What are Public Historians to do?

In reading The Presence of the Past, I became more cynical than optimistic towards the future of history. Like Michael Zuckerman in his response to the book’s publication, I noticed that a lot of the respondents only cared about the past if it pertained to their personal lives or families and rarely looked at history in a broader sense (Roundtable Responses, 20). Roy Rosenzweig’s said he did not  see the “pathological, nonparticipatory, and ahistorical culture,” that Zuckerman observed (Roundtable Responses, 37). However, even recognizing people’s personal point of entry to the study of history can be difficult for public historians. How are public historians supposed to create an interpretation that appeals to many, if people seem to lack a collective conscience? Last week we read about how the National Park Service is struggling with telling an American story that is also inclusive and multicultural. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study seems to indicate such work is quite difficult if not impossible. Currently, the NPS has a white-dominated narrative, but as the study shows, whites are not a monolith. Age and gender also play a large role in how a person looks at history. The study showed that men over the age of 65 thought U.S.  history was the most important (Presence of the Past, 130). This finding is not surprising since old white men figure prominently in the history of the U.S., but it does mean that the majority of people do think history is “boring” and “irrelevant.”

Presence of the Past is also misleading in its portrayal of the popularity of museums and historic sites. Spencer Crew, then-director of the National Museum of American History was optimistic that Rosenzweig and Thelen’s respondents listed museums and historic sites as the most trustworthy (Roundtable Responses, 24). According to survey, people felt connected to museums and historic sites, because they were able to draw their own conclusions. Although it’s reassuring that the public trusts these places, attendance levels may prove that trust does not really exert an influence on the future of history museums. In “Passionate Histories,” Benjamin Filene cites a 2007 study which finds that, “History museums and historic sites showed the lowest popularity among the eight types of museums measured in this survey,” and, “for all demographic groups, history museums are the least popular” (“Passionate Histories,” 13).  So, it may not really matter if people find museums and historic sites the most trustworthy if they never go there. Filene also mentions the comments of James Vaughan, vice president for Stewardship of Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who said communities view museums and historic sites as, “irrelevant and unresponsive to societal change” (“Passionate Histories,” 14). How should public historians react to low attendance and poor reception from the public? Should they act more like outsider history-makers, who are much more popular than professional historians? Rebecca Conard brings up a good point on changing the historical interpretation to appease the public and increase attendance. She states that the quality of interpretation does little to draw people to historic places, and it is doubtful that a drastic change would bring in numbers. She is also concerned that a large enough deviation from the status quo may be met with opposition from, “those who control the storyline” (Roundtable Responses, 18). People may trust museums and historic sites, but ultimately, the majority of people do not care about them enough to go. How can public historians get people to care about a wider history than their own? Michael Zuckerman phrased the question, “How do historians reach out to people who don’t want to be touched?” (Roundtable Responses, 22).

Some solutions are offered by Benjamin Filene and David Thelen, but they were not satisfying. Outsider history-makers clearly have popularity among the public and share the same broad messages of history as professional historians do, but their history is too narrowly focused. I do not have problems with the histories told by outsider history-makers, but I do not think that that should be the only form of history. The consensus seems to be that professional historians and outsider history-makers need to meet half-way in order to find a good and popular history. However, public historians were hurt publicly by professionalizing, so will professional historians lose credibility academically if they become more accessible? I do not know the answer, but it seems like a hard question to answer. Professional historians may be, “painfully unaware of how people outside of their own circles understood and used the past,” but how are they to become more aware? (Presence of the Past, 2). Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study showed that professors were trusted sources for history, yet there still seems to be a disconnect between them and the public. How much should professionals historians pander to the public and how much should public historians professionalize? Is there a happy medium?

Lightly Edited from Source: What are Public Historians to do? by Eric Burroughs

“Have we become our own worst enemy?”

“Have we become our own worst enemy? The professionalization of public history does not seem to be helping professionals make the connections we so desperately want and need to make—not connections among ourselves but to public audiences.” [1]

We discussed in the beginning of the semester that public history had spent such a long time establishing itself as a professional discipline that it lost the public in its attempt to be academic. Can a traditional scholar successfully move back and forth across the line between academia and public? Benjamin Filene, in his article “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us” argues that public historians need to be innovators, thinking creatively to get the public involved in history. He questions if an academic education can prepare a historian for those challenges. Museums have been doing public history for years and yet museum professionals are just learning from their experience. Are we allowing enough innovation in public history or is formal training something that can hold us back by focusing on best practices and not allowing new ideas? I think that collaborative inquiry and interpretation can bridge the gap between our formal training and innovative ideas.

