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Musings on Museums, Monuments and National Parks

La Salle University
Graduate Program in Public History

January 25, 2020

Thoughts on Museums, Monuments and National Parks: Towards a New Genealogy of Public History by Denise D. Meringolo

My family lived in Calgary, Alberta when I was a little girl. We moved there when I was seven and left when I was twelve after my dad found new employment in Eastern Canada. Our home in Calgary was about an hour away from the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, and they are indeed majestic. My parents frequently drove my brother and I to the mountains on the weekends for hikes, camping, and ranger programs at the interpretive center in Banff National Park. https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/banff

As an adult, I now feel a deep sense of peace and tranquility when I am in a stretch of wilderness, or even simple nature, such as a wooded city trail. My eyes scan the sky and land for wildlife, flowers, trees that shiver with life. I prefer not to listen to music when I’m surrounded by the outdoors, so I can be part of the deeply restorative world around me. In nature time shifts, ebbs, lurches forward, making us everything and nothing all at once. The land silently marks the folly of humanity. Presidents die, wars start and end, borders shift, people wear saddle shoes then sneakers then Crocs made of a foam resin, but still the mountains stand and the oceans heave. [Cont'd by clicking under the image below.]

When I was a teenager, I didn’t understand how profoundly my early years in the Rocky Mountains influenced me. As an adult, I know now that those years hiking and exploring mountain trails and participating in national park activities cemented a deeper connection to how I would go on to experience the world for the remaining decades of my life.

When I was twelve, we took a driving vacation south into the United States from Calgary. I clearly remember being astonished by Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm as the geyser erupted with jaw dropping precision from a deceptively calm earth. I also walked through a trail in the park where water pooled in shades of cerulean blue and lime green, bubbling with heat and some unknown mystery of existence. The trip culminated in a visit to Grand Canyon National Park https://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm. My twelve-year-old self was dazed. Who knew the world could be so vast? How could the land cleave in such a dramatic way to create what I was seeing? What else would I see if I travelled far and wide?

I have now lived in the United States for eleven years and been a US citizen for two years. I’m a supporter of the national parks and frequently donate financially to help protect them, so that the mountains can still stand without being abused, and the oceans can continue to heave without being choked with pollution and plastics, or at least less than if they didn't have guardianship. I had known nothing, however, about the history of the national parks and their evolution across the US.

In Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2012, UMBC professor Denise D. Meringolo illustrates the journey of how US national parks evolved in tandem with large cultural museums such as the Smithsonian. (Although Meringolo’s book deftly explores the expansion of the field of public history since the 19th century, for me, the history of the national parks was especially fascinating.)

In the beginning, writes Meringolo, it was scientists who began selecting nationally significant places (p. xxix), and saw the need to protect landscapes and artifacts for future generations. This resulted in contentious relationships in the 19th century between the museums of the Smithsonian and the Park Services museums (p. xxx) as the parks strove to prove that their museums were just as culturally and materially valuable as those in Washington and other urban think tank centers. These disputes and the resulting questions “laid the philosophical foundation for defining history as an arena of public service” (p.xxxi) in the years to come.

Yellowstone became America’s first national park in 1872. In 1906, President Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave presidents the authority to create national monuments to preserve areas of natural or historic interest on public lands. Then in 1916, President Wilson established the National Park Service to consolidate management of America’s (at the time) 34 federal parks under a single agency. In 1931, Verne Chatelain became the first chief historian of the National Park Service. I found this interesting oral history with Mr. Chatelain online at

http://npshistory.com/publications/chatelain-interview.htm

It was Chatelain’s job, writes Meringolo, to “‘breathe the breath of life into American history for those to whom it has heretofore been a dull recital of meaningless facts to re-create for the average citizen something of the color, the pageantry, and the dignity of our national past.’” (p.106)

America’s national parks were given their modern shape by the huge programs enabled and powered by FDR’s New Deal during the depression years. In addition to roads and physical infrastructure, parks received status as educational centers and museums of nature. More specifically, Congress embraced and cemented the fact that “exposure to nature would inspire visitors to relent in their undignified search for recreation and accept nature conservation as a more important national value.” (p. 87)

The US now has 61 national parks stretching from Alaska to Key West, Florida. To see them all you would have to visit 29 states. From the time I myself first visited national parks, both American and Canadian, to now with my own children, I am firmly onboard with the understanding that national parks and monuments are important museums of nature. We owe it to future generations to fund, protect, and invest in these natural museums.

 

Me while family camping, Banff National Park. I'm on the left at the front. 

My friend Lisa at an interpretive stop along the hiking trail. I took this photo; I couldn't find the one of me. Circa 1980-ish