The Danger of a Single American Story—The National Park Service, Imperiled Promise, & A Call to Action

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.[1]

NPS has a history problem. Despite being “the United States’ anthropologist, archaeologist and historian”,[2]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.[3]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.[4]

When history is not used to help people “negotiate through the present”,[5] 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,[6]individual sites continue to operate under superintendent autonomy, where the practice of history lies with one person.[7]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.[8]

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.[9]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;[10] they also referred to the working group on administrative histories during the Annual Meeting.[11]

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”[12].The OAH completed Imperiled Promise in 2011, making almost one hundred recommendations to advance the role of history in the NPS;[13] 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”,[14] 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”[15]. 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.

[1] Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” The Public Historian 28 (2006), 18.

[2] Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2013), 21.

[3] Barry Mackintosh “The National Parks: Shaping the System,” (Harpers Ferry, WV: National Park Service, 1991), 28-33.

[4] 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.

[5] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia, 1998), 18.

[6] Whisnant et al., 13-14.

[7] Whisnant et al., 59-60.

[8] Whisnant et al., 32.

[9] Anne Whisnant, Twitter post, April 18, 2015, 9:41 a.m.,

[10] Anne Whisnant, Twitter post, April 18, 2015, 9:48 a.m.,

[11] Anne Whisnant, Twitter post, April 18, 2015, 9:50 a.m.,

[12] Tara Mielnik, Twitter post, April 17, 2015, 9:55 a.m.,

[13] Whisnant et al., 7.

[14] National Park Service “A Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement,” (National Park Service, 2013), 2.

[15] Whisnant et al., 26.

Source: The Danger of a Single American Story—The National Park Service, Imperiled Promise, & A Call to Action

National Park Service: “Imperiled Promise” and “Call to Action”

When I first stumbled upon Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service a few years ago, I was surprised to discover that problems I saw in my own workplace as an NPS Student Trainee-Park Guide were in fact systemic throughout the Park Service and were the product of a long history of “weak support for its history workforce, [of] agency structures that confine history in isolated silos, [and of] longstanding funding deficiencies,” among other challenges.[1] At the time, I was not familiar with the concept or philosophies of public history, but I did sense that there was untapped potential in the interaction between interpreters and the public audience, whether the encounters happened in person or virtually.

I read the report through again this week, with newly-developed public historian eyes, and I noticed something I had not seen previously. I wonder if the Organization of American Historians (OAH) is accusing the NPS of not keeping up with a scholarly conversation to which they haven’t historically been invited. The authors acknowledge the disconnect at the outset, pointing to the “culture and structure” of the historical profession as the cause for the lack of dialogue between the academy and NPS.[2] As Dr. Meringolo pointed out in “A New Kind of Technician,” university training does not prepare the history professional to navigate “either government bureaucracy or tourist demands,” skills that are crucial to succeed in the Park Service.[3] From the time that NPS was tasked with preserving historical sites in addition to caring for natural landscapes, the role of its historians and interpreters has included the mission to engage the public and to foster connection with the resources so that they will be preserved through shifting political environments.[4] Although not stated directly, the narrative of Imperiled Promise implies that the focus on building goodwill with the people (and by extension, their congressional representatives who control the agency’s funding) discredited the professionalism of government historians in the minds of their academic counterparts.

Is it reasonable to expect that a large government agency will be able to adapt their exhibits and resources to keep up with the evolving historical discourse, given the constraints of insufficient funding and dependence on public opinion for survival? It is possible that the interpretations praised by the OAH in 2011 will be outdated in five or ten years when there is no budget available for redesign. Given the budget shortfalls that result in $11.49 billion in deferred maintenance of resources as of fiscal year 2014, can the NPS be expected to adopt a cutting-edge program of historical provocation when they are struggling to prevent structures from crumbling?[5]

As daunting as the task of preserving historic sites seems in light of the current political climate (note that Imperiled Promise was completed before the more severe budget cuts following the sequester), the goal that the NPS has set for itself in A Call to Action regarding historical stewardship may be even more ambitious. According to the document prepared in anticipation of the National Park Service’s centennial in 2016, the mission includes “strengthening the NPS role as an educational force based on core American values, historical and scientific scholarship, and unbiased translation of the complexities of the American experience.”[6] Based on our research and discussion this semester, and the analysis of the OAH in Imperiled Promise, is this an attainable objective? If we were to rewrite the NPS mission based on our understanding of the role of public history, what would we include?

