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

Inaugurating the Program

Anthropologist Clark Wissler of the Educational Advisory Board foresaw archeological and historical sites of the System as vehicles for presenting the whole sequence of American prehistory and history. In a report to the board in 1929 he wrote:

In view of the importance and the great opportunity for appreciation of the nature and meaning of history as represented in our National Parks and Monuments, it is recommended that the National Parks and Monuments containing, primarily, archeological and historical materials should be selected to serve as indices of periods in the historical sequence of human life in America. At each such monument the particular event represented should be viewed in its immediate historical perspective, thus not only developing a specific narrative but presenting the event in its historical background. Further, a selection should be made of a number of existing monuments which in their totality may, as points of reference, define the general outline of man's career on this continent.[4]

When the Committee on Study of Educational Problems in the National Parks recommended establishment of the Branch of Research and Education in Washington, it advised that the office include a historian to oversee the Service's historical program. In 1931 Director Albright followed this advice and appointed Verne E. Chatelain, chairman of the history and social sciences department at Nebraska State Teachers College, as the Service's first chief historian. Chatelain reported for duty that September, a few months after the Service's first two field historians, Floyd Flickinger and Elbert Cox, were hired at Colonial National Monument.

As befitted his position, Chatelain was a strong advocate of communicating history to the public via historic site interpretation. "Historical activity is primarily not a research program but an educational program in the broader sense," he declared at a history conference he held in November 1931. Calling for park historians "to disseminate accurate information in an interesting manner," he asked them to prepare brochures for their areas and monthly publications like the naturalists' "nature notes." [5]

Following Wissler, Chatelain regarded interpretive potential as paramount in selecting historical additions to the National Park System. "The sum total of the sites which we select should make it possible for us to tell a more or less complete story of American History," he wrote Associate Director Arthur E. Demaray in April 1933. "Keeping in mind the fact that our history is a series of processes marked by certain stages of development, our sites should illustrate and make possible the interpretation of these processes at certain levels of growth." The criteria he drafted for site selection qualified "such sites as are naturally the points or bases from which the broad aspects of prehistoric and historic American life can best be presented, and from which the student of history of the United States can sketch the larger patterns of the American story. . ."[6]

In a paper on 'History and Our National Parks' prepared for delivery to the American Planning and Civic Association in 1935, Chatelain summarized his outlook:

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.[7]

With the Park Service heavily in the historic site business, new legislation was deemed necessary to explicitly authorize much of what it was already doing to care for these areas. The Historic Sites Act of August 21, 1935, met this need. Previously, the Service had legally based its educational programs on general language in its 1916 organic act enabling it "to provide for the enjoyment" of the parks. The 1935 act was considerably more specific. Among several provisions, it directed the Secretary of the Interior, through the Service, to "establish and maintain museums" in connection with historic properties, to "erect and maintain tablets to mark or commemorate historic or prehistoric places and events of national historical or archaeological significance," and to "develop an educational program and service for the purpose of making available to the public facts and information pertaining to American historic and archaeological sites, buildings, and properties of national significance." President Franklin D. Roosevelt's letter to Congress supporting passage of the legislation (prepared by Chatelain) claimed that patriotism would be stimulated by these activities: "The preservation of historic sites for the public benefit, together with their proper interpretation tends to enhance the respect and love of the citizen for the institutions of his country, as well as strengthen his resolution to defend unselfishly the hallowed traditions and high ideals of America." [8]

The new role of history was recognized in the Service organization when the Branch of Historic Sites and Buildings was split off from the Branch of Research and Education in July 1935. Verne Chatelain became acting assistant director in charge of the new branch, a position filled (with different titles) by Ronald F. Lee beginning in 1938. Functions of the branch included "the general leadership in and guidance of, the park educational program for all historical and archeological areas." [9] Historical interpretation thus attained organizational parity with natural interpretation and enjoyed the clearer legal mandate.

The influx of historical areas to the National Park System from the 1933 government reorganization coincided with the beginnings of the New Deal programs for Depression relief. Funds from the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Emergency Conservation Work Program enabled the Service to build museums at Aztec Ruins and Scotts Bluff national monuments, Colonial and Morristown national historical parks and Vicksburg, Guilford Courthouse, Shiloh, and Chickamauga and Chattanooga national military parks during the 1930s. Many historians, styled "historical technicians," were hired with Civilian Conservation Corps money to conduct research for exhibits and site development, prepare publications, and give talks and tours for the visiting public.

Like their naturalist counterparts, Park Service historians sensed that scholars in academe questioned their professionalism. Chatelain sought academic respectability for their field of work by promoting historic sites as research and teaching tools. "An historical site is source material for the study of history, just as truly as any written record...," he told the American Planning and Civic Association in 1936. "There is no more effective way of teaching history to the average American than to take him to the site on which some great historic event has occurred, and there to give him an understanding and feeling of that event through the medium of contact with the site itself, and the story that goes along with it."[10]

In fact, historic sites were incidental if not irrelevant to the research concerns of most academic historians, and the Service's focus on the "average American" suggested a sub-professional level of presentation. Some park historians sought to build or maintain their scholarly standing by carrying on research at the expense of public contact duties. This tendency was attacked in a 1937 memorandum from Director Cammerer on the responsibilities of field historians:

Their first and most important duty is interpretation of the history represented in their respective areas. It should be kept in mind that the ultimate objective of the Service in its administration of historical areas is the teaching of history to the public through the physical sites of its enactment. Research is important and essential, but it is undertaken to make possible the realization of the ultimate purpose which is interpretation. Any tendency to disparage the importance of handling park visitors as a duty of a highly trained historian should be discouraged. Park Superintendents should do their utmost to place public contact work in the hands of their best personnel and to utilize all personnel resources for conducting an effective, sound interpretive service. [">11]

Historical research nevertheless continued to shortchange interpretation in some parks until 1966, when it was centralized in Washington.




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

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