But in order to collaborate with the public, we need to know where they enter the conversation. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life sought to find how people interact and use history in their lives. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen found that the “professional historians were painfully unaware of how people outside their own circles understood and used the past.” [2] While many historians had investigated people’s use of history in specific instances of forming identity or museum exhibits, it had never occurred to anyone to see how people use history in their daily lives; to talk to the people that may not go to a museum, but could be very historically minded. With their study, Rosenzweig and Thelen found that the majority of the people they surveyed had contact with history, but not in the ways that academics and professionals looked at history. This divide between what the public wants and what the historian finds important is a product of professionalization. We stopped listening to the public and tried to prove that we could “do good history,” but what is the point if no one is taking it in. Last week we talked about how people do not go to National Parks for the history. But if people actually enjoy history then why are they not engaged at these parks?

One of the main reasons that they are not engaged with history is the fact that the story does not connect to them. The study found that the public’s interaction with “the past” was very personal, their genealogies, family stories and hobbies. The personal nature of these made individuals care about history. They connected the personal stories to larger contexts. But their stories are not ones of American progress and greatness, implying that the public is ready for some more inclusive stories, for stories that challenge the national narrative. Michael Zuckerman thought that American whites had “no common ground, no common stories, no common knowledge.” [3] He thought that Americans would not care about any history outside of their own personal experiences and their families. I do not think the goal should be to have common histories, but display the multitude of histories. If the public does not personally connect with the national story it would not make an impression on them. The events that made an impression were ones that they could connect to the personal. Public historians need to make broader historical themes connect to the personal.

In addition to connecting to the personal, public historians need to establish trust in the communities they work in. Rosenzweig and Thelen uncovered very different ideas about how the public connects to “the past” because of their evaluation of the trustworthiness of sources and their connection to them. The public wanted to see the unmediated facts and make their own judgments, which led them to regard museum as a trustworthy source even though curators mediate the whole museum. Because the objects are present, the public can connect with them. Then at the lowest trustworthiness are movies, television and books because they are seen as having an agenda, a bias. But their strongest connection is to their families, people they already have a built-in trust with. They regard the stories of grandparents and neighbors as trustworthy accounts since they actually experienced the events. Knowing what the public views as a trustworthy source allows public historians to design exhibits that bring those trustworthy sources. So are we are own worst enemy in sticking to the discipline? Can we engage more people if we concentrate on personal stories?

And one final thought, do you think that Rosenzweig and Thelen would find the same results today? Would people be just as engaged with the past today as they were in the 1990s?

[1] Benjamin Filene, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us” The Public Historian (Winter 2012) 30.
[2] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000) 2.
[3] Michael Zuckerman, “Roundtable Responses to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in America” The Public Historian (Winter, 2000) 19.

Lightly edited from Source: “Have we become our own worst enemy?” by Kayla Piechowiak

A Misplaced Massacre

A Misplaced Massacre adds a new layer to the challenges that face the National Park Service and its mission. At the opening of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007, NPS director Mary Bomar describes the NPS as, “almost a metaphor for America itself,” that must, “ensure that the American stories are told faithfully, completely, and accurately.” For the most part the American story the NPS tells is “noble,” but as with Sand Creek, she admits it can also be, “shameful and sad.” She then states that the NPS, “must continually ask whether the way we tell stories has meanings for all citizens” (p. 20). Sand Creek is an example of the National Park Service trying to tell a more multicultural story, but as the book shows, competing interests do not make this an easy task.

With the stakeholders including the different descendant tribes, property owners, the NPS, and the state of Colorado, it is no surprise that creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was delayed at every turn. Not only was the label massacre or battleground debated, but also its location, the war in which it would be contextualized, and how the site would be used. Since there were so many stakeholders and differing ideas of memory I wonder if it is possible for the NPS to tell, as Mary Bomar suggests, an American story that will appeal to all? Also, if the NPS is going to attempt to tell this all-inclusive story, is it possible for it to be told faithfully, completely, and accurately?

