Publication Date

October 1, 2005

Perspectives Section


In June 2005, Dwight T. Pitcaithley retired as chief historian of the National Park Service (NPS), after a distinguished career that began in 1976. Janet Snyder Matthews, the National Park Service’s associate director for cultural resources, will soon begin a national search for his replacement.

History in the National Park Service

Finding the next chief historian is an important step for the National Park Service. It comes at a time when the NPS is more conscious than ever of the need to pursue its educational mission vigorously. The NPS has long been among the most conspicuous stewards of places where people come to commemorate and learn about American history, and to gain fresh perspectives on the intersections of history and memory. While for many Americans "National Park Service" immediately conjures up visions of Yosemite Falls and the Grand Canyon, the National Park System today includes more places set aside for human history than for natural history—and it is as remarkable for research potential as it is for grand scenery. Horace M. Albright, the second director of the National Park Service, said:

Again from the educational standpoint—the incalculable value of the national parks and national monuments as research laboratories has been recognized by a number of schools, including important universities, and many field classes are held therein, particularly in ecology, geology, and archeology….There is no doubt but that this use of the parks as field schools will increase in the future, side by side with the growth in tourism travel. Thus the parks have an important destiny in the future of our national life, from the standpoints of educational, spiritual, and recreational values.1

Albright could have added history to his list along with archaeology and geology. When those words appeared in print, in 1933, the National Park Service was engaged in a major expansion of the number and variety of the historic places in its care. Albright had recently hired Verne E. Chatelaine as the first NPS chief historian. Since then, the NPS has aspired to represent broad trends and themes of American history in comprehensive ways.

Today, the National Park System reaches large audiences for historical analysis and scholarship. In 2000 alone, more than 13 million visitors came to just 17 of the parks connected with the American Revolution. The system presents major opportunities for public reflection about how we got to where we are today, and for critical thinking about how we construct history. Given that "historical literacy" remains an issue for historians and contemporary American society, it’s worth noting that historic places in the system can serve multiple functions, as historical evidence, as virtual classrooms, and as public spaces for ongoing civic dialogue about the roots of current issues.

Ensuring that park visitors—actual as well as virtual visitors to the web site—have opportunities to engage the best of current historical scholarship has always been the NPS’s mission, obligation, and challenge. In 2005, the obligations and challenges also include taking advantage of new media; using new approaches to learning that are better geared to families, children, and adult learners; and finding better evaluation techniques. The NPS is working to serve publics who are already bombarded by new media and who face challenges of their own as they seek to understand the historical roots of global and national change. Historic places (and national parks) connect visitors with tangible evidence of history in ways that are increasingly absent in our world.

ManzanarThe Roles of the Chief Historian

The chief historian is a primary advocate for history within the National Park Service, and also a principal liaison between the NPS and the historical profession at large.

The chief historian leads a small staff in Washington, D.C., and also, by persuasion and example, influences interpretive and educational programs, research, and preservation of historic resources at parks across the nation, from the U.S.S.Arizona and the Manzanar War Relocation Center to Ellis Island and the copper mining communities of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The National Park System has sometimes been described and envisioned as a kind of place-based textbook of American history. Individual parks illustrate specific historic trends and episodes, and are the focus of important research, resource protection, and educational efforts. The chief historian promotes excellence in park historical programs and helps parks integrate the best of current historical methodologies into park research, interpretation, planning, management, and stewardship.

More broadly speaking—and beyond the individual parks and their particular natural and cultural histories—the National Park System as a whole affords rich opportunities to examine environmental history and the effects of human activities on the environment. As a system of parks, it also provides numerous windows into the intersections of history and memory in this country. From Civil War battlefields to Independence Hall, commemoration and the shaping of historical memory are among the American phenomena evidenced in the National Park System. As a result, the chief historian is positioned to promote a broader understanding, among NPS staff and managers and by the public, of larger environmental and cultural contexts for history in American society. Within the NPS, that means encouraging exploration and inquiry by park staffs and managers into the larger questions connected with the stories of individual parks. The chief historian also has an important role in current NPS efforts to become more self-conscious about its role in civic education and civic reflection. The chief historian also fosters the long-standing NPS "administrative history" program for looking at, and putting in context, our own actions as a federal agency.

The chief historian enhances connections between the National Park Service and the historical profession through cooperative agreements, joint projects, and educational opportunities for NPS personnel with colleges and universities, research institutions, and historical organizations. Since 1994, the NPS has developed cooperative agreements with the Organization of American Historians, the Western Historical Association, and the National Council on Public History. The NPS now seeks to expand the historical work that goes on within the Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units (CESUs).

CESUs are partnerships that pair universities with federal agencies to facilitate research, technical assistance, and education for federal land management, environmental, and research agencies. Along with 12 other federal agencies, NPS is part of a network of these CESUs, and the resulting partnerships provide yet another means of taking advantage of scholarly expertise outside the NPS.

As some academic historians have become more conscious of the need to engage publics in new ways, the National Park Service is rethinking its roles as an educational institution and steward of some of this country’s most cherished and fraught historic places. The next chief historian will be in a position to continue that emphasis at a critical time for the National Park System.

— is the acting manager of the NPS park history program. She can be contacted at 202-354-2219 or by e-mail to for details about the chief historian position.


1 Horace M. Albright, “Research in the National Parks,” The Scientific Monthly 36 (1933): 483–501, as quoted in Lary M. Dilsaver, ed.,America’s National Park System: The Critical Documents (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1994), 131.

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