How should NCPH commemorate the past and help shape the future of federal preservation policy?

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A National Park Service ranger gives a talk about the Liberty Bell to tourists, Independence Hall, July 1951. Photo credit: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons.

A National Park Service ranger gives a talk about the Liberty Bell to tourists, Independence Hall, July 1951. Photo credit: Abbie Rowe (National Park Service), Wikimedia Commons.

The year 2016 is a momentous one for public historians in the United States, particularly those who work for and with federal agencies. The National Park Service will mark the 100th anniversary of its founding, and the National Historic Preservation Act will have been in effect for 50 years. These two landmark moments come just two years after the National Museum of American History quietly marked its own 50th anniversary in 2014.

We have organized a Working Group for the National Council on Public History (NCPH) 2015 Annual Meeting in Nashville that will serve as a collaborative forum for planning a scholarly symposium to mark these important events. The symposium will take place in March 2016 during the NCPH Annual Meeting in Baltimore.

We have several goals for our working group.

First, we would like to create a symposium that will not simply commemorate the history of federal preservation, cultural resource management, and historical interpretation but will invite dialogue about the future of federal cultural policy and practice in the 21st century.

Second, we are not interested in repeating the important work that has already been done to reframe and energize the goals, purpose, and impact of federal cultural institutions. We are indebted to the work of professionals in both the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service, and interested scholars from outside these institutions, who have been engaged in conversations about how best to revitalize the role of these institutions as cultural stewards, educators, and innovators in the 21st century. These initiatives have resulted in a number of internal and external reports–including Imperiled Promise and A Call to Action in the Park Service and the Grand Challenges Consortia program at the Smithsonian. We envision a symposium that can focus attention on the ways in which creativity, collaboration, and civic engagement are already transforming the value and function of nationally significant cultural sites and resources.

In order to make the most of our time in Nashville, we will host a pre-conference conversation here on [email protected]. This blog post is the first in a series of three posts that will invite the members of our working group–and anyone else interested in joining the conversation–to identify the key themes and issues that should be at the heart of the 2016 symposium.

We will begin with pointed introductions: Please use the comments section below to tell us a bit about yourself. What is your home institution? What is your role there? Why did you choose our working group or decide to comment upon the working group’s blog posts? What unique experiences or research did you want to bring to our project?

Please respond no later than December 15. Our next blog post will appear after the winter holidays. It will draw attention to our common interests and highlight unique perspectives, and it will pose a second question.

~ Michelle Anne Delaney is the Smithsonian’s Consortia Director for the American Experience and World Cultures and also serves as Senior Program Officer in the Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. Delaney recently chaired the editorial team and wrote the introduction for Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection (Smithsonian/Random House, 2013).

Barbara J. Little is the program manager for the NPS cultural resources office of outreach in Washington, DC, and is adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her most recent book, co-authored with Paul A. Shackel, is Archaeology, Heritage and Civic Engagement: Working Toward the Public Good (Left Coast Press, 2014).

~ Denise D. Meringolo is Associate Professor of History and Director of Public History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is also a member of the NCPH Board of Directors.

~ Julia Washburn is the National Park Service Associate Director for Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers. She also serves as Adjunct Professor of Museum Education at George Washington University.

13 comments
  1. Mattea Sanders says:

    My name is Mattea Sanders and I am a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in American Studies. I hold a Master’s Degree in Public History from The American University in Washington, D.C. My research interests include Southeastern Native American History, Cultural Institutions in the federal government, labor history, environmental history, Appalachian history and federal government history. I chose this working group because I feel that I can bring a unique perspective on federal preservation activities across multiple institutions including the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Archives and Records Administration. I have worked to break down walls between these institutions and to demonstrate that the same goals of preservation can be found in multiple agencies within the government. I believe that this working group will give an opportunity to see that work by agencies cannot be done in silos, but must be done in open collaboration. In my research, I am working with federal agencies in bringing new meaning to their cultural resources through integrating multi-vocal narratives. I want to focus on previous projects and new projects that seek to tear down the boundaries around museums and parks to reach to the communities around them, especially communities that they have contested histories with. I look forward to being a part of this working group and to help create the symposium where a new vision of federal cultural institutions can be created that is collaborative, barrier breaking, innovative, and dynamic.

