Cultural history vs. cultural significance: Confused local attempts at increasing diversity in the preservation ordinance

Recently, changes to the City of Denver’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance became effective to allow the designation of buildings and places that have “cultural significance.” This change is, in the words of the City, to increase “inclusion” in the landmarking process and “highlight Denver’s diversity.” While the aims of the amended ordinance are eminently laudable (especially in light of Black Lives Matters), the city appears to fundamentally misunderstand the difference between culture and history.

Other cities that seem to misunderstand cultural significance include Atlanta, GA; Azuza, CA; and Santa Paula, CA. There are many other local examples where the phrase “cultural significance” exists in an ordinance or policy and is not defined; when it is defined, its focus is on history, not culture. Exceptionally, San Francisco gets the concept right while recognizing that cultural significance has no precedent for local regulatory control in the US and therefore its cultural heritage districts have none of the design review requirements usually found in preservation or conservation districts; they are intended to support the city’s strategic planning activities.

What I discuss here builds on the ideas of many others over the decades, especially authors who have discussed how cultural significance could be added to the National Register of Historic Places. Most recently, Holly Taylor, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, wrote about “Recognizing the Contemporary Cultural Significance of Historic Places: A Proposal to Amend National Register Criteria to Include Social Value” which I highly recommend. These concepts are equally applicable at the local level.

The concept of cultural significance, as relevant to historic preservation, was first defined in Australia in 1979. Known as the Burra Charter, and since accepted as part of international preservation doctrine, it defines cultural significance as “aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations.” It is an ethnographic or social science perspective on why old places are important to people, rather than an effort to establish an accurate history of events. But, critically, for the designation of historic places, cultural significance assumes that significance is in the present and defined by the same people for whom some specific heritage place is important, and is not reliant on historical integrity: According to Australia ICOMOS, “Places with no visible physical evidence can still be highly significant.”

Unfortunately, the addition of language that mentions “culture” in a local preservation ordinance (like Denver’s) does little, functionally, to change the status quo. In order for a local preservation ordinance to recognize cultural significance, two more changes have to occur. First, the requirement for period of significance needs to be eliminated. Second, the ordinance needs to sanction and promote an argument for cultural significance using data collected by an ethnography. There is not a single local preservation ordinance in the United State that implements these two, critical items.

All local preservation ordinances in the US specify a requirement for period of significance (or at least the concept is in the ordinance, if not by specific name). This perspective requires that culture be described through an historical lens: Through this historical perspective, culture is not, as anthropologists understand it, a dynamic process that happens in the present, but, rather, significance in this context requires descriptions of what culture was at specific points in the past: hence, cultural history.

Let me be very clear on this, because some preservation practitioners and even some academics don’t seem to get this straight:

Cultural history: Fact-based descriptions of what people did in the past.

Cultural significance: What specific cultural groups, alive and here today, think, feel, and believe about their own history and heritage right now, in the present.

Cultural history data is collected through archival research (written historical documents, photos, maps) and oral history; this is a process of collecting FACTS. Cultural significance is collected by talking to people about their heritage and observing their contemporary relationship with their heritage; this is a process of collecting MEANINGS.

And, crucially: Meanings associated with cultural significance don’t need to be facts.

The application of cultural history research to normative designation processes in historic preservation is well documented in the National Park Service’s Bulletin 38 on “traditional cultural properties” (TCPs). Simply put, Bulletin 38 discusses how to convert cultural meanings into facts.

Some of you might be thinking that this is the answer: radically apply the TCP concept to local designations. Yes, this would likely open the door to the possibility of many more nominations being accepted at the local level, but it doesn’t address the fact that the TCP process cannot capture the depth of those cultural meanings. For instance, the TCP process would convert a cultural group’s deep and emotional connection to a sacred place (e.g., a church) to a listing of facts. A member of this cultural group might say, “My community believes this place is sacred because our ancestor’s spirits are here.” A TCP reduction would take this richness of meaning and reduce it to historical facts: “The church was built in 1851 and from 1940 to 1970, people from the community worshiped there on a weekly basis.” Some members of diverse cultural groups, including BIPOC, may find that TCPs help to sustain the existing white, Eurocentric perspectives that characterize the preservation enterprise: knowledge is only valid when presented in the dominant fact-based, expert-driven discourse of the field.

Capturing cultural significance is dependent on an ethnographic approach, which would allow an argument for significance independent of historical facts (either from historical/archival documents or oral history). Ethnographies gather evidence using interviews from and observation of people living, today, in context with their heritage places; data are not excluded merely because an event happened too close to the present or describes the future. In this context, people talk about why places are important to them and their culturally-affiliated group right now, in the present. Data are reported back in the language and meanings of the people who shared it and not translated into the historical facts required by preservation regulations.

In terms of historical integrity, a local preservation ordinance could still keep the definitions of integrity lifted from the National Register while sanctioning arguments for integrity based entirely (or mostly) on feeling and association.

Until local preservation ordinances, including Denver’s ordinance, implements these changes, what is being called “cultural significance” is, in reality, no different than cultural history. It has always been possible in any of the jurisdictions that employ a preservation ordinance to make an argument for historical significance based on cultural history. This is because cultural history arguments rely on historical facts and normative processes that have existed in historic preservation for a half century.

If local governments really want to embrace cultural and racial diversity in their preservation ordinance, they need to focus on the values and meanings that communities, today, have for old places in the present. That means talking with and recording the meanings and values of resident stakeholders as part of the historical designation process. And, most crucially, it means involving cultural anthropologists and folklorists in your local historic preservation program and your local preservation commission. Until this change happens, simply calling cultural history “cultural significance” is an example of word games that assures the existing (white) power structures for local historic preservation remain unchanged.

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