Where’s the people-centered research funding? An historic preservation plight.

Are you a researcher, or practitioner who uses applied research, who wants to conduct work related to people-centered historic preservation? Have you tried to find funding to support your research? More than likely, you’ve quickly found that historic preservation funders will only support FHBM research: This is research based on the interpretation of factual histories (e.g., local history research) or bricks and mortar work. Need funding to research contemporary people and their relationship to old or heritage places? Do you have a need to research issues around social justice, inclusion, and equity, especially as they relate to preservation policy? Good luck, because you’ll not find many US-based government agencies or foundations who will seem interested in your proposal. This situation needs to change, which is why this post is fundamentally an appeal to preservation funders to bring their priorities into the twenty-first century.

For some context, if you’ve been working in any area of the historic preservation field, you’ve probably heard the phrase “people-centered” preservation (see here for the US National Trust’s and ICCROM’s take on this term), which turns the traditional mantra of people saving buildings on its head by asking what old buildings and places can do for people. This focus does not, necessarily, negate traditional fabric-centered approaches to historic preservation. After all, if we no longer have old places around, then their benefits to people also disappear. And, inchoate social science research is showing some possibilities that retaining the material authenticity of these places contributes to the overall well-being of people, but I digress.

Since the rise of Black Lives Matters, people-centered historic preservation has often become synonymous with how the field can recognize its diversity deficit, become more inclusive, fix its systems to become more equitable, and be a tool for social justice. I would argue, however, that this people-centered focus on preservation work has either explicitly, or more often implicitly, tried to address some of these issues since the rise of “values-centered preservation” at the turn of this century. Similarly, the critical heritage studies field has also had this people-centered focus in the past decade. More recently, planners, like Andrea Roberts, Fallon Aidoo, and Michelle Magalong have entered the preservation field to show how people with non-dominant racial or ethnic identities have long been doing preservation work, but have not been recognized by the White professionals in the field. Similarly, their work is also revealing the benefits of people-centered preservation research to marginalized communities.

Thus, the crux of this “plight” is how can we address problems related to preservation’s diversity deficit, lack of inclusivity, inequitable policies and how these policies can create injustice, without support for people-centered research, which, again, is otherwise known as social science research and related community-based participatory research? Surely, I am not the only person who sees that funding for the preparation of more inclusive National Register nominations or to preserve the places associated with marginalized groups, alone, is just not enough to address some of the core policy issues in the field? Yes, these are very important activities, but it only takes us halfway toward solving the problems.

The common factors in most research related to people-centered preservation is a core focus on heritage, rather than just history, and the use of participatory and social science methods. This focus on heritage differs, in fundamental ways, from the objective, factually-based interpretive or local history research that has long defined the field. (Point of clarification: local history research can certainly be useful in the context of people-centered preservation work, but new methods are needed that can do a much better job at accessing the values and meanings associated with heritage versus objective histories.)

For argument’s sake, let’s say that you’re a researcher who wants to find funding that overlaps with people and heritage places and will therefore use participatory or social science methods. Where do you look?

One of the first places you’ll visit is the National Park Service and you’ll quickly find that it only funds FHMB research. What about the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training? The answer is the same. The fact is that the following list of well-known, traditional historic preservation funders have, to date, shown little to no current interest in research on people-centered preservation defined as using participatory or social science methods focused on the relationship of people with their heritage places or on reforming preservation policy to be people-centered:

  • National Park Service, including the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
  • Historic Preservation Education Foundation
  • State Historic Preservation Offices (e.g., Certified Local Government grants)
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
  • Getty Foundation
  • Society of Architectural Historians
  • Archaeological Institute of America
  • J.M. Kaplan Fund
  • American Express
  • Foundation for Advancement in Conservation

Compounding this fact is that while there is funding for social science research, these funders typically have no background in historic preservation, much less people-centered preservation. In my experience, and in talking with others who have tried obtaining funding from these sources, peer reviewers are typically biased by long-held stereotypes that historic preservation is only about FHMB research. Within the allowed space of a grant application, it is nearly impossible to bring a referee up to speed about the fundamentals of preservation practice and policy and its social justice aims if this individual knows next to nothing about the field.

So, in sum, if you want to conduct people-centered preservation research and you seek traditional preservation funders, they won’t “get” the participatory and social science method focus or the importance of preservation policy reform. And, if you go to social science funders, they won’t “get” what historic preservation is today with its focus on social justice and people.

There are two exceptions, however. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund appears to support this kind of work under the “programming and interpretation” category. And, the US State Department, through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, ostensibly supports “heritage” projects. Curiously, the Ambassadors Fund is the only US Government grant program—across all of its agencies—that specifically uses the word, “heritage,” in its description. So, the only US government funding for “heritage” is specifically targeted for use outside the United States. Go figure.

In comparison to the situation in the United States, what does the situation look like in Europe or Australia? In the United Kingdom, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) regularly funds social science and participatory research related to heritage people, and place. Successfully funded AHRC examples include:

In the European Union, some examples of research that the European Commission funded include:

If you’re interested in more examples, the European Commission has a database that can be browsed.

And, lastly, a good example from Australia is Tracy Ireland’s proposal recently funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC). Her research will address what “Everyday Heritage is about [and] the things and places that ordinary people value and how these can be better acknowledged.” Ireland’s research will also “focus on groups that haven’t traditionally had a voice or a strong presence in the national story.”

I challenge anyone reading this post to show me a US-funder that, based on its grant submission guidelines, would seriously consider any of these extra-US research examples.

By looking at the vibrancy of the research on people-centered preservation in Europe and Australia, the lack of this kind of work in the United States becomes even more painfully clear.  It’s time for historic preservation funders to realize that the field is more than just objective history and bricks and mortar. And, it’s time that social science funders recognize historic preservation as a legitimate area of research, which has long been acknowledged abroad through critical heritage studies research. Recognizing these changed foci means that research can then catalyze needed changes to address problems related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice in historic preservation. There is no need to reinvent the proverbial wheel, but the onus is on preservation and social science funders to be more aware of what is happening in the cultural heritage sector in the United States or they, themselves, are contributing to a social justice issue.

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