Teacher's Guide

Landmarks of American History and Culture

Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Statue (Ruleville, MS). 
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Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Statue on the Civil Rights Trail (Ruleville, MS). 

This Teacher’s Guide provides information and resources for integrating creative approaches to place-based history in K-12 humanities education. As tangible reminders of the past, memorials and monuments, as well as neighborhoods, historic homes, waterways, and many other sites, have the power to influence how we interpret contemporary society. The resources herein address public history and the disciplines that fall within the field; NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture programs and the resources that have been developed for educators; and access to sites included in the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks. By introducing historic and cultural sites into the classroom setting, students can develop a greater understanding of the reality and prevalence of history in their local landscape.   

Guiding Questions

Why and how do we study the intersection  of time and place?

How do you engage with historic and cultural sites in your state or territory? 

How can historic and cultural sites be included in teaching and learning across the humanities? 

To what extent do we need monuments and memorials to commemorate events and people?

What role should governments and citizens play in historic preservation?

What is Public History?

Public History is a multidisciplinary field that describes the various methods that historians utilize in the field. Practitioners often engage collaboratively with local community members and other stakeholders to encourage conversations that recognize the relevancy of history in contemporary society. Some of the professions that fall under public history are museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, historic preservationists, interpreters, film and documentary makers, and community activists, to name a few. Some questions to consider when thinking about public history:

  • Can you recall a time you have encountered public history in practice? 
  • What methods/tools were used to help you engage with the information? 
  • Why is it important for public historians to forge relationships with various stakeholders when creating projects?

The public humanities field encompasses the work of public historians and other professionals whose goals are to create accessible platforms and spaces that facilitate debates about history and culture among large and public audiences. The NEH Division of Public ProgramsDivision of Preservation and Access, and Division of Research support these endeavors by funding projects that implement this practice in a variety of formats. Some examples of the programming that is funded include museum and digital exhibitions, television productions, archival collections and digital databases, podcasts, and mobile apps, among others. 

Accessibility, along with collaboration, is another central tenant of the work conducted by public historians. The Office of Digital Humanities provides support to public history institutions that are utilizing digital technologies to develop new methods to educate and communicate with the public. The NEH-funded Albert B. Sabin Archives, for example, provides digital access to the correspondences, photographs, and records in the collection. The Library of Congress’s By the People program offers the public the opportunity to partake in archival work. With support from the NEH, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Weeksville Heritage Center, and the Irondale Ensemble Project, developed the digital In Pursuit of Freedom project. The digital resource provides access to walking tours, interactive games, and lesson plans that examine the history of the abolitionist community in Brooklyn. Through the collection and curation of historical materials and resources, archives, museums, historical societies, and other humanities institutions can expand the public’s breadth of access to the past.  

Memorials vs. Monuments vs. Markers

Memorials, monuments, and markers offer people a glimpse into the past. Each section below offers information about what distinguishes these forms of commemoration and includes examples from across the country. These examples can be used in combination with the activities and classroom materials included in this Teacher's Guide to inspire student research and experiential learning opportunities in your local community.

Memorials

Memorials can appear in a variety of forms, including parks, highways, forests, buildings, and days, among others. They are either erected or enacted to enshrine a memory of a singular person, a larger community, an achievement, or a historical event. Memorials can also be spontaneous and appear in the wake of tragedy or death. They appear in a variety of forms including statues, buildings, parks, highways, forests, and days, among others. Some of these public fixtures preserve contested and controversial memories that fail to encapsulate the entire narrative.  

A few examples of memorials include: 

Monuments

Monuments serve as another type of commemorative public structures or sites. Similar to memorials, monuments are constructed to acknowledge and remember a historical event, figure, or group, among others. Monuments can range from statues, sculptures, obelisks, to national park units. Today, monuments are perceived as being celebratory in nature and a tangible emblem of a unified belief or interpretation.   

