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The New National Park Service Thematic Framework for History and Prehistory

Barbara J. Little


The National Park Service (NPS) adopted its first thematic outline in 1936 and has revised it several times. In 1991, Public Law 101-628, Section 1209 directed the NPS to revise its thematic framework for history and prehistory to reflect current scholarship and represent the full diversity of America's past. The new framework is a dramatic departure from the former one because the practice of history has changed dramatically.

This revision presents a larger and more integrated view of history. It emphasizes the process of how to study history but does not identify what to study. It allows flexibility for identifying appropriate time periods and region. It stresses the interplay of race, ethnicity, class, and gender within and among the framework's broadened topics. Indigenous Americans and their activities are now considered under all themes rather than under special separate themes.

Although the thematic framework is used widely within the NPS, its most visible role has been as a structure for designing National Historic Landmark (NHL) theme studies. The topics for theme studies will continue to be identified through many of the same sources as before: congressional mandates; NPS planning needs; and the professional judgments by NPS cultural resource specialists, state historic preservation offices, specially convened boards or committees of scholars, other federal agencies, and other sources.

The NHL Archaeology Committee, organized under a cooperative agreement between the Society for American Archaeology and the National Park Service, has identified topics and contributed to NHL theme studies. Robert Grumet edited his recent theme study on historic contact in the northeastern United States into a book published by University of Oklahoma Press in 1995. Currently, the NHL committee, in cooperation with the NPS, is researching the theme of "Earliest Americans" using this revised thematic framework. The committee is also involved in the archaeological components of theme studies on the Underground Railroad and labor history.

The NHL Archaeology Committee, chaired by Shereen Lerner, also reviews and comments on every archaeological NHL nomination before it is presented to the NPS Advisory Board and, following their approval, it is presented to the secretary of interior.

The revised thematic framework is printed here in greatly abbreviated form. It, along with general guidance for its use, is also available through the NPS homepage at You may request a printed version from National Register, History and Education, P.O. Box 37127, Mail Stop 2280, Washington, DC 20013-7127.

Revision of the National Park Service's Thematic Framework, 1996


New scholarship has changed dramatically the way we look at the past. That remaking or redefining of the past has expanded the boundaries of inquiry to encompass not only great men and events but also ordinary people and everyday life.

So profound have been these changes that the group charged with infusing the new scholarship into the NPS thematic framework quickly concluded that an entirely new approach was needed. The first NPS framework, adopted in 1936, was conceived in terms of the "stages of American progress" and served to celebrate the achievements of the founding fathers and the inevitable march of democracy. Revisions in 1970 and 1987 substantially changed the framework's format and organization but not its basic conceptualization of the past. The present revision represents a clear break with that conceptualization.

The framework's themes are represented in the diagram. They embrace prehistory to the modern period and a multiplicity of human experiences. The diagram reflects how scholarship is dramatically changing the way we look at the past, reconstructing it as an integrated, diverse, complex, human experience. Each segment in the diagram represents a significant aspect of the human experience. The reality of the interrelationships is reflected in the overlapping circles.

The framework draws upon the work of scholars across disciplines to provide a structure for both capturing the complexity and meaning of human experience and making that past a coherent, integrated whole. For purposes of organization, the following outline, like the diagram, provides eight seemingly discrete categories, but they are not meant to be mutually exclusive. Cutting across and connecting the eight categories are three historical building blocks: people, time, and place.

figure People: The centrality of people may seem obvious but should not be taken for granted. In every category of the outline, consideration of the variables of race, ethnicity, class, and gender will help us better grasp the full range of human experience.

Time: Time is central to both prehistory and history, not simply as a mechanism to locate or isolate events in history, but also as the focus of our concern with process and change over time. The emphasis is not on "what happened" but rather on "how and why," on the transformations that turn the past into the present.

Place: This framework acknowledges the richness of local and regional experiences and recognizes difference in place, particularly regional difference, as an important factor in a fuller understanding of both the origins of national change and the impact of national trends and events.

People, time, and place reach across all eight themes and contribute to the interconnections among the themes. One example that can be used to illustrate this interconnectedness is a Southern plantation dating from the 1830s. A quick survey suggests that the significance of this site cuts across every category of the outline. The move of a planter, his family, and his sizable household of slaves from Tidewater Virginia to land purchased from the Choctaws in Alabama would fall obviously under "Peopling Places," but the economic imperatives and agricultural developments that triggered the move and the adaptation of the plantation system to the new environment would fit under "Developing the American Economy," "Expanding Science and Technology," and "Transforming the Environment." While the lives of the plantation's white and black, male and female inhabitants fall under "Peopling Places" and "Creating Social Institutions and Movements," the design and construction of the distinctive "big house" illustrates the theme of "Expressing Cultural Values." The transfer of the planter's political power from Virginia to Alabama and the role of the planter class in antebellum Alabama falls under "Shaping the Political Landscape." Finally, the planter's dependence on the cotton economy and his influential role in international trade on the eve of the Civil War tie directly into "Developing the American Economy" and "Changing Role of the U.S. in the World." The outline suggests that users think broadly, not narrowly, that they look beyond traditional categories of historical significance in an effort to recapture the larger meaning and depth of past experience.

