“Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces”
Symposium Looks at Transforming the NPS
The National Park Service has been at a crossroads for some time, probing how to reinvent itself as a 21st-century agency. Its all-out campaign for change looks both within and without: how it hires and maintains a diverse and trained staff, and how it connects with park visitors at its nationwide sites. As its 2016 centennial nears, the NPS aims for relevancy in a radically altered public sphere that demands more comprehensive, accurate, balanced, and interactive interpretative presentations and visitor experiences. In 2013, the agency published the far-reaching report The Imperiled Promise (2012). It then opened debate on that report to NPS personnel, outside experts, and the public in a series of conferences at Rutgers University, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, and on September 17–18, at The George Washington University. This latest meeting, titled “Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces,” was remarkable for both the breadth of its coverage and its candid conversations. Congratulations to NPS management and conference planners for an outstanding range of speakers and presentations from across the agency and from outside parties. The following summary of the proceedings is necessarily brief and incomplete, but more will hopefully follow in later issues of The Federalist.
Relevance and Learning
Program relevance was at the core of the discussions. In our age of smartphones, Twitter, and podcasts, and with the proliferation of historical information and the great demand for even more discussion and information, can the agency and its sites engage more effectively with park visitors and students across the country? Informed visitors expect more developed and nuanced historical narratives. The issue is not simply the use of technology but effective delivery of information and educational opportunities in ways now opened by technology—in the ways that many of us, including students, are now learning. Claudine Brown of the Smithsonian Institution stressed that 21st-century education will increasingly include technology-based resources as well as outside-the-classroom experiences. As the nation’s most important storyteller, the NPS must begin reaching audiences through such methods.
Immersion and Interaction
Presenters stressed the need for an expanded NPS role as a facilitator for education. Laura Schiavo, professor at George Washington University, summarized that new role as a transition from traditional public service to “civic engagement.” And others also stressed that park sites must now be places for dialogue. In the decentralized park program structure, many parks have already embraced such inclusive programs. Kelli English discussed the several ways that the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Site engages local youth and the community, often as volunteers. That site is perhaps one of the most complex, incorporating historic buildings, student ambassador programs, museum exhibits, volunteers, and numerous community partners. Others used the term “validating the visitor,” in which their activities enable the visitor to find more personal and perhaps familial connections with the history of that site, as at the Holocaust Museum or the new Cesar Chavez site. Jesse Nickelson discussed how the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum’s student ambassador program immerses students in the program and enables them to serve as international ambassadors against genocide. Naomi Torres related how the Anza Historic Trail similarly trains high school students on the trail’s history, building on their family connection to the area. The need for partnerships with the community and businesses was also an important part of these discussions, especially since historic properties are often in private hands.
Those connections with the public and visitors can also emerge from expanded historical content and artifacts. Paul Gardullo, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, argued the need for a fuller, more nuanced history at museums—stories that are fully inclusive of all groups. In this sense, museums need to catch up to the decades-old social history movement and go beyond it to make even more personal connections. He discussed how his museum is seeking artifacts from private citizens, allowing an expanded view of the past through more personal extensions of the narrative. He stated that people make pilgrimages to museums to make personal connections with the stories there. Now more sites are needed for other ethnic groups. Ruben Andrade discussed progress at the new Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, the first site celebrating a modern-day Latino hero. Similarly, Joy Kinard explained the extensive work at the Bethune National Park to chronicle the work of black women, and the development of the Carter G. Woodson site. The results become “ever-widening circles of inclusion.”
Attendees were very interested to learn how park visitors could be brought into discussions and thus both immerse themselves in the content and advance public engagement, or “participatory history.” Many parks and other agency offices are already using such forums, but the questions always concern the risks of dealing with controversial topics, such as the riots at Ferguson, Missouri; the degree of appropriateness for government offices; and the training and guidelines needed to manage such groups. Katherine Kane of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center discussed her center’s use of “salons” and the successes and pitfalls they’ve discovered. Salons are beneficial, she urged, for the connections and trust they encourage. Other presenters agreed by sharing their experiences. Naomi Torres, of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, stated that the best moments for learning at her site have been controversial ones in which the community was polarized. But others shared reservations about the appropriateness of forums, the challenges of remaining neutral (nonpolitical), and of managing charged discussions.
Personnel questions were central to the above issues. First, NPS staff nationwide must reflect the ethnic and racial diversity necessary to tell an expanded and balanced history. The agency remains predominately white despite recent efforts at diversity. Retention of new hires is a major problem, we learn, primarily because their low pay grade and often part-time schedules make it difficult for them to stay on long enough for promotions.
But is the low application rate of minorities also a symptom of something deeper? Professor Mickey Fearn, a former deputy director and now professor at North Carolina State University, stated that blacks have “biophobia,” a culturally conditioned indifference to natural settings. Conditioned over decades of impoverished inner-city life, they don’t pursue the park lifestyle. In that argument, only far-reaching socioeconomic changes will make a difference in application rates.