  2. Kenneth Shefsiek says:

    My name is Ken Shefsiek, and I am an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where I teach graduate courses in historic preservation, historical memory, museum administration, and historic house museums, as well as undergraduate courses in early American history. I hold a master’s degree in preservation from Georgia State University (2000) and a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Georgia (2010), with a concentration in American colonial history. Before becoming a professor, I served as the director of education at a group of historic houses museums in a National Historic Landmark District in the Hudson River Valley and as the executive director of a local historical society in central New York, which operated a history museum and three historic house museums, one a National Historic Landmark. In the graduate preservation program I attended, we learned a great deal about how to preserve, as is probably typical, but we were rarely asked to consider why we preserve, which I think is an issue that requires much more attention than it typically generates. Upon completion of my program, I became a museum educator, and in doing so, I began to realize that what I found compelling about historic buildings is the history they represent, as they provided both me and the general public the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the past through domestic objects to which we can all relate. I also came to believe that the fact that buildings can help explain the past was a (if not the) primary reason they should be preserved. This realization led me to become a historian, as I felt I needed much more historical knowledge in order to interpret these buildings. While my desire to become a historian was initially linked to my work with historic houses, I ultimately developed an extremely deep commitment to scholarly history, as it came to serve as my tool to understanding myself and the world around me. In other words, my deep affection for houses led me to historical interpretation, which led me to history, such that I believe that without interpretation, the value of historic buildings is severely diminished.

    In the years when I was becoming both a public and an academic historian, however, the importance of interpretation of historic buildings was being severely undermined, as the question of the sustainability of historic house museums was coming to the fore. Since then, professional preservation activists, including those at the National Trust, have been seeking and advocating “new models” for sustainability that are increasingly marginalizing historic interpretation. This has led the leadership of such sites as Lyndhurst to promote fantasy Halloween and Christmas tours and Woodlawn to organize decorator showcases as tools to increase public appeal, which the leadership apparently thinks will lead to greater engagement and thus financial support for historic sites. The current president of the National Trust recently even remarked that Tryon’s Palace (the reconstructed North Carolina colonial capital building) successfully “showcases North Carolina history by hosting weddings, receptions, corporate events and other social gatherings.” It is one thing to host weddings in order to produce income necessary for the operation of a historic site, but it is another thing entirely to suggest that doing so represents engagement with history in any way. My concern is not simply that the marginalizing of historic interpretation will lead to the diminishing of the educational role and value of historic sites, but that it will ultimately harm the preservation movement itself because it saps historic sites of meaning, leading preservation down the path of irrelevance. I believe that what preservationists need to do is to facilitate the development of deeper connections with historic buildings and landscapes, which I think is fundamentally dependent upon engaging the public in explorations of the history that such places represent. This is what good house museums do—and need to continue to do—but I suspect that if the preservation movement is going to sustain itself, then such interpretation has to be a central activity of preservation advocacy organizations as well. If that is to happen, historic preservation as both a discipline and a profession needs to expand to truly embrace public history (and public historians). My hope is that thinking and discussing the ideas posed by the committee who developed this working group will help to reform historic preservation as it now exists, both as a profession and as a movement.

  3. Diane Miller says:

    I have worked for the National Park Service for 30 years. I began at the National Register of Historic Places as I was finishing my Masters in History at the University of Maryland. Since 1989, I have been the program manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (NTF). The unique nature of this historic phenomenon—the resistance to enslavement through escape and flight—led the Underground Railroad Advisory Committee to conclude that “no single site or route completely reflects and characterizes the Underground Railroad” Rather than designate an individual site to represent the Underground Railroad (UGRR), this legislation created a program based on partnerships between the Federal government and other levels of government and the private sector as being “most appropriate for the protection and interpretation of the Underground Railroad.”

    From the beginning, the NTF was conceived as a grass roots, bottom-up, and community engagement program. NPS convened several charrettes and working groups to guide the development and implementation of the program. Over 17 years later, the program is still guided by some of the cautions raised by our partners. I have found the input, collaboration, and dedication of our community partners to be energizing and critical to success of the NTF.

    I chose this working group because I believe it is imperative for public agencies and institutions to invite citizens to the table to collaborate as we preserve and tell our shared heritage. Too often, I see this happen with a spirit of “we’re the experts”, which is dismissive and off-putting to our partners. If we learn to listen to their insights and knowledge, and help them see how their sites or stories fit into a broader context, everyone can learn and grow. In this way, preservation and interpretation done by institutions and agencies will become more relevant to the public and that done by the public at local or private sites will yield a higher quality product or visitor experience.

