Chapter 1


--Before NPS

--The Park Service Assumes Responsibility

--Interpretation Institutionalized

Chapter 2

--Branching Into History

--The Importance of Historical Interpretation

--Inagurating the Program

--Historical Challenges

Chapter 3

--New Directions

--Audiovisual Innovations

--Museums, Visitor Centers, and the New Look

--Living History

--Environmental Interpretation

--Women in Interpretation

--Other Agendas

Chapter 4

--Interpreting Interpretation

Chapter 5

--Interpretation In Crisis






--Branching Into History

--New Directions

--Interpreting Interpretation

--Interpretation in Crisis



by Barry Mackintosh

Historical Challenges

To the extent that the historians did focus on interpretation, their efforts were sometimes criticized as overly technical. This was especially true at the battlefield parks, disproportionate among the Service's historical areas after 1933.

Most of the Civil War battlefields had been developed and marked by the War Department with the active participation of veterans, who originally constituted a large segment of their visitors. In line with their interests, numerous markers installed on the fields emphasized the composition of involved units and their tactical movements. When the Service inherited the battlefields, their staffs--some also inherited from the War Department--were slow to recognize that contemporary visitors were more likely to appreciate the overall significance of the battles than detailed accounts of their participants and tactics. At a 1940 conference of park historians in Region One (east of the Mississippi), Regional Director Minor R. Tillotson faulted the Service's battlefield interpretation for being slanted to the specialist rather than the layman. The conference responded with a series of recommendations aimed at reducing and simplifying battlefield markers.[12] But dissension would persist on the underlying issue: whether Service interpreters and interpretive media should communicate in depth to the relative few receptive to such presentations (in which significance was sometimes buried in factual detail) or hit only the highlights digestible by the lowest common denominator (giving something to everyone but risking scorn for superficiality).

Another problem of historical interpretation was the fact that historical parks often bore little resemblance to the way they had appeared during their historic periods. Features once present had vanished or changed; new features intruded. The extent to which altered sites and structures should he restored or reconstructed was regularly argued, with some leaning to the Williamsburg approach of rebuilding and others favoring exhibits, labels, and other methods to graphically and verbally depict the bygone scene. Because the Service inherited many of its historic sites from other agencies and organizations, its work was frequently complicated by previous efforts at development and interpretation.

One of the Service's first acquisitions in the 1930's exemplifies these problems. George Washington's Birthplace in Westmoreland County, Virginia, lacked both the house in which Washington was born and any good record of its appearance. A well-connected private association was already committed to replicating the house, however, and proceeded to build something that Washington might have been born in on the supposed foundations of the original. Although the reconstruction was conjectural and its site was soon disputed by the archeological discovery of a larger foundation nearby, the Service was reluctant to be forthright about the bogus birthplace. As late as 1956 its historical booklet on George Washington Birthplace National Monument called the foundation beneath the so-called Memorial Mansion "traditionally the one [of the house] in which George Washington was born in 1732." Not until 1975 did the park brochure tell the public what Service archeologists and historians had known for 40 years: the other foundation was that of the birth house. [13] The Memorial Mansion remains to challenge park interpreters and confuse visitors, who find it hard to understand why an old-looking house at Washington's birthplace is not his birthplace or even a facsimile.

Among the Service's legacies from the War Department in 1933 was the Kentucky birthplace of another great American president, Abraham Lincoln. There an old log cabin of dubious pedigree was preserved in a neoclassical stone structure. Service interpretive publications dodged the issue of its authenticity, referring to it as "the traditional birthplace cabin" long after researchers had failed to document any link to Lincoln. A historian chronicling the park's development in 1968 chided the Service for its lack of candor:

Host visitors come to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site to see the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln; when they are presented with a log cabin of appropriate humbleness and antiquity, enshrined in a granite memorial, no protestations of its 'traditional' nature really suffice to inform the visitors of its doubtful authenticity. The delicacies of the situation are acknowledged. Nevertheless, an agency of the United States Government should not engage in patriotic fulfillment. [14]

But the 1984 park brochure still equivocated, referring to "the birthplace cabin" and calling its past "the subject of much interest and speculation."

