Examining Public History: U.S. History Classes in the Presidio

US History in the Presidio
Examining how the Presidio’s history has been communicated in a wayside guide

Inspiration comes from many places. For U.S. History’s most recent unit, it came from one resource in particular: Bay’s home, the Presidio. Three years ago, the U.S. history faculty made a commitment to add local history to the curriculum by tapping into the Presidio’s myriad offerings, while encouraging their students to critically examine how history is communicated throughout the national park.

Students began the unit by exploring California’s indigenous history with a closer look at Ohlone society and systems. Trips to the overlook from the Main Post’s parade grounds and to Thompson Reach gave students the opportunity to explore how the natural environment would have looked before the Spanish arrived, while a tour of El Polin Spring brought up questions of how the Ohlone and Spanish cultures interacted early in the colonial period. Throughout the class, students paid close attention to systems of power, and how these systems shaped identity.

US History in the Presidio
Critiquing more wayside signs

During their Presidio explorations – and in conjunction with primary and secondary sources – students also began to evaluate the Presidio’s telling of public history. During trips to El Polin Spring and the Presidio Chapel Mural, students read wayside guides and instructional brochures on the areas’ history and significance. A tour of the Presidio Quadrangle provided students with another type of historical interpretation. While the signs and tour guides provided historical facts, students began to analyze if these interpretations communicated the whole story. As Craig Miller, a U.S. History teacher, notes, “These trips provide students with an opportunity to evaluate the telling of public history….After the students have become experts, they quickly see that conflicts are left out, that there’s only a brief mention of the Ohlone and there’s no mention of the cultural devastation caused by missionization.”

For their final project, students took these issues into consideration as they rethought the way history is communicated in the Presidio. As Craig points out, “Their projects need to be mindful of the audience, but also respectful of what actually happened.”  Whether that’s done through a mock-up of a new mural, a plan to recreate the Ohlone landscape as part of the new Presidio Parklands or the overhaul of an interpretive sign, students are engaging with the natural environment to creatively – and accurately – tell the full story of the Presidio.

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Check out the photos below to see Craig’s US History class examining and critiquing proposals for the Presidio Parklands Project – a 13 acre space that may incorporate new ways of telling public history – with Presidio Trust staff members. View photos of the class’ trip to El Polin on Bay’s website.

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