UFPE mini-course: old places, significance, and a social science approach

The first MDU/UFPE mini course. (Photo by Aristoteles Cantalice.)
The first MDU/UFPE mini course. (Photo by Aristoteles Cantalice.)

This week I gave my first series of lectures in a special “mini course” at the Department of Urban Development (MDU) at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE). The first two topics I addressed were “Why Do Old Places Matter? What the Social Sciences Can Tell Us” and “Principles for Integrating Social Science Research Methods into Built Heritage Conservation Practice.” Here’s an overview of the material that I presented.

In the orthodox practice of conserving the historic environment, there is an unscientific assumption that the events from the past have somehow become imprinted in the fabric of buildings and places. An example of this phenomenon, which Salvador Muñoz Viñas (2005) calls the “material fetish”, is how a brick from the Caribbean touched by Christopher Columbus is somehow more valuable than a brick of the same age, material, and physical characteristics found in a similar location, but was not in the presence of this well-known explorer. Culturally, we treat the brick as if it has been “touched” by the past and therefore it contains some kind of undefined essence that must be retained, which is what directs us to conserve the material fabric of the object.

Researchers from the field of critical heritage studies place this essence in the proper container — in the realm of sociocultural meanings, which is the domain of the social sciences. Curiously, however, the orthodox practice of built heritage conservation rarely takes advantage of the social sciences to understand how people think places are historically significant. Instead, the material fetish is joined by art/historical facts as the primary determinants of why places are historically significant. So, in essence, there is often a large gap between why heritage conservators think a place is significant and why most people think a place is significant.

Perhaps this situation — the rejection of the social sciences as a valid way of understanding historical significance — is why there are very few social scientists who conduct research to empirically justify how and why everyday people value and perceive historic places. Mostly, this research is done by anthropologists, who often associate themselves with the critical heritage studies movement. Far fewer examples originate from sociologists and environmental psychologists, however. I summarize what is known from a social science perspective about everyday people’s values and perceptions of the historic environment in the spring 2015 issue of the Forum Journal, upon which this presentation was based. YouTube also has a video of my presentation on this topic at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2014 National Preservation Conference.

Few would argue against the claim that the reason why we do heritage conservation is to benefit all people (or at least as many people as possible). Why, then, is the concept of assessing historical significance from the perspective of most stakeholders such a strange concept in orthodox practice? Indeed, is it this very question that spurred me to create the web site you are now visiting. It is a fundamental theme for critical heritage studies researchers, and which is well represented by Laurajane Smith’s (2006) concept of the “Authorized Heritage Discourse” (AHD) which demands that “the proper care of heritage, and its associated values, lies with the experts, as it is only they who have the abilities, knowledge and understanding to identify the innate value and knowledge contained at and within historically important sites and places” (p. 29). Smith describes how preservation doctrine provides the basis of a “self-referential authority of conservation and management philosophy of practice” (p. 94) used by heritage experts to “sideline” the “values and meanings that are situated outside the dominant [expert-driven] discourse” (p. 106).

I have long struggled to condense Smith’s AHD into concise, easy to understand words until recently, when in an email, I may have succeeded. I’ll repeat my wording here on a simplified take on the AHD: Smith is saying is that the experts who work in built heritage conservation dismiss values other than their own when doing conservation work; or, in another sense, conservation practitioners aren’t particularly concerned about communities or their values. The other way you can interpret what Smith is saying is that only when the values of a community overlap with the values of the expert is there any sense of the community participating in how built heritage is conserved.

In some ways, I think that Smith’s AHD is an oversimplification of what is arguably a much more complicated situation, but in general, the theme of conservation experts putting more weight on their art/historical values and less weight on community (sociocultural) values is empirically justified in many of the studies conducted by critical heritage studies researchers.

Pragmatically, I believe that we need to find a middle ground — a way to balance a fabric-based and a people-based approach to conservation. This is the reason why I helped create the “Principles for Integrating Environmental Design and Behavior Research into Built Heritage Conservation Practice” at the the Environmental Design Research Association’s Historic Environment Knowledge Network.

Based on the number of people who attended the mini course, there seemed to be quite a bit of interest in these themes. A number of students asked very insightful questions, especially centered on how an emotional attachment to place can be understood, measured, and then used in practice. Overall, I’d say that the lecture was a success, largely because my host professor, Dr. Fernando Diniz Moreira, was very patient and translated many of the ideas from English into Portuguese. (Most of the students at UFPE are bilingual, but proficiency varies quite a bit.) I am grateful for his help as well as for creating this mini course. I look forward to the next session!


Muñoz Viñas, S. (2005). Contemporary theory of conservation. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

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