Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces Symposium Review


I took a break from dissertation writing to attend a symposium called, “Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces,” jointly held by the National Park Service and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Why does the NPS need this symposium? Well, where to begin? To keep the answer short, the NPS has over 400 units that collectively embody the American experience. However, for the majority of the agency’s history, most of these sites contribute to a narrative that is dominated by a white, male, hetero perspective. The aim of this symposium was to find ways that sites already in existence can broaden their story to include other perspectives. It also calls the NPS to expand its consideration for future sites to be included in the system. The NPS is not alone in its struggle for relevancy and inclusion. Other cultural institutions face these issues as well, which might account for the fact that approximately half of the participants were non-NPS.

The symposium began with two webinars and concluded with a two-day symposium at GW. All events were free to the public and NPS and accessible by webcast. I participated in the webinars and I decided to travel from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. for the symposium event. The webcast was a great offering, but I am glad I was able to attend in person.

Of all the sessions, the first webinar, “The Bison: Going Beyond the Symbol,” was my least favorite. I think I was turned off by the western-centric attitude that has pervaded the agency since its creation. The bison symbol is a good way to bring Native Americans and natural resource professionals in conversation with historians, archaeologists, and interpreters. However, it left a colleague of mine, American Indian program specialist and member of an Eastern tribe, feeling left out. She pointed out that bison was a Plains Indian symbol that did not relate to her.

I am glad I stuck with the series, though. The next webinar on relevancy, diversity, and inclusion was much more interesting and was an appropriate segue to our discussions at the two-day symposium. I am grateful to the program committee for bringing together excellent speakers from sites like Manzanar, Cesar Chavez, Rosie the Riveter, Fredericksburg, Fort Smith, National Museum of American Indian, National Holocaust Museum Memoroial, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and others. They told riveting stories and the audience felt the emotion between these speakers and the sites they interpret more than once.

We were not a passive audience and spoke up when the panelists asked us questions. What were the roadblocks to more inclusive storytelling? What are some possible solutions? Audience members noted the lack of resources is a major detriment. I absolutely agree. But I also noted two issues in the agency’s culture that are at odds with incorporating shared authority into its practice. Both issues are so ingrained that no congressional appropriation can fix them. First, I have noticed in my professional work and academic research that NPS staff are reluctant to let go of authority and exhibit an attitude that the federal government (through them) holds the ultimate authority. Second, it is very difficult to build trust and momentum with community members when NPS employees change jobs so frequently. They advance in their careers by moving to different parks and offices. On one hand, I like that this philosophy allows NPS employees to have diverse experiences. On the other hand, it means that those employees who cannot really afford to be mobile for a myriad of reasons are left to stagnate. This leaves the possibility that those in higher positions will not be in one place long enough to solve long term issues.

So, how do you go about changing the agency’s culture and loosening its grip on authority? I definitely think it requires a generational change that embraces the notion of shared authority more liberally. This change cannot come solely from the top or bottom. I think it is partly up to academia to train emerging professionals for this kind of work and public historians in the academy are definitely teaching students the theories behind shared authority. Hopefully, the NPS hires these graduates with the right kind of training and give them the institutional support to pursue shared authority. Julia Washburn, NPS Associate Director of Interpretation and Education, gave a blanket statement during the symposium that NPS employees are given permission to do this kind of work. It seems to me, though, that an authority figure giving permission kind of defeats the purpose of shared authority. Baby steps, I guess.

I am not entirely sure how to solve the mobility issue. I feel that the current system discriminates against women and minorities in ways similar to academia. I hope that the NPS can find ways to incentivize those employees that are instrumental in maintaining community relationships or seeing a project through to completion.

What are some of my other takeaways?

Lu Ann Jones rightfully noted that Imperiled Promise was absent from the symposium, but dealt with many of the same issues. I wonder, though, if the lack of reference meant that the speakers and panel organizers agreed with the report’s findings and were trying to move the conversation forward. There seemed to be a new buzz or electric energy at GW that was different than other meetings in the wake of Imperiled Promise a year or two ago. Mike Reynolds declared in the final minutes of the symposium that a “new NPS” was underway, which seemed to get the crowd excited. In the same vein, I wish the program organizers worked more closely with the NPS Cultural Resource Academy, which is working towards educating non-historians in the NPS to think historically.

I found that the conversations over diversity, broadening site narratives, and citizenship could have benefitted from some self-reflection of the agency’s own history. I have been feeling kind of frustrated lately that the agency and public historians seem to be disinterested in its own history. There is a lot of interest in moving the NPS forward, but I think the NPS and public historians need to take a hard look in the rearview mirror.

I was also impressed by Dr. Joy Kinard, District Manager of National Capital Parks-East. Her presentation showed how important it is to have a history Ph.D. with public history working at national park sites. I got the sense that her doctoral training helped give her the capacity to manage a large collection of sites and think critically about how they connect to one another and different audiences.

How do we move the conversation forward?

We did not have much of an opportunity to flesh out how to move this conversation forward at the end of the busy symposium. To me, it seems clear that those in attendance must start reaching out to the public to have these conversations. The NPS must do a better job in identifying these audiences. One possible way of reaching out is to have community workshops on difficult topics. Pop up museums or salons might be alternative ways to experiment in engaging visitors at national park sites.

As far as creating dynamic university-NPS relations, I think the best partnerships are those in which each party is a stakeholder in the final product. The NPS is responsible for keeping archives accessible to researchers and should incorporate findings into its own interpretation, educational, and administrative policies and programs. Researchers should keep NPS management issues in mind and write in a manner that is accessible to them.

I look forward to seeing how attendees apply these ideas at their sites in the next couple of years, and if there is truly “a new NPS.” Much gratitude goes out to the program committee and those that made the symposium happen.

Where to learn more

If you missed the symposium and want to know more about what was discussed, all of the webcasts are being archived and will be posted online. You can also read through the Twitter conversation with the hashtags #NPSNarratives, #NPSBison, #NPSRelevancy, #NPSExploringtheFrontier, #NPSSitesofWar, #NPSBroadeningtheStory, #NPSBeingBetterCitizens, and #NPSDiversity. You can also follow conversations on the event’s Facebook page and Twitter account (@NPSNarratives).

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