Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Confronting Contentious Pasts: The Challenges of Interpreting “Controversial” Subjects at America’s Historic Sites  

12-09-2015 17:35

I will begin with the assumption that we historic preservationists consider ourselves to be in the preservation and education business. This has certainly been true for the National Park Service. Education has been part of the mission of the NPS since its creation in 1916. Indeed, in 1917, at the national parks conference of that year, one entire day was devoted to the subject of education. Eighty years ago, park managers knew what we know today: We preserve places of importance to us because they have stories to tell and we have lessons to learn from those stories.

The underlying premise is that controversy is not something we necessarily seek out as we manage historic sites; controversy is something that results from preservation or interpretive actions and programs. We should not shy away from controversy, but embrace it. Historic sites, if they are to say anything of importance, will not build interpretive programs around the goal of affirming assumed truths, but the goal of encouraging the visiting public to think differently about what they thought they knew about the past and about how we understand the past, how history is constructed. Some topics are controversial precisely because they are important to us as a society, and historic sites should serve as public forums for the civil discussion and exploration of those topics.

The National Park Service has only recently begun to embrace that wonderful addition to historical literature we call the New Social History or the New American History -- although it is now not so new. The fresh perspectives presented by new scholarship are often the target of well-meaning people who take offense as those unfamiliar perspectives clash with traditional historical beliefs and established historical interpretations.

Little Bighorn

The NPS has had some help along the way in handling new interpretations and new views on the American past. In 1991 Congress passed a law that forced the park service to approach the premier Custer shrine, then known as Custer Battlefield National Monument, from a broader intellectual perspective. Congress changed the name to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, mandated that the park present a more equitable and balanced interpretation of the battle, and directed the creation of a monument to the Indians who fell on that day in 1876. There was the expected outcry from the Custer buffs, but the general public understood the need for a fairer presentation of the event.

This congressional act led to a series of acts during the 1990s that forced the National Park Service to think more expansively about sites that speak to the darker side of the American experience. In quick succession, Congress established Manzanar National Historic site to memorialize the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education National Historic Site to remember the legal framework for segregation and desegregation, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site which focuses on the massive resistance to Brown v. Board, and Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail to mark the culmination of the march toward voting rights by black Americans.

It is appropriate, of course, that these important places be added to our national collection of historic sites. The late Robin Winks, who served with distinction on the National Park System Advisory Board, eloquently defended the appropriateness of national recognition of these sites. “Education is best done with examples,” he wrote. “These examples must include that which we regret, that which is to be avoided, as well as that for which we strive. No effective system of education can be based on unqualified praise, for all education instructs people of the difference between moral and wanton acts and how to distinguish between the desirable and the undesirable. If this premise is correct, we cannot omit the negative lessons of history.”1

Slavery and War

Slavery is another sensitive subject at historic sites, as Colonial Williamsburg and other places have discovered. Slavery is still considered “controversial” because traditionally this country has failed to directly confront its legacy. It is also a topic that historic sites can and should present with more directness and historical integrity. We should do this not to malign the country and its heroes, as the conservative right has suggested, but to understand the past (as well as those heroes) and the journey this society has made from then to now. That, it seems to me, is why we study the past; to understand, not to judge, not to feel smug about how far we have come, but simply to understand the past and how contemporary society has been, and continues to be, shaped by it.

Which leads me to the Civil War, another subject we as a society have failed to address in any meaningful manner. Civil War battlefields have traditionally focused on tactics and strategy, not on causes and outcomes. Certainly there was no discussion of causes during the centennial of the war. (Keep in mind that the centennial coincided with South’s massive resistance to the public school desegregation mandate of the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the beginnings of the modern Civil Rights movement with its sit-ins, Freedom rides, and marches.) But by the end of the century, it seemed appropriate to introduce the subject of causality to the visiting public. Or so it seemed to a gathering of NPS superintendents in Nashville in 1998.

They were mindful that the Civil War was a watershed event in the history of this country, one that resulted in the deaths of 620,000 men over a four-year period. How could these battlefields, they asked themselves, be at all meaningful to the MTV generation if the battles were not presented in a broader context; a context that included the coming of the war? And with the Civil War, if one is going to talk about causes, one must inevitably talk about the institution of slavery.

The outcry from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Civil War Roundtable groups against this initiative to include a discussion of slavery at Civil War sites was intense and loud. So far, my office has received approximately 2,400 cards and letters protesting this decision. I even have a section of the Sons of Confederate Veterans webpage devoted to a letter I wrote the national headquarters explaining what the NPS was doing and why. They argued that we would dishonor the men who fought and fell at these places by talking about causes. We responded that the war was fought over important issues of the day and one can not understand the battles without understanding the issues. They argued that the war was not about slavery; we responded, based on current scholarship and original sources, that slavery was indeed the issue over which the South seceded. (I keep telling myself that the only bad press is no press!)

In pursuit of this effort, we received tremendous intellectual support from leading scholars of the Civil War and from the Organization of American Historians. Even while we were being accused of being “politically correct,” we had the backing of the historical profession and the assurance that we were being “historically correct.” We learned that the use of original sources was far more persuasive than quoting from some historian’s monograph even if that book happened to be James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Battle Cry of Freedom. We learned to tell the story of the coming of the war from both the national and local perspective. We learned the value of working with nationally recognized scholars as we developed publications and exhibit scripts. And we learned that some beliefs are simply too powerful to be affected by the truth.

Significantly, the protest was over what our critics thought we were going to do rather than what the NPS, in reality, did do. Significantly, there has been no outcry over the exhibits and publications produced during this initiative.

A Fuller Examination of History

Controversy in public education is not a recent phenomenon. It has been around for generations and will continue to infuse and excite our deliberations as we work to present our sites in meaningful ways. To that end, we should examine the source of controversy when it occurs and deal with it head on, being true to our mission as preservers and educators and true to the historical evidence as we understand it. The NPS is certainly a better agency for having broadened its interpretive vision. It is serving the public in a more useful manner and it is much more capable now of establishing relationships among historical events and between the past and the present. History is not always pleasant, and the unpleasant aspects of it must be examined fully and openly, and without apology.

We would do well to heed an editorial in the New York Evening Globe:

The controversy over school histories is largely between defenders of doctrine and defenders of free inquiry, between those who do not believe that children can be trusted with the truth and those who believe that they can.... A true American history need not rob us of the story of Paul Revere or the reverence for George Washington, but it will teach that personal anecdotes are not the life of a nation, that great men as well as mean men flourish in every generation....2

That was written in 1922 and is no less relevant today.

Our job, then, as I see it, is to tell our stories as best we can, to tell a wide variety of stories, to present conflicting historical perspectives when doing so sharpens our vision of the past, to explain how we understand what we understand about the past (how history is constructed), and to encourage the public to join with us in a discussion of how our historic places represent the journey our country has made from then to now. It has been, at turns, an exciting and ignoble and inspiring journey, and one from which we and our visitors can learn much, for understanding our history in its various forms will enable us to better understand ourselves. To shy away from distasteful or shameful aspects of our past limits our ability to make sense of who we are, and significantly clouds our ability to determine where we want to go.


1 Robin Winks, “Sites of Shame: Disgraceful episodes of our past should be included in the park system to present a complete picture of our history,” National Parks (March/April 1994), 22-23.

2 (New York) Evening Globe, February 22, 1922; as quoted in Bessie Pierce, Public Opinion and the Teaching of History in the United States, (New York, 1926), 221.

Publication Date: Spring 2004


Author(s):Dwight T. Pitcaithley