The National Park Service Thematic Framework guides the National Park Service and its partners in the public and private sectors in

  1. evaluating the significance of cultural resources for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, for designation as National Historic Landmarks, or for potential addition to the National Park System;
  2. assessing how well the themes are currently represented in existing units of the National Park System and in other recognized areas; and
  3. expanding and enhancing the interpretive programs at existing units of the National Park System to provide a fuller understanding of our nation’s past.

The use of the thematic framework extends beyond the Federal government level to preservation and interpretive efforts at the regional, state, and local levels.

While NPS is best known for its responsibility for managing the great natural wonders, e.g., Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, in actuality, its collection of national parks includes many more smaller historical parks that span American history from prehistory through to the recent past. NPS also administers the major programs of the national historic preservation program, including the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks, and the Historic American Buildings Survey, among other programs. Thus, NPS responsibility for evaluating, documenting, and interpreting American history in all of its many dimensions is profound and reaches into every community in the nation. Because of this important role in American history, NPS is viewed as a leader in providing guidance in historical work in government agencies, private organizations, and colleges and universities.

Project Overview

As part of the Director’s Call to Action, the National Park Service is conducting a comprehensive review of the guidance it provides in the NPS Thematic Framework, with the goal of revising it where necessary to accommodate the most current historical research, trends, interpretation, and viewpoints. It is anticipated the NPS Thematic Framework will emphasize broad comprehensive themes and provide guidance how these themes are manifested at the national, regional, state, and local levels.


The current NPS Thematic Framework is called “History in the National Park Service: Themes and Concepts.” This document developed from a 1993 meeting of scholars, preservationists, NPS officials, and others to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of an earlier NPS framework that was judged to be highly compartmentalized and to develop a revised framework. The new NPS Thematic Framework outlined eight major concepts:

  1. Peopling Places,
  2. Creating Social Institutions and Movement,
  3. Expressing Cultural Values,
  4. Shaping the Political Landscape,
  5. Transforming the Environment,
  6. Developing the American Economy,
  7. Expanding Science and Technology, and
  8. Changing Role of U.S. in the World.
Captain Robert Marshall Glass, 332nd Fighter Group. Photo courtesy of Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

Captain Robert Marshall Glass, 332nd Fighter Group. Photo courtesy of Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

In its published form, the framework was described as “capturing the complexity and meaning of human experience and for understanding that past in coherent, integrated ways.”

NPS adopted the new framework in 1994. The NPS Thematic Framework is available in printed form and online on the NPS Park History website. In succeeding years, amendments to the framework were added, including “Using the Revised Thematic Framework”, which included a more detailed explanation of the rationale behind the 1994 framework and a section on using the framework in interpretation and education.


It is estimated that revision of the guidelines will require a public comment and suggestion period of 12 to 18 months. After this period, 6 months will be required to review these and develop recommendations for revisions to the NPS Thematic Framework. A draft of the recommendations will be posted on the NPS Park History website and additional comments will be invited before a revised NPS Thematic Framework is issued.