Directors Julie Washburn, Stephanie Toothman, and Michael Reynolds concluded the conference with their commitment to progress. They urged the various parks to take risks in making their programs relevant, to continue to build partnerships, and to keep the dialogue going. The sessions documented that public engagement is not only educationally vital but most beneficial in expanding and enriching local historical narratives. But not all community engagement will be easy because of local divisions and opposition—that is part of the process of producing “shared meaning” at historic places. And, management promised to address diversity and pay issues.
While the conference highlighted many of the promising strategies and directions that the NPS has been taking and can continue to take, it was very apparent that the highly decentralized structure of the park system will make for uneven progress. As park sites differ in their historic resources and potential educational messages, their outreach programs and innovations must be unique to themselves. Park leaders and workers must continually educate themselves on how they can create new meaning for their sites. The impressive open exchange of ideas at this recent conference, and undoubtedly many more to come, offers the best hope that our parks will become the best open classrooms we can make them. For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/history/narratives_in_public_spaces.html
— Benjamin Guterman, The Federalist
from The Federalist, Fall 2014
The National Park Service’s American Latino Heritage Initiative
By Paloma Bolasny
The National Park Service (NPS) is America’s storyteller. The agency has the responsibility to tell the stories of all Americans, whether through narratives at National Park units or through places listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since fall 2011, the NPS has been engaged in a number of projects under the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) American Latino Heritage Initiative (ALHI). Ken Salazar, then Secretary of the Interior, announced the ALHI after a forum at La Paz, in Keene, California, in June 2011. The discussion at the La Paz Forum, hosted by the DOI, NPS, and the National Park Foundation (NPF), focused on ways to recognize the contributions of Latino Americans throughout American history. DOI’s ALHI seeks to raise the profile of Latino heritage through projects and programs throughout the department. At the Forum, the Secretary expressed interest in an American Latino Theme Study that would serve as a historical and informational basis for new projects. It would soon become a central part of the NPS’s ALHI program.
The Theme Study
The theme study, American Latinos and the Making of the United States: A Theme Study, was published by the National Park System Advisory Board (NPSAB) in spring 2013. The audience for the publication is diverse, including historic preservation professionals at all levels of government and in the private sector whose job it is to identify, document, nominate, and preserve historic places. As historic preservation priorities increasingly focus on greater inclusion of our nation’s cultural diversity, this publication can be used as a starting point. The theme study also presents the opportunity to share American Latino history more widely with the general public, who may not be familiar with this topic.
To assist with the development of the theme study, an American Latino Scholars Expert Panel was formed in December 2011 under the auspices of the NPSAB. The 11-member panel, which still meets regularly, was formed of scholars, professors, and conservation professionals. Coordination of panel activities and compilation of the theme study was undertaken by Stephanie Toothman, NPS Associate Director for Cultural Resources, Stewardship, Partnerships, and Science in cooperation with the Organization of American Historians. In January 2012, the panel met in San Antonio for an intense session dedicated to framing the theme study. The panel provided recommendations to the NPS as to the structure of the publication and potential essayists.
The theme study, available at www.nps.gov/latino, consists of a “core” essay and four large sections, each with its own broad theme: Making a Nation, Making a Life, Making a Living, and Making a Democracy. The “core” essay, written by Yale University professor of History and American Studies Stephen Pitti, covers Latino/a history since the 15th century as personified in four historical figures. Each subsequent section contains four chapters, each of which can be read as a stand-alone document. Making a Nation, the first section, discusses U.S. nation building—both physically and intellectually—from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Making a Life looks at the ways Latinos have created their religious, artist, recreational, and culinary lives in the United States. Making a Living highlights the role of Latinos in fostering and sustaining American economic life. Finally, Making a Democracy discusses the stories and struggles for equality in all aspects of American Society. The theme study also includes an extensive bibliography, valuable for any researcher or inquisitive mind new to American Latino history.
The NPS Washington office of Cultural Resources has also engaged in several other projects that promote Latino heritage. These projects are also available at www.nps.gov/latino. Completed in July 2012, the bilingual American Latino Heritage brochure highlights American Latino heritage projects in National Parks and communities. The Community Action Toolkit provides an overview of the current players in historic preservation in the United States, from the federal level to local nonprofits. This site is intended for users new to the world of historic preservation and is tailored with case studies and contacts for nonprofits representing Latino heritage.
