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Cultural Parks: What Happened?

View of Lowell NHP. Credit: nps.gov
View of Lowell NHP. Credit: nps.gov

The Living Landscape Observer has run numerous articles on the so-called nature / culture divide in the field of conservation, advocating for an approach that – at long last – acknowledges the artificiality of this type of split. Yet, less has been written about the tendency for many protected areas to also starkly differentiate the past (a time period deemed “significant”) from the present and the future. The subject has gathered interest from scholars in the fields of historic preservation and anthropology, however, who have sought to challenge and critique the idea that significance can be so temporally bound.

My ongoing research into the 1970s as a turning point in the history of American conservation recently had me thinking about how the culture / history divide, as I will call it here, played an important role in shaping the trajectory of a number of National Park units designated during the latter years of this pivotal decade. For example, at varying points during the run up to their eventual creation in 1978, the soon to be National Historical Parks of Lowell (MA), Kaloko-Honokōhau (HI), and Jean Lafitte (LA), all had the term “cultural” in their title. Residents of the affected communities were usually strong advocates of a cultural, rather than solely historical, approach, as they viewed the places as still living and evolving, not static and museum-esque.

Ultimately though, decision-makers (though staff had different views) in the NPS and Interior did not prove receptive to this approach and all three sites, along with others that had also sought to be among the first cultural park units, became historical parks instead. Over time, this decision lead to consternation, anger, and recriminations, especially in Hawai’i, as some early park advocates, including many Native Hawaiians, felt betrayed by the agency and its approach to management.

Despite the importance of the decision to create historical rather than cultural parks, little seems to have been written on the issue. Do readers have firsthand experience with these decisions or opinions on the culture / history divide I describe above? Please let us know. One important work that looks at the challenges of temporally bound interpretation in the context of one of the 1970s cultural turned historical parks is The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Post Industrial City by Cathy Stanton. Are there other studies of this issue that readers could share?

Also, it is important to note that innovative action on conservation and preservation policy also occurred at the state and local levels during the 1970s and 1980s. Paul Bray, a frequent contributor to the Living Landscape Observer, has written articles on the history of the New York State Urban Cultural Park System (later renamed heritage areas). In New York, program creators (including Bray) emphasized the importance of linking past to present, as a means to foster community pride and connection. Similar ideas animated heritage park initiatives in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts as well as at the federal level.

7 Responses

  1. I am not very familiar with the cultural parks movement, so thank you for sharing this information. Nomenclature aside, sounds to me like National Heritage Areas basically are what was being proposed as NPS “cultural parks.” In partnership with NPS, NHAs effectively address “fixity over change and past over present and possible future evolutions” prioritization arguments by engaging diverse communities in learning about/reflecting on the past so that they are empowered to tell their stories in the present and pass them along to future generations. For some examples, see https://www.nationalheritageareas.us/find-your-story/

  2. Thanks for your great comment! Yes, you are completely right that National Heritage Areas are an evolution from the 1970s cultural park movement. I would say the biggest difference is that (for better or worse) the cultural parks had the potential for more regulatory authority (i.e. not allowing for environmental degradation or blocking demolition) vs. a National Heritage Area designation, which never includes regulatory powers and is instead more of a planning / organizing tool for regions to collectively envision the process you describe in your comment. Thanks so much again for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Have you looked at The Conservation Foundation’s “National Parks for the Future” from 1972? Part of their recommendation was to create a separate agency to focus on cultural and historical sites. I found it to be an interesting assessment of various thoughts at the time. Also, I like the NPS publication, “Branching Out: Approaches in National Park Stewardship” for a discussion of ways that landscape (and other) complexities drove various partnership arrangements with the NPS. It’s not an in-depth discussion by any measure, but I refer to it when describing how heritage management approaches differ across the service.

    1. Great comment. Yes, I have seen the 1972 CF report. It has a wide variety of views, especially on urban parks. A common perspective seemed to be -these are a good idea, but NPS doesn’t have enough $ to do it well and its outside the agency’s core area of expertise – hence the need for separate agency perhaps. What’s interesting is that in 1976, Carter created the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS), which would have have some of those roles…it only lasted until Reagan though…

  4. As someone who worked for the House of Rep. Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands 1985-1994, and did a lot of legislation as a Ph.D. historian/MA Cultural Anthropologist there, we were NOT ignoring the profound cultural aspects of parks but were using a broader definition of “history” which avoided the offensive split of “history” and “prehistory” NPS had once used; we also got the NPS to revise its Thematic Framework to a more culturally sensitive approach. Interestingly, I don’t remember anyone fussing at us that we should designate new parks as “cultural” ones. We did refuse to provide more NPS land for the offensively-named Washington Redskins– the Chairman, Bruce Vento (D-MN) told them in 1993 that if they would change their name the Subcommittee would be happy to provide more NPS for the Washington football team. Hope this provides more background. That said, “cultural” parks still have less prestige within NPS, for many reasons bad and reasonable (smaller/fewer staff).

  5. Heather – thank you so much for your insightful comment. Based on my research into the issue it seems like the push for parks being labeled as “cultural” as opposed to “historical” peaked in the 70s – a lot of the literature on Lowell mentions this as do public documents related to the creation of Kaloko-Honokōhau. I am not sure about Jean Lafitte as I haven’t looked into it as much. Yes, the “pre-history” vs. “history” distinction was very offensive and I am glad historians and others within NPS and other public history institutions like you pushed for the change – though unfortunately it continues in older interpretive materials! The desire for a “cultural park” appellation (as I interpret it based on my research) seemed to be related to a different issue as far as I can tell. It represented a desire to not limit interpretation to the “past” or to a period of significance as NPS legislation often does, but rather allow for continual adaptation and the incorporation of more contemporary stories. These possibilities are limited when legislation has specific dates included. Thank you again for your comment!

  6. Also – thanks so much for providing the perspective of the 80s to 90s based on your experiences working in Congress. Perhaps the heritage area movement absorbed some of the energy of those who might have otherwise sought out a “cultural” park. I’m not sure.