  4. Susan Page-Chumley says:

    My name is Susan Page-Chumley and I am a Park Ranger with the National Park Service (NPS) in the National Capitol Region (Washington, DC and surrounding areas), having come on board in April of 2014. Previous to this career, I spent 25 years in the United States Air Force Band as a trombonist in the USAF Ceremonial Brass from 1988-2013.
    I have recently earned my Master’s degree in Public History from University of MD Baltimore County. My thesis is a proposal for a museum exhibit that interprets the United States Air Force Band’s international tours during the early years of the Cold War and their contribution to America’s cultural diplomacy efforts at that time.
    I currently provide historical interpretation at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Northwest Washington, DC. This site was the original headquarters for the National Council of Negro Women, founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935. Prior to the Bethune site, I worked at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial National Historic Site in Arlington, VA.
    I chose this working group particularly because I am now an NPS employee and have always believed in the service’s objectives of natural and cultural preservation. While the National Park Service has done a remarkable job in continuing this mission and is working to diversify its interpretive scope by launching actions such as the recent LGBT Heritage Initiative, budget cuts continually threaten the service’s ability to conserve and interpret the sites under its custodianship. Personnel cutbacks, especially within the interpretive positions, make it much more difficult to consistently produce interpretive materials and tours that are current and relevant.
    I am personally concerned about how this affects histories of marginalized or disenfranchised populations. Arlington House The Robert E. Lee Memorial, curates two original restored slave quarters directly behind the house that indicate a vibrant enslaved community. While the Lee site is still struggling with how to interpret the enslaved history as a more organic part of the narrative, the staff have made great strides in interpreting the enslaved story.
    However, time constraints and lack of staffing are a continual challenge as park rangers try to find the time and financial resources to update the interpretive plan. While I worked at the mansion, the enslaved stories felt like an “add-on” at best as there was not enough staff to consistently provide historical interpretation at the slave quarters.
    I believe that a staff’s perception of visitor expectations feeds into how comprehensively we address these narratives as well. Regional and cultural traditions and experiences shape what visitors want or expect from a given historic site. At the Lee site, we had visitors who were Lee admirers, Civil War buffs, black history enthusiasts, material culture devotees, etc. The history of the enslaved population that inhabited the estate is received in different ways, depending on visitor expectations. The challenge is to provide a balanced and comprehensive interpretation that does not tell visitors what to think, but encourages them to consider and discuss any subject that challenges their own internal interpretation of what we call “difficult” histories.
    I thoroughly agree with Diane Miller’s emphasis on partnerships and collaboration as a way to provide more accurate and comprehensive historical interpretation. I believe it is particularly important for federal sites to be proactive in cultivating these relationships. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the citizenry we are supposed to serve.
    The National Park Service Centennial Celebration provides a unique opportunity to not just to commemorate contributions to American history from underrepresented cultures, but to rewrite the way in which we tell those stories.

  5. Ashley Rose Creegan says:

    My name is Ashley Rose Creegan and I am pursuing a masters in history at West Virginia University with a concentration in Public History alongside a certificate program in Cultural Resouce Management. My research interests include 20th Century American History, specifically the U.S. during the Cold War, historic preservation and cultural resource management. Currently I am an intern at the Monongalia County Clerks Office in Morgantown, WV, and handle the preservation, conservation, digitization, and management of the primary document collection of the court house. Prior to this I was a historic interpretation intern at the Eisenhower National Historic Site and the Richmond National Battlefield Park. I believe I can offer a student and National Park Service intern perspective to this working group, contributing dialogue on the current trends in education and my experice within intern training programs, preparing emerging young historians.

    I believe that historic site interpretation needs to reconnect with the historic sites they showcase. Many historic sites are distancing themselves from the plentiful resources they have right in front of them, and as Susan pointed out, budget and personnel cutbacks are significantly impacting the interpretation capabilities of a site. Interpretation should utilize cultural resources, such as land, objects, and narratives, to enhance the public’s ability to craft meaningful connection to historic sites. Using cultural resources, especially physical resources can strengthen a visitor’s sense of place and connection to the past, however a site needs to have a strong interpretation department with the means to reconnect with a historic narrative, and guide the visitor experience.

