Last year, Kent State University published a book on Historic Preservation and Urban Change (Terry Schwarz, editor). In it was a paper by a familiar author: Jack D. Elliott, Jr. Elliott had a profound effect on my doctoral research when I came across his 2002 article on “radical preservation” in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Forum Journal. In his article, he posits that the common reasons why everyday people like historical places are pretty much ignored in historic preservation practice. One passage from this work still rings in my head because of its reference to phenomenology:
The phenomenological approach is of particular relevance when dealing with the questions of significance for preservation. … If a historical place is such a phenomenon, then the term ‘significant’ should be used in preservation to describe places whose physical character and matrices of historical, mythical, and social associations can and do evoke experiences of awe, wonder, beauty, and identity, among others.”
In fact, Elliott’s reference to phenomenology in context with the historic environment was the first I came across and still remains rather rare, but it gets to the heart of why people are emotionally attached to the historic environment. In sum, the reasons why people like historic places may, in fact, have much to do with how they feel about them versus any objective facts associated with these places. But, historic preservation practice requires only the recognition of objective facts and the active deprecation of subjective meanings, especially in the regulatory environment. So what Elliott is saying is that we’re missing the fundamental reasons why people like historic places. Powerful stuff.
In his article, “Shards of the Past: Remembrance & Foreshadowing”, Elliott nicely summarizes his ideas; in particular, I like the concise description that in understanding historic places, “Significance is neither empirical nor is it intrinsic to anything.” Yet, the opposite of this perspective is required in the practice of historic preservation, which then “subverts” the significance of history. Elliott includes a remarkable quote from the physicist, Niels Bohr, about how lived experience, memory, and emotion changes the value of an historic place, which in this case is a castle:
Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists, we believe that a castle consists only of stones and admire the way the architect puts them together. The stone, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness in the human soul, we hear Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ … everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depths he was made to reveal. … And once we know that, Kronberg becomes quite a different castle for us.”
Bohr’s insight is even more remarkable given his background as a conventional scientist who is not supposed to be swayed by emotion when gathering evidence in his research. But, perhaps this may have positioned him better to realize that for most people, historical significance is not about objective history and historical facts, but rather is far more personal and subjective.
While Elliott is well read on the classics of philosophy and teaches archaeology, geography, and religion, he also has had a multi-decade career as an historic preservation practitioner. In the “Shards of the Past” he relates the difficulty he had with his ideas on significance being accepted in his workplace; rather than engendering debate and understanding, he was told “to follow the regulations, not to think about them.” If this happens in many other historic preservation workplaces, as I fear it may, based on my own experience and discussions with others, it is deeply troubling. Ostensibly, the laws, rules, and regulations that conserve the historic environment are there to benefit the public, yet debate about how the work of these practitioners could improve this mission is potentially being suppressed.
In historic preservation practice, you are ‘only required to follow the regulations, not to think about them’.”
Elliott’s work should be more widely read and understood, especially within historic preservation degree programs. He originally had many of his ideas on a web site which I read while I was an undergraduate studying in an historic preservation program. (Sadly, this site is no longer running.) Admittedly, at the time, I had difficulty understanding Elliott’s message because I had no idea what the “real world” was like in terms of practice. I only understood the problems he was describing once I started practicing in historic preservation and returned to graduate school with some experience under my belt to contextualize the issues.
While Elliott provides context for what needs to change in historic environment conservation, we’re still left in the same position of not understanding exactly how this could happen. With so much of preservation practice in the United States (and abroad) driven by laws, can practice therefore only change by changing laws? (This is not so easy!) Or, more radically, can the conservation of the historic environment happen without laws?
Elliott, J. D. (2002). Radical preservation: Toward a new and more ancient paradigm. Forum Journal, 16(3), 50-56.
Elliott, J. D. (2004). The buried city: A meditation on history and place. The Journal of Mississippi History, 66, 106-150.
Elliott, J. D. (2014). Shards of the past: Remembrance and Foreshadowing. In T. Schwarz (ed.), Historic preservation and urban change, pp. 4-7. Kent, OH: Kent State University.