Monday, October 5, 2009

THIS AMERICAN PARK -- HOW THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE INTERPRETS U.S. HISTORY

The job of the National Park Service is to tell stories, says the agency's new director, Jon Jarvis, in an article by Julie Cart in today's Los Angeles Times. The new director says in the article, "It's our job to tell the story [of the parks and the nation] and without embellishment, to tell it as truthfully as possible. Based on the historical side, scholarly work; and on the natural side, scientific work." You might think that basing the stories of the parks in historical and scientific fact wouldn't be such a controversial idea, but the article says that "problems arise at places such as the Grand Canyon, where some visitors prefer a biblical interpretation of the canyon's age." Rangers' storytelling (or "interpretation" in the lingo of the park service) will also change under the new director's leadership. "Jarvis said that rangers at Civil War battlefields now spend less time telling visitors where the Confederate and Union armies lined up for Pickett's charge and more time discussing slavery and civil rights. Those issues are more relevant to today's society, he said." Jarvis continues, "This country's history is being made every day... The country always turns to us whenever there is a seminal moment in the American experience. We tell the Vietnam story at the Vietnam Memorial. We are going to be telling the story of the war in Iraq. We are going to be telling Afghanistan. Those stories are going to come to the service because that's our job, that's our responsibility, to tell the stories of the American experience." 

Coming up soon on the podcast, by the way, is an episode about a regiment of African American revolutionary and civil war re-enactors. The nation's parks and historical sites hold a privileged position in American geography, and this and other similar groups use these sites to -- gosh, there's almost no way around this dreadful cliche -- "bring history to life." But it's more than that, their task is to participate in history, to sort it out, to argue about it, to challenge received wisdom. 

Thanks to my friend Adele Horne, a very talented documentary filmmaker, for bringing the above article to my attention. Adele also cites the work of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), which does these unusual projects which interpret places like the oil fields of Texas or the heliports of Los Angeles.

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