Scholarship and Partnerships: The State of History in the National Parks


I braved the Pennsylvania Turnpike on November 6 to talk about my two favorite topics: history and the National Park Service. It was well worth the drive and the toll roads. This past conference season has been frustrating and discouraging because sequestration has severely crippled our federal colleagues’ ability to travel to professional gatherings. I was refreshed to see a strong agency turnout at “Scholarship and Partnerships: The State of History in the National Parks” hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers University-Camden.  There was a great mix of academics, public historians, graduate students, and professionals from a range of disciplines who contributed to an open, lively, energetic, and engaging discussion. A number participated by following the live stream on YouTube and tweeting with the conference hashtag #HistoryNPS.

Throughout the experience I kept ruminating over the same question: what is it about the institutional culture of this region that allows it to embrace Imperiled Promise and engage in such a forum? This makes the second forum in two years that the Northeast Region has talked about Imperiled Promise, while other regions have not had formal conversations. A few practical considerations became apparent from our perspective at Rutgers, namely the density of historic sites and number of universities in the area. Expansive regions in the west would have a hard time bringing a big crowd together from far-flung parks. But the National Capital Region also has a high density of historic sites and universities, yet has not held a similar symposium on Imperiled Promise. I suspect that personalities and pre-existing relationships also played a major role. The efforts of Charlene Mires and Mandi Magnuson-Hung at MARCH also gave the Northeast Region the support and forum it needed to have this kind of open conversation.  One of the many take aways from this conference is that regional conferences like this one may become crucial in light of new budgetary concerns.

The meeting began with a student luncheon about opportunities for historians in the federal government that was sponsored by the Rutgers University-Camden Career Center. Dominic Cardea, Northeast Region Learning and Development Coordinator, gave a great overview and very practical advice for applying to government jobs. I was pleased that he emphasized the importance of informational interviews. I appreciated the opportunity to network a little before the main forum began. Also, the sandwiches were delicious!

The main forum began with a series of speakers in quick succession. Charlene Mires, MARCH Director and author of Independence Hall in American Memory, welcomed everyone. Dr. Wendell Pritchett, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden, also welcomed visitors and speakers. He noted in his speech that he identified himself as a public historian and liked to make up tours when he was a young boy. Chief Historian of the National Park Service Bob Sutton also gave his remarks and talked about the impact of the Imperiled Promise report. He was fairly matter of fact about the limits of sequestration and how that has hampered his program’s ability to meet the report’s recommendations. For example, retired historian positions are not being filled. However, the history program has been working on bridging the institutional divide between cultural resources and interpretation. It helped that I saw a number of interpreters in the audience. Lu Ann Jones, NPS historian, talked about the importance of professional development despite of sequestration, building partnerships, and sharing authority. She shared her ongoing efforts in developing the NPS Cultural Resources Academy and the Call to Action History Discovery initiative.  She and her colleagues are also developing a list of “sign posts” or history projects in parks for a best practices guide. The Cultural Resources Academy will provide distance learning and professional development through three clusters of classes. The first cluster will be foundations courses to help teach historical thinking, the second will focus on competencies, and the third teaches history for managers. Academy developers are moving away from undergraduate course models towards adult learning models developed by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Barbara Pollarine, Chief of Interpretation in the Northeast Region, and Wayne Bodle, Assistant Professor at Indiana University and author of The Valley Forge Winter, talked about their experiences at Valley Forge. Barbara talked about how public meetings really transformed her thinking about how the public used and enjoyed the park. Wayne regaled the audience will his memories of working for the NPS many years ago traveling the country to find source material related to Valley Forge. He commented that he was not trained as a public historian and was “raised by wolves.” He left behind many of his graduate student sensibilities to do his NPS work.

The audience then broke up into four discussion groups led by a series of high energy contributors. Patricia West led my breakout session on constructivism and memorialization in parks. Unfortunately, our group was unable to push past the question of changing visitor expectations when it seems that the agency is largely responsible for creating these expectations to begin with. The other groups talked about social media, deconstructing authority, and using history for planning and management. I would love to hear what the other groups came up with but there was no follow up for the breakout sessions.

The forum ended with closing remarks from Seth Bruggeman, professor at Temple University and author of Born in the U.S.A. and Here, George Washington Slept. He expressed his gratitude of the Imperiled Promise report, because it successfully outlines his own frustrations with the NPS history program. His students sometime ask why he does not work for the NPS when he writes so much about park history. He said that the report highlighted the deeply ingrained issues that prevented that from happening. How very true.

For a detailed list of speakers and extensive bibliography, visit MARCH’s conference page. Image credited to MARCH.

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