Both Imperiled Promise and A Call to Action emphasize the importance of building partnerships with educational, civic, and other organizations. What do we imagine those collaborations might look like? What risks are involved in this type of shared authority?


[1] Anne Mitchell Whisnant, et al., Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service (Bloomington, IN: Organization of American Historians, 2011), 5.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Denise Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xiii-xiv.

[4] Whisnant, 21-22.

[5] National Park Service, “NPS FY 2014 Deferred Maintenance Reports,”

[6] National Park Service, A Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement,” 2013 update, August 25, 2013, 5.

Source: National Park Service: “Imperiled Promise” and “Call to Action”

The “Mural” by the Biology Department (2013)

Location: The main wall of the Biological Sciences Building on the first floor across from of the Chemical & Biochemical Engineering Building. GPS Coordinates 39°15’16.9″N 76°42’43.7″W

During the summer of 2013, Ganna Vikhlyayeva, a student in the Department of Visual Arts at UMBC, completed the Mural near the Biological Sciences building. Vikhlyayave spent two months formulating the concept, and a month and half bringing the entire project to fruition.

In 2012, Vikhlyayeva set out to compete in the annual challenge contest known as Prove It. She proposed to paint a mural outside one of the walls near the Biological Sciences Building depicting undergraduates engaged in science and their connection to other organisms. The idea was to utilize the space to foster community values and to emphasize the extraordinary research conducted in that Department.

Despite losing the Prove It! Competition, the Chair of the Biology Department invited the artist to paint the mural after he saw the design. As a whole, the process of proposing and completing the unnamed Mural was the result of collaborations between departments and the civic engagement of those involved.

Wall near Biological Science Building - BeforeWall near Biological Science Building – Before
Mural near Biological Science Building - AfterMural near Biological Science Building – After
Mural near Biological Science Building - AfterMural near Biological Science Building – After


Photo Caption Text: Mural near the Biological Science Department

Suggested Tags: UMBC Campus Art

Source: Baltimore Heritage App Content – First Drafts by Andres Macias

The “Mnemonic” Sculpture (1976)

Location: West side of the Fine Arts Building, between the Engineering and Computer Science Buildings. GPS Coordinates 39°15’18.0″N 76°42’50.8″W

Sometime during the summer of 1976, a sculpture by Marc O’Carroll, an artist who worked and studied at UMBC, was installed on the west side of the Fine Arts Building. Entitled just Mnemonic, this piece of art reflects on the infrastructural expansion that UMBC underwent in the 1970’s.

During his time at the University, Marc O’Carroll grew fond of a massive and ancient sycamore tree that once stood behind the school’s Dining Hall. However, after the construction of the Commons Building started, workers cut down the tree in order to build a short driveway for trucks to pull into the site. As a result, once the school commissioned him for the project, and after two years of work at the UMBC’s studio, O’Carroll decided to pay homage to the sycamore tree by building the Mnemonic. He did so by designing the sculpture as a collection of steel trees in various stages of being chopped down.

By welding his memories in steel, Marc O’Carroll provided a dynamic sculpture that invites people to reminisce about nature and its surroundings. Although the artist is no longer at UMBC and neither is the massive sycamore tree, as the school’s paper once reported it, the Mnemonic carries on the memories of both.


