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Museums, Monuments, and National Parks

Toward a New Genealogy of Public History

Denise D. Meringolo

Publication Year: 2012

The rapid expansion of the field of public history since the 1970s has led many to believe that it is a relatively new profession. In this book, Denise D. Meringolo shows that the roots of public history actually reach back to the nineteenth century, when the federal government entered into the work of collecting and preserving the nation’s natural and cultural resources. Scientists conducting research and gathering specimens became key figures in a broader effort to protect and interpret the nation’s landscape. Their collaboration with entrepreneurs, academics, curators, and bureaucrats alike helped pave the way for other governmental initiatives, from the Smithsonian Institution to the parks and monuments today managed by the National Park Service. All of these developments included interpretive activities that shaped public understanding of the past. Yet it was not until the emergence of the education-oriented National Park Service history program in the 1920s and 1930s that public history found an institutional home that grounded professional practice simultaneously in the values of the emerging discipline and in government service. Even thereafter, tensions between administrators in Washington and practitioners on the ground at National Parks, monuments, and museums continued to define and redefine the scope and substance of the field. The process of definition persists to this day, according to Meringolo, as public historians establish a growing presence in major universities throughout the United States and abroad.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Public History in Historical Perspective

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Over the long course of this project, I have accumulated many debts, and despite my best efforts to acknowledge all of them here, I am sure to have neglected mentioning many of the kindnesses shown me. I am nonetheless deeply grateful for all the help, encouragement, and friendship I have received from many quarters. ...

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Prologue: A New Kind of Technician: In Search of the Culture of Public History

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pp. xiii-xxxii

When Verne Chatelain, the first chief historian of the National Park Service, recounted his efforts to create a “new kind of technician” during the 1930s, he implicitly understood that the historians he brought into his division were the inheritors of a distinct professional genealogy.1 ...

Part 1. Science and Government: Defining the Landscape

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1. A Matter of National Dignity: Education and Federal Authority

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pp. 3-25

During most of the nineteenth century both the study of nature and the study of history were perceived by many as a diversion for the leisured class. By the middle of the 1830s, however, some began to argue that research was more than a private intellectual pursuit. ...

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2. Managing the Landscape: National Parks, National Monuments, and the Use of Public Land

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pp. 26-56

The Civil War accelerated changes already taking shape in the nation’s economy, politics, and social life. Nonetheless, for many Americans the dissolution of the union and the end of slavery created a sense of sudden disruption. In the remaining decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the new one, a cult of novelty emerged ...

Part 2. Turning Nature into History: The National Park Service and the Culture of Public History

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3. Losing Their Identity: National Park Service Museums and Federal Collections

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pp. 59-83

In 1910 twenty-three-year-old Jesse Logan Nusbaum spent ten weeks scrambling on ancient, crumbling walls carved into the sheer face of a cliff. Barely a year into his job as Edgar Lee Hewett’s field assistant, Nusbaum was at work, repairing the cliff dwelling on behalf of the School of American Archaeology. ...

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4. Ignorant and Local-Minded Influences: Historic Sites and the Expansion of the National Park Service

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pp. 84-108

At one point, exhausted from yet another prolonged debate over the Hetch Hetchy dam proposal, Senator James Reed of Missouri complained, “The Senate of the United States has devoted a full week of time to discussing the disposition of about two square miles of land located at a point remote from civilization in the very heart of the Sierra Mountains ...

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5. Real Park Service Men: On the Ground and in the Books

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pp. 109-128

Horace Albright took over as director of the National Park Service in January 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression. As the economy worsened, Albright found himself in a familiar position. As acting director during World War I, he had worked on a shoestring. ...

Image Plates

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Part 3. Whom Do We Serve?: Public History and the Question of Authority

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6. Park Service Diggers: Public Historians and the Problem of Status

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pp. 131-152

Park Service holdings, staff, and attendance had expanded exponentially by the end of the 1930s. In 1931 the average number of personnel employed by the Park Service each month was 2,044. In 1935 it was 17,047. During the same period, the number of park museums nearly doubled from twenty-seven in 1933 to fifty-three in 1936. ...

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Conclusion: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History

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pp. 153-168

By the 1930s the National Park Service had become a standard bearer for historical planning and interpretation. Under the leadership of Harold Albright, a small but significant group of men crafted new strategies for the expansion of park holdings and the education of tourists, introducing history into the National Park Service management structure. ...

A Note on Sources

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pp. 169-170


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pp. 171-198


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pp. 199-207

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613762110
E-ISBN-10: 1613762119
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499393
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499393

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 12 illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Public History in Historical Perspective

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Public history -- United States -- History.
  • Historic preservation -- United States -- History.
  • Historic sites -- Conservation and restoration -- United States -- History.
  • Historical museums -- United States -- History.
  • National parks and reserves -- United States -- History.
  • Nature conservation -- United States -- History.
  • United States. -- National Park Service -- History.
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