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If the Eskimos have many words for “snow”…

November 2, 2009

…why are we stuck with this one phrase “historic preservation” with all its negative connotations — say the words and raise the hackles of property rights proponents who resent regulation of any kind, minorities who question the costs and rewards, developers who find it obstructionist and burdensome, elite rich who will accuse preservationists of being elitist in heated battles over demolition of some grand old irreplaceable pile, and even some in the field with concerns that “preservation” amounts to creation of an artificial Disney-like experience of time and place.

planning heritage

Vince Michael, at his insightful blog Time Tells, has written a thought-provoking post inspired by preservation economist Donovan Rypkema’s talk at the recent National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference.  Rypkema called for preservationists to reestablish the relationship between why something is important, how we preserve it, and how we define “preservation.”  

Michael proposes the phrase “heritage conservation” as a more apt term.  Preservation as it is needed in modern times is “not about fixing something in a certain period of time,” but “about managing change over time.”  

Michael writes

To preserve means to fix at a point in time – in effect, to remove something from history.  I began my preservation career nearly 27 years ago by helping create the first heritage area, and our goal then, and now, was managing change, not stopping change. Heritage conservation is about managing change – planning – based on the inherited culture and cultural artifacts of a place. It is about the individuality and uniqueness of place. What we do is follow a process that insures that change happens in concert with a place’s values and valuables.

Do click on over and read the entire post.  

Frozen in time

I like the notion of “heritage conversation” as it speaks to that which we have “inherited” and what we choose to do with what’s been passed down over generations.  As Michael notes, not every building is the architectural equivalent of a Rembrandt and as an individual object, does not perhaps merit awed reverence and costly “preservation.”  But that modest building grouped with others becomes the setting for a story about ourselves and where we’ve come from.

I’ll just be here pondering questions about artificiality and authenticity, layers of culture and meaning, and the regulation of aesthetics and how that supports or smothers the growth of place and individuality.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2009 12:00 am

    It is interesting to me how countries across the world refer to our “historic preservation” differently, usually involving “conservation” in the field name. However, I’m not sure that changing preservation to conservation would do much good. After all, conservation sounds even more static than preservation. I think the bigger issues lies in public education and defining historic preservation to people. So many people don’t even know what “historic preservation” means. Thus, if we start from scratch and explain all of the tangents that are part of the umbrella of historic preservation, perhaps we’d have a better shot at making friends. After all, historic preservation is SO much more than buildings. If we work at changing our name and our image, we might lose sight of what is really important – like when an organization changes its name and wastes so much money on new stationery even though it’s basically the same thing. I don’t know what is best, but I would be so sad to lose “historic preservation.” Thanks for bringing up a good topic!

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      November 3, 2009 1:18 am

      Hey Kaitlin — thanks for continuing the dialogue.

      Well, the other issue with “historic preservation” is that “historic” part of it.
      It gives some people the willies. They flash back to grade school and look furtively over their shoulders to see if there’s a teacher chasing them down with a test in hand. Proof there’s an issue with the term, my son’s middle school history teacher opened class this year by trying to reposition “history,” promising the students it was more than just dates to memorize.

      And then there’s the deniers. The group that’s adamant that their house isn’t historic just because it’s old. To these people, unless Geo. Washington spent the night, “historic” is the wrong word. It’s just old. They don’t buy the collective identity model. The inheritance that’s been passed down to our care. A building to them is simply a commodity, an investment, a building, their home, to do with as they please be it remodel or demolish.

      I’m not sure the word conservation can ever work. That word calls to mind cleaning a priceless painting with a Q-tip. Though for us, the implication should be more closely akin to the ecological sense of “conservation” — managing open space, monitoring the systems that keep the environment working in sync.

      Really, I think we need a new word entirely. Is there a foreign language with a useful term we could add to our lexicon? Then we’ll hire a good pr firm to promote it.

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