 100 years. (Press Release from Representative Lowey)

A Report From The Federal Grants Workshop

On November 12, 2014, at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, a federal grants workshop for arts and culture organizations was held through the auspices of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

The half-day workshop was held to familiarize organizations with the funding opportunities available through the federal government. Continue reading “A Report From The Federal Grants Workshop”

Path Through History: An Historical Perspective

The Path though History project does not operate on a tabula rasa. When Henry Hudson arrived, there were no signs to guide him. Today there are more signs then one can count. For Path through History the challenge is not to create ex nihilo but to create order out of chaos. Continue reading “Path Through History: An Historical Perspective”