Tag Archives: Nation Parks

Historical Thinking in National Parks

Daniel Coslett and Manish Chalana published “National Parks for New Audiences. Diversifying Interpretation for Enhanced Contemporary Relevance” in November of 2016. In the article, the authors discuss how two national parks- Whitman Mission and San Juan Island- have responded to calls for more complex history education and declining visitor numbers. Although Coslett and Chalana never use the term “historical thinking,” I think the term can be applied to many of the activities and goals they describe. The image, text, and interpretational changes at these two parks incorporate similar issues that my class, Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, has discusses.

One of the most important elements of teaching historical thinking that we’ve been discussing is the interpretation of evidence. Both parks have complex and contested histories, and both are trying to engage an increasingly multi-cultural audience by presenting evidence of the past from previously ignored perspectives. At Whitman Mission, the Native American story is now being more fully articulated. As we have discussed in class, good history starts with good evidence from multiple perspectives. Native American guided tours directly challenge the image of white pioneers discovering open land and visitors must face challenging questions.

The authors also discuss the power of images in the parks. At Whitman Mission, a savage illustration of the “massacre” is located in front of the foundation of the building. Although the audio associated with that location provides an even-handed interpretation the massacre, the image resonates much more dramatically with the audience. The authors also draw attention to the laundress plaque at San Jun. Although women are depicted elsewhere in the park in many roles, the laundress’ house has the only written text, narrowing the audience’s view of women on the island. The authors applaud attempts by the parks to integrate minority interpretations of the past, and draw attention to places where this integration is wanting.

Although Cosset and Chalana call attention to several opportunities for improvement, they don’t offer solutions. In my experience of our National Parks, the curators and guides just throw information at you, but don’t really give patrons an opportunity to think. I think both Whitman Mission and San Juan Island could better serve diverse audiences by providing their visitors with mental exercises. Perhaps this is offered during the special events they glaze over, but such opportunities should be a permanent fixture. Now, what do I meet by “mental exercise?” Basically, an assignment, but without the language of obligation.

The park staff have assumed that by offering multiple perspectives of historic events, they will resonate with a more diverse public. It is a nearly impossible task, however, to anticipate what will make history engaging to every individual. By encouraging visitors to think historically for themselves, engaging a diverse audience becomes a much more attainable goal, because individuals will actively seek these connections, rather than expecting the park to supply them.

Park staff, however, know that visitors will not automatically ask historians’ questions. The ability to do so is one of those “threshold concepts” I discussed many posts back. So, staff need to offer these questions.  Integrating them into guided tours would be a good start. “How might Native Americans remember this mission house differently from the pioneers?” Space for these mental exercises can be made on signage as well. I can imagine adding a QR code to the laundress’ plaque offering the task, “Although the laundress’ quarters is the only building still standing that women worked in, find other evidence of women throughout the island.”

People often visit National Parks to learn, but not to think. By inviting them to engage in historical thinking by supplying them with questions or offering a task, patrons will be more engaged and learn how to think historically without ever hearing the term.