Now that the National Preservation Conference has come and gone, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the big “take away” concepts I gained from listening to the plenary sessions, conversation starters, education sessions, and even the great personal conversations I had with other attendees.
The preservation field is too reactionary.
It’s obvious, at least to me, that we’re at the cusp of major changes in the preservation field. On Wednesday night, National Trust president Stephanie Meeks discussed four “ingredients” that all major movements must have (based on Eric Hoffer’s work); a movement must be soul stirring, spectacular, communal, and an undertaking. Stephanie Meeks said preservation should use these elements to create a movement that rivals the environmental or breast cancer awareness movements. Annie Leonard’s talk real hit home on the practical nature of preservation. As we have fewer resources to use, we need to maximize the ones we have. Leonard said “the question is not when are we going to change, but how are we going to change.”
I heard multiple speakers mention the changing economic landscape, reduced grant funding, potential changes to the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit, and proposed changes to Section 4(f) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance. Unfortunately, we’re thinking too short term and reacting to each of these issues as they arise. Preservation, at its core, is about retaining use of the culturally significant elements of our built environment so that we can further understand our past in a tangible manner. We should apply that long term philosophy concept to the profession itself. How do we preserve historic buildings while creating a sustainable movement?
Preservation is about storytelling.
This topic was framed around the Friday morning conversation starter “Telling Richer Stories of Place,” but I noticed it more as the day progressed. Yes, historic preservation is about physical buildings, structures, and sites… in some cases. But, we can do a better job connecting to those places that have been lost or may not appear, on the surface, to be an important cultural place. Michelle Magalong, from Historic Filipinotown in California, stressed that her site is a not based on a culturally unique architectural style, so they instead focus on stories. Aissia Richardson, from the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corp in Philadelphia, stressed that her site isn’t just a building, it is an important place that helps to tell the African American story at the local, state, and national levels. Both of these women highlighted the ways that preservation ideas can be used to create an identity for a community through storytelling.
This concept can also translate into compliance for Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. I went to an informative session in the morning titled “Mitigation Matters,” which featured Russell Holter from the Washington State Historic Preservation Office (amongst other speakers). Holter discussed the conscious decision by the WA SHPO staff to tackle mitigation requirements creatively – when a federal agency takes something way from the public, what are you doing (as an agency) to replace that? Instead of document and destroy, how can you tell a story about that place, site, or structure that can be accessible to the general public? In Washington, federal agencies can commission a history essay through the non-profit Washington encyclopedia HistoryLink.org as part of the mitigation of Adverse Effects.
Where is the local voice in preservation?
Okay, I’ll admit, this might sound a little absurd. Over the few days of the conference, the presenters, sessions, personal conversations, and even award winners illustrated the simple fact that preservation is local. No two projects are alike because no two communities are alike; preservation happens and impacts local communities on a very basic level. However, I think there is some room for improvement, especially as it comes to the compliance related preservation community. After a few educational sessions, followed by some great conversations with other cultural resource management professionals, it is clear to many that there is still a huge opportunity for local involvement in Section 106 (or state equivalent requirements). However, the same conclusion was often drawn – too often, you can’t predict when there is going to be a huge local interest in a project. Some projects might receive huge opposition (and therefore, huge interest), while other projects will not. That being said, it was even mentioned in the “Mitigation Matters” session the importance of non-profits getting involved in as many Section 106 cases as they can. Why? Because there’s a chance to learn about the project, offer ideas that may not have otherwise been discussed, and the big one – potentially get some type of role in the mitigation stipulations.
So, where does that leave me? Excited for the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis in 2013! I am looking forward to see how these three concepts evolve in the preservation movement in the upcoming year and what progress/changes are made by next year’s conference.