I think in their attempt to tell the story the NPS, and other public historians, do have to act as middlemen between the competing interests. This posed a problem in the book because the NPS and the descendant tribes had different ideas of what collaboration looked like. Laird Cometsevah believed that the Cheyenne would have a say in all decisions, while the NPS viewed consultation as gathering the information the Cheyenne had, which would then influence the decision-making (p. 167). The NPS recorded oral histories of the descendant tribes, but when faced with contradictory written or archaeological evidence, they usually sided with the written and archaeological evidence. How are public historians supposed to weigh the different, contradictory sources if picking one over the other leads to animosity among stakeholders? This difficulty is shown when the NPS has chooses between the Bonsall and Bent maps. The NPS believed the Bonsall map was more accurate, but the Cheyenne swore by the locations drawn on the Bent map. Not only did this decision anger the Cheyenne because the NPS chose an opposing map, it also highlighted the white-washed history of the NPS. Bonsall was a white soldier, who desecrated the bodies of Cheyenne victims, while Bent was a Cheyenne survivor. For the NPS, Bonsall’s map was accurate, because archaeological finds proved it. The Cheyenne did not care about the archaeology only their traditions. It was also difficult for the NPS to discredit any source, because doing so could have jeopardized the success of creating the site.

The book also highlights an issue that is still relevant today in historical memory with Civil War statues. Instead of removing Sand Creek from a Civil War statue that listed battles Coloradans fought in, David Halaas, an ally the Sand Creek descendants, suggested adding interpretative markers that clarified that Sand Creek was a massacre not a battle. Halaas and Cometsevah opposed the revisionism, because Sand Creek was already being forgotten in history (p. 76). The opposition to revision can be seen on both sides of the debate over Sand Creek’s memory. Jerry Russell opposed the NPS’s attempt to include a multicultural perspective in historic sites. He believed that this form of revisionism was the NPS trying to be politically correct, but resulting in a telling of bad history. Although Russell is very unlikeable in this book, he did lead me to the question: How successful can the NPS ultimately be in adding a multicultural perspective to existing, pre-dominantly white historic sites? Sand Creek is an exception, since the Native American’s side of the story is what the NPS wanted to remember, but how about sites like the Charles Pinckney House, which was also mentioned? The NPS can add the slavery story to Pinckney’s House all it wants, but the site is still preserving a scene of oppression. So my questions for the discussion are:

Is it possible for the NPS to tell an American story that will appeal to all?

If so, is it possible for the story to be told faithfully, completely, and accurately?

How are public historians supposed to weigh the different, contradictory sources, if picking one over the other leads to animosity among stakeholders?

How successful can the NPS ultimately be in adding a multicultural perspective to existing, pre-dominantly white, historic sites?

Lightly Edited from Source: A Misplaced Massacre by Eric Burroughs

What’s in a location?

So what’s in a name? Or rather a location? Especially in public history when it comes down to the interplay between the Federal government in the form of the National Park Service, and different cultural groups, such as the Native American community. Speaking as someone who exists more on the academic side of history, rather than public, the central issue of this book is harder for me to conceptualize since academic historians are generally not going to have to build a public monument or memorial. They have the luxury of using the Gordian Knot solution to a problem like this by being able to either approximate or distinguish between traditional and actual locations of the massacre. I am finding that public historians are not actually so lucky in that regard. This problem becomes especially thorny when some groups like the Cheyenne’s have a strong cultural and spiritual tie to a location. As Ari Kelman notes in A Misplaced Massacre, the massacre at Sand Creek was not just a historical event, but a “emotionally and psychologically present event.[1]

In the end, given the mission to memorialize the massacre I think the NPS made the right or really the only choice in the matter.  Especially given the immense the political and cultural context to indigenous groups like the Cheyenne had given to the original site. As Keller notes the native groups work working for reparations under article 6[2].  While I am happy that the site was built in conjunction with, rather than opposition to native groups. I am still slightly troubled by certain things. It seems we are back to the question of heritage versus history. We have archeological evidence seeming to point one site, while tradition and oral histories point strongly to the original site[3]. We’ve spent so long in this class seeming to come down on the side of history, yet, it seems that the NPS came down strongly on the side of heritage for a myriad of reasons. In the end I think that’s my big question for this post, did the NPS make the right choice in going with the traditional site, in which archeological evidence seems to suggest took place elsewhere? Where they justified?  Have they done this elsewhere?

For the rest of the book, I think I have several much smaller questions. This first being how as public historians do we take wider political considerations, which may not have anything directly to do with our work, but the wider context can still cast a long shadow over everything we as public historians do. I bring as examples, 9-11 and. Keller states that at both of these events became tied to the Sand Creek memorial. From Lee Pedro’s muttered remarks about September 11th which on interpretation of those comments took for support for the attack on the twin towers created unnecessary controversy[4].   I know that history or rather our interpretation of history is inherently political, but how do we as public historians reach the widest audience possible, especially when the culture war comes calling, and intrudes onto our work, and puts our access and funding in jeopardy?