A few examples of monuments include:

Markers

Historical markers serve as another tangible reminder of the past. They often appear in the form of a plaque that is placed at a historically or culturally significant site or building. Many also appear alongside roads or in parks. Markers can be interpretive waysides, attached to a rock or a building, or mounted onto a post. Their ubiquitous presence throughout the nation coincided with the modernization of local infrastructure. Every state operates a historical marker program tasked with determining whether a nomination meets the established criteria. The expansion of the interstate highway system following World War II encouraged families to tour the nation via the roads. This also facilitated an increase in state-sponsored historical marker programs.  

Some examples of historical markers include: 

Many of the memorials, monuments, and markers erected throughout the 20th century typify a traditional narrative that elevated the experiences of some. Events that occurred across the nation’s landscape are more complex than what is often reflected in these public mementos of the past and these absences offer opportunities for learning about a richer and more inclusive U.S. history.

Locating Memorials, Monuments, Markers 

To search for memorials, monuments, and markers in your state or community, you can start by looking through a complete list of State Historical and Preservation Programs.  

Some questions to address while researching national, state, and local historical sites:

  • What memorials, monuments, or markers around the country have you visited and why?  
  • Why are there memorials, monuments, or markers in your community? 
  • What histories in your community have yet to be memorialized?  

  • To what extent do monuments, memorials, and markers benefit a community? 

National Register of Historic Places

Established in 1966 with the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places is the federal government’s official list of buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects recognized as worthy of preservation. All of the units administered by the National Park Service are also listed in the NRHP. Our closer readings commentary, The National Parks and History, provides an overview of the establishment of the National Park Service. As of 2019 more than 95,000 properties are listed in the National Register. In order for a property to be nominated it must have either national, state or local significance.

Joining the National Register

The process to nominate a site for the National Register begins with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). There is an office for each of the 59 states, territories, and District of Columbia. SHPO officials are responsible for protecting sites in their respective state. They assist citizens or organizations through the nomination process and are consulted when either the federal or state government is undertaking a project that poses possible implications for sites with historical significance. In order for a property to be deemed eligible for a nomination its age, significance, and integrity must be evaluated and meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. To be recognized as historic the property must be at least 50 years old retain the same physical features as it did in the past. Significance is attributed to an important historical event, activity or development, or person associated with the site. Architecture, landscape, engineering achievements as well as findings from an archeological investigation can bestow significance on a site. 

This ten-minute video produced by the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation provides an overview of the National Register of Historic Places.

This two-minute video produced by the National Trust for Historic Preservation provides viewers with a basic overview of the National Register of Historic Places.

 

The process to nominate a site in the National Register exemplifies the relationship between the federal government, the state government, and local communities. The process begins with a submission to your state’s SHPO. Property owners, historical societies, preservation organizations, government agencies, or private individuals can initiate the process by completing and submitting the proper Nomination Form to the SHPO.  

The SHPO will then contact the owner, or owners if a district is nominated, of the property and the local government to inquire about possible objections. If the property owner raises serious concerns and objects the nomination process cannot proceed. Within 90 days the SHPO and the state’s National Register Review Board review the nominations and make recommendations. Along with the information provided by the state-level agencies, the nomination is sent to the National Park Service in D.C. for a final review. The Keeper of the NRHP must make a decision on whether to approve the nomination within 45 days. Aside from properties that are recognized as nationally significant as a result of this process, National Historic Sites, National Historical Parks, National Military Parks, National Memorials, National Monuments, and National Historic Landmarks are also listed in the NRHP. 

The passage of the Historic Sites Act in 1935 established the National Historic Landmarks program. Historic places with national significance and high integrity are qualified to be designated National Historic Landmarks. As of 2020 there are approximately 2,600 NHLs. The National Historic Landmark Nomination process is more rigorous than the NRHP process and lasts approximately two to five years.

