Historians studying state of history in the National Parks

Historians studying state of history in the National Parks

(Originally posted on Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, July 16, 2009)

This post isn’t specific to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but I thought readers might be interested in a project that I’m involved in that is taking a comprehensive look at the state of history in the National Parks. Here’s our official blurb about what we’re up to:

(By the way, the photo at left is of Lincoln Boyhood Home National Memorial, courtesy National Park Service.)

The largest learned society devoted to the study of American history, the Organization of American Historians (OAH), has embarked upon a two-year project to evaluate the state of history in the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). The study project began in 2008, under the cooperative agreement between NPS and OAH, under the supervision of the Chief Historian of the National Park Service, Dr. Robert K. Sutton. The project was envisioned by the former Chief Historian, Dr. Dwight T. Pitcaithley, who is now retired from NPS. The final report will be issued in August 2010.

Since the 1930s, when it was given official responsibility for a growing collection of American historical sites, the NPS has been one of the key preservers and presenters of history to the American public. Yet understandings of history, like our knowledge of the natural world, constantly evolve. In order to be effective in its historical mission, the parks need a robust and ongoing research program to undergird sound historic and cultural resources preservation policy and history-based educational and interpretive initiatives. This study will provide unprecedented attention to whether the current practice of history in America’s National Parks is adequate to meet the parks’ – and the public’s – needs.

In the spring of 2008, the OAH appointed a team of four eminent American history scholars, Anne Mitchell Whisnant (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chair), Marla R. Miller (University of Massachusetts at Amherst), Gary B. Nash (UCLA), and David P. Thelen (Indiana University) to conduct the study. Through surveys, interviews with NPS historians and other professionals, and park visits, the team is taking a comprehensive look at historical research and interpretation in parks. The study will focus on questions of how historical research is conducted, supported, fostered, and used in park resource management, planning, interpretation, and education.

The aim of the project is to provide critical feedback on the current practice of history in the NPS and to propose changes that would support improvement in the quality of historical research and interpretation in the parks. The final report will propose best practices for further development of effective park history programs and research projects that will allow NPS staff to employ the most up-to-date tools, insights, and scholarship of the history profession in order to better serve the interests of the American public.

This project has been undertaken under the cooperative agreement originally entered into in 1995 between the NPS and the OAH. To date, the cooperative agreement has sponsored dozens of jointly designed projects. These include critical site reviews, original research, historiographical essays, and suggestions for new interpretive directions. The partnership’s goals are to strengthen NPS history programs and forge working relationships between the NPS and the historical profession to maximize the presentation of the parks’ vast cultural resources for park visitors and the American public.

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