Millions of Americans visit national parks and battlefields every year for what may be their only regular dose of American history, but historians who have begun scrutinizing the exhibits, films and lectures there have found some of them one-sided and disturbingly out of date.
Under an agreement with the National Park Service, which has had trouble keeping up with recent changes in the study of history, teams of scholars have begun re-examining how the agency presents the past at such places as the Civil War battlefield of Antietam and the Little Bighorn battlefield in Montana.
So far, they have found presentations heavy on military strategy and light on the broader context of events, as well as other issues that have preoccupied many historians since they began turning their attention in the 1970s and 1980s to the history of blacks, women, immigrants, workers and other groups. Agreeing on language to express broader social issues, of course, is often difficult.
A small group that toured the battlefields around Richmond in May reported that the exhibits barely touched upon the remarkable story of the largest hospital complex in the Confederate capital, which occupied the site of the current visitors' center and once employed hundreds of women and blacks.
And Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University who visited the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg with his family last summer, fired off an e-mail message to the Park Service reporting that he could not recall seeing a single mention of slavery at Gettysburg.
"My 9-year-old daughter said, 'I feel so sorry for those Confederate soldiers,' " Foner said in an interview. "I said: 'You should, because thousands of people died. But just remember, they were fighting to keep black people in slavery.' She said, 'Oh yes, I forgot.' "
"My point is, it's easy to forget at Gettysburg," Foner said.
The agreement between the Park Service and the Organization of American Historians, which represents 12,000 mostly academic historians, arose out of a recognition on both sides that more adult Americans get their continuing education in history from the parks than from almost any other source.
Many Park Service exhibits remain in place for 20 to 30 years, said Dr. Dwight T. Pitcaithley, the agency's chief historian. With 376 areas throughout the country and less than 1 percent of the agency's $1.2 billion budget going to exhibits, there are few chances to revise or update.
Rise of social history
But in recent decades the study of history has changed dramatically with the rise of what has been called the new social history, which includes the study of the experiences of previously neglected groups and the use of methods such as statistical analysis borrowed from other disciplines.
"If an exhibit is 20 to 30 years old, it is obvious there are perspectives that aren't there, whether it is Indian perspectives or African-American perspectives," Pitcaithley said. "We often speak about the Civil War in strictly military terms, but there's a social history to the Civil War."
The historians who visited the Richmond National Battlefield Park, which commemorates several battles to capture the Confederate capital, found the place, as Edward L. Ayers of the University of Virginia reported back to the Park Service, "dispiriting and confusing" with many of its exhibits "embarrassingly dated."
Ayers suggested that the Park Service was missing an opportunity to explore not only Union and Confederate strategy but also such issues as the changing role of African-American soldiers and civilians, the activities of women on the Confederate homefront, Civil War-era medicine and life in an American capital under siege.
In particular, the historians pointed to the scant attention given to the story of Chimborazo Hospital, which Sandra Gioia Treadway of the Library of Virginia called one of the most comprehensive hospitals of the day and "a city unto itself" that treated thousands of patients at a time.
More than regiments
The historians who toured Antietam, site of a battle that brought the bloodiest day of the Civil War, made similar observations. They said the Park Service did a good job interpreting the military side of the campaign but could place greater emphasis on the role of women and blacks and on the social context out of which the Emancipation Proclamation arose.
"So visitors will understand not only where regiments fought and whether generals succeeded or failed, but also what that meant in the broader sweep of the war," said Gary W. Gallagher of Pennsylvania State University. "Antietam is a perfect place to do that because it had enormous implications."
The Little Bighorn battlefield is among the most controversial of the Park Service's holdings, the focus of a 20-year dispute over the interpretation of the battle between the 7th Cavalry and Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians, in which Gen. George A. Custer and more than 260 soldiers were killed.