Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Figurative Breaths of Fresh Air

Do you have a cake-hangover from all that celebrating yesterday (and the last three weeks, really)? Whew! Yesterday was the almost-big day for the National Park Service and today is just the day after! So we can get back to our regularly-scheduled programming, right? Sure.

Within the National Park Service, there exists a notion that because the resource is a part of a park it is inherently important. I get it. There is a sense of pride of our parks and from our parks and that sometimes trickles into how we tell the stories at the parks (or what days we choose to celebrate accchh-Founders Day-chhhooo). In most cases, visitors don't question the importance of these places. In some cases, staff don't really question the importance. Most visitors do not show up and say "who were the socially responsible individuals who advocated to preserve this place/story/house/field/glacier/etc.?" and I doubt even less wonder "at what cost?" or "with what agenda?"

I do believe, however, there are still enough people that show up and ask the generic "why?" "Why this site? Why this person? Why this story?" That's good. Staff should know this is coming (just like "where are the restrooms" and "what's a good place to eat around here"). The answer to the "why" should not just be "it is historic." And the answer should not be a canned response that doesn't actually answer the question like "because it was a part of the Civil War." And the answer is certainly not "because it is a part of the National Park Service." Answers like those prompt responses like "who cares?" or "so what?"

When the "why" question is answered with those examples, content that follows is stale. No fresh air, no relevancy. In most cases, however, the places and stories and houses and fields and glaciers were preserved for distinct and special reasons beyond those stale responses. The mandate within the National Park Service is the idea that these sites exist to conserve the resources all provide for the enjoyment for future generations. Does that mean the parks just exist until a generation shows up? When are we the future generation? What do we do with the present generation while waiting for the future?

For starters, a great way to conserve with an eye to the future is being present. As an exercise, ask and answer "why this place, story, house, field, hole in the ground, or glacier?" and then ask and answer it again. Did you get the same response that you got last year and the year before and maybe twenty years ago? Then, it is stale. Now, remove the arrowhead. (It's ok, we will put it back after the exercise). Pretend that the place is not a part of the National Park Service (or state-managed museum or university-funded historic house, etc); what happens when you ask that question again? How does your place, story, house, field, hole in the ground, or glacier help tell the story of the human population that happens to identify itself as "America" today? What happened there that contributed to a larger story? "People died." Why? What did that impact? "They fought in a battle." Why? What did that impact? "A war was won (or lost*)." Why? What did that impact? "Our nation's idea of freedom(s) shifted here." Why? What did that impact? How does this place relate today? If you had a magic pen, what would you write or rewrite as a means of legislation to preserve this place for future generations?

Scholarship and society continually changes. That means how we tell the stories should continually change, too. More people are doing research that can help fuel this present-thinking exercise. What is changing in the scholarship within your field? How society thinks about itself continually changes. How societal members place themselves within a larger context changes. With all these changes, it is only appropriate that your answer to "why" meets people in the present. When you meet visitors where they are, you help them make connections to the resource(s). Your resource is not the arrowhead, it is not the flat hat, it is not the green-shaded space on the map. You have to think beyond that. Once they make their own connections, it is easier for folks to start caring about the site's resource and maybe even take an interest in the grander scheme of things (once they care about what is within, you might even convince them to care about an agency like the National Park Service... not the other way around).

Just think what can happen when visitors engage in parks or historic sites and are able to take a figurative breath of fresh air.

Ok. Go ahead and replace whatever agency icon you momentarily striped away for the sake of this mental exercise.

*Until we acknowledge that there are losers in war, we are always going to keep a heroic association to devastation.
**Yes, yes, my own opinions, my own time, my own photos, etc.


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