The process begins with a letter of inquiry to the National Park Service from a SHPO, a Tribal Historic Preservation Office, a Federal Preservation Office, a scholar, a private owner, or a member of the public. After reviewing the letter, the NHL Program staff examines the property to determine if it meets the criteria: achieved significance over 50 years ago, retains a high degree of integrity, and declared nationally significant under one or more of the six NHL criteria. If the property is deemed potential to receive an NHL designation the preparer will work with the NHL staff to prepare the nomination, which will be reviewed by experts and scholars.

After the nomination is amended to reflect any recommended suggestions or amendments the nomination form is reviewed by the Landmarks Committee. If the committee recommends the nomination to the National Park System Advisory Board it will go through a subsequent round of reviews. The board will then either recommend or not recommend the nomination to the Secretary of the Interior. The Secretary will consider the recommendation and will determine whether the property should become a National Historic Landmark. 

The following are just some of the sites included on the National Register: 

Landmarks Across the U.S.

This list contains a fraction of the historic, cultural, and natural sites that interpret the unique landscape and stories that define the nation. By engaging with these sites, we can better understand the nuances and relevancy of the past as well as recognize the importance of preserving these places for posterity.

Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma, Alabama) 

Edmund Pettus Bridge
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Edmund Pettus Bridge

The Edmund Pettus Bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark on February 27, 2013. The bridge is a reminder of the violent attacks inflicted upon civil rights activists on March 7, 1965, a day that is referred to as “Bloody Sunday.” The televised attacks captured the nation’s attention and became a seminal moment in the campaign for voting rights in the U.S. 

Gateway Arch National Park (St. Louis, Missouri) 

Gateway Arch National Park
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Gateway Arch National Park

The Gateway Arch National Park was initially established in 1935 as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and consisted of the Old Courthouse where the first two cases in the Dred Scott Case were litigated. In 1948, a nationwide design competition resulted in the selection of Eero Saarinen’s design of a stainless steel arch. Construction of the Arch commenced in 1963 and concluded on October 28, 1965. In 2018 the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was re-designated as the Gateway Arch National Park to recognize the roles of Thomas Jefferson and St. Louis in the expansion of the nation, those who migrated or were forcibly transported west, and the efforts of Dred Scott to secure his freedom through the courts. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial (Keystone, South Dakota) 

Mount Rushmore National Monument
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Mount Rushmore National Monument

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial was established on October 31, 1941. Doane Robinson, the South Dakota State Historian, initially proposed the idea of creating a sculpture in the Black Hills in 1928. The South Dakota state government selected sculptor Gutzon Borglum to create the memorial and it was he who selected Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt as subjects for the memorial. Once funding was secured by the Mount Harney Memorial Association, construction commenced on the first carving on October 4, 1927 and workers completed Mount Rushmore National Memorial on October 31, 1941. The memorial attracts over two million visitors from across the nation and world every year.  

Wupatki National Monument (Flagstaff, Arizona) 

Wupatki National Monument
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Wupatki National Monument

President Calvin Coolidge established Wupatki National Monument on December 9, 1924. The monument preserves prehistoric pueblos that date back to 900 years ago. Within the boundaries of the park are the Wupatki Pueblo, the Wukoki Pueblo, the Lomaki Pueblo, Box Canyon Pueblo, the Citadel  Pueblo, the Nalakihu Pueblo, and other pre-historic ruins. The Wupatki Pueblo contained over 100 rooms and garnered substantial wealth and influence within the region. Architectural details in the pueblos indicate tribal interactions. The Kayenta, Sinagua, and Cohonina groups are associated with the settlements. For the Hopi, Zuni, and Laguna Pueblo people, among others, the settlements within the monument connect the tribes to their ancestors. 

Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument (Washington, D.C.) 

Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument
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Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument was designated on April 12, 2016 and serves as the headquarters of the National Women’s Party. Located near the U.S. Capitol building, the monument is a testament to the activism of famous suffragists who dedicated their lives to championing women’s equality. 

