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 [graphic] Telling the Stories: Planning Effective Interpretive Programs for Properties Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service


Education is and always has been central to historic preservation in the United States, both as a means and as an end. From the beginning of the historic preservation movement in the mid-19th century to the present, we have cared about preserving historic places because they teach us and our descendants about who we are and where we came from. But we also have had to teach those responsible for management decisions to value these places. Although our definition of historic places has changed over the years and the lessons we think we can learn from them have changed as well, we still must provide opportunities for the public to gain an appreciation of historic places. This appreciation is the key to their preservation.

The earliest of America's historic places to be preserved, such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Mt. Vernon in Virginia, and the Hermitage in Tennessee, were valued for their association with the great men of the American past and as shrines that could teach patriotism at times when the country seemed threatened by sectional divisions or disruptive change. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the definition began to expand. The great battlefields of the Civil War were set aside to preserve the memories of the men who fought and died there. Architects of the Colonial Revival learned to appreciate America's earliest buildings for the beauty of their design. Archeologists and travelers to the western states became fascinated with the spectacular ruins that testified to the history of the earliest inhabitants of North America. In the 1920s, residents in some of America's oldest cities, such as Charleston, San Antonio, and New Orleans, learned to see their old city centers as historic and architectural urban environments that deserved to be protected.

During the New Deal years, the new activism in Washington, reinforced by a sense that much of America's past was rapidly vanishing, encouraged the Federal Government to take a central role in preservation. The National Park Service (NPS), whose mission included historic places when it was created in 1916, took the lead in this movement. In the 1930s, it acquired numerous historical parks in the East to complement the great national parks in the West.

Congress ratified this new leadership role in the Historic Sites Act of 1935. This legislation assigned the NPS responsibility for surveying historic and archeological sites, buildings, and properties of national significance associated with major themes of American history and for developing educational programs to provide the public with information about these places. This survey has evolved into the present National Historic Landmarks Survey, which recognizes properties significant to the American nation as a whole. For Verne Chatelain, NPS chief historian at the time of the passage of the Historic Sites Act, historic places were most valuable for teaching the public about "stirring and significant events":

"The conception which underlies the whole policy of the National Park Service in connection with [historical and archeological] sites is that of using the uniquely graphic qualities which inhere in any area where stirring and significant events have taken place to drive home to the visitor the meaning of those events showing not only their importance in themselves but their integral relationship to the whole history of American development. In other words, the task is to breathe the breath of life into American history for those to whom it has been a dull recital of meaningless facts--to recreate for the average citizen something of the color, the pageantry, and the dignity of our national past."1

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, a key element in the present framework for historic preservation in this country, expanded the definition of what constituted a historic place still further, while reaffirming the importance of education. It also assigned responsibility for protecting the nation's heritage to a new partnership, which included all levels of government and the private sector, with the National Park Service retaining its central role in that partnership. The National Register of Historic Places, established by the 1966 Act and administered by the NPS, extended federal recognition beyond nationally significant properties to those that were important to states or communities. This broadened scope encouraged the research in state and local history that was necessary to identify and evaluate properties significant in community history.

More than 30 years after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act, more than 71,000 properties, including approximately a million individual buildings, sites, structures, and objects, are listed in the National Register; more than 1,000 additional places are listed annually. National Register listing provides official recognition and access to benefits at all levels of government and the private sector. Places listed in the National Register help market real estate, develop heritage tourism programs, and attract retirees, telecommuters, and other individuals who have flexibility in where they live. These benefits have served to revitalize and transform cities, towns, and rural areas and helped improve the quality of life for citizens across the nation.

Listing of the Greenwich Village Historic District in the National Register in 1979 helped ensure the survival and continued vitality of this historic urban neighborhood. Interpretation and education programs are key elements in preserving places like Greenwich Village as living parts of their communities. (Walter Smalling, Jr.)

No longer thought of as rare and exceptional shrines to transcendently important people and events in the American past, historic places are now seen as integral parts of communities all over the nation, catalysts for economic development and revitalization, desirable places for people to live and work, and anchors of stability in a fast-changing nation. In many cases, restored and preserved historic places provide housing for the elderly or for those of low or moderate income, employ restoration and construction craftsmen, and serve as keystones of sensitively managed change within cities, towns, and rural areas. As the preamble of the National Historic Preservation Act foresaw, these historic places are being preserved as living parts of communities nationwide in order that they can continue to teach all Americans about their past and help them better understand the present that has grown out of that past.

While the ability of places to teach is a key rationale for preservation, education is also necessary before preservation can take place. Americans needed to be engaged in the history of their early leaders and educated about the threats to the places associated with them before Mount Vernon and Independence Hall could be saved. It was public concern about vandalism threatening the great archeological monuments of the West that led Congress to approve the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorized presidents to designate as national monuments sites on public lands that were of great prehistoric, historic, or natural value. Those who appreciated the architectural landmarks of America's Colonial past and hoped to save the historic neighborhoods of its cities had to help political leaders in their communities and states see the beauty and importance of the historic places around them, in spite of neglect and decay.

Education continues to be an important tool in the historic preservation process. Preservation is frequently the result of community-based, grassroots efforts to recognize and protect important places. A group of interested people, concerned about potential threats to a place they value, studies its historical development, identifies all properties that are associated either with the place itself or with a related historical theme, prepares nomination forms for local designation or National Register listing, and sponsors educational programs for community residents and others. These activities prior to National Register listing are important to gaining support for designation or registration and for establishing a framework for long-term protection.

Educational activities after listing are equally important. The information in National Register nominations can and should be used in long-term, continuing programs to make the general public aware of the value of the historic places in their communities. Current and future residents need to be kept aware that places in their communities are listed in the National Register and that, because of this, both honorary and financial benefits are available to them and to their communities.


1Verne E. Chatelain, "History and Our National Parks," paper prepared for delivery to the American Planning and Civic Association, 1935; cited in Barry Mackintosh, "Interpretation in the National Park Service: A Historical Perspective" (Washington, DC: History Division, NPS, 1986), p. 22.

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