After the Washington's birthplace fiasco, the Service adopted and generally pursued policies for historic building restoration and reconstruction stressing accuracy. At Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey, the Civilian Conservation Corps reconstructed huts of the type used there by Washington's troops during the Revolution. At Hopewell Village (now Hopewell Furnace) National Historic Site, Pennsylvania, the CCC restored and reconstructed several buildings of an 18th and 19th century ironmaking complex. The work at Hopewell, begun in 1936, was an early effort to present a "typical" element of the American past.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Virginia, like Washington's birthplace, lacked its most important feature: the McLean House, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. In this case there was good evidence of the building's location and appearance; many of its dismantled bricks even remained on site. In 1939 Coordinating Superintendent Branch Spalding advocated reconstruction of the house and other community buildings to better interpret the society of rural Virginia during the Civil War.[15]

Chief Historian Ronald Lee, perhaps influenced by the Washington's birthplace experience, was opposed; he favored displaying the McLean House foundations and "possibly a model of the building exhibited in a museum on the area." But in the "second surrender of Lee at Appomattox," he yielded to strong local sentiment, and the Service reconstructed the house after the war. Later it reconstructed the courthouse to serve as the park's visitor center and museum. It stopped short of adopting Sequoia Superintendent John White's proposal to reconstruct Lee and Grant in the McLean House parlor, however.[16]

At the Jamestown end of Colonial National Historical Park anti-reconstruction sentiment prevailed. The foundations of the colonial town were excavated during the late 1930s, and the probable appearance of the buildings they had supported was interpreted to the public via on-site exhibits. Archeologist Jean C. Harrington arranged for visitors to watch the excavations in progress and tour his laboratory and artifact storage building. Interpretation thus extended from the historic settlement to the practice of historical archeology.[17]

In natural park interpretation, the present features--often scenic and spectacular were the focus of attention; an understanding of what had occurred in the past to form those features might increase public appreciation of them but was usually not essential to a rewarding visit. In historical park interpretation, the present resources were more often unspectacular; their value derived largely or solely from what had occurred in the past. The interpretive focus thus had to be on the past--on subjects that were not always fully understood, whose significance was not always closely tied to or illustrated by the sites in either their past or present state.

Soon after George Washington Carver's death in 1943, his Missouri birthplace bectame the third birthplace of a prominent American and the first site honoring a black added to the National Park System. It had no structural remains reflecting Carver's few years there as a slave child, nor was it associated with his career as a scientist. Further complicating interpretation was a lack of solid data on Carver's scientific contributions. To resolve this shortcoming, the Service contracted with two University of Missouri scientists in 1960 for a review and assessment of his work.

The study concluded that the accomplishments for which Carver was most widely credited--his discovery of hundreds of peanut and sweet potato products, transforming the economy of the South from dependency on cotton --could not be substantiated. Fearful of stirring racial sensitivities, the Service's Omaha office urged that the study be kept under wraps:

While Professors [William R.] Carroll and [Merle K.] Muhrer are very careful to emphasize Carver's excellent qualities, their realistic appraisal of his 'scientific contributions,' which loom so large in the Carver legend, is information which must be handled very carefully as far as outsiders are concerned. To put it plainly, it seem to us that individuals or organizations who are inclined to be rather militant in their approach to racial relationships might take offense at a study which superficially purports to lessen Dr. Carver's stature .... Our present thinking is that the report should not be published, at least in its present form, simply to avoid any possible misunderstandings. [18]

Interpretation at George Washington Carver National Monument did ultimately play down Carver's "discoveries," stressing instead his inspirational qualities and his role as a teacher and humanitarian. The 1984 park brochure reflected the new tone: "It is not so much his specific achievements as the humane philosophy behind them that define the man."

Custer Battlefield National Monument, transferred from the War Department in 1940, presented a different challenge. Interpretation at the site of 'Custer's Last Stand' long tended to stress if not glorify Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the expense of his Sioux and Cheyenne adversaries. As the Indian viewpoint became more militantly expressed in the 1960s and 70s, the Service moved to a more balanced presentation. A quotation from a Sioux battle participant, 'Know the power that is peace,' was prominently installed on the park visitor center wall in time for the 1976 centennial observance. Some advocated changing the park name to 'Little Bighorn National Battlefield,' which would further shift the commemorative focus while bringing the designation into line with those of other historic battlefields named for places rather than participants.

