Publication Date

January 1, 2000


Public History

Historians inside and outside the academy are indebted to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen for their systematic efforts to examine "how Americans understand the past." As they explain in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, they used a national telephone survey to ask respondents (among other things) how connected to the past they feel in various situations, and how trustworthy various sources of information are about the past. In their answers to these questions, significant numbers of interviewees ranked family gatherings and accounts by relatives, and museums and historic sites, higher than schools or classroom teachers.

The National Park Service (NPS) has a major stake in living up to that trust of presenting an accurate and comprehensive view of the past. More than 220 of the 377 National Park sites are cultural sites, focusing on history, anthropology, and archaeology. Visitors come to these parks seeking education and inspiration, sometimes long after their years in the classroom are over. For them, these 220 parks are sources of educational experiences, vessels of historical memory, and sometimes places that loom large in questions about personal and national identity.

The NPS is not only in the business of education. It straddles some of the intersections of education, recreation, and historic preservation. It also has roots in antiquarianism and ties to tourism. One of its challenges is to encourage visitors to connect historical trends and contexts with surviving buildings, landscapes, and artifacts. Another is the necessity of making choices about which parts of the human-shaped environment are the most important ones to preserve, as evidence of past human activity.

Among the tools that the NPS uses to try to meet these challenges is a thematic framework, intended as a comprehensive outline of broad themes in U.S. history to assist in communicating American history to the public. Initially developed in 1936, the framework has been particularly useful as a tool for evaluating how well the National Park System reflects the sweep of American history (the framework can be seen at; a discussion about the framework is at The NPS and the scholars who worked with the NPS to develop various versions of the thematic frameworks understood the categorization and classification of cultural resources according to historical topics as a necessary tool both for a comprehensive, contextual overview of cultural resources and for the comparative analysis of the relative significance of individual resources. The framework has proved useful as a checklist of possible contexts to address in NPS educational and interpretive programs in parks. However, the key role for the thematic framework has been in identifying gaps in the park system and assessing and justifying the addition of new parks.

Since it became evident that only a few sites could be added as national parks, the Congress established a National Historic Landmark Program (NHL) in 1960 to recognize and encourage the preservation of nationally significant properties outside of the park system. The NPS used its thematic framework to inform and guide the selection of landmarks.

The earliest framework focused on relatively few broad themes, such as the development of the English colonies and the westward expansion, that stemmed from a view of American history as a "march of progress." The 1987 revision used both a chronological and topical approach and expanded the number of themes to 34, with numerous subthemes and items so that there were over 600 different categories. Some critics of the 1987 framework contended that it pigeonholed sites far too narrowly and represented too limiting an approach to the past. For example, Congress passed legislation in 1990 directing the NPS to conduct a study of alternatives for commemorating and protecting resources associated with the Underground Railroad. Turning to the 1987 framework for guidance, the NPS staff discovered that despite all the numerous categories, places in the framework for this study were limited to the subtheme of abolitionism under the theme of humanitarian and social movements or the subtheme of slavery and plantation life under the theme of American ways of life.

In 1988 the historical profession began to register its concern about the framework. Both the Professional Division of the American Historical Association and the board of the Organization of American Historians passed resolutions in 1990 calling on Congress to fund the reexamination and revision of the NPS's national historic thematic framework. The resolutions contended that the existing framework was outdated and did not adequately reflect the breadth of available scholarship. Representative Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), who chaired the House subcommittee with oversight responsibility for the NPS, and historian Heather Huyck, his legislative aide, were strong supporters of strengthening history in the parks and became effective allies in this cause. In a late night session in fall 1990, when Congress was considering the Arizona wilderness bill, Representative Vento, with Huyck working vigorously behind the scenes, managed to attach to this bill a provision dealing with the revision of the thematic framework. On November 28, 1990, President Bush signed Public Law 101-628, the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act and Title XII on "Civil War and Other Studies," which included a section on the "Revision of the Thematic Framework." The law stated that the secretary of the interior "in coordination with the major scholarly and professional organizations" was to undertake "a complete revision of the NPS 'Thematic Framework' to reflect current scholarship and research" and "the full diversity of American history and prehistory."

