Leadership in “people-centered preservation” — who seems to get it and who does not

leadershipThose of you who read my blog know that I have a strong interest in balancing the practice of the conservation of the built environment and cultural landscapes between what we objectively know (e.g., historic facts; things we can photograph, measure) and meanings (e.g., intangible heritage). All of this relates to making heritage conservation more democratic and embracing grassroots efforts. My voice is just one of many who want to, as David Brown at the National Trust for Historic Preservation puts it, move “outside our comfort zone” and create a “new, people-centered preservation movement.” I commend the leaders at the National Trust for Historic Preservation who are now using the phrase, “people-centered preservation,” and engaging a wide audience in its discussion. But, what exactly is “people-centered preservation” and which organizations and people are acknowledged leaders in this area?

What is people-centered preservation?

I summarize many of the ideas in what people-centered preservation ought to be on my web site as do many others, but I’ll summarize it as succinctly as possible here:

People-centered preservation reframes heritage conservation as an emancipatory activity that gives voice to as many people as possible in making decisions about what is and is not important about the historic environment and how these objects should be treated.

This is a gross oversimplification in many ways, but I think it gets the basic idea across, especially for those who are new to this concept.

What is “people-centered preservation” responding to?

Recently, I was tasked with trying to summarize, as briefly as possible, the problems with the existing system for built heritage conservation. While my perspective is US-centric, I think this applies equally to most Western, developed countries as well:

The existing system for cultural resource management/historic preservation in the United States fails to engage most stakeholders. It reinforces existing power differentials between cultural/ethnic groups and heritage experts/developers. This system also places nearly complete control of the meanings associated with significance and authenticity in the hands of a few people who are beholden more to developers than to the public. Lastly, these meanings are narrowly defined by archaic doctrine and rules and regulations that direct significance and authenticity must be based on objective facts and only things that can be photographed/drawn/measured. The existing system for cultural resource management/historic preservation therefore privileges Western, scientific meanings over other values that may be more important to stakeholders, including intangible heritage.

Does people-centered preservation fix these problems?

In a word, not yet, because the majority of built heritage conservation practice is based on laws/rules/regulations that might be fundamentally incompatible with emancipatory approaches. No one really has a good handle on how to bridge traditional and people-centered preservation practice, especially in the realms of environmental review and local design review. But, the first steps, which are happening now, are to question the existing systems and explore better ways of engaging in built heritage conservation, including understanding more perspectives.

Who gets “people-centered preservation”?

I think recognition is long due for both people and organizations who share a common interest in advancing people-centered preservation. When I first thought about making this list, I also considered making a list of organizations that don’t “get it”, but, for obvious reasons, I chose to not do so. With that being said, however, it should be telling which US-based organizations are not on this list!

US-based organizations:

US-based private firms:

People (US-based and international):

Most of the people listed below are scholars/authors in some way whose research/ideas have contributed significantly in developing the fundamental ideas behind people-centered preservation/conservation. I have also attempted to indicate where I think their major contribution is:

  • Lisa Breglia — explored how heritage conservation should be engaged in the cultivation of meanings, not the preservation of “things”
  • David Brown — advocate for people-centered preservation
  • Jack Elliott — former practitioner and philosopher on people, place, and history
  • Lisanne Gibson — looked at how to integrate sociocultural values into built heritage conservation planning
  • Rodney Harrison — framed basic ideas about the ubiquity of heritage of all forms (heritage is everywhere)
  • Richard Hutchings — created discourse on CRM practice as akin to “disaster capitalism” (with Marina la Salle)
  • Ned Kaufman — introduced the idea of the “storyscape”; interested in community emancipation techniques using heritage
  • Thomas King — chief critic of environmental review (Section 106/NEPA) in the United States; provided needed Native American perspectives
  • William Logan — chief proponent of heritage as social justice
  • Setha Low — introduced the concept of the “cultural conservation” of place and ethnographic dimensions of attachment to the historic environment
  • Randall Mason — introduced (along with Erica Avrami and Marta de la Torre) “values-based preservation” with a significant social science foundation
  • Tom Mayes — explored the question “Why Do Old Places Matter”, with a focus on people and place
  • Salvador Muñoz Viñas — established the pseudoscientific basis of most heritage conservation practice; conservation is a cultural practice, no matter who engages in it.
  • John Schofield — explored ways in which heritage experts control meanings and disempower most stakeholders
  • Steven Semes — provided evidence for conflating traditional historic preservation doctrine with the doctrine of Modernism
  • Neil Silberman — prolific author and one of the few individuals exploring heritage emancipation ideas within practice
  • Laurajane Smith — created the concept of the “Authorized Heritage Discourse”
  • Tim Winter — helped define the “critical” in “critical heritage studies”
  • Silvio Zancheti — introduced the idea of “dynamic integrity” or the conservation of meanings associated with fabric (with Rosane Loretto)

Did I miss something or someone?

I’m hoping that the answer is yes. Let me know in your comments, below.










3 thoughts on “Leadership in “people-centered preservation” — who seems to get it and who does not

    • Jeremy Wells

      Thank you for sharing the ICCROM resource, which is definitely useful. I specifically did not focus on international organizations in my post, but as you mention, ICCROM has been exploring “people-centered approaches” to the conservation of built heritage for some time, including offering a course in 2015 on the subject. UNESCO’s Historic Urban Landscape approach is also very much in this vein. But as with many international approaches, the work of ICCROM and UNESCO, along with other international organizations, are rarely invoked in discussions on heritage conservation in the United States. I would argue that practitioners (and academics) in the US ought to be more receptive to international approaches on conservation (natural and cultural) to better inform our work.

  1. Paula Hammett

    Laura Watt’s new book, The Paradox of Preservation, is a must read. Lauraalicewatt.com
    “The Paradox of Preservation chronicles how national ideals about what a park “ought to be” have developed over time and what happens when these ideals are implemented by the National Park Service (NPS) in its efforts to preserve places that are also lived-in landscapes. “

Leave a Reply