The framework rests on the assumption that, just as our understanding of the past has been reshaped in recent decades, so it will continue to evolve in the future. It should not be viewed as a final document or definitive statement. It is a part of an ongoing effort to ensure that the preservation and interpretation of our nation's historic and prehistoric resources continue to be informed by the best scholarship available.

I. Peopling Places

This theme examines human population movement and change through prehistoric and historic times. It also looks at family formation, at different concepts of gender, family, and sexual division of labor, and at how they have been expressed in the American past.

The nature of communities is varied, dynamic, and complex. Ethnic homelands are a special type of community that existed before incorporation into the political entity known as the United States. For example, many Indian sites, such as Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, are on tribal lands occupied by Indians for centuries. Similarly, Hispanic communities, such as those represented by San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, had their origins in Spanish and Mexican history.

Topics that help define this theme include: (1) family and the life cycle; (2) health, nutrition, and disease; (3) migration from outside and within; (4) community and neighborhood; (5) ethnic homelands; (6) encounters, conflicts, and colonization.

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II. Creating Social Institutions and Movements

This theme focuses upon the diverse formal and informal structures such as schools or voluntary associations through which people express values and live their lives. Americans generate temporary movements and create enduring institutions in order to define, sustain, or reform these values. Why people organize to transform their institutions is as important to understand as how they choose to do so. Thus, both the diverse motivations people act on and the strategies they employ are critical concerns of social history.

Topics that help define this theme include: (1) clubs and organizations; (2) reform movements; (3) religious institutions; (4) recreational activities.

III. Expressing Cultural Values

This theme covers expressions of culturepeople's beliefs about themselves and the world they inhabit. For example, Boston's African American Historic Site reflects the role of ordinary Americans and the diversity of the American cultural landscape. This theme also encompasses the ways that people communicate their moral and aesthetic values, as illustrated by the gardens and studio in New Hampshire of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of America's most eminent sculptors.

Topics that help define this theme include: (1) educational and intellectual currents; (2) visual and performing arts; (3) literature; (4) mass media; (5) architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design; (6) popular and traditional culture.

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IV. Shaping the Political Landscape

This theme encompasses tribal, local, state, and federal political and governmental institutions that create public policy and those groups that seek to shape both policies and institutions.

Places associated with this theme include battlefields and forts, such as Saratoga National Historical Park in New York and Fort Sumter National Monument in South Carolina, as well as sites such as Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia that commemorate watershed events in the life of the nation.

Topics that help define this theme include: (1) parties, protests, and movements; (2) governmental institutions; (3) military institutions and activities; (4) political ideas, cultures, and theories.

V. Developing the American Economy

This theme reflects the ways Americans have worked, including slavery, servitude, and non-wage as well as paid labor. It also reflects the ways they have materially sustained themselves by the processes of extraction, agriculture, production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

Vital aspects of economic history are manifested in regional centers, such as ranching on the Great Plains, illustrated by Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana. Individual economic sites may be distinctive in representing both the lives of workers and technological innovations.

In examining the diverse working experiences of the American people, this theme encompasses the activities of farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, and managers, as well as the technology around them. It also takes into account the historical "layering" of economic society, including class formation and changing standards of living in diverse sectors of the nation. Knowledge of both the Irish laborer and the banker, for example, are important in understanding the economy of the 1840s.

Topics that help define this theme include: (1) extraction and production; (2) distribution and consumption; (3) transportation and communication; (4) workers and work culture; (5) labor organizations and protests; (6) exchange and trade; (7) governmental policies and practices; (8) economic theory.

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VI. Expanding Science and Technology

This theme focuses on science, which is modern civilization's way of organizing and conceptualizing knowledge about the world and the universe beyond. This is done through the physical sciences, the social sciences, and medicine. Technology is the application of human ingenuity to modification of the environment in both modern and traditional cultures. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument in Texas reflects pre-Columbian innovations while Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey reflects technological advancement in historic times. Technologies can be particular to certain regions and cultures.

Topics that help define this theme include: (1) experimentation and invention; (2) technological applications; (3) scientific thought and theory; (4) effects on lifestyle and health.

VII. Transforming the Environment

This theme examines the variable and changing relationships between people and their environment, which continuously interact. The environment is where people live, the place that supports and sustains life. The American environment today is largely a human artifact, so thoroughly has human occupation affected all its features. Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, which includes portions of the Ohio and Erie Canal, for example, is a cultural landscape that links natural and human systems, including cities, suburbs, towns, countryside, forest, wilderness, and water bodies.

Topics that help define this theme include: (1) manipulating the environment and its resources; (2) adverse consequences and stresses on the environment; (3) protecting and preserving the environment.

VIII: Changing Role of the United States in the World Community

This theme explores diplomacy, trade, cultural exchange, security and defense, expansionism and, at times, imperialism. The interactions among indigenous peoples, between this nation and native peoples, and this nation and the world have all contributed to American history. Additionally, this theme addresses regional variations, since, for example, in the eighteenth century, the Spanish southwest, French and Canadian middle west, and British eastern seaboard had different diplomatic histories. The emphasis inthis category is on people and institutionsfrom the principals who define and formulate diplomatic policy to the private institutions that influence America's diplomatic, cultural, social, and economic affairs.

Topics that help define this theme include: (1) international relations; (2) commerce; (3) expansionism and imperialism; (4) immigration and emigration policies.

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