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

Living History

Well before "living history" became fashionable in the mid-1960s, a few parks undertook limited recreations of historical activities or processes. In the mid-1930s a replica of an early Indian camp was constructed behind the museum in Yosemite National Park. "An old squaw occupies the camp daily; she demonstrates the weaving of baskets, preparation of foodstuffs, and sings indian songs. This "live exhibit" has proved to be of great interest to visitors," a 1936 Service publication reported. Navajos performed traditional dances for visitors at Mesa Verde National Park. At the behest of Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, Pierce Mill in Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C., was restored as an operating gristmill in 1936; the meal was used in government cafeterias. At a 1940 meeting of Southwestern National Monuments custodians, Dale S. King encouraged them to find local Indians who would produce handicrafts and suggested having a Mormon girl bake tarts at Pipe Spring National Monument when that site was refurnished. [24]

By the mid-1950s there were a few other living history forerunners in the parks. Mule-drawn barge trips were underway on a restored section of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Washington, D.C. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, the reconstructed Mabry Mill ground grain and mountain people demonstrated crafts. The glassmaking furnace at Jamestown was under construction. Indians wove at Lassen Volcanic National Park and worked catlinite for pipes at Pipestone National Monument. [25] Historic firearms demonstrations, which would play a major part in the Service's living history programs, were inaugurated at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and Antietam National Battlefield Site in 1961 and soon spread to other military areas. Fort Davis National Historic Site was apparently the first such park, in 1965, to dress interpreters in period uniforms.

Congress was then considering legislation to add Hubbell Trading Post to the National Park System. Situated on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, the traditional post had been active until the 1950s and retained a rich collection of art, furnishings, and documents. Director Hartzog spoke in favor of the acquisition at a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on June 21, 1965. Going beyond his prepared testimony, "Hartzog caught everyone by surprise by vowing not to have another dead and embalmed historical area," as Bob Utley later recalled the occasion. He declared that the Service would maintain the post in operation, a commitment carried out by planners and managers after Hubbell entered the System as a national historic site soon afterward. [26]

The Service moved more systematically into living history following a proposal by Marion Clawson, a Resources for the Future program director, in the April 1965 issue of Agricultural History. Clawson's article called for a national system of 25 to 50 operating historical farms under federal sponsorship, illustrating a variety of regions and historical periods. He brought his proposal to the attention of Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall, Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman, and S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Udall endorsed the concept, and Roy E. Appleman, one of the Service's leading historians, was assigned to represent the bureau at meetings with Clawson and representatives of the other agencies. [27]

Director Hartzog called the living historical farm program "entirely consistent with our emphasis on trying to interpret the peaceful and inspirationally creative contributions of this country in the field of history, to complement the great emphasis that has been placed so far on birthplaces and battlefields." He supported cooperation with the Agriculture Department, but his adversary relationship with the Smithsonian Institution led him to question "how the Smithsonian fits in." Hartzog's interest was stimulated by the Smithsonian's grant application to Resources for the Future for a living farm study. Motivated by their director's desire to head off the Smithsonian, Appleman and other Service officials met in July 1966 to plan how the Service might assume the lead role. In so doing they identified a number of National Park System areas with potential for living farm development: Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial; Sagamore Hill, Fort Vancouver, and Whitman Mission national historic sites; George Washington Birthplace, George Washington Carver, and Homestead national monuments; Big Bend and Great Smoky Mountains national parks; Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park; Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area; Piscataway Park; and the proposed Cumberland Island National Seashore. [28]

The Smithsonian received $18,475 from Resources for the Future and carried out its study, which, in Appleman's view, ignored the Service in favor of Smithsonian leadership and bureaucratic expansion. Anticipating this outcome, the Service proceeded independently. In September Appleman met with a master plan team at George Washington Birthplace to convey Hartzog's interest that its plan incorporate a living historical farm. An operating farm had been considered there in the mid-1950s, but Ronald Lee had concluded, "[t]here are definite drawbacks to such a development, and it is doubtful if it is a sound, or necessary, interpretive adjunct. " Charles B. (Pete) Shedd, Jr., a team member, was now concerned that the farm might overshadow, the memorial nature of the site. Evidently his concern was allayed: Appleman reported " agreement that there was no danger of this happening," and plans for the birthplace farm proceeded.[29]