Mnemonic SculptureMnemonic Sculpture
Mnemonic Tree Sculpture-09Mnemonic Sculpture

Photo Caption Text: Mnemonic Sculpture

Suggested Tags: UMBC Campus Art

Source: Baltimore Heritage App Content – First Drafts by Andres Macias

Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park

Location: Hilltop Circle between Administration Drive and Commons Drive in the southeast quadrant of the UMBC Campus. GPS position 39°15’07.8″N 76°42’35.5″W.

Joseph Beuys believed that every individual is an artist, that human beings are inherently creative and the results of their endeavors are always a form of art.

The Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park, tucked in between the Commons Drive Parking Garage and the Retriever Activities Center (RAC), appeared on the UMBC campus in April 2001, created as part of a larger tree-planting project spread throughout the local Baltimore community. Designer Renee van der Stelt, projects coordinator for the University’s Fine Arts Gallery,  developed the Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership  with the mission to “extend beyond the gallery walls, bring art to the people.”  She was inspired by the work of  Beuys, a German avant-garde artist who emphasized natural materials in his work. His most famous piece was 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks)  in which residents of Kassel, Germany, planted 7000 oak trees in the town.  A stone was installed next to each tree as a commentary on the processes of nature. As the oaks grow, the stones erode, nourishing the soil around the trees.“The intention of such a tree-planting event,” Beuys explained, “is to point up the transformation of all of life, of society, and of the whole ecological system.” All of nature and humanity are in relationship, Beuys believed, and that inter-connectedness is represented not just in the installation itself but in the collaboration necessary to bring the art into existence. He called this type of partnership “social sculpture.”

With funding from Annapolis-based TKF Foundation, an organization that promotes its mission of peace through the development of green space, and in partnership with nearly two dozen community organizations, the Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership organized volunteers to plant trees and rocks throughout the city and bring social sculpture to Baltimore. Hundreds of children and adults pitched in during the fall of 2000 to plant several varieties of trees in Patterson Park, Wyman Park Dell, and Carroll Park in Baltimore; later, stones were installed in each park to continue the Beuys model. The thirty oak trees planted on the UMBC campus in spring 2001, each paired with a granite stone, completed the first phase of the project.

Community outreach was as integral to the work as soil and stone. UMBC students visited local elementary and middle schools to teach art and to facilitate discussions about the nature of art. Following each installation, the Partnership held a dedication ceremony in which the Beuys concept was celebrated. The Baltimore Museum of Art hosted an all-day symposium prior to the completion of the UMBC park to continue conversations about the synthesis of green space and art in the city.

In 2011, the UMBC Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture (CADVC) hosted a music and dance program entitled “Creative Acts:  Site Specific Dance & Music in Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park.” Students performed original works that expressed “a dialogue between the human instinct to preserve and enjoy nature while also transforming and polluting it.” The compositions used as source material entries into a journal that has been stored under a bench in the Sculpture Park since its opening, providing an opportunity for visitors to contribute to the social sculpture by recording their thoughts and feelings. The audience was encouraged to add to the journal during the performance, continuing the interactions that are at the heart of the park’s design.

The Joseph Beuys Sculpture Garden, in harmony with its sister parks throughout Baltimore, is a space in which the art is constantly changing. The granite erodes into the soil and nourishes the trees. The trees produce oxygen which mingles with the car exhaust from nearby parking lots.  A harried college student takes a deep breath when she stops for a moment on the bench and records her frustrations in the field journal. All are in relationship, and all are participating in the act of creation.


Source: Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park by Susan Philpott

Spring Grove Hosptial

Created by an act of the General Assembly of Maryland in the late eighteenth century, the mental hospital that eventually became known as Spring Grove Hospital began its life in Baltimore. Originally intended as a refuge for Baltimore’s sailors returning from sea, by the nineteenth century, the hospital housed mentally ill patients who were moved to the new Catonsville site in 1852. In the nineteenth century, the hospital staff focused on what they called moral therapy as a way to reform patients through protestant Christianity and ethics. The residents also farmed as a part of their recovery, growing a large portion of the food they consumed. When the General Assembly devised its plans for building UMBC, the proposed campus was made up of mostly farmland worked by these patients. Life in the hospital differed for patients based on race and gender. Men and women lived in separate locations, which were further divided by race. Black men lived an especially difficult existence in the hospital. Even into the twentieth century, hospital regulations required black men to live in outdoor tents even during cold winter months.

