Last month, I was invited to participate in the “Future of Preservation” meeting at the UMass, Amherst campus that was co-organized by Max Page from UMass, Amherst, Tom Mayes from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Randall Mason from the University of Pennsylvania. In preparation for the meeting, all of the participants were asked to brainstorm ideas for what the future of historic preservation could look like. Most of the attendees taught in historic preservation programs around the country and offered thoughtful insight into problems with built heritage conservation today and ways that some of these issues can be addressed in the future.
Being asked what built heritage conservation would look like in, say, 50 years in the future, is both an exciting and daunting challenge. After all, very few predictions ever come true, even when prognosticated by some of the most intelligent human beings on the planet. So, chances are, my particular vision for the future, while being highly focused on a people-centric approach to heritage conservation, is likely to not hit the target. On the other hand I might just get lucky. But what I hoped to see was a future in which the average person is far more engaged in selecting and making decisions on treating built heritage using the meanings of most stakeholders in a better balance with heritage experts. This could be our future if better, more efficient, and practical methods for participatory action research/community-based participatory research become the norm.
There are two main barriers today in implementing participatory research strategies in the identification, protection, and treatment of built heritage and cultural landscapes today. The first is that the regulatory environment does not allow their use and, even if laws/rules incorporated this type of tool, the process may not be compatible with administrative law. (These are ideas I have written about elsewhere on this site.) The second is that most built heritage practitioners have little or no social science background and the types of participatory research tools tend to require far more resources than exciting systems.
While I think there is a probability that we can address issues with creating a participatory research tool that is more efficient and easy to use, I have far more concerns about the regulatory environment. Changing laws and rules is a highly political process that needs to be driven by constituents. Currently, there is no such demand as much of the debate on conservation practice is among academics, who tend to not engage with practitioners on a regular basis. This could change, of course, but the larger question is who could lead the charge, and perhaps more importantly, who might be interested in doing so? If we can’t make a strong enough argument for the empirical benefits of people-centered heritage conservation, then the political sell will be a difficult one. And much of this evidence is derived from how people experience, perceive, and value historic places, which is an area that needs far more attention and focus than it is currently given by researchers and funders.
So is the future of built heritage conservation people-centered or will we decide that our existing systems for the identification, protection, and treatment of heritage are the best we can do, because the alternatives are too just too difficult?