For several years, the NPS seemed at a loss about the task of revising the framework; however, in 1993 the NPS signed a cooperative agreement with the Organization of American Historians to bring together a group of scholars, preservationists, NPS officials, and others to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the 1987 framework and to develop a rough draft of a revised framework. The 31-person working group met in Washington, D.C., for two days in May 1993 and completely reenvisioned the framework, fostering an interdisciplinary approach that reflected more accurately the kinds of questions about culture and society that are meaningful to scholars and to the general public today. The group struggled with issues of chronology, periodization, regionalism, cultural diversity, prioritizing of the past, and the need to shift to a perceptual framework that asked not only "what happened" but also "how and why." For the first time, the framework responded to the riches of social history.

What emerged from the 1993 meeting was a transformed thematic framework with eight concepts that span the broad ranges of human activities: peopling places, creating social institutions and movements, expressing cultural values, shaping the political landscape, developing the American economy, expanding science and technology, transforming the environment, and the changing role of the United States in the world community. Under each theme, the group listed topics that help define the theme and offered illustrations using specific sites. The working group emphasized the way the concepts overlap, and the meeting's report graphically showed the broad themes as a set of interlocking circles. The participants sought a structure that would capture the complexity and meaning of human experience in the past and make that a coherent, integrated whole. In addition to the broad themes, the narrative portion of the report stressed that connecting the eight concepts are three historical building blocks: people, time, and place.

The goal of the revision was to provide a basic intellectual context for evaluating and interpreting the prehistoric and historic resources under the aegis of the NPS. Instead of separating historical and anthropological concerns into separate spheres, as had been the case in earlier frameworks, this new framework connects them. While the old framework set up multiple, but largely exclusive, compartments, the revised framework makes clear that at any given site multiple themes will simultaneously be relevant. Furthermore, the new framework encourages a more thorough examination of cultural and social processes. It invites interdisciplinary consideration of larger trends. It fosters discussion of fundamental social and economic structures and an analysis of change over time. In using the revised thematic framework, NPS staff will recognize more readily the larger implications and research possibilities of a site and better answer such key questions as "Why does this place really matter?" For example, the old thematic framework invited users to end their discussion simply by saying "This is a significant Revolutionary War site," connected either with politics and diplomacy, or with one of the theaters of military action in that war. The current themes, instead, pose questions about how such a place may shed light upon demographics and community building, the development and expression of ideologies and social and political institutions, and foreign relations. These themes ask NPS planners, historians, archaeologists, and ethnographers to stay focused on fundamental aspects of human endeavors and social relationships, in keeping with interdisciplinary approaches in current scholarship.

The National Park Service has been using the revised framework for several years in various planning efforts. It was used, for example, when the NPS embarked on a congressionally mandated planning venture called the Lower Mississippi Delta Region Heritage Study. The broad themes of the framework were the organizing principles for a set of "Stories of the Delta." The framework is also providing structure for a National Historic Landmark study called "The Earliest Americans."

The NPS thematic framework also has potential to improve the design of park interpretive programs. In practice, the previous frameworks had been mainly used for the evaluation of proposals for NHLs and additions to the National Park System. It had little impact on interpretive and educational programs in established parks. The revised framework is a vastly better tool for those purposes. Planners, educators, historians, archeologists, and ethnographers can look at this framework as a checklist of potential questions to ensure a broad view of what NPS staff and visitors should understand about the important contexts of a park's history.

At this point, NPS staff are still fleshing out the implications of the framework. Although many of them recognize the theoretical advantages the framework represents, some are skeptical about its practical utility. However, dealing with ambiguities and complexities is what this framework requires. This necessitates a shift in thinking for people accustomed to the old framework's pigeonholes. As a tool, this thematic framework has the potential of making various NPS programs not merely more complex, but truer to the many-faceted and polyglot nature of our cultures and societies.

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