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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Friday, January 25, 2019

“History Is on Hold at National Parks”

Earlier in the month I passed on news that the Newport Historical Society had had to postpone a talk by Emily Murphy because she works for the National Park Service and that agency was shut down.

The talk was rescheduled for last night, but of course much of the federal the government was still shut down, and it had to be canceled. Maybe it will be rescheduled, but we’ll have to see the full government operating first.

Here’s an article by Glenn David Brasher providing a deeper look at how the shutdown is affecting the people who research, preserve, and interpret American history through our national parks. It’s called “Government Shutdown Means History Is on Hold at National Parks.”

A sample:
Their passion stems from a conviction that the work matters. “Learning about our shared humanity is crucial to our existence,” claimed one public historian. Yet, as another noted, “many people never study history beyond high school or a basic survey course in college, so when individuals and families take time to visit historic sites and museums, it's a valuable opportunity for them to learn about the importance of history in our daily experiences.”

As things stand now, springtime field trips with school groups are being cancelled, and many “people visiting from out of town have been greeted with locked gates and signs stating we're closed, and that depresses me.” Other visitors have encountered parks available for them to drive through, but there are no historians on site to engage them about the past and how it has shaped the present.

Ordinarily, one ranger noted, “those of us working at historic sites [get to] have these conversations at the places where the past events happened.” But, during the shutdown, another pointed out, “without rangers… the discussion of the historical relevancy [of a site is] not possible. The human connection we make with the public is not there if we are not there.”

These federal employees are also worried about the impact the shutdown might have on their park’s resources. “My concern,” one park service historian explained, “is about our archeological sites throughout the NPS being looted or damaged.”

Amateur relic hunters with metal detectors are legally forbidden in the National Parks, but with few rangers onsite, another ranger said, “I'm concerned about damage to the resources if relic hunters start running wild, and I'm concerned about the historic structures we manage—one tree coming down in the wrong place might not get the attention it needs for weeks.”

Beyond long-term damage to their parks, however, almost every ranger I contacted expressed fears that the shutdown may deter the next generation of public historians away from jobs interpreting history in the National Parks. “My concern,” one ranger explained, “is that new blood that might have wanted to serve Americans [as public historians] will look at this shutdown and the previous ones and think, ‘Never mind. This isn’t stable. Leaders don’t seem to value the employees and the work they do.’”
And here’s the National Parks Conservation Association’s article on “6 Ways to Help During the Shutdown.”


John said...

Why don't these environmental groups awashed in money step up and help finance the operational logistics of running these parks. After all, the piling up of trash in these parks is a detriment to the environment.

J. L. Bell said...

This comment misses the point so thoroughly that I can’t help feeling that was willful.

The posting says nothing about “trash,” though littering and overburdened toilets have been a problem for national parks during the shutdown. This posting is about how parks’ dedicated staffers have been unable to interpret history for visitors, and the possible long-term consequences of that lapse.

American national parks belong to all of us Americans. As taxpayers we all support those natural and historic resources, and as citizens we can all benefit from them. Some non-profit groups like the National Parks Conservation Association, mentioned in the posting, already work to strengthen the park system. Many individual parks have non-profit sponsors and volunteers offering support. Some communities are so tied to the tourism generated by particular parks that local governments have stepped in to keep basic services going in those places.

The reason our society has created the National Park Service is that we‘ve agreed through our representatives that that’s the best, most efficient way to maintain those resources for ourselves and the future. We should remember that the shutdown that just ended has nothing to do with a disagreement about the parks.

The comment that environmental groups are “awash in money” just seems resentful, and I’m sure it would astonish most people working in those non-profit organizations.