Finally, we come to Bill Dawson, whom to me raise several different issues.  The first is the fact that he was able to effective hold the project hostage while looking to get the most value from his property.  While I applaud the decision not use eminent domain to seize the property, which can be politically problematic with the possibility of sinking the entire project with protracted court battles.  That’ being said, people like Dawson can be just as dangerous when demanding what they feel is fair recompense which may not be so fair[5].

The final thing that occurs to me about this book is the other road map that Bill Dawson gives us. Keller points out  that Dawson originally thought the Massacre was a battle, but after meeting Laird Cometsevah, and interacting with  other Cheyenne,  came to change his view and support the Cheyenne in that Sand Creek was a massacre[6].  It seems that this may represent a possible way out of the  current cultural stalemate we have. Actually get people involved in public history and  the dialogues that should necessarily follow on after.  There is a real opportunity here, but first we need to get people involved, the question is how? I hear from my daughter, that for a lot her classmates that history is boring and pointless.  So how do we get people to engage? Especially when it’s a chance to move forward, your guess is as good as mine.

One final note, how the hell was there a town named Chivington, even after his contemporaries thought he was a monster.


[1]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013), 109

[2]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013), 158

[3]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013), 138-141

[4]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masscre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013),Keller 248-249

[5]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masscre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013), 199-197

[6]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masscre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013),50-51

Slightly edited from Source: What’s in a location? by David Cunningham

Memory and Culture in Public History

In A Misplaced Massacre, Ari Kelman examines a fragile balance between history and memory in the creation of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. In addition to seeking answers to questions about Sand Creek’s designation as a battle or a massacre, where it was really located, how to make sense of information as it came to light, and where it fits in the national narrative of the Civil War, Kelman brings up important questions surrounding memory and culture in public history.

By weaving together narratives from different points in time across two centuries, Kelman firmly establishes the fact that there were competing stories of what took place at Sand Creek immediately after it happened in 1864. John Chivington, Silas Soule, and George Brent provided three important accounts of the massacre. Though these were conflicting accounts, they show how strongly memory is influenced by politics. It was Chivington, eager to rid himself of any guilt as the man who ordered the attack on the Cheyennes and Arapahos at Sand Creek, who won out with the narrative that the attack was on Native groups who were not peaceful and posed a threat to white America’s westward expansion. (Kelman, 9) The permanence of this narrative through generations of Coloradans is what amazes me. I know that versions of a white man’s narrative dominate history in and out of classrooms (it certainly did throughout my education) but it’s always hard for me to wrap my brain around the fact that the power of memory belongs in the hands of so few people. Kelman refers to “the invention of tradition” in chapter two and explains that it’s society’s way of forming historical narratives to meet their own values. Chivington can show us how critical memory can be in forming cultural beliefs so can this “invention of tradition” be used to reverse past flaws in remembrance of the past? Can it be used to for social change or challenging exclusive historical narratives?

As Kelman follows the at times turbulent relationship between descendants of the Sand Creek massacre, National Park Service representatives, and other community members of Kiowa County, Colorado, I was also struck by the many times in which the cultural divide between the Sand Creek descendants and the NPS risked the success of the project. In one of the most eye opening incidents, a meeting between the two groups left the descendants feeling disrespected. After Mike Snyder left during a break in the meeting, which insulted Laird Cometsevah and Steve Brady, Rick Frost stepped in and acted as the authoritative figure in the meeting, leaving an impression of “federal arrogance.” (Kelman, 108) At many points, it seemed like the distrust of the federal government, and by association the Park Service, was synonymous with distrust of white people. In another instance, finding artifacts in Bill Dawson’s land was a moment of celebration for the NPS but one of mournful remembrance for the Sand Creek descendants. (Kelman, 129) This was one of many cases of a vivid cultural divide between the descendants and the NPS and it only reinforced my belief that representation matters, especially when it comes to attaining and maintaining community trust and support. I don’t mean to suggest that having a few people of color on the NPS team would have avoided some of the many issues that came up but having diverse perspectives in any situation could challenge the NPS image of being representative of white men and having little to no regard for the voices of other groups. How can public historians bridge cultural divides when, for some, the field already carries an image of being exclusive to other cultures’ ways of thinking, gathering history, and goals of documenting the past? As socially aware as one can be, one can never really understand the life experiences of another person.

Slightly edited from Source: Memory and Culture in Public History by Camilla Sandoval

The NPS….Filtered History?

