Challenging historic site visitors to evaluate evidence

In a recent article in the journal Public Historian, Daniel E. Coslett and Manish Chalana offered an analysis of and suggestions for improving the diversity of historical interpretation in sites managed by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS).1 They point out the larger problem of an increasingly diverse American population that is not reflected in the staffing or audience of national parks.

Their article specifically examined two sites in Washington state, the Whitman Mission National Historic Site and the San Juan Island National Historical Park. The Whitman Mission site, chartered in 1936, “commemorates the 1847 murder of the missionary Whitman family by a group of Cayuse and Umatilla Native Americans.” The San Juan Island site, established in 1966, “memorializes the so-called ‘Pig War’ between the United States and Great Britain, a boundary dispute marked by years of stalemate that was ultimately resolved through peaceful arbitration in 1872.”

Both sites, as well as others managed by the NPS, face challenges, including declining visitation numbers and an audience that is predominantly white. Updating interpretation to better meet the needs and perspectives of a diverse audience — and to more accurately tell the American story — is a significant undertaking for the NPS. Coslett and Chalana suggest several ways the NPS could improve the sites from the standpoint of historical interpretation, but they do not directly address historical thinking.

Given what I have been learning in a course on teaching and learning history at George Mason University, one way that historical thinking could be addressed at these sites is to enhance how the visiting public engages with evidence from the past. Rather than just having interpreters tell visitors what happened — even if these interpretations today are more nuanced than earlier — the audience should be encouraged to confront and interrogate multiple forms of evidence that tell the stories of these sites. This can be applied to both the physical structures on these sites2 as well as to documents related to the sites.

This calls for active engagement of visitors with evidence from the past, rather than passive reception of information about the past. The Whitman Mission’s website, for example, provides transcriptions of letters and journal entries penned by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. These provide some insights into the Whitmans’ reason for traveling to what was then known in the United States as Oregon Country, as well as their relationships with Native Americans. As Coslett and Chalana noted, the website of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation offers its own interpretation of what happened at Whitman Mission. Evidence that supports this interpretation also could be offered to visitors, who could compare it with what they read in the letters and journals. They then might develop historical questions that would be answered by site interpreters.

In this way, visitors would become participants in their own learning about the past. Because they would be the ones formulating questions — engaging in historical thinking — their experiences at NPS sites could be more valuable.

1. Daniel E. Coslett and Manish Chalana, “National Parks for New Audiences: Diversifying Interpretation for Enhanced Contemporary Relevance,” The Public Historian 38:4 (November 2016), pp. 101-128.

2. See, for example, Christine Baron, “Understanding Historical Thinking at Historic Sites,” Journal of Educational Psychology 104:3 (2012), pp. 833–847.