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.
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.