Preservation in the 21st Century: Preservation Is About People

Posted on: July 8th, 2014 by David J. Brown

The preservation movement’s most important piece of legislation—the National Historic Preservation Act—will mark its 50th anniversary in 2016. That same year, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Parks—often called America’s best idea. Chief Preservation Officer David Brown has been considering what it takes for organizations and movements to not only survive but thrive past 50 or 100 years of age. In this second of three blog posts, he looks at the future of the preservation movement and how we adapt to change, remain relevant, and win new supporters for our work.

Read Post 1: Preservation in the 21st Century: Change Is the Constant
Read Post 3: Preservation in the 21st Century: Preservation is a Political Movement

 

Preservation in the 21st Century: President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home, Washington, D.C. | Credit: President's Lincoln's Cottage

President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home,
Washington, D.C. | Credit: President's Lincoln's Cottage

Americans care about the loss of places they love. Unfortunately many do not equate our work with the places that provide them with emotional resonance and a sense of continuity. Many think about preservation only in terms of buildings and not in terms of how our work gives people meaning for the present and hope for the future.

Poet Peter Streckfus, when asked to consider why old places matter, responded, “I’m not sure old places matter. People matter. The question is how do we honor ourselves when we honor old places?”

We have not always thought about people in preservation. I know I have seen thousands of PowerPoint presentations that show buildingsbut only occasionally the people using those buildings. Has everyone left town?

Once again, those who are pushing our movement forward are considering how preservation would be different if we focused on people.

What would happen if we opened up our surveys to the places people love? What if we ask ourselves, “How will this decision affect the people in our community?” and are honest and rigorous in our analysis. Suppose we challenge ourselves and our movement to think afresh and be open to inviting more people in to use our historic sites. Buildingsfor the most partare meant to be used.

If we changed our focus to people, we would have to be serious about relevance. We would have to be serious about saving places that people love. Urban historian Dolores Hayden writes:

“Restoring significant shared meanings for many neglected urban places first involves claiming the entire urban cultural landscape as an important part of American history, not just its architectural monuments.”

The crowd on Granite Street Stage in Butte, MT during the Montana Folk Festival on July 10, 2011 | Credit: George Everett

Granite Street Stage in Butte, Montana, during the Montana Folk Festival on July 10, 2011 | Credit: George Everett

In many of the places we save, and in the way we approach their preservation, we often talk about the “period of significance.” But at the National Trust we are turning that on its head, and asking, “What if the period of significance is now?”

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, a National Trust Historic Site where Abraham Lincoln conceived the Emancipation Proclamation, understanding that “the period of significance is now” leads us to use of the site as the springboard for exhibits, lectures, and projects that address human trafficking in the 21st century. Slavery, unfortunately, did not end in 1865.

If preservation is about people, we will be concerned about how our actions affect people and the planet where we live. We live in a world that is using up its resources at an alarming rate. The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab is using peer-reviewed research to demonstrate the role that older and historic buildings can play in the effort to bring our cities and towns toward environmental sustainability. As this body of knowledge grows, it will be important for preservationists to understand the science and join the fight in city councils, planning departments, state legislatures, and the halls of Congress. This is work that is relevant, people-centric, and critical to our future.

Columbia Rosenwald School in West Columbia, TX | Credit: Columbia Rosenwald School

Columbia Rosenwald School in West Columbia, Texas | Credit: Columbia Rosenwald School

My colleague Tom Mayes in his series Why Old Places Matter has written about the work of environmental psychologists. These specialists are helping us understand that old places provide people with a sense of being part of a continuum that is necessary for them to be psychologically and emotionally healthy. We should challenge ourselves in our historic sites, regulatory review, and sustainability efforts to put the focus on people.

Finally, we must also challenge ourselves to be about all people.

At far too many placesat historic sites, in the neighborhoods we choose to designate, and through our publicationswe have told our stories in a way that conveniently forgot the majority of the people whose lives are part of our layered history. Preservationists are beginning to work preemptively and collaboratively with all communities. The change of working against to working with marginalized communities in retaining their community structures (both social and spatial) is among the central crossroads for the preservation movement today.

Preservation cannot just be about buildings. There has to be a greater end. I can think of no better end than to make the phrase “preservation is about people” a reality.

Can you think of ways we can make our work relevant for people in today’s world? I would like to hear your ideas.

About David Brown

David J. Brown is the executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Diversity, Sustainability