Object versus subject centered heritage and the Main Street Program

Several years ago, I read John Schofield’s (2009) description of “allocentric” versus “autocentric” heritage. He associates allocentric heritage with objective, scientific, fixed, and detached meanings and autocentric heritage with subjective, emotional, and changing meanings. The former is associated with orthodox conservation theory and practice and the latter with heterodox conservation theory and practice. (Smith’s [2006] “Authorized Heritage Discourse” is also defined by allocentric heritage approaches.)

In his article, Schofield has a table that describes the dichotomy between these allocaentric and autocentric approaches:

Allocentric heritage is:

easier to recall and communicate
more detached
develop with maturation

Autocentric heritage is:

expressed de novo on each occasion
more ‘actual’
close range
basic in children [in other words, associated with children’s relationship with the world]

I was reminded of Schofield’s ideas when reading a recently published paper by Tamarind Taylora and Chris Landorf (2015) that explores how the role of legislation (and government-driven action) and community involvement has affected the implementation of “objective” and “subjective” approaches to heritage by comparing two industrial sites associated with railroad heritage. Taylora and Landorf cite Schofield’s work and build upon it by comparing these two cases. In their paper, the first case, which is associated with allocentric approaches, is largely driven by government action, while the latter case, which “incorporated regular liaison with the local community” (p. 13), is associated with autocentric approaches.

Taylora and Landorf reinforce the idea that when heritage conservation is driven by the regulatory environment (laws/rules), it is, by definition, allocentric. Other authors have referred to this approach as “positivistic” or driven by “scientism” (Green, 1998; Muñoz Viñas, 2005; Tainter & Lucas, 1983), which emphasizes objective facts because the implementation of statutes, ordinances, and rules seeks to reduce ambiguity and gray areas. On the other hand, most people experience heritage in very subjective and personal terms–or autocentrically. In my own experience, which many heritage studies scholars reinforce, is that community-driven projects are, by definition, autocentric in their approach to the identification, interpretation, and treatment of heritage. This fact also brings about a great deal of conflict with community values that are not congruent with heritage laws and rules, which heritage experts are charged to enforce.

A rather good example of the implementation of built heritage conservation that is almost entirely autocentric in its approach is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program. These programs, when run according to the National Trust’s guidelines, typically consist of one paid “Main Street manager” and hundreds of volunteers. These volunteers do nearly all of the work in the program, while the manager acts in the role of a facilitator. In this way, Main Street programs empower communities to make much of the decisions about how their heritage is recognized and treated outside regulatory frameworks. Quite a few Main Street communities don’t have local design review (regulatory) control of built heritage, yet successfully conserve their downtowns. This is achieved through community consensus–which is required of any successful Main Street program–and facade grant programs. These grant programs can be funded through direct community donations, for-profit organization, or sometimes state grants. The volunteers, however, make decisions in terms of what are appropriate and inappropriate treatments for conserving the authenticity of buildings, structures, and places and, unless a grant program requires it, are not required to use orthodox conservation doctrine, such as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

Having been a Main Street manager as well as a volunteer in three different Main Street program across the country, I have experienced this autocentric approach which is inherent in the Main Street Approach. While the National Trust doesn’t officially recognize the theory behind this aspect of community involvement in conservation, it is a major factor in the overall success of Main Street programs in the United States.

For further reading:

Green, H. L. (1998). The social construction of historical significance. In M. A. Tomlan (Ed.), Preservation of what, for whom? A critical look at historical significance (pp. 85-94). Ithaca, NY: National Council for Preservation Education.

Muñoz Viñas, S. (2005). Contemporary theory of conservation. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Schofield, J. (2009). Being autocentric: towards symmetry in heritage management practices. In L. Gibson, & J. Pendlebury (Eds.), Valuing historic environments. (pp. 93-113). Surry and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

Tainter, J. A., & Lucas, G. J. (1983). Epistemology of the significance concept. American Antiquity, 48(4), 707-719.

Taylora, T. & Landorfa, C. (2015). Subject–object perceptions of heritage: a framework for the study of contrasting railway heritage regeneration strategies. International Journal of Heritage Studies. DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2015.1061582

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