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

Other Agendas

The primary purpose of park interpretation, it might be assumed, is to communicate the natural and historical significance of parks to the public. From time to time, Service management has sought to use interpretation to communicate other messages and serve other purposes. Similarly, Service interpreters and their chiefs have sometimes sought to justify their positions and programs based on their utility to management.

This tendency to have interpretation serve other agendas was especially pronounced during World War II, when the nation's focus on defense diverted support for the parks and occasionally threatened park resources having potential military application. Even before America's entry into the war, Service leaders strove to demonstrate that the parks were important to the cause. With their encouragement, the Secretary of the Interior's Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments passed a resolution in November 1940 proclaiming the patriotic value of park interpretation:

[T]he Advisory Board believes the National Park Service's interpretative program in national park areas, particularly the historical parks and monuments and the great national scenic areas, is one of the most valuable contributions by any Federal agency in promoting patriotism, in sustaining morale, and understanding of the fundamental principles of American democracy, and in inspiring love for our country. The Advisory Board would therefore suggest that the National Park Service's interpretative program should be expanded by every means including publications, radio, motion pictures, guide service, park museums, etc., during this period of national exigency. It further recommends the National Park Service should immediately undertake the encouragement of national pride in our new armed forces as well as our citizenry, which is so essential for the defense and preservation of our country.[60]

Simultaneously, historical area superintendents in Region One (east of the Mississippi) received guidance on interpretive content from their regional office:

All types of historical park literature should place greater emphasis upon the principles of freedom, democracy, and self rule that underlie the basic political philosophy of the American people and our constitution .... The possibilities inherent in the history of each area should be carefully studied in this connection and a positive statement made in the interpretive literature relating to the area....
In the guided tours of school groups patriotism and appreciation of American traditions should be emphasized. [61]

During the war parks near or en route to military bases and embarkation points were often visited by men in uniform. Eager to publicize its part in the war effort, the Service made much of such visits and encouraged their coverage by the press. Under the headline "colonial national park bright patriotic shrine in all-out war program," the Newport News, Virginia, Daily Press reported in July 1942, "Hundreds of army men and boys conducted regularly by the park rangers and historians over the Yorktown battlefield, stand in reverence at the scene of another war and are awakened to a new realization of the true meaning of that battle and the present overall conflict in which they are now participating. "[62]

In the last year of the war Service historian Charles W. Porter III wrote an account of the bureau's contributions, again stressing patriotism:

The individual citizens faced by a troubled world turned in the moment of national danger to the national historical parks and shrines for a renewal of their faith in the country's traditions and their country's destiny, for encouragement, and patriotic inspiration ....
It was felt that the best means of responding to the new public demand could be found in an intensification of the National Park Service interpretive program which had always aimed at a graphic, inspirational portrayal of the fundamentals of the American tradition. Intensification of the program was a matter of placing greater emphasis on those aspects of the historical story dealing with liberty, democracy and love of country, and of offering greater service....
In order to render the best possible service to visiting soldiers and sailors much was done to perfect and intensify the basic contribution of the historical and military parks to National morale. The oral and written interpretation of each historical area became the subject of careful examination and in many cases of revision in the interest of making the park story a direct contribution to the United Nations' program. [63]

To a much lesser extent, the Cold War also became a rationale for park interpretation. Before a joint session of the American Association and American Association for State and Local Parks in 1950, Chief Historian Ronald Lee spoke of "the nation's need understand its history--a need which is greater now, when our basic rights are challenged by an alien philosophy, than at any previous time."[64]

While wars (hot and cold) came and went, the need for park protection remained constant, and interpretation was regularly enlisted in support of that battle. According to a 1945 manual for the custodians of the Southwestern Monuments, "The effective custodian is the one who can include in his interpretation an explanation of the need for protection and instill in the visitor sincere sympathy with the National Park Service protection and conservation philosophy." [65]

