TCS Daily

Culture Wars at the Park Service

By Jackson Kuhl - July 25, 2005 12:00 AM

The recent restructuring of the National Park Service's Cultural Resources department has rattled historical preservationists -- so much so that archaeologist Dr. Ian W. Brown has resigned from two committees in protest.

Brown, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama, quit his position as Chair of the Society for American Archaeology National Historic Landmarks Committee, which he held since 1997. The SAA-NHL is an advisory committee made up of members of the influential Society and the Society for Historical Archaeology to provide the Park Service with documentation and recommendations regarding archaeological sites.


Brown also resigned from the National Historic Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service Advisory Board. Jerry Rogers, a former Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, issued a statement supporting Brown.


The reorganization has divided the Cultural Resources department into 14 offices and expands the position of Assistant Director into three Assistant Associate Directors, who report to the Associate Director, the department's chief. Each Assistant Associate Director is now responsible for one of three areas: cultural resources within National Parks; historic documentation, which includes historic structures outside park service, surveys, and listing on the National Register of Historic Places; and preservation assistance programs to which people can apply for grant money.


Also, the title of Keeper of the National Register has been re-elevated to the Associate Director level. Rogers himself held the title of Keeper when he was Associate Director, but since 1994, the Keeper has been Carol Shull, who was also Chief of the National Historic Landmarks Survey. Shull will now head Heritage Education Resources Services within the department, where she will be responsible for developing websites and itineraries for historically minded travelers.


According to an NPS spokesman, the reorganization was primarily driven by a new four-year effort to bring the nomination process to the National Register online. There are currently 80,000 nominations, with 1,500 received every year. The goal is to move these records into an accessible database while implementing a web-based nomination process. This way, individuals can make a nomination sans paper, check its status at any time, and, if rejected, go back to look at similar rejections so as to rework their nomination if they wish to resubmit.


The spokesman said that there have been no resignations or firings within the department as a result of the new structure, though some scheduled retirements have gone forward. Everyone has kept their pay grade.


So why the rancor?


Some criticism regards the new workflow and a complaint that the reorganization was done without input from department workers. But the outrage has everything to do with Dr. Jan Matthews, the Associate Director, and her stripping Shull of the title of Keeper of the National Register and Napoleonically crowning herself the new Keeper. Rogers has called this "the May 3 massacre" and Brown said Shull's reassignment to "a menial post" is what sparked his protest.


Matthews assumed the post of Associate Director in 2004. She had previously worked as the Florida Director of the Division of Historical Resources from 1999 to 2003, where she had a reputation for inexperience and micromanagement among some of her coworkers.


"The perception was that she did not really understand what archaeologists, folklorists, architects, museum directors, and graphic designers do in their work," said one former coworker. Another veteran of her administration said Matthews was unfamiliar with both the vernacular and the way various agencies, advisory boards, and departments interacted. She often forced staff to rewrite standard memos that had been previously approved and routinely refused in-state travel requests -- archaeology and other cultural-resource management obviously requiring a certain amount of fieldwork.


Still, Matthews also had the unenviable task of overseeing departmental downsizing as a result of post-bubble state budget wars.


Matthews is a well-known friend and booster of Katherine Harris, who was Florida Secretary of State during Matthews's tenure at the Division of Historical Resources. Washington being Washington, her ascendancy during a Republican administration may explain a great deal of mutual animosity.


Political partisanship in the nation's capital. Who woulda thunk?


TCS Daily Archives