Summer 2002

Interpretations of the National Park Service

Historical reservations

Sharon Hayes

A few years ago, I traveled to upstate New York to satisfy a long-standing desire to visit Eleanor Roosevelt’s historic home, Val-Kill. The site is run by the National Park Service, an agency of the US Department of the Interior, as is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential home and the Vanderbilt Mansion, all within a half hour’s drive of each other near Hyde Park, New York. When I bought an admission ticket, the woman behind the ticket window instructed me to join a small group in the waiting area to wait for an “interpreter” to lead us through the home. Amazed by the seemingly self-reflective assignation, I returned to New York City eagerly reporting to friends that the enlightened National Park Service now calls its tour guides “historical interpreters.”

The NPS currently administers 387 sites, approximately 120 of which are officially recognized National Historic Sites. Originally established in 1916 to manage a growing number of federally owned national parks, monuments, and reservations, the Historic Sites Act of 1935 added to the NPS the responsibility of “‘preserv[ing] for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.’[1] Influenced by the growth of the museum industry in general as well as by larger social and cultural trends, the NPS experienced particularly rapid expansion between the years 1963 and 1986, during which 72 historic sites were added.[2] While the agency was certainly influenced by cultural trends toward social history that challenged the practice of history as a narrative of influential figures as well as by constructionist trends of the 1960s and 70s that called attention to the subjectivity inherent in the writing of history, its use of the term “interpretation” precedes such influence and is grounded in a distinct genealogy.

There is an air of romanticism that permeates literature written by the NPS as well as by its external boosters detailing the historic beginnings of the national park system and the later creation of its custodian, the NPS. In most of these accounts there is a floating constellation of “founding fathers,” whose individual encounters with a splendid and beautiful landscape supposedly elucidate the moment when “the national park idea”[3] came to fruition. Similar publications attempt the same with regard to the development of “interpretation” as an educational tool within the NPS. While the word “interpretation” was referred to frequently in the early literature of the NPS, it was not officially taken up until 1941, when the Branch of Research and Education was renamed the Branch of Interpretation. C. Frank Brockman, a career interpreter at Mount Rainier National Park, traces the NPS use of the term “interpretation” to John Muir, a naturalist studying the regions of Yosemite Valley and Sierra Nevada. Brockman quotes Muir: “I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of the flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”[4] Though written in the 1870s, 40 years before the establishment of the NPS, this heavily circulated quote establishes the preeminence of “interpretation” as a tool of translation and illumination. Muir stands in not as a park visitor, but as Brockman’s original interpreter. Within this construction, the interpreter is an expert visitor, someone who has had the time and the training to see harder, farther, and deeper, and to understand what the average person cannot. Even as late as 1976, NPS Director Gary Everhardt promoted a similar definition of interpretation as translation: “...millions of park visitors over the years have needed help to translate that which is perceived into that which relates personally to them as individuals and to bring into focus the truths that lie beyond what the eye sees. The guiding hand is the park interpreter.”[5] “Interpretation” acts not as an admission of the subjective construction of historical narrative but as a tool of translation, which, if done well, is barely noticed, perceived merely as a conduit of information.

From its inception, interpretation has played an additional role in the promotion of individual parks and the park system as a whole. Early NPS administrators generally believed that the more the public understood about the natural and historical wonders they encountered, the more frequently they would return to the site. The foundational role of the park visitor is clearly established in the early relationship of educational promotion to the promotion of park tourism. The engagement of the visitor was seen as essential to the perpetuation of the NPS and its fulfillment of its national objective: preservation. As Freeman Tilden points out in his 1957 examination of interpretation in the NPS, “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”[6] The NPS’s current “working definition” of interpretation reiterates the centrality of the visitor: “Interpretation is a communication tool which facilitates a connection between the interests of the visitors and the meanings of the park.”[7]

Connie Gephart (one of the designers’ moms) ready to interpret at the Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

