Creating Safe Places for Historic Preservation Practitioners to Think and Innovate

For many years, scholars have been criticizing the practice of historic preservation/built heritage conservation because of its over-reliance on art/historical facts and its reluctance to accommodate a more people-centered approach. To wit, Labrador and Silberman (2018, 5) advocate a new system in which a focus on “how authenticity is perceived [by the public] and what impacts various historical narratives have had on differing social groups” replaces the existing emphasis on conventional experts determining what is authentic and historically accurate. Yet, with all of these decades of critique, the majority of built heritage conservation practice has not changed at all, primarily because such change would require a complete upend of the rules, laws, and regulations that drive 75% of built heritage conservation practice (Wells 2018). To be sure, these same scholars who critique conservation practice also largely fail to address the immense power that the regulatory environment has in ossifying the field. Authors who critique built heritage conservation without specifically grounding its practice—front and center—in rules and regulations assume that people have an immense degree of agency that simply cannot exist in the real world. As a result, it should not be surprising that none of these scholars have any pragmatic solutions that directly impact rules, laws, and regulations, including the possibility of completely replacing the regulatory environment with something better.

Because built heritage conservation practice is mostly driven by the regulatory environment, the job descriptions of employees who work in these areas are also largely defined in a statute, rule, or ordinance. A ramification of this situation—which few, if any people have addressed—is the creation of dogmatic work environments that stifle free speech. Moreover, these work environments also inhibit innovation, which is desperately needed in order to address the social justice issues that are inherent to built heritage conservation practice (Gibson, Hendricks, & Wells 2019).

I want to be clear that I am not aware of any studies that provide empirical, much less generalizable, evidence for my assertion. On the other hand, when anecdotal accounts become so numerous that a clear phenomenon emerges, I can at least conclude that these kids of dogmatic work environments do exist in the field. What I cannot describe is to what extent (in terms of numbers) this is the case.

I will therefore describe this situation primarily through my own personal experiences and talking with others who work in these kinds of environments. To be sure, the existence of this situation is because the fundamental part of these employees’ job descriptions is to efficiently administer the law. Deviance from the law is discouraged for obvious reasons. But the question is the degree to which employees in preservation compliance are actively prevented from innovating within the confines of the law. There is some evidence that employees are literally being told that they are “not paid to think” when creative, outside-of-the-box approaches to their work are attempted (Elliott 2019, 95). Consider, for instance, that the work of local preservation planners has a lot more to do with building code enforcement than urban planning, the former of which requires the rote application of code versus more open-ended exploration of ideas.

In my work as a local preservation planner, I interacted significantly more with my colleagues in building code enforcement than my fellow urban planners who were not assigned to this work. In my conversations with city employees in other departments, my value primarily came from determining which buildings and places were on the local register of historic places or what could be on this register. Sometimes the discussions would move into specific regulations, such as how the preservation ordinance impacted property owners, but my fellow planners in other departments seemed to have little interest in my contributions to how long-term planning (e.g., comprehensive planning) intersected with historic preservation. (In the US, most of the official literature on “preservation planning,” which has not received updates in decades, is overly reliant on identification and landmarking—i.e., subjecting historic resources to the regulatory environment—and not much else; for instance see Derry et al. [1985] and White and Roddewig [1994].) But, most importantly, I hear my experiences echoed repeatedly from preservation planners and from people in the CRM field. The point here is that non-historic preservation professionals often miss many opportunities to include preservation practitioners in discussions beyond the interpretation of rules, laws, and regulations. Conversely, preservation practitioners are often ineffectual in relating their value beyond the interpretation of rules, laws, and regulations. I’ve also found that when CRM professionals and preservation planners attend symposiums and intensives I’ve organized, they hide their identity. Attendees do this by removing their name badges or folding over the part of the badge that displays their firm’s or city’s name. They are afraid, but why? These professionals fear retribution from their employer for speaking about ideas that may run counter to the rules, laws, regulation, and policy in their workplace. Simply put, the dogmatic work environments that exist within preservation regulation leave no safe place for these individuals to think and express their ideas. Who is willing to entertain creative ideas if they literally break the law? The point here is that some preservation practitioners who work in the regulatory environment fear retribution when they use their intellects beyond how their jobs are narrowly defined via rules, laws, and regulations.

Research since the 1970s has consistently shown that rigid and dogmatic thinking inhibits creative thinking and stifles innovation. As William Haskins (1996), an expert on employee empowerment, explains, “When people become dogmatic they rarely are open to a discussion of issues, even with themselves [because they] already know the truth. … They already know the answer, so why waste time discussing the problem or solution with themselves or other organizational members.” Dogmatic thinking is based on defense mechanisms that reject evidence counter to accepted truths (Ambrose and Sternberg 2012); when an employee comes to the realization that an element of a preservation law runs counter to known evidence, say from the social sciences, the only acceptable reaction is to reject this evidence, because failure to do so results in the potential of being branded as a trouble-maker in the workplace. Why raise a point that invalidates a portion of an ordinance that must be followed, without fail? These interactions will inevitably be branded as unproductive discussions because the employee feels utterly powerless to go up against not only a law, but a workplace culture that rejects critical thinking about the law.