Susan B. Anthony Square Park (Rochester, New York)

Let's Have Tea scuplture at Susan B. Anthony Square Park
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Susan B. Anthony Square Park

The Susan B. Anthony Square Park is located close to Anthony’s home in Rochester, NY. Situated in the park is a bronzed sculpture titled “Let’s Have Tea.” It depicts Anthony and Frederick Douglas engaging in a conversation as they sit across from each other. The sculpture honors their commitments to abolitionism and the suffrage movement. 

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Collinsville, Illinois) 

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
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Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site encompasses the archaeological remains of the largest ancient Native American settlement north of Mexico during the Mississippian period. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark on July 19, 1964, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. 

César E. Chávez National Monument (Keene, California) 

César E Chávez National Monument
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César E. Chávez National Monument

The César E. Chávez National Monument honors Chávez’s work and legacy within the farm workers movement and is located on the property of Chavez’s home which also served as the headquarters of the United Farm Workers Union. The monument was established in 2012 and is currently in the process of expanding to include more exhibits and educational resources for visitors. 

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument (Wilberforce, Ohio) 

 Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
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 Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

The Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument was established on March 25, 2013 to honor the achievements of Colonel Charles Young. In the late nineteenth century, Young began a distinguished career in the military and eventually became the first African American national park Superintendent in 1903. The monument consists of the former home of Colonel Young and 60 acres of surrounding land. 

Freedom Riders National Monument (Anniston, Alabama) 

Freedom Riders National Monument
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Freedom Riders National Monument

The Freedom Riders National Monument was established on January 12, 2017 to preserve the story of the first interracial coalition of thirteen activists who challenged the continued segregation of interstate busing in 1961 by riding buses into the south. A group of white segregationists attacked the bus and threw a firebomb into the vehicle in order to trap the riders inside. The monument consists of the Greyhound Bus Station where a white mob, that included the Ku Klux Klan, began attacking the bus, and the site where the bus exploded as a result of a firebomb. 

Grand Canyon National Park (Grand Canyon, Arizona) 

Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon National Park was established on February 26, 1919. Approximately 5.9 million people travel to the 1,218,375 acre park that encompasses the famous gorge, river tributaries, and adjacent lands. For more than 13,000 years, people have populated the Grand Canyon and its surrounding lands. Today, eleven different Indigenous tribes continue to recognize the site as a homeland and preserve the cultural links developed by their ancestors. There are also over 500 species of animals and 1,500 plant species across the park.  

Mesa Verde National Park (Mesa Verde, CO) 

Mesa Verde National Park
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Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve the history and cultural resources of the Ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited the region from 550 to 1300 CE. The park consists of 5,000 archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings, masonry towers, farming structures, and mesa top sites. The park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. 

Pullman National Monument (Chicago, Illinois) 

Pullman National Monument Clock Tower
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Pullman National Monument

The Pullman National Monument interprets the 1894 Pullman Strike and Boycott, the emergence of the first planned company town, the rise of George Pullman, and the experiences of the laborers. It was established as the first National Park Service unit in Chicago on February 19, 2015 and became a National Historic Landmark on December 30, 1970. The monument encompasses the former Pullman Palace Car Works factory and administration building, the Hotel Florence, Arcade Park, and the Greenstone Church.  

Reconstruction Era National Historical Park (Beaufort, South Carolina) 

Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Headquarters
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Reconstruction Era National Historical Park

Reconstruction Era National Historical Park was established as a monument in 2017 to dispel inaccurate information about the Reconstruction Era and encourage visitors to recognize its many complexities. The park consists of the Old Beaufort Firehouse, Camp Saxton, the Brick Baptist Church, and the Penn Center. The signing of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, on March 12, 2019, re-designated the monument as a national historical park and established the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network.  