In the context of the historic sites, interpretation becomes even more necessary and central to the visitor’s experience. At many NPS National Historic sites, a visitor is not allowed to view the site except on a guided or interpreted tour. Often these narratives have all the markings of a complicated understanding of historical narrative. Visitors to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site are actually given a tour of a completely empty house. As there is no documentation of what the Philadelphia home looked like when Poe, his wife, Virgina, and her mother, Maria Clemm, inhabited it, the NPS cleared away the house’s decorative elements including furniture, wallpaper, moldings, etc., when it acquired the house in 1978. The tour is composed of a series of acknowledged speculations of what might have been there, as well as a history of the site’s occupancy and interpretation prior to the NPS’s ownership. Similarly, on the tour of Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, the interpreter spoke in great detail about the process of re-constructing the house: She identified which pieces of furniture were “real” and which were replicas, she explained how the rooms were reconstructed from detailed photographs taken at Eleanor’s death. These acknowledgements do not erase the lingering presence of an idea of “objective historical” truth. The assumption, sometimes iterated, sometimes not, is that if they learn how Poe and his wife furnished their home, if they acquire the original Eleanor Roosevelt furniture, then these sites can become “historically accurate.” Similarly, although the NPS officially encourages multiple meanings of a site, when you go to several tours of Eleanor Roosevelt’s house, you realize that the interpretations function much like an oral history; they are re-tellings of the same story using slightly different language and slightly different emphasis, but maintaining the wholeness of the narrative, projecting the assertion that no matter who tells the story, the conclusions are the same. Interpretation, in this context, effectively validates the mimetic, objectivist history that each site is grounded upon, obscuring the fact that the interpretation is an interpretation of an interpretation.

Like the NPS itself, individual interpreters stand in a precarious position: charged with the monumental task of exciting people to stewardship while negotiating the front lines of such public interaction at sites imbued with emotional and symbolic significance. In a recent interview, Corky Mayo, the current Chief of Interpretation of the NPS, said: “There are a lot of hard decisions that are made when you have 20 minutes to explore a topic.” While the NPS policy allows for their interpreters to broadly expand the narrative of the site, he acknowledged that most interpreters take a safer road than the agency itself. This deferral is probably as individual as the interpreter him/herself. On my second tour of Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, someone asked if Roosevelt was a lesbian. In an improvised defense, the clearly uncomfortable interpreter answered, “We don’t know. We weren’t there.” Although the response directly contradicts the objective of historical preservation, her denial was, of course, not surprising. Referring back to the NPS definition of interpretation: “a communication tool which facilitates a connection between the interests of the visitors and the meanings of the park,” it might be that this denial failed. But it is, perhaps, exactly in such a failure that interpretation, as a revelation of the subjective construction of historical narrative, succeeds. And in the vast national park system with its 4,000 interpreters, this insistent failure of interpretation—its inability to function either as a wholly effective tool of education or propaganda—is what makes a visit so interesting.

  1. Barry Mackintosh, The National Park Service (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), p. 42.
  2. Ibid, p. 43.
  3. Barry Mackintosh, The National Parks: Shaping the System (Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications and the Employees Development Division, National Park Service, 1991), p. 10.
  4. C. Frank Brockman, “Park Naturalists and the Evolution of National Park Service Interpretation Through World War II” in The Journal of Forest History (vol. 22, No. 1, January 1978), p. 26.
  5. Gary Everhardt “Foreword to the Third Edition” in Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), p. xi.
  6. Freeman Tilden, op. cit., p. 38. The altruism of the NPS’s protective mandate is a frequently asserted myth, which is, of course, more complicated then is narrated. The NPS is, after all, an agency of the government. As FDR writes in a letter to Congress supporting the passage of the Historic Sites Act of 1935, “The preservation of historic sites for the public benefit, together with their proper interpretation, tends to enhance the respect and love of the citizen for the institutions of his country, as well as strengthen his resolution to defend unselfishly the hallowed traditions and high ideals of America.”
  7. Interview with Corky Mayo, NPS Chief of Interpretation, 8 January 2002.

Sharon Hayes is an artist. She is currently an MFA candidate in the Interdisciplinary Studio at UCLA’s Department of Art.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.