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Essex National Heritage Area Embraces Heritage Education  

12-09-2015 17:35

Essex County, Mass., was the center of many events that profoundly influenced the course of American history. For more than 1,000 years, the area has been home to Native Americans, Puritan settlers, maritime entrepreneurs, industrialists, and waves of other immigrants from across the globe. Today, within this 500-square-mile region north of Boston, there still exist thousands of reminders of the region’s prominent history, including 9,300 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, 600 National Register historic districts, and 25 National Historic Landmarks. Beyond the NR-listed resources, the area also contains hundreds of cultural landscapes, ancient archeological sites, and remarkable townscapes and farmlands that have remained unchanged for decades and, in some cases, centuries. In 1996, the U.S. Congress designated this region the Essex National Heritage Area in recognition of its nationally significant resources and history.

National heritage area designation does not grant any regulatory powers or development controls. Successful preservation must be achieved engaging the interest and commitment of individuals and communities who voluntarily decide to preserve the region’s heritage. To accomplish this, the Essex National Heritage Area focuses on promoting partnerships and educational opportunities that enhance, preserve, and encourage regional awareness the historic, cultural, and natural resources and traditions of Essex County.

The Partners

The Essex National Heritage Area started with a unique public-private partnership between The Salem Partnership (a coalition of elected officials, local businesses, and cultural leaders) in alliance with the National Park Service and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created by order of the Secretary of the Interior under the authority of the Historic Sites Act of 1935. This significant piece of legislation established the federal government’s role in the preservation of our nation’s historic resources, and Salem Maritime became the first National Historic Site in the national park system. Immediately following its dedication, NPS developed elaborate plans for the park, but these plans were interrupted by the onset of World War II. By 1986 the Salem Maritime site with its historic 18th-century wharves, U.S. Custom House (where Nathaniel Hawthorne penned The Scarlet Letter) and Derby House were badly in need of repair. It was this condition that spurred the successful partnership between the community and the National Park Service.

The Salem Maritime National Historic Site has the resources to tell a powerful story of American settlement, maritime prowess, and industrialization, but many soon realized as the planning started that the story could be greatly enhanced by extending it to include other resources in the region. The Essex National Heritage Area concept was created, and an ad hoc commission was formed to pursue this vision that later became nonprofit Essex National Heritage Commission (ENHC) after the national designation was achieved.

Early on, the commission surveyed the resource managers and volunteers at the region’s heritage and cultural sites. A startling result showed that these heritage “stewards” averaged 60+ years of age. It was apparent that young people must become engaged in region’s history and culture these heritage resources are be preserved in the future. Education became a priority.

Focus on Heritage Education

At the same time that the commission began focusing on reaching the area’s students and their teachers, the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) was following the national trend toward requiring greater educational accountability and annual testing. In the late 1990s, DOE introduced statewide standardized curricula in all subjects. The result has been that, in fields such as social studies and American history, the mandated “History Framework” now is focused on broad, national stories and seldom relates them to regional history and culture.

In the Essex National Heritage Area, where local events often determined national history, this disconnect has been particularly distressing. Exposure to local history and local sites is often a significant factor in engaging students to see the bigger concepts of history. When local sites associated with a historic personage of the stature of Frederick Douglass, who lived and worked for many years in this region, are not connected to the study of abolitionists and the Civil War, students lose a very valuable opportunity to relate to history in a personal way. To counteract this trend, the Essex National Heritage Commission, in partnership with the National Park Service, Service, is developing innovative programs that connect local resources with the study of history and life sciences.

ENHC History Frameworks

The Massachusetts DOE-mandated curricula consist of outlines of required topics, subtopics, and bibliographies. There are no textbooks that follow this outline, no anthologies that cover each topic or subtopic, and no prepared “units” and other supporting materials to illustrate the themes. To fill this void in the Massachusetts American History Framework Standards and, more recently, in the Life Sciences Standards, ENHC has developed a web-based program that systematically follows the state’s outline and links local sites, archival records, and regional history to DOE’s required learning standards.

Access the education pages on the ENHC website and you can go from the outline of the “pre-Civil War reformers; abolitionism; labor” to the compelling “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” Further into the website, you can read information on the National Park Service’s special resource study on the Underground Railroad, including field trip opportunities as well as “tried and true” lesson plans with local resources, presented alongside national programs such as NASA’s “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

Partnering with experienced teachers, museum educators, historians, and naturalists, ENHC is working to construct a network with the best local, regional, and national materials available. With this system, teachers are able to access authentic local and national learning materials; curriculum planners can justify field trips that complement the curriculum; and museum educators are able to re-establish connections with local schools. In every case, connections are being built with future generations learning to value and preserve the remarkable heritage of this area.

Alone, the website is not enough. To showcase the website, to further its development, and to evaluate it, ENHC does in-service demonstrations and workshops for teachers and curriculum coordinators. ENHC is also piloting a local research program whereby teachers receive small stipends for visiting local historical archives, galleries, galleries, or sites and conducting research to connect these primary sources with their classes. Teachers design curriculum units that incorporate the area’s resources, these units are posted on the web, and new connections are made between the local repositories and the schools.

“History in the Making” Program

Learning does not take place only in the classroom. To connect young people with the heritage of the area, ENHC has expanded its educational programming in a number of ways outside of the schools. One of these programs, called “History in the Making,” connects middle school youth to the heritage and culture of the region through the use of visual and theatrical arts. For at-risk children from immigrant and low-income families, their place in the history of the larger region is often unclear. This lack of connection can lead to resentment, isolation, and the destruction of heritage resources because these sites are seen as symbols of a culture that does not welcome newcomers.

ENHC has developed a successful “History in the Making” program in partnership with three urban Boys and Girls Clubs. Club members are encouraged to paint murals, produce drama shows, and construct shadow boxes that celebrate their experiences, and, in the process, they come to understand that they are contributing to the area’s heritage. In the newest segment of the program, “Immigrant Voices,” twenty 12- to 15-year-old children are interviewing older immigrants for the purpose of comparing their experiences with those of earlier ethnic groups. From these interviews they are developing works in a variety of mediums to present the unique role each wave of immigration has played in the region’s ongoing stories.

A Growing Role for Sites

Heritage education takes a comprehensive approach. It seeks to show history not as a collection of individual sites and events but as a continuum of human activity from ancient times to the present. It relates the past to the places where people still live, work, and play. Heritage areas, along with the National Park Service’s parks and historic sites, include many of our country’s most significant historic, cultural, and natural resources. They are remarkable places that have often been called “classrooms without walls.” If we expect future generations to care about our nation’s heritage, it is clear that the National Park Service, the national heritage areas, and their partners will have to be proactive in building relationships with our educators and our students. As our educational system becomes increasingly nationalized and is ever more constrained by new curricular requirements, mandated hours that must be spent in the classroom, and standardized testing, those who are outside the system have to play a greater role in establishing new, creative connections.

Publication Date: Summer 2003


Author(s):Annie C. Harris