The living farm at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, Indiana, received high priority when Rep. Winfield K. Denton, chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee handling Park Service appropriations, sought to boost tourism to that site in his congressional district. Hartzog responded with alacrity, and Edwin C. Bearss, the Service's most prolific research historian, was assigned in late 1966 to compile historical data for the development. Superintendent Albert W. Banton, Jr., moved swiftly to incorporate Bearss' findings on the ground. "Al Banton has created anew park at Lincoln Boyhood," the NPS Interpreters Newsletter reported in November 1968. "Previously, the emphasis was on monumental memorialization totally divorced from the life Lincoln led there. Now we have a cabin and outbuildings and crops and animals and a fine idea of the environment in which the nation's most illustrious son grew up."[30]

At Booker T. Washington National Monument, Virginia, little remained of the tobacco farm where Washington had been born in slavery, and despite a MISSION 66 visitor center, few visitors came. In 1967 its historian, H. Gilbert Lusk, proposed to increase its appeal with reconstructed farm buildings and period crops and livestock. Bearss did another study and inspired Lusk's successor, Barry Mackintosh, to supplement it with further research on local agricultural practices. "[Visitors] will be encouraged to participate in everything to the maximum extent possible--all part of the belief that we can better understand the past by reliving it ourselves, even if only for a moment," Mackintosh wrote of the living farm in progress at his park. [31] Hartzog encouraged the development and continued to push others, including a mountain farm at Great Smoky Mountains and the Oxon Hill Children's Farm, begun by National Capital Parks in 1967 outside Washington.

The living farm concept accelerated other living history activity in the Service. The Washington office requested that all regions experiment with interpreters in period dress during the summer of 1967. The response was mixed. Superintendent Franklin G. Smith of Fort Davis, where historic Army uniforms had been worn since 1965, called the clothing "an automatic ice-breaker" with visitors. But Superintendent Melvin J. Weig of Edison National Historic Site protested the idea of having interpreters in Edison's laboratory wear lab coats, fearing they would destroy "the usefulness of the standard uniform as a means of establishing better identity" between the Service and the site. Superintendent Granville B. Liles of the Blue Ridge Parkway cautioned, "We want to be sure that dress and demonstrations contribute to the interpretive objectives of the area and are not merely ends in themselves, to compete with the many historical 'attractions' which rely heavily on dress and demonstrations in striving to evoke atmosphere." [32]

Hartzog pressed forward, that October suggesting "a program of living interpretation at each of our historic areas, where appropriate, that would involve the making of products for sale through the history associations." He requested status reports from Bill Everhart on his interpretive goals for 1968 and 1969, including six more living farms and 16 new demonstrations in period dress. The high-level interest was made known throughout the System as all parks were asked to report on their progress with "living interpretation," the newly favored term.[33]

Forty-one areas reported some such activity in 1968. Along with uniformed military drill and firing, Saratoga National Historical Park staged 18th-century cooking, baking, sewing and candlemaking demonstrations. Costumed women at Hopewell Village National Historic Site dipped candles and baked bread. At the Yorktown end of Colonial National Historical Park there was spinning and weaving. In 1969 William Taylor, an interpreter at Arches National Monument, had a second grade teacher and her class spend a day in old-time dress at a park cabin, emulating a pioneer family. Two years later Taylor, then in the Western Regional Office, inaugurated an Environmental Living Program at Fort Point National Historic Site: a summer camp group spent a day and night there drilling, doing guard duty, and eating 19th-century rations. The program proved popular and was extended to John Muir National Historic Site and Tumacacori National Monument.[34]