    In addition, I believe that archival and primary materials can be made more accessible to the public. Utilizing social media many sites can expand their audience reach. Social media platforms allow for material to be viewed by the public in a limitless and cost effective way, and enhances constructive dialogue between the public and a historic site or federal institution. Social media platforms have also opened the lines of communication up between institutions, which can result in a larger partnership and collaboration networks, which Diane highlighted are essential.

    I am very much looking forward to sharing perspectives and the open dialogue crafted though this working group, and similarly agree the NPS Centennial Commemoration provides an excellent time to collaborate, break down barriers, and rethink interpretation strategy.

  6. April Antonellis says:

    Hello! I am an interpretation and education specialist in the National Park Service’s Northeast Region history program. I’ve been with NPS in various capacities for almost 7 years, and worked in formal education settings for a few years before that. I’m a historian by training, but really my heart is focused on education and outreach. I first left the classroom and joined the NPS ranks because I saw such awesome potential for resource-based education. That impulse is at the heart of why I wanted to participate in the working group — I see many lost opportunities for collaboration, both internally and with partners, and I want to help strategize how we can better work together. Between education, interpretation, public history, and digital humanities, there are many of us working toward common goals, and there is much that we can do if we go together. I want to bring my experience walking a line with one foot in public history and one foot in education, to the benefit of the group. I also would like to discuss I project I have worked on partnering with tribal nations to explore the legacies of the War of 1812 for public audiences, from their own diverse perspectives. I think that it serves as a good example for the kind of partnerships that will make the work we do more relevant, and more sustainable.

  7. Craig Stutman says:

    Hello, my name is Craig Stutman and I am an Assistant Professor of History and Policy Studies at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I teach a number of American history, African-American history, and Pennsylvania history courses, and my department is currently in the process of developing an undergraduate major in public history. In addition, I teach a course on social justice and social policy in the college’s graduate policy studies program. What spoke to me the most in regards to wanting to join this working group was the call that it had issued looking for practitioners whose work revolved around developing “Creative interpretive programming that has transformed a traditional historic place into a site of conscience, or a site of consciousness-raising,” or could show “Examples of effective, dynamic, and ongoing collaborations among historic places, institutions of higher learning, and other cultural institutions.” A number of my current endeavors outside of teaching are, at their heart, motivated by these aspirations. For instance, I am on the board of the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust, located in northwest Philadelphia, which includes among its holdings the first formal religious institutional petition against slavery in North America (1688), penned by several Mennonites within the congregation as well as with a few Quakers from the nearby Germantown Meeting. Our job has been to highlight this important occasion by educating the public as to its significance, as well as to create an interactive space where we can tell the story of these Anabaptist immigrants’ economic, cultural, and social lives. We also collaborate with “Historic Germantown,” a non-profit agency that serves as an umbrella organization helping to link together sixteen historic sites along Germantown Avenue, and where teamwork is essential between historic places that are located upon a stretch of road that was first designated as a National Historic Landmark District almost fifty years ago, in 1965.

    One other role that I occupy is that of co-chair of The Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road Initiative, a memorial bench and historic plaque project which commemorates stories of African-American and African Diasporal history. Our mission has a dual nature: first, to hopefully “raise the consciousness” of a viewing public that will arrive at such a site and be able to both learn about and reflect upon a critical moment in the African-American experience; and second, to collaborate during the process of organizing such an event, as the partnerships we have formed during these undertakings have been wide-ranging. Among those groups, organizations, and institutions we have collaborated with are: George Washington University, on a bench placement at their historic Lisner Theater in the fall of 2011; the Henry David Thoreau Society who, along with the Drinking Gourd Project, Save Our Heritage, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, all helped us to install a bench in Concord, Mass. in the spring of 2013; with the National Park Service on our first bench installation at Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, in the summer of 2008; with the Mitchelville Preservation Project of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina in 2012, in which a number of politicians, community activists, and local historic society members installed a bench at the end of a new historic trail that they had created which honors the memory of an African-American Freedmen and Freedwomen’s community during the Reconstruction era; and currently with the Nyack Commemorative Committee, whose upcoming bench placement this spring in Nyack, New York will memorialize the life of an ex-slave, entrepreneur, and underground railroad conductor named Cynthia Hesdra. Regarding this last story, the Toni Morrison Society has not only been working with the Nyack commemorative committee as to the planning of the event, but also with the Nyack Superintendent and city school board, who have now adopted this lost-to-history-story into their curriculum for the remainder of the year.