* Since this is a draft, I hope to pull these broader experiences to specific people after future research.

Source: Baltimore Manual Labor School and Spring Grove Hospital Pieces by Talbot Mayo

Baltimore Manual Labor School

Today, many UMBC students and community residents wonder about the origins of the large white silo standing along the 195 ramps. The silo is one of the few obvious reminders of this campus’ past as partial home to the Stabler family farm and Baltimore Manual Labor School for Indigent Boys. In 1840, Baltimore residents created this reform-minded institution as an agricultural school for Baltimore’s poorest white boys. Throughout the nineteenth century, members of the Stabler family, like Edmund Stabler, served as superintendent of the school. Inspired by the larger social movements of the nineteenth century that sought to fix the poverty associated with the industrial revolution and urbanization of the period. As a result, these very young and poor city boys labored for the farm and grew fruits and vegetables, raised and cared for livestock, milked cows, and worked in greenhouses. The upper middle class reformers who founded schools like the Baltimore Manual Labor School believed farming was the best trade for creating successful citizens out of impoverished youth. With the same goal in mind, the superintendent and his staff also made sure the boys were well schooled in Christianity.

* Since this is a draft, I hope to pull these broader experiences to specific people after future research.

Source: Baltimore Manual Labor School and Spring Grove Hospital Pieces by Talbot Mayo

Science or Community

When University of Maryland, Baltimore County, UMBC, announced the planning of a research park, concerns from Catonsville and Arbutus communities were communicated to the school.  Planning for the BWTech@UMBC Research and Technology Park began as early as 1990, but did not officially opened until 2002.  Despite the success of the BWTech@UMBC Research and Technology Park, the Catonsville and Arbutus communities were not receptive to the idea of a research park in close proximity to their homes.

The Catonsville Times and The Baltimore Sun followed the planning and construction process of the park.  UMBC, Arbutus and Catonsville residents already had a fragile relationship, particularly after an illegal dump, presumably run by UMBC, was discovered at the same location the year before.  With the parks announcement, residents felt slighted by the universities unwillingness to incorporate them in the decision making process.  This discrepancy would lead to a series of zoning conflicts between Arbutus, Catonsville and UMBC that would last for nearly ten years.  Despite the community’s objections, plans for the research park continued, with the Baltimore Council approving the BWTech@UMBC Research and Technology Park.  This support, coupled with legislative bills and financial backing from businesses, promoted the construction of the park

Since the completion of the first buildings in 2002, until present day, the research park continues to be a thriving asset to the university.   As of 2012, several new businesses, in a variety of fields, have joined the research park and in their efforts for the advancements of science and technology.  Despite these advancements and growths at the BWTech@UMBC Research and Technology Park, relationships and problems between the communities and UMBC were never reconciled.

Citation captions:

[Image of Research Park building from September 10, 2013 Retriever Weekly] 

[Construction of Research Park, from September 2, 1997 Retriever weekly]

[Photo of UMBC Research Park sign and building from November, 17 2009 issue of  Retriever Weekly]

Source: Science or Community by Chelsea Mueller

Draft App stories Greenspaces

Main Text:

UMBC students can escape the brick and concrete of the University without having to leave campus. UMBC from its founding contained many areas set aside for open or greenspace. In the early years some teachers would teach lecture outside in the warmer weather. Students can study or relax outside of the library, the commons or any green areas. Even as the University expanded the planners ensured that spaces would be left so students have a place for recreation and relaxation.  These open spaces brings the university community together with events like Quad Mania and other events held on the open spaces. These events bring together the university’s commuter and resident communities. Something that is harder for an urban campus that does not have open space to be able to do.