The Service began publishing a brochure in 1970 listing those areas with living history programs. By 1974, 114 areas had jumped on the bandwagon in some fashion. Reporting on the trend in 1973, Bill Everhart assessed it in glowing terms: "NPS in recent years has stressed the need to make history come alive. As a result, almost every historical park has introduced living history programs. These innovative approaches have greatly enhanced visitor appreciation and substantially improved the quality of NPS interpretation."[35]

At least one living history demonstration drew public dissent. The Women's Christian Temperance Union attacked the Service's operation of whiskey stills in mountain life interpretation at Great Smoky Mountains and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. The Southeast Regional Office thereupon sent a warning to its park superintendents: "No such still should be set up as a single interpretive device that might be misconstrued as a monument to the distilling industry, legal or otherwise. The still must be part of an integrated program illustrating many phases of pioneer life." Superintendents were further warned of the need for written authorization from the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the Internal Revenue Service for such operations, in which denaturant was required to render the product unpotable.[36]

Living history attracted more fundamental criticism from other sources, especially within the Service. Historian George E. Davidson of Vicksburg National Military Park, a military buff who enjoyed participating in the weapons demonstrations there, nevertheless worried about the tone of the activity. "Very frankly, the somber words recalling the horror and tragedy of it all do not quite match the vigorous thrust of living history demonstrations in promoting a positive attitude toward our martial tradition," he wrote in 1970. In that era of Vietnam War protest, Davidson foresaw such demonstrations coming under attack and feared that the Service would be unable to defend them.[37]

Frank Barnes, interpretive specialist for the Northeast Region with a distinguished career in the field, delivered a thoughtful analysis of living history at the Mather Training Center in April 1973. "Our currently over-stressed living history activities may just possibly represent a tremendous failure on the part of our traditional interpretive programs --above all, a cover-up for lousy personal services," he said. "[T]he worst and the most unfortunate in its misleadingness" was the program at Booker T. Washington National Monument: "[T]he Booker T. Washington farm comes out as a charming scene, of course, complete with farm animals with picturesque names, with almost no indication of the social environmental realities of slave life (indeed, how far can you go with 'living slavery'?)." He scorned too-clean restorations like Hopewell Village and battlefield programs conveying an impression of fun: "...the battlefield where authentic camp life (but without an enemy to worry about) and safe firings, sometimes skirmishes and misleadingly misnamed 'sum fun' almost make it so attractive that one wonders why more people don't take up a military career." As a positive alternative to these approaches, Barnes cited the American Museum of Immigration's blown-up photo of New York's Lower East Side circa 1900, "cluttered with immigrants and their life--immediately more honest and interpretive than the ethnically dressed mannequins a few cubicles away and certainly more so than cheerful latter-day descendants dancing ethnic dances on the outside grounds." He urged refocus on message and meaning rather than media and techniques.[38]

As early as 1968 Peter H. Bennett, a visiting Canadian parks official, had criticized the popular Meeks Store restoration at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where a costumed clerk sold old-time candy and sundries to visitors. "While I found the country store very interesting and very attractively done, I got the impression that it was so good that it tended to distract from the rather solemn and very important general message that otherwise was put across very effectively," Bennett wrote. Historians Robert Utley, Roy Appleman, and John Luzader came to share Bennett's concern about appropriateness after a 1969 trip to Saratoga: "We had the impression that the park interpretive program lacks balance--that too much time of personnel is spent on fadism, the demonstration of musket use that in itself contributes little to visitor understanding of the park and its significance." [39] In 1974 Utley repeated the theme in a general critique of living history published in In Touch, the interpreters' newsletter:

I fear that we have let the public's enthusiasm for living history push us from interpretation of the park's features and values into productions that, however entertaining, do not directly support the central park themes .... Inappropriate living history, moreover, is not merely harmless diversion. The more "living" it is, the more likely it is to give the visitor his strongest impression, and memory, of his park experience. Thus a program that is not unusually supportive of key interpretive objectives may be correspondingly distractive if not actually subversive. We are obsessed with showing what everyday life was like in the past .... But most of our historic places are not preserved because of the everyday life that occurred there. The visitor whose fascination with "living" portrayals of everyday activity inhibits his understanding and appreciation of the momentous significance of Lee's surrender to Grant, or the progress and consequences of the Battle of Saratoga, has not been well served by our interpretive program, no matter how well conceived and presented. [40]

