Preservation Is… A Response to King

For Bricks + Mortar’s 100th post, we took at look at this quote from Tom King:

… [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.”

And I admitted that after my initial reaction (shocked and dismayed!), I had a difficult time arguing with him about most of his claims.  According to the comments, some of you felt the same way!

Generally,  I try to keep Bricks + Mortar as upbeat and positive as I can, and I am nothing if not a cheer leader for preservation. So how could I possibly agree with King (everyone’s favorite cultural heritage curmudgeon)?

First, there is the scope of his experience – he’s been working  in CRM and preservation related fields for over 50 years.  He’s worked for and with the National Park Service, helped set up local historic preservation programs, spent ten years with the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation overseeing project review under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, worked as a private consultant, and penned ten text/trade books among other things.  He is currently working mostly with Indian tribes and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. When I described him as an expert, it wasn’t done lightly!

Second, he has a point. Although the historic preservation field he described above is vastly different from the profession I have experienced (as limited as those experiences may be, I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of really smart, community oriented, and talented people), it is not perfect.


Granite spires in the Black Hills of South Dakota [Credit: Indian Country]

Sometimes the “rules” seem arbitrary. Sometimes they are too narrow. And though they are designed to be malleable and to make interpretation possible, they don’t always work for all groups of people. Take for example the National Register standard that requires that geographical boundaries be named for resources (this is a rule that doesn’t really work for, say, Native American spiritual places/sacred sites). Sometimes people are disenfranchised thanks to gentrification or worse.  For example, I’ll never forget the moving presentation (video here!) King delivered in Lexington last spring about the Land Between the Rivers people who were disenfranchised by the government when the land the families had been working since the 18th century was taken for a recreational preserve (Land Between the Lakes) in the 1960s . And when I think, “That would never happen today!” I’m reminded that  they are still fighting to this day to preserve what is left of  their cultural heritage.

family cemetery

Nickel Family Cemetery at Land Between the Lakes. Image via RD Lamont

As for elitism, HP has made great strides. Once seen as the work of wealthy white people trying to save the buildings built by dead wealthy white people, HP is much more inclusive. All sorts of places associated with all manner of people and socioeconomic groups and cultures, etc. are being preserved all over the country. In that way, preservation is no longer the elitist profession it once was, though there are arguments that it still has a long way to go.

However, when King leveled the charge, I don’t think he meant rich versus poor or one culture over another, I think he meant the professional preservationist versus “plain old people.” As preservation has become increasingly professionalized, a chasm has developed between people and the professionals – and it has become bogged down by bureaucracy, paper work, and jargon that can make the process inaccessible, long, tedious, and expensive. It can also sometimes cause a disconnect between what “plain old people” think is important and what professional preservationists find valuable.

Yes, I see his point.

And “Concerned Professional” made another great point in his/her comment on King’s quip.  Historic preservation is not only expensive and elitist, it’s elitist BECAUSE it is expensive!  And its expense is exactly why scholarship is suffering.  There isn’t enough money to support the time it takes to write thoroughly researched and adequately lengthy reports.

But, like the commentators on the original post,  I cannot agree that historic preservation is pointless or irresponsible.

This is what I believe: sometimes, preservation is exactly how King described. But sometimes (hopefully more often than not), it is a movement and a profession that helps people define the future of their communities by helping them identify and preserve the cultural and historical resources that are important to them. It is optimistic. It is about working together. It is  the confluence of community planning, architectural history, oral history, economic revitalization, archeology, historical research and so much more…  And what I know is that more often than not, preservationists are passionate, positive, energetic people who don’t want to be elite or in ivory towers, but are down to earth and want to do the best job they can for the communities they serve because pride of place and feeling connected to our heritage is for everyone.


Preservationists gave Texas courthouses a lot of love this month as part of an awareness campaign. Optimistic! Image via Preservation Nation

I also believe that even Tom King is an optimist at heart!  He wouldn’t bother to criticize where we fall short; and he wouldn’t work so hard against the bureaucracy and the red tape; and he wouldn’t care who was wearing rose colored glasses and who wasn’t,  if he didn’t believe that preservation is both worthwhile and important.

One comment

  1. I <3 Old Thangs

    He really is a pessimistic curmudgeon, and I can think of very few people who are as awkwardly unpleasant. I ate two meals with him. He also hates hot browns. That is just weird. But he is straight-up OG, no doubt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s