NCPH 2013 Group Consulting Award (Part 1): What next for Imperiled Promise?

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report coverEditors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is part of a two-part series by Marla Miller and Anne Whisnant, two of the four authors of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, winner of the 2013 NCPH Excellence in Consulting Award in the group category.

We are pleased to have the opportunity to reflect on the consulting work that led to the publication of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service.  A year after the study appeared, what is perhaps most striking (and gratifying) to us is the ongoing nature of the conversation about NPS history, of which the study was a part.  Our greatest hope now is to nurture and propel that conversation forward.

We knew when finishing the study that a central challenge would be getting our hard-won insights (based as they were on the voices of hundreds of NPS employees as well as members of the academic community) noticed amid the stream of other reports and initiatives addressing related issues in the agency. We have spent the months since the report’s release working to ensure that it finds purchase among its target audiences, and have been deeply gratified to see colleagues both within and beyond the NPS embrace the study and the issues it raises.

Our core findings about the surprising and unhelpful divide between divisions of interpretation and cultural resources (Finding #1), the need to cultivate and support the history workforce (Findings 4 & 5), and the agency’s tendency to practice “Fixed and Fearful Interpretation” (Finding #11) seem especially to have resonated. Last May, a weeklong work session designed to develop a new series of history training modules for NPS’s internal Learning and Development Program used Imperiled Promise as a starting point.  In November, a standing-room-only crowd of NPS professionals and others—hosted by the University of Massachusetts Boston History Department and Boston National Historical Park—turned out for an afternoon of “critical conversations” about these parts of the report.  At Salem State University, a workshop with Salem Maritime and Saugus Iron Works brought education and interpretation staff together to discuss how to deepen and broaden interpretation in three key ways:   emphasizing the complexity, disagreements and messiness of historical events, making historical interpretation itself more transparent and connecting the histories of the site to pressing contemporary public issues.  And in several discussions, the key leaders of Interpretation and Cultural Resources at the NPS headquarters in Washington (Julia Washburn and Stephanie Toothman, respectively) have emphasized the practical and philosophical ways in which their offices are collaborating on projects at all levels.

Meanwhile, other discussions of the report have been scheduled or held—although the present sequester is hampering the ability of NPS colleagues to participate.  A session set for the New York State Historical Association conference in June 2013 has fallen victim to the sequester, while a major panel discussion scheduled for the George Wright Society meeting in Denver in March 2013 went on with a small audience talking with NPS panelists from Washington and regional offices via Google Hangout (it will eventually be posted on YouTube).  At least three discussions at the upcoming NCPH meeting in Ottawa will take up Imperiled Promise’s findings, and—pending negotiations about remote participation by NPS panelists—OAH’s meeting in San Francisco will feature two sessions emerging from our recommendations.  Meanwhile, colleagues within NPS have finalized a charter for our recommended History Leadership Council, and OAH, NCPH, AHA, and AASLH have jointly called upon NPS Director Jon Jarvis to facilitate creation of our recommended History Advisory Board.

But as the avalanche of NPS-related studies and reports continues to roll along, challenges remain—especially in light of new reports that, in some cases, could pull in opposite directions.  If not discussed in dialogue with our report, these reports could reinforce long-held assumptions and views within NPS that threaten to negate, undercut, or blunt the impact some of our key findings.

We’ll talk about our concerns about two new reports in part II, which will be posted tomorrow.

~ Marla Miller and Anne Mitchell Whisnant

Marla Miller directs the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and edits the series Public History in Historical Perspective at the University of Massachusetts Press. She continues to consult on projects for the National Park Service and other history organizations, and is a member of the board of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites.
Anne Mitchell Whisnant chaired the study team that produced Imperiled Promise. She is Deputy Secretary of the Faculty and Adjunct Associate Professor of History and American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also an active public historian with more than twenty years’ experience working on National Park Service-related projects, including, most recently, Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway.

  1. Susan Ferentinos says:

    I agree that Julia Washburn and Stephanie Toothman; are doing a great job encouraging collaboration between the two divisions. Their willingness to collaborate on the recent NPS-NCWHS women’s history summit led to a much more meaningful conversation.

    1. Anne Mitchell Whisnant says:

      Thanks, Sue. That was a great example of the kind of collaboration we hope to see!

  2. Christine Arato says:

    Anne and Marla are indefatigable, and I appreciate their commitment to catalyzing conversations about Imperiled Promise and about the National Park Service’s commitment to the professional practice of history. As noted, IP has provided a starting point for many discussions about the state of history in the NPS and, more importantly, many of these discussions have led to concerted and promising actions. Last May’s weeklong work session, mentioned in their comments, generated three working groups whose members are designing and producing training modules for history practitioners as part of a career academy for cultural resources. Designed for audiences within the agency and beyond bureaucratic boundaries, these learning and development experiences will provide instruction in the essential skills of practicing professional history, as well as an introduction to how (and who) applies these skills throughout the system. Another working group has drafted planning and evaluative tools for history interpretive programs as part of NPS’ Call to Action. Working with these two teams has been a richly rewarding experience in creative collaboration with NPS colleagues and, for me, has provided a sense of community, companionship, and intellectual stimulation. Still, I was surprised to read about a few responses within the NPS, and wonder if we could be doing a better job of communicating across internal and external boundaries. Our 2.0 world can be a bit dizzying and, while I appreciate the democraticizing and decentralizing potential of the digital/social media arena, I wonder how and when our conversations converge. Where do we start to bring it together?

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