After having read Alicia Barber’s piece on the development of the Scotts Bluff National Historic site in Nebraska, I could not help but relate that story to my own experience in the National Park Service. As a former employee of the National Park Service, I feel that Alicia Barber’s piece hits several points that the Park Service is still struggling with today.

Scotts Bluff and the park at Harpers Ferry share many of the same issues, particularly those dealing with the local population. As is the case at Scotts Bluff, the relationship between the public and the administrative staff at Harpers Ferry can be quite adversarial at times in regards to what the public wants from the park and what the park wants to accomplish in terms of its mission. First allow me to explain the situation at Harpers Ferry as it is a bit unique in the National Park system. Essentially, the town and the park are the same thing. The divide between privately owned shops and National Park grounds is literally a small alley no wider than ten feet. Both park staff and town employees share the same parking lot, which is owned by the Park Service, as well as many other amenities. The NPS-owned buildings are intermingled with privately owned houses and businesses elsewhere in the town as well. Unlike Scotts Bluff, the town employees and park employees are in constant contact with each other during the day. Nonetheless, the relationship between the two, despite their dependence on each other, is quite tense at times. As with Scotts Bluff, much of the tension between the two sides has risen out of local use of Park grounds and the Park’s desire for how it should be used (55-56). In both cases the public is/was looking to financial/business impact while the Parks were looking to their own interests. The question Barber’s piece brings up for me, is how can the two sides reconcile those differences? As it stands now both are interdependent on the other, financially speaking. The Park Service’s mission is more clear and pronounced that it was in the 1910s and 20s, and in my experience, the Park Service is even more unwilling to bend to the public’s wishes than it was back then.

Justin Reich’s article on the creation of the narrative behind Shenandoah National Park raises additional questions for me in a very different line of thinking. Once again, as with Scotts Bluff, the message behind Shenandoah’s National Park was highly and carefully crafted over the years following its creation (Reich, 110-111). What should have been a story of man’s ability to re-forest and reinvigorate an area left barren by human hands and then restored by those people became a message of nature’s ability to heal itself from the effects of human interference based on what the Park Service wanted to portray to the public. The first thing that came to my mind when reading this piece was that if the NPS did this with Shenandoah and Scotts Bluff, then how much of the narrative at every park has been manipulated in such a fashion? Barber mentions that Scotts Bluff was to have a “patriotic theme” when it was originally designated a National Park (Barber, 57). How far do you have to go until that patriotic theme becomes government-sponsored propaganda? While Reich asserts that the NPS was not trying to deceive the public I have to wonder what giving the public a “patriotic” message actually accomplishes if not a washed out history of the U.S. (Reich,111). In the case of Scotts Bluff the message was the righteousness of westward expansion. What that message left out was that the U.S. government pushed out or killed millions of Native Americans in order to accomplish the expansion of our country to the other coast. I can tell you from my own experience at Harpers Ferry that the message delivered by the NPS there is also highly nationalistic and filtered out. Very little is said about John Brown’s actions at Potowatamie where he killed five anti-abolitionists in a very brutal fashion (by hacking them to death with a saber in case you were wondering). However, what also occurs to me when thinking along these lines is how much negative history is the public actually able to stand and/or accept? Do they in reality only want the filtered out nationalistic history that the NPS is giving them? The “American Exceptionalism” story as it were. It seems that any time historians attempt to reinterpret or look at events in a different light that might not be as rosy a picture of U.S. history as taught in schools the public reacts harshly to say the least and historians are accused of “rewriting history.” How can public historians walk the line between good historical work and what the public is willing to accept?

Edited from Source: The NPS….Filtered History? by Alan Gibson

NPS: Best Idea Ever?

I’m just going to throw out a bunch of questions throughout this post because I’m honestly still having a hard time understanding many aspects of the form and function of the NPS. This post is a bit long and I apologize for that. Although by the end of it I hope I have somewhat laid out a way of understanding both, at least for myself.

I had a lot of thoughts while reading the selections for this week. My first thought was “Wow, I had no idea that the so many spaces and places fall under the National Park Service authority/umbrella.” My second thought was to question how on earth is it possible for all these spaces and places to fit under the NPS umbrella? My third thought was “wait…what is the actual mission of the NPS?”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my previous understanding of the historical role of the NPS has been to directly, or indirectly, create and maintain some through-line American narrative by way of their process of curation? How is that doable with such a diverse range of places and spaces being represented by the same institution?