The popular Discover our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary series added a new itinerary in 2012 on American Latino heritage. The itinerary includes nearly 200 sites associated with the role of Latinos in the history and development of the United States. This extensive itinerary is available to all. Two Youth Summits aimed at engaging young Latino and other youth in historic preservation in their communities were conducted as part of the ALHI. Students at the first youth summit in Washington, DC, focused on advocacy with preservation, education, and government leaders. The second summit took place in the Yakima Valley and Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. The students spent three days exploring Latino heritage in the area by visiting the Yakima museum and a successful Latino-owned orchard. Both summits were supported by the NPS, the National Conference for State Historic Preservation Officers, and multiple state and local partners and private businesses. A guide on how to conduct youth summits is also available.
Promoting Documentation and National Historic Landmarks
Documentation of the nation’s built heritage forms the core mission of many of the NPS Cultural Resources programs in the Washington office. The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)/Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) partnered with students and professors from the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona to prepare measured drawings, a written historical narrative, and large-format photographs of Forty Acres, the National Historic Landmark (NHL) closely associated with Cesar Chavez. The project is projected to be completed by the end of 2013.
The NHL program has been busy reviewing and preparing nominations under the ALHI. The majority of the nominations approved by the National Historic Landmarks committee since 2011 have been of places that reflect the heritage of underrepresented groups, such as Latinos, women, Asian Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans. Recently designated NHLs include The Hispanic Society of America Complex, NY, the U.S. Post Office and Court House (U.S. District Court for the Central District of California), and Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, CA. The NHL program is currently also engaged with scholars to prepare a theme study on Asian American Pacific Islander heritage and LGBTQ history in the United States.
NPS greeted its 398th unit to the National Park system in October 2012. The Cesar E. Chavez National Monument at Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz in Keene, California, designated by President Obama using the Antiquities Act, will be managed by the NPS in cooperation with the National Chavez Center. The La Paz property served as the headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America since the 1970s and is where Chavez is buried. The American Latino Heritage Fund (ALHF) of the National Park Foundation contributed funds for the establishment of the Monument. The ALHF works to support historic places that tell the story of Latinos’ contributions to the American narrative by supporting the National Park Service. The ALHF was established as part of the ALHI and has provided support for many of the Initiative’s goals.
Many other NPS parks and programs are engaged in projects under the umbrella of the ALHI. From archeology programs to partnerships with local schools, the NPS is working creatively to document Latino heritage and teach a new generation all that NPS has to offer. The energy spurred by the ALHI led DOI Assistant Secretary Rhea Suh to announce the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Initiative in 2013 to promote historic preservation projects in the AAPI community (http://www.nps.gov/history/AAPI/). NPS welcomes partnerships that advance all its preservation and stewardship goals as well as these official initiatives. Please feel free to contact Paloma Bolasny at email@example.com or Barbara Little at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on these initiatives or to find out how your agency or office can become involved.
Paloma Bolasny is coordinator of the Cultural Resources Diversity Internship Program and a historian with the Cultural Resources Division, Office of Outreach at the National Park Service, Washington, DC.
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Manzanar National Historic Site
The management of historic sites often raises questions and opposing views from several constituencies. Ann Hitchcock of the National Park Service provided a striking example in the summer 2007 issue of The Federalist of the essential negotiations—the “Civic Engagement” process—that enabled the preservation of the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Owens Valley, California.
She wrote that in 1992 “Congress established Manzanar National Historic Site to provide for the protection and interpretation of resources associated with the Japanese American relocation experience. The legislation also established an Advisory Commission composed of former internees, local residents, representatives of Native American groups, and the general public. Although the mission focused on the relocation camp, the composition of the Advisory Commission would give voice to diverse views.”
The camp had been home during World War II to “more than 10,000 men, women, and children lived in 576 primitive barracks and shared com
mon buildings, such as a laundry, classrooms, and an auditorium.” However, the land was leased, and after the war the Army removed almost all structures from the property.
There were stark differences in approaches to development of the historic site. The NPS traditionally disproved of “reconstructions” of buildings and other structures “as contemporary interpretations of the past rather than authentic survivals, and favored reconstruction only when no other alternative would accomplish the park’s interpretive mission and when it would not be based on conjecture.” Other groups on the commission favored such reconstructions, including the rock gardens, barracks, and especially the guard towers.
Opposing views were evident at the 1993 planning sessions in “the NPS’s opposition to reconstruction versus the Manzanar Committee’s belief that reconstruction was essential; the legislation’s focus on the history of the relocation camp versus the local communities’ desires to see the pioneer and Paiute history given equivalent attention”
In the end, the adopted plan reflected not only the Manzanar experience but the centuries of Native American presence, and the ranching and agricultural character of the area. The structure of the site reflected the internment experience, with reconstruction of the barbed wire fence, camp site entrance, guard tower, and barracks buildings.
Hitchcock noted the value of the general compromise: “The Civic Engagement process “transformed the NPS position and enabled all parties to accommodate the needs of others to put this difficult lesson of history in the context of the extended history of Manzanar.”
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For the full article, see the Summer 2007 issue of The Federalist at www.shfg.org,