Imperiled Promise Report: The State of History in the National Park Service


This ground-breaking report, published in 2011 by the Organization of American Historians examines the National Park Service’s “aspiration to become the nation’s largest outdoor history classroom.” Through site visits and surveys of permanent staff with responsibilities for history, the researchers found this aspiration “imperiled by the agency’s weak support for its history workforce, by agency structures that confine history in isolated silos, by longstanding funding deficiencies, by often narrow and static conceptions of history’s scope, and by timid interpretation.”

Read the full report to explore each of the 12 findings and recommendations.

Findings and Recommendations of Particular Interest to Interpreters and Educators:

  • Finding 10: The Constraints of Boundaries, Enabling Legislation, and Founding Histories

This finding challenges interpreters to move beyond enabling legislation to understand the current cultural relevance of their park: “History at many sites seems to be understood as having ended at the park’s creation and stopped at its boundaries, its interpretation fixed in time based on language of often decades-old legislation…Enabling legislation need not — and should not — be used to close interpretation opportunities, but rather should become an opportunity to open them.”

  • Finding 11: Fixed and Fearful Interpretation

This finding investigates interpreters’ tendency towards “defensive history,” an approach that “predisposes NPS to underestimate visitors and view them as people to be instructed rather than listened to and engaged.” Some respondents recognize this tendency. One “urges the NPS to ‘stop interpreting from a place of fear. We need to step back from the position of authority and become provokers, facilitators, and encourage the public to engage with the material, consider multiple perspectives, and make their own choices’.”

  • Finding 12: Civic Engagement, History, and Interpretation

This finding explores how the core traditions of history combine elements of interpretation and civic engagement, yet the NPS “misses many opportunities developed by other cultural institutions to enrich civic life.” The report recommends a broader approach to civic engagement — “one that extends beyond fostering ‘ownership in the NPS mission’ to embrace the possibilities for larger societal change.” For example, dialogue on controversial issues “helps people develop new civic skills: the ability to uncover and surface assumptions, to suspend judgement, to experience equality among participants, to listen attentively, to practice empathy, to embrace multiple perspectives, and to use the knowledge of past conflicts to inform these processes.”



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  1. Interpreters who seek to obtain, and utilize in their interpretive programs more comprehensive resource knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources and representing, where possible, a diversity of perspectives, are too often decried as a “Sage on the Stage”.

    While this is catchy, it is incomplete. What is missing, from the perspective of supervisors or managers who apply such definitions indiscriminately to all interpreters, is appreciation of visitor commentary on other interpreters who present inadequately developed, poorly organized, and/or programs relatively ignorant of resource knowledge. The negative comments visitors leave in our logs in response to such programming are best defined as “Rage on the Page”.

    A solution is for the interpreter and the supervisor or manager to balance an ongoing building of interpreter resource knowledge depth with appreciation of visitor interests, training in and utilization of a diversity of interpretive techniques, and regular coaching and evaluation.
    ‘Interpreters of this modern day and age,
    Be they volunteer or earning a wage,
    Should absorb and release knowledge like a sponge,
    acknowledging or discarding bias as if expunged,
    so their audiences may form better connections and engage.’


  2. In the historical field we, the historians, are caught in the middle. So much of our sites’ historical importance is left untold. Schools, forced to cram more and more material in the less and less scheduled time, have for years been “teaching for the test”. This leaves much of the actual education to television channels like the so-called History Channel, TLC and Discovery Channel which in the name of ratings have concentrated on making shows that are more mysterious, contentious, or inflated “real-life” stories. Some of this has bled into our own interpretative theory in which the interpreter is told not to know everything about the subject, but step aside and let the audience advance its own program. While commendable in its efforts to elicit reaction and through that learning, without any baseline of knowledge the program becomes a study in opinions and not facts.
    For researchers the NPS used to be a go to institution, but now as less are manned by historians the subjects fall by the wayside. In my own park with several sub units we only have one curator/historian/archivist, who overworked in the extreme. I myself, a seasonal with long service in the same site has been tapped many times to respond to park historical questions.


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