Is there a job market for built heritage conservation specialists with a social science background?

Built_heritage_conservationOne of the common perceptions of the social sciences—e.g., perspectives from anthropology, sociology, and psychology—is that that they are too academic, too erudite, and not sufficiently applied to have direct benefit for most people who don’t work in institutions of higher education. Of course, many of you who are reading this blog know that this is not true; a great example of applied social science research of this nature is marketing, where there is a direct link between understanding the social sciences and success in business. If you don’t understand people and their wants and desires, it could doom your enterprise.

Is there a similar connection between the social sciences and the heritage sector? Or, more specifically, does it exist in the conservation of the historic environment, or in United States’ parlance, historic preservation? Beyond a few ethnographic studies that are occasionally solicited, the answer, largely, is “no”. As many in the critical heritage studies field have written, the built heritage conservation field is driven by scientism, facts, and expert rule; applied social science perspectives—in other words understanding the meanings people have for heritage—is, unfortunately, not common in the United States nor is it internationally. For example, the built heritage sector is defined by a number of specializations, none of which utilize applied social science techniques to any significant extent:

  • The regulatory environment — e.g., design review, environmental review — which drives most built heritage conservation projects in the United States, does not consider the person-place or environment-behavior dimensions of design and authenticity or other intangible qualities of heritage. In the United States, Thomas King has written extensively on the failures of NEPA and Section 106 to consider the social and cultural aspects of the environment.
  • Architectural materials conservation is a conventionally scientific endeavor grounded in materials science and chemistry. A critical part of the work of these professionals is making intervention decisions that preserve the authenticity of historic fabric, yet the theory that drives this decision making process is not empirically grounded in human perceptions or experiences. (Salvador Muñoz Viñas has written on this extensively in his book, A Contemporary Theory of Conservation).
  • Preservation/restoration architecture (i.e., licensed architects working on historic buildings) is largely driven by the requirement to adhere to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. The Standards are supposed to protect the authenticity of historic buildings and places, but are not based on any kind of empirical evidence; instead, like design guidelines used in built heritage conservation, are entirely rationalist in their origins.
  • The interpretation of historic sites is driven by the collection of facts that are then presented in way that is supposed to show visitors what “really” happened in the past. Multiple interpretations of history or exploring how visitors feel at sites and engage in performative actions to bond them to place are not considered.
  • Built heritage and cultural landscape advocacy organizations play a fundamental role in helping people to understand why the conservation of heritage is important. Even though advocacy focuses on motivating people and changing their behavior, these organizations fail to use social science research in promoting a message that resonates with the public or finding ways to change people’s behavior. (I should note that the National Trust for Historic Preservation is becoming increasingly interested in this perspective, however — see Tom Mayes blog, “Why Do Old Places Matter?”.) For comparison, in the environmental conservation field, however, the “conservation social sciences” are used by advocacy organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, to craft their message and to promote changes in behavior.

So, if one were to inject the social sciences, and specifically applied social science research methods, into these areas of practice, what would it look like?

  • The regulatory environment: 1) empirically-derived design review standards using environmental psychology research based on the human perception of authenticity; 2) NEPA and Section 106 reviews that fully consider cultural values, people-place and environment-behavior factors, and utilize community-based participatory research; facilitation and conflict negation/resolution skills would also be considered to be fundamental to built heritage practitioners.
  • Much like with design review standards, architectural materials conservators could use research in environmental psychology to understand how interventions in the historic fabric of buildings and places impacts authenticity. Conservation treatments could then have an empirical basis not only in the hard sciences, but the social sciences as well.
  • Preservation/restoration architecture: Currently, a few architecture programs in the United States and abroad provide training to their students on environmental design and behavior research, which is grounded in the social sciences. If preservation architects were to receive this type of training on a more consistent basis, it could increase the use of empirically based design review standards focused on conserving historical authenticity.
  • Historic site interpretation: Historic sites, such as house museums, are currently struggling with how to attract people to their sites and especially issues with the lack of repeat visitation. These sites could use ethnographic research to understand the “performative” and affect aspects of heritage that connect people with place. This empirical evidence could then be used to change interpretive programs.
  • Built heritage and cultural landscape advocacy: This is an easy recommendation—for advocacy organizations, just look at what environmental conservation organizations are already doing in their use of conservation social science to motivate people and change their behavior.

But are there actually employers who are interested in people with a background in both built heritage conservation and the social sciences? Elizabeth Chilton, former Director of the Center for Heritage and Society at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, thinks so. She’s interested in creating educational programs that focus on the “social science of the past” in order to produce professionals that can address shortcomings in traditional curricula from history, archaeology, and architecture programs. In a talk at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Advanced Study in 2012, she outlines her thoughts on the subject (starting at 45:10):

There are a number of heritage organizations and potential employers out there for our students [from the Center for Heritage and Society]. There are also a lot of local firms and non-profits and NGOs that are really interested in interdisciplinarily trained heritage professionals. I’ve had conversations with people who run public history, non-profits, or even companies that do both education and heritage management type work and they complain when students come to them: they’re an excellent archaeologist; they’re an excellent historian; they’re an excellent architect; but that’s what they do and sometimes they need someone to go out into the community to do some focus group work and talk about the larger heritage project. They get frustrated with students because they need to train them on the job to do more of that integration of those fields and be able to communicate that to broader audiences—non-specialist audiences.

This is one of those questions that would be good to hear ideas/concerns/comments from practitioners. Is the idea of integrating the social sciences with built heritage conservation useful, wanted, or needed in the field? And if so, what needs to be emphasized/taught? And if you’re a potential student thinking about a degree program, what would compel you to want to study in such a program?

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