When thinking about American public history on a macro level, the National Park Service (NPS) comes to mind for many. It has undertaken the task of using places and objects to assist visitors in building, developing, and deepening their understanding of what it means to be an American. Its prominence and lofty mission statement aside, it has also struggled with the core methods of public history practice: reflective practice, reflection in action, shared inquiry, and shared authority.
NPS has a history problem. Despite being “the United States’ anthropologist, archaeologist and historian”,the work and process of history has consistently taken a backseat to preserving the natural resources under its stewardship. Even with the acquisition of historical sites early in its existence, NPS viewed history as an additive that was not core to its preservation mission.Within the NPS, history has become primarily a tool of preservation (especially after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966), as opposed to functioning as the basis for socially and culturally relevant interpretation at sites.
When history is not used to help people “negotiate through the present”, it deteriorates into facts and content; this deterioration is present at many NPS sites. As a result, these sites tell a single American story—a rigid story, based on factual events, free of controversy. Overreliance on a single American story presents issues for public history practice. It prevents the sites from being truly reflexive and reflective; regardless of the multiple studies and commissions undertaken to revive the NPS,individual sites continue to operate under superintendent autonomy, where the practice of history lies with one person.This overreliance also eliminates the need for shared inquiry and authority in its most basic sense; there is no urgency to collaborate with others (such as outside historians or visitors) when the single American story is being employed. While there are many examples of solid public history practice at work within NPS, they exist as exceptions, not as the standard.
The tension between what public history should be and how it is put into practice at NPS sites is real, and is felt by those working on the front lines. At the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History almost two weeks ago, I attended a session on revealing the interpretative process. During the session, several employees of the NPS expressed frustration with internal stakeholders who resist current interpretations, even when they are challenged with sound scholarship.In the collegial spirit of the meeting, panelists and fellow audience members encouraged them to start with the administrative histories of their sites as research tools to track interpretative change over time; they also referred to the working group on administrative histories during the Annual Meeting.
I conducted a search for tweets related to the working group; there were only four. The first tweet, however, was the most intriguing: “Policy without funding is just conversation”.The OAH completed Imperiled Promise in 2011, making almost one hundred recommendations to advance the role of history in the NPS; the report even took care to incorporate parts of A Call to Action, published in the same year by NPS as a response to past reports and recommendations. I was disappointed but not surprised to see in the 2013 update that of thirty-nine actions to “advance the Service toward a shared vision for 2016 and our second century”, only four were completed, and two actions were revised. Many of these actions need funding in order to make them a reality, and the NPS has been consistently “subject to unpredictable changes in funding”. Despite the prestige of the NPS, it faces the same fiscal pressures of many public history sites. Looking ahead to the centennial of the NPS next year—and in light of a Fiscal Year 2016 budget request of $300 billion (reflecting an increase of $432.9 million from the current fiscal year)—I am hoping to see more policy, and by extension, more history in the NPS.
 Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” The Public Historian 28 (2006), 18.
 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2013), 21.
 Barry Mackintosh “The National Parks: Shaping the System,” (Harpers Ferry, WV: National Park Service, 1991), 28-33.
 Anne Mitchell Whisnant et al., Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service (Bloomington, IN: Organization of American Historians, 2011), 54-55.
 Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia, 1998), 18.
 Whisnant et al., 13-14.
 Whisnant et al., 59-60.
 Whisnant et al., 32.
 Whisnant et al., 7.
 National Park Service “A Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement,” (National Park Service, 2013), 2.
 Whisnant et al., 26.