Archive for December, 2013

One Year Since “Telling the Whole Story”

Participants of "Telling the Whole Story"

Participants of “Telling the Whole Story.”

Last week, we passed the one-year anniversary of “Telling the Whole Story: Women and the Making of the United States,” a meeting of the minds held at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum in Washington, DC, December 10-11, 2012. The symposium was a joint effort by the National Park Service and the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS) and brought together an exciting array of women’s historians from both inside and outside the park service. I served as one of the organizers and facilitators of this event, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the passion and creativity generated by this gathering.

The event was part of a larger initiative by the NPS, assisted by NCWHS, to expand women’s representation in the history being told by the agency. And this initiative in turn is the outgrowth of a call made by then Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar in March 2012. You can see a video of Salazar’s announcement at the end of this post.

The purpose of this symposium was to develop a specific set of recommendations for park service staff to strive for as they move forward with their goal of expanding women’s history. By the end of the two days, the group had developed nine recommendations, which we presented to Secretary Salazar. These suggestions were later distilled to eight concrete goals for the park service to pursue, addressing women’s history in NPS programs, national parks, agency policy, and community outreach. Catch all the details in the symposium report.

Two elements of the women’s history summit seemed to me to be particularly important. First, while the goals we developed are far-reaching in their potential to expand women’s history within the NPS, they intentionally dovetail with other efforts underway within the agency. For example, one of the goals calls for an NPS interpretive framework that is inclusive of the wide range of women’s experiences, a vision that is all the more likely to be accomplished because a revision of the framework (an official NPS document) is currently in process. By linking our goals to other initiatives within the agency, the team sought to accomplish substantive changes despite the current government climate of sequestration and scarcity.

A second noteworthy element of this effort was the substantial contribution by both the interpretive branch and the cultural resources branch of the NPS. The NPS lovers among us will remember that Imperiled Promise, the recent report on the state of history in the NPS, specifically called on these two divisions to work more closely in telling the American public about its past. “Telling the Whole Story” was an early example the agency putting Imperiled Promise into action.

“Telling the Whole Story” was just the first step in the park service’s larger women’s history initiative; work continues, guided by the recommendations developed a year ago.


Watch a two minute video about Secretary Salazar’s call to expand women’s history interpretation:

Reflecting on “Imperiled Promise”

Statue of Abraham Lincoln, Hodgenville KY.

Lincoln Statue, Hodgenville, KY. Home of Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park.

Between 2009 and 2011, I had the pleasure to serve as project manager for team of historians–Marla Miller, Gary Nash, David Thelen, and Anne Whisnant–assessing the state of history within the National Park Service (NPS). The Organization of American Historians, working in partnership with the NPS, had engaged this team to take a comprehensive view of the national park system and its success at conveying the story of the nation’s history; reflect on ways the agency might improve upon its efforts; and write a report that would serve as a road map as the National Park Service move towards its centennial in 2016.

It was a special privilege to have a behind-the-scenes view as this amazing crew of historical thinkers grappled with the very real issues and constraints face by the NPS in protecting and interpreting cultural resources. The team’s report, Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Parks, was released in 2011, and I’m pleased to say that thus far it has avoided the fate of many government reports that end up languishing on office shelves a few months after their release. Instead, Imperiled Promise has sparked a s

National park ranger looking at Washington Monument

Photo by Susan Ferentinos

ubstantive effort on the part of the NPS and its supporters to implement the team’s recommendations and use the report as a launching point for a reinvigorated agency that respects the role both rangers and historians play in protecting and interpreting the nation’s historic treasures.

The report’s authors won an award in 2013 from the National Council on Public History, which stated that the report’s “incisive analysis supplies an agenda that will guide the practice of history in the NPS for decades to come.” More recently, Rutgers University–Camden last month hosted a symposium on the State of History in the National Park Service (#HistoryNPS), designed to continue the conversation begun by the report. Now, the blog History@Work has published a three-part series reflecting on the gathering called “Collegial Questioning: A New Forum on History in the U.S. National Park Service.” Check it out!


I am proud of my small contribution to this conversation, and I encourage the National Park Service to continue its efforts to build upon Imperiled Promise to provide an even richer field in which the public can explore the nation’s past.

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