This week, we move on from the discussion of museums to focus on a topic of equal weight and importance to public historians: historic preservation. The public preservation of history had its beginnings with those opposed to the demolition of houses and other buildings that had been the dwelling places of America’s founders and visionaries. In its modern conception, however, it is much more than the simple preservation of things with a physical, architectural presence. As the week’s readings expressed, historic preservation involves the preservation of natural space, in the form of National Parks; historical buildings, monuments, and objects; and even communities. But, as with the presentation of museums and probably more so, historic preservation presents many challenges. What structures and sites merit historic preservation? In what way should those deemed worthy be preserved? Should they be left as is or rehabilitated and reused? These questions and many more swim in the sea of historic preservation and contribute to the gainful employment of at least a portion of public historians.
Most people, whether they are aware of it or not, are practitioners of historic preservation, at least on a small scale. Whenever an individual preserves a family heirloom or any other object that has some sort of nostalgic value to them, they are partaking in historic preservation. As was seen in the film Objects of Memory, objects act as seeds of memory and without those associated memories they mean practically nothing. Because of these associated memories and nostalgic feelings, the meaning and value of an object differs greatly depending on who is viewing it. However, if a particular object or site has meaning for a vast number of people then it moves into consideration for historic preservation on a grand scale. At this point, then, “Historic preservation aims at preserving the past for future generations.” (Cauvin 55).
Mike Wallace, for his take on historic preservation, paints a picture of virtually continuous antagonism between preservationist goals and economic progress. It is rather depressing. In his own words, “The preservationist alliance’s triumph coincided with the collapse—and conversion—of its traditional enemy.” (Wallace 199). The traditional enemy being the so-called growth movement and its practitioners and the collapse here mentioned being the world-wide recession of the seventies. Thus, economic recession is preservations boon. Oh, what a sad state of affairs! Could not historic preservation and economic growth co-exist? To be fair, Wallace does address the times when preservationists used the profit maximizing pursuit of their enemies to their own advantage. However, he seems to portray it as only a delaying of the inevitable. I do not think it has to be this way, in fact, a sort of rolling-with-the-punches attitude is a good one to take when combating perceived enemies. Use your speed and your wits, Little Mac, and you can out-box ‘em! As an example, take Cauvin’s explanation of historic preservation in Japan (Cauvin 58). Here we see how the Japanese reconstructed an 8th century Pagoda that had been destroyed in 1528. To many in the US this may seem futile as reconstructed buildings are not really historical preservations. Nobody wants a cheap knockoff! However, in the account of the Pagoda, the reconstruction process required the Japanese to utilize historical techniques and technologies. Thus, we see a shift in what is actually being preserved: not the building, but the techniques.
Historic preservation is, unquestionably, a worthy pursuit. Preserving an historical building or monument not only allows generations to enjoy the craftsmanship and aesthetic but also it preserves memory and history for use in the present and even the future. And National Parks, though I did not get around to addressing them, are preservations of the natural landscape, and that has value that transcends history. Nature’s good for the soul. We, most certainly, want the NP’s to be preserved.
Time marches on and the environment inevitably changes, so I propose historical preservation be of the order of a living, adapting preservation rather than one that seeks to freeze time. You don’t freeze preserves and you can’t freeze time.