The Organization of American Historians (OAH) recently released the report Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service. It examines the practice of history (broadly defined) in the National Park Service today. This is an important issue, considering that 2/3 of NPS units are considered historic sites of one type or another, with the remaining natural parks also home to rich stories of the past.
Among other conclusions, the study’s authors found that:
Much is going well. Our study identified nearly 150 examples of historical projects and programs that NPS personnel regard as effective, inspiring models. We ourselves observed many instances of high-quality scholarship and creative interpretation. More than a
dozen of these successes are profiled herein, as lamps lighting the path ahead.
But we also found that the agency’s ability to manage its sites “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”—let alone achieve its highest aspirations to become the nation’s largest outdoor history classroom—has been imperiled by the agency’s weak support for its history workforce, by agency structures that confine history in isolated silos, by longstanding funding deficiencies, by often narrow and static conceptions of history’s scope, and by timid interpretation.
As a consequence, one of our survey respondents wrote, history in the NPS is “sporadic, interrupted, superbly excellent in some instances and vacant in others.” Our findings describe many specific aspects of the state of history practice today—an uneven landscape of inspiration and success amid policies and practices that sometimes inhibit high-quality work.
The report also suggests that parks look beyond their boundaries in order to tell richer, more nuanced, multi-layered narratives – perhaps considering a landscape-scale approach similar to that of National Heritage Areas. Interesting stuff!