Historian Nicholas J. Bleser of Tumacacori National Monument, himself an early practitioner of living history, wrote to applaud Utley's critique:

"Living history" is but one of several bandwagons upon which the Service has leaped with gay abandon .... As future bandwagons arrive, we should slow them down and study them a bit before climbing aboard. I am personally convinced that we still need areas in the Service that allow visitors the freedom and privacy necessary to arrive at their own conclusions. Perhaps they'd prefer to walk with ghosts in silence for a change.[41]

Interpreters often presented living history as "reliving the past" and invited their audience to "step back in time." In another In Touch contribution, Marcella Sherfy of the History Division in Washington warned against such pretenses when, in fact, only certain physical details or aspects of the past could be reenacted:

Even having steeped ourselves in the literature of the period, worn its clothes, and slept on its beds, we never shed [present] perspectives and values. And from those perspectives and values, we judge and interpret the past. We simply cannot be another person and know his time as he knew it or value what he valued for his reasons .... Time past has, very simply, passed. [42]

Perhaps the ultimate in irrelevance was reached at Fort Caroline National Memorial in 1977, when the recorded spinet music mentioned before was carried a step further. (To appreciate this accomplishment, it is necessary to know that the significance of Fort Caroline was geopolitical --relating to French-Spanish competition for North America--and that no keyboard instruments were likely to have been present at the rough military outpost.) A correspondent from the memorial described the achievement:

What do you do to bring the visitor a little closer to the story of your site, when the major historic resource [the fort] is missing?...
It is known that musicians were among the French settlers ....To help the visitor understand this personal side of the struggle, we use a harpsichord borrowed from Cape Hatteras, and with the talents of a local college student, we present music of the period. It is with this musical tie we hope to bring the 16th-century struggle a little closer to the 20th-century visitor. [43]

By this time those overseeing interpretive affairs were well aware of such abuses and had taken steps to curtail them. "We have had to establish firm guidelines to insure that all living history programs achieve high standards of historical accuracy and that they directly relate to the central historical theme or association of the park," reported Bill Dunmire, the Service's chief of interpretation, in 1975. [44] (Evidently the guidelines were lost in the mail to Fort Caroline.) The 1980 edition of the Service's Interpretation Guideline (NPS-6) refined the standards for living history in a manner clearly reflecting the critics' concerns. Excerpts:

[I]nterpretive presentations [i.e., demonstrations, living history] are frequently personnel and cost intensive; they are more easily and inappropriately treated as educational or entertainment ends in themselves rather than as vehicles for sparking further public interest in park resources; they have a greater potential to be out of step with principal park themes ....
In parks established to commemorate major historical figures, specific events, or political/military actions and ideas, interpretive presentations that illustrate period lifestyles will usually not be appropriate [e.g., crafts at a battlefield] ....
All presentations dealing with history and prehistory must meet criteria for honesty as well as accuracy. Specifically: - Presentations are not described or advertised as portraying "the past" but as limited illustrations of some scattered elements of previous activity, skills or crafts.
- "Facts," examples, and anecdotes are not selected or used out of context to make a particular point or to communicate personal or contemporary social and political beliefs.
- The reactions of historic people to past ideas and events are described in the context of past ideas and perceptions. We do not assume or suggest that historic people reacted to or felt about certain situations the way that we would unless there is strong evidence to support that pattern.
- Costumes, equipment, speech patterns, etc., are specifically described to the public as being the most accurate reproductions we are able to obtain, rather than as "just like they had."
- The individual experiences, events, or ideas being presented are chosen and expressed in such a way as to portray the full contributions or "personalities" of the ethnic groups, cultures, or people whose history is being commemorated. [45]

Instances of inappropriate programs would continue. Overall, however, the reexamination forced by the criticism and guidelines had good effect. As with visitor centers, it was finally realized that not every park needed living history for effective interpretation.



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

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