The proposed retitltng stalled, but interpretive revisionism proceeded otherwise. Some of the large cadre of "Custer buffs" voiced indignation, drawing parallels with Soviet efforts to rewrite history. The Service recognized the perils inherent in reinterpretation under pressure and to its credit pursued a factual and evenhanded course. Responding to continued criticism, in 1984 it commissioned a group of outside authorities representing the various viewpoints to appraise the park's interpretive media. The committee concluded that the exhibits and publications were balanced--an evaluation still disputed by the most vocal Custer enthusiasts.

When it came to factually interpreting national park history, the Service was its own worst enemy. For decades, at evening campfire programs and elsewhere, its interpreters presented the 'national park idea' as having originated at a campfire of the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition to the Yellowstone region. Although sentiments favoring establishment of Yellowstone National Park may have been expressed at such a campfire, the occasion was inadequately documented, and national park advocacy considerably predated it.

Investigations from the 1930s on cast doubt upon the "campfire story," but it was already firmly entrenched in Service tradition and continued to be retailed in publications, museum exhibits, and public programs. In 1964 the Midwest Region's chief of interpretation, Edwin C. Alberts, courageously dissented to his regional director: "It is obvious that the frequent attribution, with respect to 'birth of the National Park idea,' to the participants at this 19th Century campfire are based on very tenuous grounds and in view of current curiosity about the matter by more than one non-Service historian, we'd be wise to pull back on our approach to avoid embarrassment." The story could still be presented, argued Alberts, as a legend. [19] His recommendation was gradually heeded, but old customs and myths die hard, and as with the Lincoln birthplace cabin, the subtlety of qualifying something as "traditional" is often lost on audiences.

Occasionally interpretive personnel constituted interpretive challenges. When the Service inherited Gettysburg National Military Park from the War Department in 1933, it inherited the private guides licensed by the former park administration to accompany visitors around the battlefield. Some lacked a high school education, and their interpretation was not always up to professional standards. Although the Service was empowered to review the qualifications and performance of the guides in renewing their licenses, weeding out the incompetents proved difficult in practice: the guides had community ties and political influence and could make it difficult for a park superintendent bent on cleaning house.

An extreme case came to light in 1953, when Superintendent J. Walter Coleman wrote his regional director:

We have recently had two serious complaints regarding the ability of Guide J. Warren Gilbert. Yesterday Charles J. Lantz of E. Cleveland, Ohio, a member of the faculty at Case Institute, took the trouble to call on us and report that his trip over the Park with Mr. Gilbert was a complete failure. He stated that the Guide could not speak fluently and was incoherent. They could hardly understand anything that he said.
A second group of visitors recently employed him and made a a second trip with Guide Kenneth Johns. They told Mr. Johns that their Guide could not be understood and that he fell asleep on the trip four times.
According to his card, Mr. Gilbert has been guiding sixty years but that is presumably out of date. He was born four days after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address and is therefore in his 90th year. While he would not normally guide very much longer and we have never taken any action such as this, I suppose that in the interest of the public we should discontinue his license. [20]

In the mid-1950s consideration was given to bringing the Gettysburg guides under civil service for better control, as had been done with private guides at Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site and Mammoth Cave National Park. Coleman recommended against doing so: it would be harder to meet the flexible public need for guides with full-time employees, and some of the better guides with other jobs would leave rather than be converted. He foresaw the less effective old-timers departing through attrition, with younger men better equipped by education and personality taking over. [21]

While Gettysburg could be toured at leisure, with or without a guide, the situation at Fort Sumter National Honument in Charleston Harbor was different. Visitors had to arrive and depart via a commercial Gray Line boat tour and had only half an hour at Fort Sumter. Conducting every boatload through the fort in 1955, Wednesday through Sunday, was Historian Rock L. Comstock, Jr. On the weekends there was no separate transportation for Comstock, so he had to arrive with the passengers on the first Gray Line boat and depart with those on the last. Of this arrangement a regional office evaluator reported:

This means that the guide must leap off the boat when it docks, rush up to the fort on a dead run, start the generators, turn on the lights, unlock the doors, get out literature and the post card machine, get back to the flagpole and raise the flag before the visitors arrive there. Often he does not have time to raise the flag. When the last group leaves in the afternoon, he goes through all this in reverse, and leaps on the boat as it pulls away. It calls for nothing less than an Olympic decathlon champion. Not only is this inefficient and undignified, but it contributes to the feeling of haste that permeates the whole place while visitors are there, and which does so much to detract from the visitor's enjoyment and getting the "supreme experience" he should from his visit to Fort Sumter. Worst of all, this goes on during the days of heaviest visitation.[22]

Fortunately, Historian Comstock survived this harrowing duty for a distinguished career in interpretation.

Beyond the specific problems confronted at particular parks, historic site interpretation as a vehicle for communicating American history to the public posed more subtle, less-easily-overcome difficulties. Despite early hopes that historical additions to the National Park System might be selected "to tell a more or less complete story of American History," in Verne Chatelain's words, park acquisitions proceeded on no such rational basis. Local public and political pressure behind particular sites far outweighed considerations of thematic balance (and sometimes produced national historical parks of less-than-national significance). As it evolved, therefore, the System was better equipped to tell some aspects of the American story than others.

In fact, this imbalance is inherent in the medium with which the National Park Service deals. Extant physical resources susceptible of being preserved and interpreted to park visitors are not equally dispersed among the major themes of history, nor are all themes equally well conveyed via such resources. Much of military history is intrinsically site-related and can be appreciated by visiting battlefields and forts; thus there is value in maintaining and presenting those resources within parks, as the Service does with great sufficiency. The history of such topics as philosophy and education, on the other hand, is not so readily communicated by sites, structures, and objects, and the System is weak in these areas. Similarly, the many facets of prehistoric culture in America vary greatly in the prominence of remains illustrating them. The Indians of the Southwest left impressive cliff dwellings and pueblos--splendid for parks and monuments--while much less is apparent from many Eastern cultures.

As Ronald A. Foresta has noted, the Service is not the keeper of the nation's history but of some of its major historic resources: "[O]nly part of the past lends itself to interpretation through physical remains and...this part...is the proper realm of the Park Service." [23] The System is indeed imbalanced, but this is not necessarily bad. The problem lies less with the imbalance than with those who either deny it--pretending the Service is telling the whole story--or deplore it and urge expansion into subject areas better communicated by other media.

Another pitfall is a tendency to focus on the site and its story at the expense of context and proper evaluation. An interpreter at a historical park established by act of Congress and maintained and staffed at public expense is entitled to assume that the place is nationally significant. Whether it is or not, the interpreter's presence there gives him or her a vested interest in its historical importance. Visitors, too, like to hear how important the site is; they do not want to be told that they have gone out of their way to see something that played a secondary role in this war or that series of events. The very act of telling and retelling the single site's story--in contrast to the classroom teacher surveying the sweep of history--tends to magnify its significance.

There may also be a reluctance to accept and incorporate in one's interpretive program evidence that suggests a site was less important than once thought. Sites established for historical figures--in fact to 'honor' those figures--present special problems when their subjects undergo scholarly devaluation: the Service feels committed to positive portrayals and tends to dismiss criticism. Because "honoring" to some degree has motivated the establishment of most historical parks, units of the System focusing on wholly negative aspects of America's past are virtually nonexistent.

If historical interpretation in the National Park Service has faced challenges and displayed shortcomings, its overall influence has been positive, making many Americans aware of important aspects of their heritage that they had long forgotten or never learned about in school. Visitors to historic sites have gained a sense of presence and immediacy with past events that has often stimulated the most latent interest in history. It is safe to say that park presentations have been a good deal better than most other popular treatments of history, and correctives to their biases and omissions are available to the interested public from other sources. The Service may not tell the whole story, but it has told most of its part of the story well.



Last Modified: July 9, 2000 09:35:00 pm PST

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