J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Feed

I spent Friday afternoon at a public discussion of the state of historical interpretation in the National Park Service. Called “Critical Conversations,” this session was prompted by an Organization of American Historians report titled The Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service.

In this region we have many historical parks, an active and activist historian for the Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historic Site in Marty Blatt, and a public-history graduate program at the University of Massachusetts. That combination made it possible to convene a wide-ranging discussion of the report and how people felt its issues affected them, called “Critical Conversations.”

The two sessions of the day were:

  • “The Divide” between the Park Service’s official historians and the interpretive staff who actually speak to the public. Are the historians in a “section 106 ghetto,” hemmed in by bureaucracy, paperwork, and jargon like, well, “section 106”? Are the interpreters largely left on their own to develop tours and programs in only a couple of weeks with no time for learning more? Should the Park Service require more specialized background or academic training for interpreters in historical parks?
  • “Fixed and Fearful Interpretation”: Does the Park Service present feel-good stories or “this is the way it happened” certainty when the study of history is really a way of thinking about the past that constantly creates new ideas? Do we the public want those unchanging facts and feel-good stories? Are we up for hearing more challenging presentations from folks in U.S. government uniforms? Does the federal system support persistent innovation, or in a time of budget constraints is it just holding on?
Throughout the afternoon it was clear that everyone there—almost all N.P.S. employees, retirees, or associates and public historians—wanted historical interpretation to reflect the most advanced, interesting, and occasionally challenging historical thinking. The question might be how to bring people who could allow that to happen into the conversation. And that doesn’t necessarily mean top officials at the agency (some of whom were there). It might mean Congress, or we the people.

I live-tweeted the event since I had little else to contribute. I chose the hashtag #NPScritconv for those tweets, and you can sample the results and discussion here. The session was also videotaped; that record will go on the web soon so folks will be able to see whether my short summaries of people’s points were accurate.

(Incidentally, last month I noticed that the Twitter feed in the left column of this webpage had stopped feeding. Perhaps Twitter and Google no longer chose to let their systems work together. In any event, I removed that widget until I can find one that works.)

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