Golden Spike National Historical Park (Promontory, Utah) 

Golden Spike National Historical Park
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Golden Spike National Historical Park

The meeting of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad that resulted in the joining of 1,776 miles of rail was first memorialized as a non-federal national historic site on April 2, 1957. On July 30, 1965, the federal government established Golden Spike National Historic Site. It was re-designated as Golden Spike National Historical Park in 2019. While the original tracks laid at the junction were removed and used to support World War II efforts the park continues to preserve other physical remnants of this technological phenomenon. 

National September 9/11 Memorial  and Museum (New York City, New York) 

National September 9 2001 Memorial and Museum
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National September 9/11 Memorial and Museum

The National September 9/11 Memorial and Museum honors the lives of the 2,983 people killed on September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993, and those who risked and sacrificed their lives in the aftermath of the attacks. The 9/11 Memorial lists the individual names of the 2,977 people killed at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11 and the six people who died in the bombing of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. The museum helps visitors learn about the history of the attacks through collections of material objects, photographs, artwork, and personal narratives. 

Place-Based Teaching and Learning

Students can investigate how and why we memorialize places, people, and events with physical markers and how preservation informs what historical narratives are considered significant to the nation, states, territories, or local communities. For example, students can investigate why less than 8% of the sites listed in the NRHP are associated with women, African Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups in the U.S.

Some questions to consider:

  • What do historically significant sites reveal about our relationship with the past? 

  • What do the historical sites that are missing from the NRHP reveal about U.S. history and culture? 

  • What criteria should be used and how should decisions be made when erecting a monument? 

The below sections offer activity ideas for centering place-based and experiential learning in the humanities.  

Researching with Archives 

The NPS offers a database for properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The list is organized by state and provides a search tool to find a specific property. The NPS also provides a list of National Historic Landmarks organized by state. 

The National Archives provides a database of National Register and National Historic Landmark Program Records by state. After clicking on your respective state click the dropdown arrow on the right side of the page.  The “search within this file unit” will take you to a list of all the nomination forms for the state. You can also search within this database to find the records for a specific site. 

Researching with Local Newspapers 

Chronicling America provides access to local and national newspapers dating back to the 17th century. Use the "search by state" feature to find local newspapers that can be used to teach primary source research skills such as gathering and evaluating information, comparative analysis, critical thinking, and the use of archival technology. You will also find collections of newspaper articles related to significant events, places, people, and eras in U.S. history and can search for newspapers published for and by multiple ethnic groups in the United States. Use EDSITEment’s Teacher’s Guide for Chronicling American to investigate the context in which historical and cultural sites were reported on in the past. 

Activity Ideas

Marking History

After reading the background information on the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks evaluate the criteria and characteristics that nominations must meet to be considered historically significant. Links to information on the different criteria can be accessed here: NRHPNHL. Once the information is reviewed and discussed, students can create criteria of their own. Have them consider the age of the site that is required for a place to be determined historically significant and whether it should be amended, as well as other criteria that should be added to expand what sites could be deemed eligible.  

As students research and discuss what events have been memorialized in their state or local communities, have them create a new memorial, monument, or marker or amend a current one to reflect information not included in the original. The Wisconsin Historical Society provides a list of research questions that students can use when developing their projects. Our Investigating Local History Teacher’s Guide includes resources students can use to effectively engage with the history of their community.

Students can also address some of the questions stated above by selecting a site that is listed in the NRHP and use the records to learn about why it is considered historically significant. To address some of the questions stated above ask the students if they see a trend in the historical narratives that are preserved in the NRHP. One example of a collection of sites that students could analyze and evaluate are those laying along Route 66

This four-minute video produced by the National Trust for Historic Preservation examines the relationship between Route 66 and its surrounding landscape.

Digital Humanities Projects 

Students can also create digital projects using story mapping platforms to document their research. By creating digital humanities projects students will develop an understanding of the methods used to make history more accessible to the general public. The NEH-funded project The Long Road to Freedom: Biddy Mason’s Remarkable Journey can serve as a model for students interested in using a digital map to tell a historical narrative. The integration of mapping into projects will help students build connections between the lived experiences of historical figures and broader trends within history. 

