What role should NPS historians play in the process of social change?

From John Hennessy

Here’s a profound question that anyone in the NPS has wrestled with, or should:

Should the National Park Service–through its programs and interpretation–facilitate public conversations that lead to social change, advocate directly for social change, or merely reflect those changes after they have taken place?

Here’s my take:  

In the end, the NPS always has and always will reflect the society it serves—or at least those  parts of society that have political voice. For long stretches, America behaved as though it had a single, universal history, whose virtues the NPS faithfully emphasized and promoted. As political power has dispersed throughout or society, so have the demand that both academic historians and public historians in the NPS (and elsewhere) recognize aspects of the American story long overlooked, or even purposely forgotten.  This is not political correctness. This is historical justice within a society built on the concept of equality and justice.

At the 2012 program “10,000 Lights to Freedom,” visitors carried and then shed stones symbolic of slavery.

The NPS today manages sites associated with gay rights, civil rights, the internment of Japanese, the Trail of Tears, and dozens of sites associated with what was once heroically labeled “westward expansion”—a period we today see as a complex mix of aspiration, suppression, relocation, and even genocide. The NPS didn’t lead the Civil Rights or Gay Rights movements.  But we reflect that they have happened. So it should be. And so it should be that our understanding of these sites and stories will evolve over time, as society evolves. History is dynamic.  

Maybe the question I originally posed is too simplistic. Try this instead: are public historians in the NPS (a government agency) observers and narrators of change, or do they have a role in the evolution of a dynamic society?   While I rather emphatically do not see my role or that of the NPS as the agent of social change (as someone asked, “whose change do we choose?”), I think public historians have an important role to play in the process of change, and it is this: 

Using the best scholarship available and thoughtful and dynamic presentation, we need to illuminate brightly the path that brought us to where we are, and then hope that our programs prompt listeners and readers use that information (and, perhaps, inspiration) thoughtfully as they engage in the ongoing quest to improve our nation.

5 thoughts on “What role should NPS historians play in the process of social change?

  1. Generally I subscribe to the approach Mr. Hennessey describes. As a History and museum educator of over 40 years experience, it is the approach I sought to take. Here’s the tricky part. In this social media age the line between education and advocacy is very very ill-defined and easily blurred. I would strongly advise that NPS personnel receive careful training and seek to err on the side of informing rather than advocating in their presentations. This is the wisest and most responsible course for a taxpayer funded agency!

  2. My wife and I heard Mr. Hennessey speak on slavery to an all-white ElderStudy group whose political composition and racial opinions he had no way of knowing in advance. Tricky terrain, to be sure. His presentation was neutral, but intense – a model of oratorical skill. There is no way to know, but it did not seem that anyone there was offended. Listeners were allowed to reach their own conclusions, but there was no doubting the accuracy of Mr. Hennessey’s scholarship or, for that matter, the opinions that he held. He received enthusiastic applause at the end. His balanced style could well serve as a model for oral historical presentation. I imagine it would translate well to the written format, which I hope he will do someday. Robert Kravetz

  3. It is a similar question as to the role of journalists. Is it to report events and facts or to form public opinion through the use of narrative? Once journalistic institutions move to a narrative form they are seen as advocates and tend to lose credibility. Oddly enough they have less influence because the people who accept their narratives already agree with them and the people who don’t tune out what they see as partisan voices. Historians are simply reporters of the past. If they trust the power of history to inform our viewpoints on the present they don’t need to become advocates. That is not to say they should not always attempt to render history in a way that provides context to the present, just that they should realize the risks associated with becoming one more contentious voice in a society that is already entirely too polarized.

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