Are all preservation planning and CRM workplaces as I’ve described? Obviously, the answer is no. Are some like this? Yes. What I can’t say with any amount of certainty is what the reality is between these two extremes. (Hint: We need academics and doctoral students who would like to address this research question about historic preservation workplace culture!) To be sure, there is a problem and we should stop ignoring its existence. Unfortunately, the most important people we need to change historic preservation practice— i.e., practitioners—are the least able to make any kind of change. But, I’m not the only one observing this sobering reality, which extends to preservation practice in other countries. In a study that involved interviews with heritage sector practitioners in Sweden and England, Högberg et al. (2017) observed that “The heritage sector lacks a thorough engagement with questions concerning the future benefits of cultural heritage. Consequently, heritage professionals do not engage in critical discussions on the relevance of present-day practices and policies in heritage management for future generations” (644). One practitioner was quoted as saying “We are all well aware that there is a future, but we don’t talk about it. We are bad at carrying on a discussion of the future. We think short-term. We are in the midst of the everyday work we handle, with no opportunity to think on a deeper level.” (642). Note that last sentence: no opportunity to think.

The impetus in writing this opinion piece is my growing weariness of reading paper after paper decrying the ossification of the field. We need to move into a mode of how to change the field. We know there’s a problem and we (ought to) know that practitioners need to be central to the solutions. But how do we convince others that historic preservation practitioners have value outside of the regulatory environment? What sorts of activities are being done to help create safe places for preservation practitioners to speak? How are work environments being made less dogmatic? I see little evidence that anything is happening in this regard. Instead, preservation practitioners are being squeezed on two sides: employers who seem to want dogmatic employees and academics who castigate practitioners for their inability to advance practice. Who can win in this no-win scenario? Critical heritage studies scholars need to stop treating preservation practitioners as the “problem” and instead clearly identify them as the solution and provide them with the support and resources to facilitate change. To this end, I therefore propose a call to academics, the National Park Service and the American Planning Association, and managers to enact needed changes.

A call to academics

We know next to nothing, in a way that is empirical and generalizable, about how communication, innovation, and creativity works in preservation workplaces. This is an open area of research. How dogmatic are these workplaces? How are decisions made? How is creativity expressed and rewarded or reprimanded? These and many more questions would go a long way toward understanding the workplace as a prelude to changing practice.

A call to the National Park Service and the American Planning Association

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Preservation Planning narrowly defines “planning” as identification and documentation as a necessary prelude to regulation. Historic preservation can and does exist outside of National Register standards, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, historic contexts, and putting more laws and regulations in place. There are a multitude of planning processes that could be applied from urban planning, for instance, and would include much broader stakeholder input and participation. The NPS should recognize this twenty-first century reality and embrace people-centered approaches to historic preservation. Similarly, the American Planning Association hasn’t updated its policy on historic and cultural resources and guidance on preservation planning in more than twenty years, both of which reflect the same narrow perspectives as found in the NPS’s documents.

A call to managers

If you manage CRM professionals or preservation planners, you have the power to reward creativity and foster a less dogmatic workplace, including one that encourages the insertion of preservationists into broader urban planning processes, especially those that don’t involve regulation. Reward (respectful) free speech in the workplace that is focused on benefitting the public. Encourage your employees to stay abreast of research on people-centered practice and preservation solutions outside of a regulatory framework.

In sum

Those of us in this field need to work on creating better, safer places for practitioners to express creative, new ideas to solve historic preservation problems and incentivize this behavior. We also need professional bodies that support the freedom of preservation professionals to think and act on their creative ideas in collaboration with academics. And, lastly, we need to be sure that critique of practice is not the same as the critique of the practitioner. If we really want to change practice, then all actors in the field have a responsibility to critique practice while simultaneously respecting and supporting the practitioner’s ability to challenge the status quo for the good of the public.

Works cited

Ambrose, D., Sternberg, R.J. (2012). How dogmatic beliefs harm creativity and higher-level thinking. New York: Routledge.

White, B. J., & Roddewig, R. J. (1994). Preparing a historic preservation plan. Washington, D.C. and Chicago: NTHP and American Planning Association.

Derry, A., Jandl, H. W., Shull, C. D., & Thorman, J. (1985). Guidelines for local surveys; a basis for preservation planning: National register bulletin 24. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service.

Elliott, J. (2019). The mystery of history and place. In J.C. Wells and B.L. Stiefel (eds.), Human-centered built environment heritage preservation: Theory and evidence-based practice (89-100). London: Routledge.

Gibson, J., Hendricks, M., & Wells, J. C. (2019). From engagement to empowerment: How heritage professionals can incorporate participatory methods in disaster recovery to better serve socially vulnerable groups. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 25(6), 596-610.

Haskins, W.A. (1996). Freedom of speech: Construct for creating a culture which empowers organizational members. Journal of Business Communication, 33(1), 85-97.

Högberg, A., Holtorf, C., May, S., Wollentz, G. (2017). No future in archaeological heritage management? World Archaeology 49(5), 639-647.

Labrador, A.M., Silberman, N.A. (2018). Public history as social practice. In A.M. Labrador and N.A. Silberman (eds.), The Oxford handbook of public heritage theory and practice (pp. 1-20). New York: Oxford University Press.

Wells, J.C. (2018). Challenging the assumption about a direct relationship between historic preservation and architecture in the United States. Frontiers of Architectural Research, 7(4), 455-464.

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