  8. Gloria Hall says:

    My name is Gloria D. Hall. I am currently a Masters of Historic Preservation student at Gloucher College. I chose this working group because it directly relates to my interest in Historic Preservation: interpretation in general and interpreting uncomfortable truths. I am at present writing my treatise that connects the two area of interest. The title: INTERPRETING UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH: THE PLANTATION: WHY MOVE INTERPRETATION THINKING TO THE CENTER OF HISTORIC PRESERVATION? My fieldwork included visiting four National Parks Plantation units: Hampton, White Haven, Melrose, and the Booker T. Washington Historic Site and three private plantation sites: Montpelier, George Washington’s Mt. Vernon and Monticello. My treatise joins the scholarship rethinking historic preservation and significance of interpretation to the ongoing preservation process.

  9. Michael S. Binder says:

    I am Michael S. Binder, Technical Advisor with the Air Force Declassification Office. My office is in the National Archives in College Park, where our major function is to review and declassify Air Force-originated records that can then be made available to the public. In addition, I have been involved with various projects to prevent classified information from becoming incorporated into CRM work product that is releasable to the public.

    Prior to my government work, I was a consulting military historian specializing in the Cold War built environment, a subject I have studied for over 30 years. My experience working on projects centered on base closure Section 106s, development of CRM plans, and review of National Register nominations, plus my personal research, has revealed that the Department of Defense (DoD) needs assistance from other organizations (government or otherwise) in helping it fulfill the goals of the National Historic Preservation Act, especially when it comes to the preservation of historic Cold War resources. Therefore, I am very interested in the working group’s goal of plotting future federal cultural policy and practice. Ideally, I would hope to see:

    – recommendations for a greater reliance on knowledgeable or specialized historians (vs. archaeologists, for example) in developing and applying historic contexts

    – an avoidance of single contexts in favor of multiple qualifying contexts, so that historic properties not found eligible under one context might become eligible under another

    – less reliance on architectural bias — as exemplified by the unwavering adherence to the integrity criterion for National Register eligibility — and more importance accorded to the historical events that took place at a particular property.

    I have seen (or not seen, as the case may be) many significant Cold War properties fall victim to the wrecking ball, including Building 213 at the Washington Navy Yard Annex, probably the most significant Cold War building in the District of Columbia, demolished without recordation earlier this year. I hope by joining in the conversation of this working group that I will learn of strategies and collaborations that will aid in the preservation – physically, or in text and photo – of buildings, structures, and districts which will be around long after our last Cold War veterans are gone.

  10. Daniel Ott says:

    Hello: I thought I published a reply on December 16, but apparently it washed out – so here goes. My name is Dan Ott. I am a PhD Candidate at Loyola University Chicago in Public History / US history. I have a mixed bag of experience. I have worked for many years at the Minnesota Historical Society with the National History Day program, over the last several summers I have been a cultural resource pathways intern with the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. I have also spent some time as a living history farmer at the Kelley Farm in MHS, a new media coordinator at the Immigration History Research Center and a variety of other education, outreach, and interpretive capacities at other institutions.

    I chose this working group, because I am interested in the ways that the Park Service can commemorate its centennial by becoming more engaged in public k-12 education. The park service has a wealth of fantastic expertise, specialized knowledge and amazing physical resources. I think that the Park Service should focus on converting that wealth into concrete deliverables for K-12 students and their teachers, which meet common core or state graduation standards through focused field trip or digital programs, curriculum materials and tools for evaluation. This interest comes out of my experience working on amazing cultural resource projects with the Park Service at the St. Croix NSR and my time working with NHD in Minnesota (which provides curriculum and classroom staff support for a program that meets state skills standards in history).

  11. Jim Deutsch says:

    I am a program curator with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, having worked for the past eleven years to help create large public programs for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place every summer on the National Mall (managed by the National Park Service). I am also a former seasonal park ranger with NPS, having worked at Montezuma Castle National Monument, Tuzigoot National Monument, and Vicksburg National Military Park. I have even worked as a seasonal ranger for that “other agency,” the U.S. Forest Service, which led to my curating a Folklife Festival program in 2005 on the occasion of the Forest Service centennial. As a folklorist, I am especially interested in the “multi-vocal narratives,” which Michelle Delaney highlighted as one of the three key themes for our further discussions.

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