In 1953 Director Conrad L. Wirth elaborated on this strategy in a memorandum titled "Securing Protection and Conservation Objectives Through Interpretation." Interpretation could achieve these objectives, it declared, by presenting the facts of nature and history, sharing some guiding principles of park management, indicating desirable visitor behavior, and identifying major continuing threats to park integrity. It urged a conservation ingredient in all interpretive programs, kept in balance with the primary topic presented. (The memorandum remains so current, more than three decades later, that it is reproduced in full in the appendix.) [66]

Less laudably, the Service sometimes saw interpretation and related development as a means of publicizing itself. In 1957 John Littleton, an interpretive planner with the Eastern Office of Design and Construction, advocated visitor centers at the north and south ends of Gettysburg to reach visitors before the commercial establishments did:

It would put the Park Service more in the forefront (where it should be) in the Gettysburg story. As it is now most visitors...never see the Park Service, never know who it is that does all the work of keeping the park in such fine condition ....
I hope the Service may make of Gettysburg one of its shining examples of MISSION 66 work. I don' t see how we can afford very long to risk having the President take distinguished visitors to the Gettysburg battlefield, and perhaps never see the Park Service. [67]

Littleton's comment illustrates the self-promotional impulse that influenced visitor center development, sometimes producing centers of doubtful necessity and/or undue prominence. (Only one visitor center was built at Gettysburg, but it was a large structure, including park offices, intruding on a key battlefield locale.) A degree of self-promotion was also expected in interpretive presentations. In 1958 Ronald Lee called to the regional directors' attention several weaknesses in park campfire programs, among them no group singing, no campfires, and "too little mention of MISSION 66." [68]

A decade later came increasing calls for "relevance" in interpretation. Pete Shedd expressed the concern to a group of state park administrators in 1968:

What are we doing to make our Nation's history relevant to today's world? Should we even try, or is that a dangerous course in the face of today's social, cultural, and political conflicts? We can, of course, fall back on the comforting knowledge that many people come to a historic site to escape the pressures and uncertainties of the present, and draw inspiration from the past. I hope and expect that this will always be true, but now we have visitors who come to parks to walk barefoot and strum guitars, or simply to escape even briefly from the ghetto or the crabgrass .... These visitors, particularly the young people with their carefully cultivated cynicism, will not settle for a past that has no obvious relevance to the present.[69]

One manifestation of the drive for relevance was increased attention to racial and ethnic minorities. Parks reflecting the black, Hispanic, and Indian heritage were highlighted to show the Service's interest in serving these groups. In a 1973 report Bill Everhart called for greater sensitivity to cultural diversity in interpretation. Bob Utley, then director of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, agreed but added a caution:

In our new awareness of minority and ethnic roles in our history, we must rigorously guard against exaggerating them in an effort to atone for past neglect. With minorities taking on ever more political clout and not always restrained by an objective view of their own past, we shall often face powerful pressures that could produce distorted interpretation. The Kosciuszko affair is suggestive. At the moment areas featuring Indian-White relations are especially vulnerable. [70]

The "Servicewide Goals for Interpretation" for 1976 revealed the extent to which interpretation was then expected to carry other loads. Among them:

[R]esource preservation themes should be incorporated wherever possible in interpretive programs.
Interpretive programs should incorporate an energy conservation message, both in content and by example.
Interpretive programs should strive for greater relevance to cultural minorities.
The incorporation of environmental education concepts and techniques is basic to the development and operation of high quality interpretive programs.
Interpretive programs in all parks should incorporate special Bicentennial activities during the year.

After all this, the edict advised, "Programs that are peripheral or unrelated to a park's primary interpretive themes...should be scrutinized for possible curtailment." [71]

The Service's management policy compilation published two years later suggested that communication of the parks' significance was only third among the purposes of interpretation:

The purpose of interpretation in the National Park System is (1) to encourage thoughtful minimum impact use of the park's resources; (2) to promote public understanding of the policies and programs of park management; and (3) to provide visitors with a foundation on which they can build an understanding and appreciation of parks.



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

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