In the eyes of laypeople

Recently, I was reading “The Pro-Development, Anti-Historic Preservationist” by Michael Allen on the Next City web site. It is a good overview of the changing public perceptions of historic preservation, including how many people are doing “historic preservation”, but don’t associate themselves with the term or the movement. These individuals don’t join historic preservation organizations, promote their activities, or even necessarily like history per se. A quote in this article from Alexandra Lange, an architecture critique, really caught my eye:

“Sometimes [professional] preservationists, like critics, find it hard to look at [historic] buildings through the eyes of laypeople. … Sometimes all the history in the world is not the answer.”

I found this sentiment to be profound because it presents the 21st-century challenge for historic environment conservation: how do conservation experts “look through the eyes of laypeople?” As I’ve written extensively on this web site, we don’t yet have a good answer to this question, but it needs to be answered if the field is to retain its relevancy. I see two futures: one in which built heritage/cultural landscape professionals embrace the goal of understanding the layperson’s perspective and use this knowledge to improve communication and another where the field becomes increasingly irrelevant because it refuses to embrace the central importance that place, experience, and emotional attachment have to everyday people’s love of historic places.

As Allen’s article states, a lot of “preservationists” out there don’t really seem to care much about the factual history of places. What if, for most people, the reason why historic places are valued is because they “feel” good, are “charming”, and have a sense of mystery and intrigue? In other words, what if imagined history is more important to people than factual history? Would our field fall apart if it officially recognized that a large reason why people value historic places is because of the emotions elicited which catalyze creativity? When should factual history become more important than emotional experience? How can we make these decisions?

If we accept the validity of these questions, surely the accepted disciplinary roots of historic preservation need to be revisited as well. What would historic preservation/heritage conservation look like if it incorporated the perspective of social scientists as much as it does historians?

Are you willing to accept Lange’s challenge? How would you do it?

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