Questions to consider when designing a storymap about a place, person, or event: 

  • What happened here and when? 

  • Who was involved and how have they been remembered? 

  • Are there local archives, collections, or other sources of information that can provide more information about the place, person, or event? 

  • Whose perspective(s) have been omitted from the narrative of this place, person, or event? 

  • To what extent is this place connected to a larger national historical or cultural development? 

  • How can a digital platform be used to illustrate the historical and cultural significance of local places? 

  • Who is the audience for this digital storyboard and how can they interact with it? 

CLIO Activities

CLIO is an NEH-funded educational website and mobile application that digitally showcases and guides the public to historical sites across the nation. Users can contribute to the database by creating an entry and sharing photographs, oral histories, and historical information. Through this resource, students have an opportunity to document the past, analyze change over time, and evaluate the processes and forces at work in relation to place-making and history. Our media resource Exploring Local History with Clio provides students with guidance on how to add to current entries or create a new one. 

If students visit the historical site, memorial, monument, or marker they are researching they can upload photographs taken and provide curated information gathered from multiple sources to provide their own analysis of the site. Have they uncovered an event, learned about a heretofore forgotten person, or discovered some other information that is not mentioned at the site?

Additional Resources

For more resources, including links to the humanities councils and historical society of each state and territory, consult our Investigating Local History Teacher’s Guide.

The American Battlefield Trust provides an interactive map and other resources about the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War battlefields.

The National Park Service's Teaching with Historic Places series includes lesson plans organized by theme, state, time period, and curriculum standard. 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation provides an interactive map of a collection of twenty-seven historic sites it continues to preserve and administer.

NEH Landmarks Programs

The NEH Summer Landmarks of American History and Culture program supports a series of one-week workshops for educators across the nation to promote humanities teaching at the K-12 level. The program recognizes a landmark as a site of historic importance within the continental United States and territories. Among others, landmarks include historic homes, museums, presidential libraries, and sites that memorialize a literary, cultural, or architectural achievement. The workshop can take place in public spaces, national parks, or other sites of historic significance. Educators can apply to attend an NEH summer Landmarks of American History and Culture program. 

NEH Landmarks Programs

The Most Southern Place on Earth

This landmarks program engages in the deep study of places that are part of a complex and compelling history of the Mississippi Delta that includes civil rights, music, immigration, religion, and a host of other issues. This four-minute video published by Delta State University includes participants reflecting on their participation in "The Most Southern Place On Earth" landmarks program. 

From Immigrants to Citizens: Asian Pacific Americans in the Northwest

The summer landmarks programs organized by the Wing Luke Museum provide participants the opportunity to study how Asian and Pacific Islander Americans transformed American culture and infrastructure. These six-minute and twelve-minute videos explore some of the topics discussed in the programs.

Labor and Landscape in Lowell, MA

Participants study the industrial history of Lowell, Massachusetts, and its connection with environmentalism, social protest, and regulatory policies. Led by the education team at the Tsongas Industrial History Center, participants also examine the meaning of labor and landscape for Native Americans, enslaved people, New England farm families, and workers in Lowell’s mills—from “mill girls” to immigrants. 

Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Jazz Age and Great Depression

This program focuses on how Kansas City served as a microcosm of the cultural and historical forces that shaped the nation during the 1920s and 1930s. Hosted by the Center for Midwestern Studies, educators meet with scholars, visit sites that combine music, history, and culture while also developing materials to be used in their respective classrooms.  

Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and the Japanese American Incarceration 

Through this workshop, educators learn about the incarceration of Japanese Americans starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the hysteria that followed. Participants study the experiences of those imprisoned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming and the lasting effects of incarceration on how we understand race, citizenship, and rights in the United States.