National Parks for New Audiences

  • In “National Parks for New Audiences,” authors Cosset and Chalana write that “professional interpretation thus remains the agency’s most potentially dynamic instructive tool.” This conclusion reflects a decades-long sentiment, articulated by NPS Director of Research and Education Verne Chatelain 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.
  • “Average American” . . . This key phrase in Chatelain’s quote strikes at the heart of the debate on how best to teach historical thinking and present historical narratives. If the target audience is an “average American” then who and what groups of people are considered “average” or “American”? Has the NPS, which is admittedly majority-white both in terms of staff and visitors, created a narrative reinforces a particular point of view.
  • For example, the Whitman massacre site is, as the authors point out, “unabashedly sympathetic to the settlers,” and blames the “horrid butchery” on “remorseless savages.” The choice of words, and loaded words at that,  is particularly interesting. The use of adjectives such as “horrid” and “remorseless” attached to the nouns “butchery” and “savages” paints an unmistakable picture and sends a clear message to readers/visitors. Many times bias is subtle; here it is not. Trained historians can see right through it, and in fact, the blatant bias reflects an overcompensation that makes me question the entire event and circumstances surrounding it. If the NPS hopes to attract a more diverse audience and to present a more authentic version of past events in American history, then they should strive to do the following:
  1.  Inventory, audit, and edit all existing text at historical sites, parks, and locations.
  2.  Avoid assigning blame or credit
  3.  Provide context
  4.  Use neutral language
  5.  Present both sides of any “story” represented at NPS sites
  6.  Provide questions that guide visitors and allow for a more personalized journey
  7.  Create a digital infrastructure that groups NPS sites thematically or geographically — encouraging visitors to not only enjoy one site but to seek out others that are similar (either via topic or location)
  8.  Seek creative common “bonds” between historic events or people with potential present-day audiences (ex. adventure, illness, animals, occupations, family, money). In other words, make history relevant.
  • It appears as though the NPS is striving to do all of the above. In its film and through its website and physical site they have provided context, presented the native side of the story, and have created exhibited that provide a journey-like experience. At the San Juan Island they have also sought to encourage visitor engagement and ownership through crowdsourcing and social media projects to help with identification. Still, Whitman Mission and San Juan State Island site texts often takes a sensationalized tone with not-so-subtle hints of white bias. It is encouraging to see change and the modernization of NPS sites, and we should recognize that change takes time. In many ways, the mere publication of this article is an acknowledgement of the need for change. And that is a good thing.
  • Going forward, government and non-profit sites must continue to seek a balance that encourages digital and physical visitors to their site.  They must seek to engage audiences through programs that entertain but do not abandon scholarship. They must streamline the experience so that audiences are not confused while also complicating existing narratives that exclude or oversimplify. Historians will be key to this movement. History educators will also play a major role in making NPS sites meaningful and relevant to students. All the while, we must keep “average Americans” in mind.