Preservation Is? King Blasts Preservation Profession

This is Bricks + Mortar’s 100th blog post!   To mark the milestone, today’s “Preservation Is…” is a little bit different from the usual affirmative/aspirational/positive quote about preservation that generally makes up the “Preservation Is…” feature.  Today, I bring you a quote from the always incisive, exacting, and fearlessly opinionated CRM* and historic preservation expert, Tom King, that will whip the rose colored glasses right off of your face (or at least it did mine).

Tom King

Image via CRMPlus

The quote comes from a critique of a Historic Resource Survey of the City of Decatur, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta) that King published on his blog, Tom King’s CRM Plus, last week.  Never shy, King blasts the historic preservation profession for its growing elitism, disconnection from the people and community it is supposed to serve, and its low-quality scholarship, calling it “pointless” and “irresponsible.”

King wrote:

… [O]ver the last twenty years or so, I have come to be alarmed at what historic preservation and CRM have become in this country – particularly in terms of their growing disconnection from the living communities that they must serve if they are to make any sense as aspects of public policy. I’ve also been dismayed at the quality of scholarship (if it can be called that) represented by their typical products. My concerns are outlined in the attached chapter from my 2011 reader, A Companion to Cultural Resource Management (Wiley-Blackwell 2011).

The Decatur “Final Report” does nothing to encourage me; it is as classic an example as I have recently seen of what has made historic preservation in this country a pointless, overly costly, elitist, and socially irresponsible activity.”

As this is the 100th post of Bricks + Mortar, I thought it might be a good time to examine his charges. After my initial reaction (eyes popping out of my head, jaw dropping, internally yelling “Nononononononono no! That is not preservation!” at the screen), I thought about what he said, his experience, his other writings, and realized it’s actually pretty difficult for me to argue with him on most of what he said, but more on that tomorrow.  Today, I want to know what YOU think.

Readers who are HP professionals, what do you say? Do you agree with King? Has the profession grown elitist? Is it disconnected? Is the standard of scholarship too low?

Readers who are not professional preservationists, what have you observed? Is HP generally thought of as a profession that is elitist and disconnected from the community? What does it offer you and your community?

What do you feel about the charge that preservation in the US has grown pointless and socially irresponsible?

*To quote King himself, the term CRM or Cultural Resource Management is “used mostly by archaeologists and much more occasionally by architectural historians and historical architects, to refer to managing historic places of archaeological, architectural, and historical interests and considering such places in compliance with environmental and historic preservation laws.”

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4 comments

  1. Concerned professional

    I am a CRM professional and agree, to a certain extent, with King’s frustrations. CRM IS in existence in order for Federal agencies to remain in compliance with environmental and historic preservation laws and in most cases I have to say you get what you pay for. Much of a CRM professional’s job is trying to figure out how to have your client comply with the laws for the least amount of actual preservation actually happening because unfortunately an architectural or archaeological survey is expensive. In our current economy we have to say we are able to do entire projects for half the cost of what it takes to actually produce something that is worthy of being called scholarship. By being forced to practice this way in order to stay in business there is never going to be any sort of innovation, no moving forward, and that is nothing but a lose for preservation if you ask me. I agree that hp is a costly endeavor and if it were cheap a lot more of resources would be preserved but unfortunately nothing is cheap. The grocery bill goes up every week, the cost of fuel could skyrocket at any moment. HP is not going to be cheap until the price of everything else levels out. A CRM professional has to be able to make ends meet just like anyone else does. It is an elitist endeavor because again, preservation is expensive so the only people that can practice it are those that have money.

    I do not agree, however, that historic preservation is socially irresponsible. Preservation is one of several disciplines that works towards making the world a better place. Preservationists work towards creating strong communities that support one another in times of crisis; towards thoughtful and sustainable city planning; towards creating a sense of place and connecting people to their community in order to make better decisions for the future. None of these practices, in my mind, can ever be called socially irresponsible. There are some that practice the profession in a socially irresponsible way, bending the rules so much that their practices are counter-intuitive to the purpose of the environmental and preservation laws but that does not meant hat preservation, as a whole is socially irresponsible. Every profession has their own bad eggs.

  2. another professional

    I agree with the concerned professional. I worked with a public historic preservation organization and it always amazed me how little the general public knew about preservation, especially the benefits of it. There are so many misconceptions out there and “bad eggs” that have given preservation a bad name. Then there are those people who really care about their neighborhoods and don’t want historic buildings demolished for more Dollar Generals. They really come together and fight for their neighborhood. That reassures my faith in my profession.

    It saddens me that scholarship may be on the decline. That is the basis for all CRM and HP, without it there can’t be a valid interpretation of the studied resource.

  3. bricksandmortarpreservation

    Thank you for your comments! It seems like in some ways, it boils down to money and misconceptions about preservation. On one hand, preservation is expensive because surveys, research, and writing reports take a lot of time. The more man hours sunk into a project the more expensive it is, the more expensive something is the more “elitist” the endeavor appears. And with the economy still in recovery there isn’t enough money for the time necessary to produce quality scholarship. On the other hand, people don’t know what preservation is (something I’ve experienced as well), and even when they do know what it is they sometimes believe it is only about saving big grand buildings that dead rich white men built. In other words, they think it’s elitist and exclusive. How can we make preservation less expensive (and there for less elitist)? How do we dispel the misconceptions?

  4. Pingback: Preservation Is… A Response to King « Bricks + Mortar

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