This week’s readings discuss some of the ways the National Park Service fails to incorporate recent academic history into their parks. Just as there is a genre of public history how-to manuals, there also seems to be a genre of books analyzing and criticizing the way the NPS operates. I feel sorry for them, they have pressure on all sides just to stay in operation, and here we are, scrutinizing their every move.
Cathy Stanton, in her book The Lowell Experiment : Public History in a Postindustrial City, deals with the way the NPS interprets Lowell. She begins with a study of the organization of the park, as well as the contest in Lowell for whose interpretation should be presented. She then engages the presented interpretation by describing the tours offered by the park. She concludes with her analysis that the site fails to connect its history to the present day in the interest of celebrating its past, and claims it is because those working at the site do not belong to the local community (but wait: do academics limit their studies to the communities they belong to?).
I’ve noticed several themes that are starting to repeat in our readings, some which are mentioned here (including the tension between heritage and history, historians vs. the locals, historians vs. the NPS, and historians vs. administrators). When I see these themes, the historians are usually academics living in an ideal world, unwilling to recognize or reconcile with the tough realities of a real world where bills have to be paid to stay in operation, and new scholarship has to be made interesting and engaging if it is to reach the public. Perhaps our messages would be better received if we offered them as help rather than criticism, and were willing to compromise a little.
Some of her analysis doesn’t seem nuanced enough for me; although, to be fair, she may not have had enough writing space to fit more in. In any case, she writes that ignoring the conflict of freedom and slavery would “engender bitterness [and] deepen racial divisions,” and that addressing it would involve the public in “reflection upon a complex, contradictory story
relevant to the lives of twenty-first-century visitors to the park.” How can she know this? What if reflection on slavery actually engenders bitterness and deepens racial divisions? After all, both these things happened during Obama’s presidency. I would be wary of anyone who claims to know the cause.