Rosenzweig and Thelen taught us that Americans are very interested in the past. They feel connections to their families and the people that came before them. They pursue their stories and the stories of the people that are closest to them, often times directly participating by “documenting the past” in journals, diaries, and photographs. Even though American’s have been interested in the past, they have been less interested in history, at least the history that academic historians understand. (Rosenzweig and Thelen, 16-18, 24) Institutions slated with presenting history to the public have struggled to connect history with the people, and the National Park Service has been no exception.
The National Park Service is the federal government’s institution slated with preserving and presenting the nation’s past. It preserves and interprets around 400 sites or “units” throughout the country. Americans often associate the National Parks with natural wonders like Yellowstone and Yosemite, but those sites only constitute ⅓ of the nation’s 400 sites. That means there are some 250 sites that are primarily “cultural and historic resources.” But the NPS original purpose was preservation, history was just an afterthought. According to Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service history came “late to and has fit uneasily within an agency that started as a federal bureau focused on preserving, protecting, and providing” access to the natural wonders of the United States. (Imperiled Promise, 11, 19-20)
Since history was an afterthought it has been underfunded and understaffed in the NPS. It has been plagued by internal tensions on competing visions of nature versus culture and cultural resources management versus interpretation. Imperiled Promise claims that during the Mission 66 program there was a noticeable shift in the way NPS delivered its message. It went from “a focus on broad historical themes to more targeted messages intended to convey specific information” that would compel visitors of the parks to be financial supporters of the preservation mission. (Imperiled Promise, 21-22)
In 1994 the NPS began a partnership with the Organization of American Historians with the intent of balancing interpretation with history. (Imperiled Promise, 25) Imperiled Promise is a direct product of that partnership. The publication’s goal is to show ways we can learn from the “light along the path” of our journey to “shared contemplations of the past” like Manzanar. While also showing deficiencies in the NPS and ways in which those deficiencies could be addressed to benefit both the NPS and the “rank-and-file” historian. (Imperiled Promise, 35-36, 121)
The most applicable and exciting example is the collaboration occurring between Portland State University and the Fort Vancouver NHS. “The collaboration allows PSU students to glimpse public history in action,” and most importantly the authors explained, the NPS “harnesses the skills and interests of the rising generation in the development of podcasts and other digital media.” (Imperiled Promise, 47)
The Whitman NHS is a great example of the change in the ways that the NPS tells the stories of the past. Instead of interpreting the Whitman Mission in a way that “confines and defines” the way people understand that historical event, the Whitman NHS has embraced diverse perspectives of the event. Most importantly they have given the native actors in the story a voice.
Denise Meringolo’s book Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History discusses how even specific single events and hindsight moments led to the founding of NPS. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir is a great example of how failed preservation efforts inspire a revitalized effort to save other sites. This is similar to the Rookery and the Jensen Byrd in Spokane. Losing an important building like the Rookery inspired preservationists and the community at large to fight for the continued existence of our remaining local buildings like the Jensen Byrd.