Are we ready for post-modern public and local history?

One of the researchers that is helping me with my work here in Brazil recently emailed me a course announcement from ANPUH (The National Association of History in Brazil). The course title is “Historical Research in Areas of Architecture and Heritage: Theory and Methods.” You can see the full advertisement for the course at the bottom of this post.

Sounds like a useful course, right? In the United States, I’m used to history programs in universities and preservation advocacy organizations promoting local history research as part of “public history” efforts. Typically, this consists of a focus on the use of primary source documents found in archives, such as property deeds, tax assessments, historical maps, and manuscripts. Sometimes oral history is included as well. These courses then instruct people how to gather “facts” from these documents and assemble them into a narrative of why a building or place is significant. This specific narrative must somehow relate to various grand narratives or themes of local, state, or national history.  It’s a very traditional, positivistic way of teaching history that also happens to be a core component of most historic preservation degree programs in the United States.

So, I’m reading this Brazilian course announcement and expecting the same thing. The description (translated) of the course begins, naturally enough with:

Often the professionals working in the fields of cultural heritage and architecture have to deal with historical research, but don’t have the appropriate tools for this. To address this issue, this course seeks to provide these professionals an overview of the field, presenting them with theories and methods of history.

So far, sounds pretty traditional to me, but then I get to the section that discusses the curriculum, and I do a double-take:

Curriculum: history and his rival paradigms; the methodical school of positivism; the school of Marxism; the school of the annals; social, cultural, post-modern, and the new cultural history; the documentary research: the quantitative method the qualitative method; the evidentiary method; oral history.

Um, now, what’s this? Post-modern local history? Qualitative and quantitative research? In local history? Really? Now this I’ve never seen in the United States applied to such a pragmatic topic as understanding historical significance connected to buildings. The ramifications of using these methodologies is the preparation of a narrative of multiple, competing, significances whose goal is to not try to uncover a “real” or “true” past, but rather multiple interpretations of it. As you might imagine, this doesn’t work so well with criteria A and B in the National Register of Historical Places (the official document for the federal recognition of historical significance in the United States). So would this approach even be usable in historic preservation practice in the United States?

I wonder what a state historic preservation office (SHPO) would do with a local history narrative that delves into Foucauldian discourse analysis and Marxism? For those of you who practice historic preservation in the United States, what do you think? Would this approach to local history fly or die a horrible death in a mountain of red ink? Are we ready for post-modern local and public history?


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  1. Jack Elliott


    This would not get far in Mississippi, and, I suspect, in many other SHPOs. It appears that the origin of the problem lies in the Cartesian outlook that sees the objects of the world as being disassociated from consciousness, an outlook that has become the ground of positivism. When one deals with significance/meaning though, one is dealing implicitly with the objective along with the(inseparable) dimension of consciousness in direct contradiction to the Cartesian/positivistic assumptions that underlie the training of so many preservationists. Statements of significance usually have the form of positivistic descriptions followed by a sleight-of-hand in which meaning suddenly pops out, like an awkwardly performed card trick or pulling a rabbit from a hat. To point to this problem usually produces a look of bewilderment in the eyes of preservationists–who seem to have no idea how awkward it appears–before they return to work as usual. With our educational institutions, our government agencies, and regulatory definitions we have effectively cast the problem into concrete where intellectual mobility is limited.

    My experience has not produced much ground for optimism when the mass of practitioners are supported by cast-in-concrete institutional mechanisms (and the flow of monies) that provide little encouragement for more thoughtful approaches.

    Of course, we must continue to sound a prophetic voice howsoever we can. For me this means pointing, whenever possible, to the negative and even nihilistic implications of activities that effectively reduce heritage and meaning to objects to be accumulated. Or in the words of Hans Urs von Bathasar: “The Forms of the Tradition have lost the background against which they could be understood and now give the impression of something in a museum, guarded by antiquarians and unthinkingly photographed by tourists.”

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