Students can be found sitting on the benches in the stone garden next to the commons garage. Some are reading others are talking with friends. The spaces give a place to reflect and gather thoughts especially during stressful times. The spaces give students a place to hang out with friends outside of class or to just take a moment and sit under a tree. These areas foster good health and wellbeing in the university community. Students can jog and exercise even if not on a university sports team.

The Greenspaces give animals and the environment a place to thrive as well. Many of the areas around campus are no mow zones allowing natural vegetation to grow. These areas help maintain the ecosystem that would be disturbed by the campus. Birds, snakes and other animals can live and be undisturbed by human contact. These areas allow for students to examine animals and plants in a natural environment. The Greenspaces at UMBC are beneficial to the humans and animals that are a part of the university community.


Image Captions: Students sitting on grass

Students’ studying outside

Students playing volleyball on the Quad

Students jogging on campus

Image File names: Students sitting and talking on grass (link in image log)

Students studying outside (Link in image log)

Students playing volleyball on quad (link in image log)

Students jogging on Campus (link in image log)

Suggested tags: Greenspaces, students, recreation

Suggested Subjects: recreation, outdoor activities

Location: Many areas on campus

Source: Draft App stories Greenspaces by Stephanie Smith

Draft App Stories Bio-science Building (Academic Building 1)

Main Text:

A group of students sit in plush armchairs as their professor discusses that day’s lab and lecture, letting the students discuss their discoveries, problems and suggestions. The teacher watched the student’s labs earlier in the day but did not interfere with their experiments.

In September 1966, the newest branch of the University of Maryland opened its door to students and faculty. The young university only had three buildings, Lecture Hall, Academic One (Biological Science), and Gym 1. The Biological Science building would change the way teachers teach and students do experiments.  The Biological Science building at UMBC fostered student discovery letting the students experiment and make mistakes. Teacher’s did not stand over their shoulder tell them what they did wrong. They were to figure it out on their own. This learning environment took pressure off of the students.  The teachers were there to guide them in lecture. The students learned real world experiences through their experiments. The Science students in the beginning shared their halls and classrooms with other majors’ students at UMBC. The Biological Science building was the learning hub of the University. All students and teachers knew each other and the closeness helped foster a UMBC community.

The University community grew and soon other buildings sprang up for the other departments and the close-knit community began to stretch and grow thin. Science majors may not have contact with math majors or with other teachers outside of the department. Teachers start to lose the means of knowing everyone on the university. The ones remaining in the Biological Science building formed their own community and shared the knowledge learned from professors like Frank Hanson and from their own peers. In some cases leading lab or assisting in lecture. The rooms changed to update with the ever changing scientific advances. The students that graduated forged friendships that would stay with them in their professional careers. The Biological Science building is more than a building. It is a community that will continue to grow sprouting Scientist for many generations to come.

Image captions: UMBC Students in Science Labs 1975, Institutional advancement photographs, Special Collections.

              Teacher Frank Hanson sitting at lab equipment, 1975, Institutional Advancement photographs, Special Collections.

Group Discussion in Biology Department, 1976, Institutional Advancement photographs special collections.

Students walking through Lecture hall one in front of Biological Science building, circa 1966-1975, University photographs, university archives.

Image File names: UMBC Students in Science Labs (link in image log)

Frank Hanson (link in image log)

Group discussion in the Biology department (link in image log)

Man and woman walking through campus near Lecture Hall 1 and Biological Sciences Building. (Photo in special collections UARC 06-03-0048)   

Suggested Tags: Biological Science, Academic Building 1, Science, Laboratories, UMBC 50th

Suggested Subjects: Science, Students, Early Campus Buildings

Location: F5 on UMBC Map, Don’t know lat/lon Coordinates


Source: Draft App Stories Bio-science Building by Stephanie Smith