After this weeks readings. I honestly wasn’t sure about any of it.

So I went to the NPS website seeking some clarity. Under the Learn and Explore section, there is a bolded quote from Wallace Stenger in 1983. It reads:

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

I had to pause for a second: Is that in fact true?

I think it would be simple enough statement if NPS just limited itself to conserving natural spaces (Yellowstone, Yosemite etc.) which seemingly offer something for everyone to enjoy regardless of their personal background. Who wouldn’t be able to appreciate the awe-inspiring beauty of the Redwood forrest?

But the whole historic park/battlefields/monuments component throws me a bit. In the book Shaping Spaces, the author talks about the NPS criteria for inclusion: “Historical parks should be associated with persons, events, or themes of national importance; should encompass structures or features of great intrinsic or representational value.”(48) In other words, things that all Americans can find some kind of value in.

Ok, but what the hell does that mean? This seems an impossibly conflicted criterion to apply to any historical site. For example, one man’s Monticello is another mans house of slavery. Where is the representational value? I doubt that that many Native Americans would see much representational value in a narrative that paints Scott’s Bluff monument as an historic lookout point for westbound settlers eyeing the expansive Indian lands they would soon take from them.

Ultimately I think I would take Stenger a bit to too task on his “best ever” assertion. However I do think there is an important part of that quote which does encapsulate why the NPS is a damn good idea, if not the “best.” That is its evolving and “absolutely democratic” nature.

In the Barry Mackintosh’s history of the National Park Service, Shaping The System, he writes of the NPS guidelines, “Historical parks should be associated with persons, events, or themes of national importance.”(49) Yet a few paragraphs earlier the same text claims that “All national parklands are not created equal.” My takeaway from this honest, and somewhat confusing, appraisal of the history of the park system is that the only actual narrative that can serve as a through-line in American history is one of inequality. That and attempts to redress inequality through the democratic process.

Throughout our collective history, we have seen social movements rise up to try to claim some part of the American Dream and a place within the political power structure. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Although I would quantify success in this case as more or less momentary and hardly ever do these movement truly upend our national foundation. However, we all (mostly) hold on to those fleeting moments as markers for what it really means to be an American. Democracy in this sense is the idea that anyone should be able to have their voice heard, even if it’s a small voice.

Herein lies the “absolutely democratic” component of what I think Stenger was talking about in regards to the NPS: the dilemma of representation. I would argue that the NPS dilemma of representation is an analog to the larger dilemma of representation endemic in Americas history. For example, how do we balance representation from society’s more dominant elements with its weaker elements; majority versus minority; white versus black; federal versus local etc?

It seems to me the breadth of the NPS catalog, some 400 places, is an attempt to deal with this dilemma. This is of course just my opinion, but I would suggest that by making enough space underneath the NPS umbrella, the institution is able to accommodate enough histories and places so as to make it a balanced representation of our very diverse and often conflicted history. Some historic sites are of course more local and less noteworthy than others. But, from my perspective, that is sort of the point.

Along those lines the NPS, as an evolving democratic institution, is not immune to winds of social and political change. In Shaping the System Mackintosh writes of how “[m]ore than a dozen National Park System units have lost that status following reappraisal of their significance.”(49) That is to say any site could have its moment in the sun, given the right circumstances. In reading Alicia Barber’s article on Scotts Bluff I couldn’t help but see some analog to the many locally based grassroots social movements, like gay marriage, that have risen up to the national level only later to become part of what it actually means to be an American. What could be more democratic than that?

However, when is enough, enough? There has to be a line drawn somewhere on what sites finds their way into the NPS system, right? Furthermore, how much authority should the NPS cede to local communities in dictating the best ways for preserve and conserve? How much authority should it maintain? For example, based on your understanding of the reading on Susquehanna Valley Project, did the NPS cross the line between that local vs. federal balance of authority?

These are just a few of the many questions I’m still struggling with. However, I’ll end with Barbers article on Scott’s Bluff. In it she highlights the fascinating history behind the Nebraska monument that went from basically local scenic hangout, to national monument to Americas westward expansion, to public works program for a depressed community, to tourist attraction, and back again. She writes of how the local population was “connected much more directly to the physical place itself, as an extension of their community” and how they “resisted ceding complete control of the site to the government”.(38)

It seems to me, in this particular case, that they really couldn’t have it both ways. What do you think?

Sources: The National Parks: Shaping the System, Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff Historical Monument by Alicia Barber.

Lightly edited from Source: NPS: Best Idea Ever? by Zachary Utz