What might historic preservation learn from museums?

What might historic preservation learn from museums?

Every year, the Providence Preservation Society sponsors a symposium on key issues in historic preservation. This year’s symposium, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1966 historic preservation act, asked:  Why Preserve?  From the introduction:

The 2016 Providence Symposium, Why Preserve?, will bring together experts from across the nation as well as local stakeholders to examine why historic preservation matters to Providence and all communities. To be held at the iconic but threatened Industrial Trust Building, the Symposium will launch a year of community-based conversations around these foundational preservation questions: Why do we preserve? What do we preserve? Who decides what we preserve – that is, who are “we”? What are the costs of preservation? Who bears them?

I spoke on a panel that aimed to “tackle current issues that challenge preservation” and to “discuss the challenges to traditional preservation values and theory.” It was moderated by Margot Nishimura, Deputy Director of Collections, Programming and Public Engagement of the Newport Restoration Foundation; the other speakers were Daniel Bluestone, Director of Preservation Studies Program, Boston University and Lisa Howe, Director of New England Branch, Building Conservation Associates.

I was asked to talk on what museums might learn from museums. Here’s my talk:

I’m going to suggest two things that might be usefully moved from the world of museums to the world of historic preservation: the importance of interpretation, a traditional museum value; and the importance of shared authority, a relatively new one.

First, though, is it a fair comparison, or a useful one? Yes, historic preservation is about saving artifacts and so are museums. One might argue that it’s only the size and type of artifacts that differ. Buildings tend to be bigger than, say, paintings.

But there’s much more, of course. Historic preservation saves buildings in order for them to be used as what they are, buildings. Museums, on the other hand, saves objects by removing them from their original life and meaning and giving them new life and meaning, as symbols, or as teaching tools, or as inspiration. Stephen Greenblatt, in a famous essay on museums describes the work of museums as giving artifacts the chance to offer “resonance” or “wonder,” that is, to explain something larger, or to allow one to see the world in a new way.

The word museums use for this work is interpretation, and does seem to be something that historic preservation could learn from museums. I’ll put in a plug here for my essay in the Bending the Future, the new Max Page and Marla Miller book. The title is “Preservation demands interpretation,” and that pretty well sums it up. It’s wonderful to preserve buildings because it’s the right thing, or because they’re still useful, or good for tourism, or urbanism, or because of the environmental benefits, but that’s not enough. Preservationists should also take the opportunity to teach with them, to use them as opportunities for inspiring wonder, or for the understanding that resonance brings.  That’s my first point.

My second point – shared authority —is something more along the lines of: how to learn from museums’ mistakes. In particular, it seems it might be useful to consider the—Enthusiastic discussion? Controversy? Anger?—not sure of the right word—that surrounds museums today. Museums are involved in a lively debate now, one that’s asking some fundamental questions about their purpose, value, and methods.

But the last decade or so has shown the complexities of this interpretive work in museums. Some museum directors and curators have been shocked to discover that the choices they’ve made about what to save and how to interpret it have politics. Here, they might have learned from historic preservationists, who have always known this.

Many museums are responding to a new understanding of the politics of their work by deepening community connections. Museums are taking seriously the ways in which their work connects to a range of communities. Anthropology museums consider where the collections come from and ask how might they still be useful to the communities that created and used them? How might the groups with a stake in the objects and the stories they tell be involved in museum interpretation? How might the communities where the museum is located be connected to the museums? How might visitors, or potential visitors, participate in curation and interpretation?

“Shared authority” represents an opening up of the too often closed world of museums. To some extent, historic preservation has always shared authority. The work of historic preservation is naturally in the public arena in a way that museum work isn’t, or hasn’t seemed not to be.

But it might be worth discussing how focusing on shared authority, and on interpretation, in the work of historic preservation would change the field. What kinds of participation might we see? What new stories might we tell? How new building might be saved? How might a broader public understanding of and engagement with the historic build environment improve the built environment, and lives?

I’ll end by offering three examples. One of the most interesting historic preservation project of the last few years is a project by artists Billy Dufala, Steven Dufala, and Jacob Hellman working collaboratively with community groups, and supported by the Temple Contemporary, the gallery at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia. It’s not preservation in the usual way – it’s demolition. The project was to take a row house, in the Mantua section of Philadelphia, that was going to be torn down, and give it a decent funeral.

To quote from the project’s website:

Funeral for a Home is demolition in the service of preservation. This funeral service engages long-term residents and numerous neighborhood organizations that have worked throughout the year to offer reflections of the selected house as well as the proud history and coming future of Mantua. Music, celebration, food, and ritual, all will be part of this culminating moment, one which commemorates through public memory and civic dialogue shared lifetimes as much as it reflects on the challenges of maintaining an aging housing stock in a neighborhood slowly on the rise.

Funeral for a Home builds community around the built environment by offering a place for learning and civic dialog – it sacrifices a building for the sake of community. The balance between those two seems central to the work of historic preservation going ahead.

Another example, one I’m sure many of you are familiar with, is Jane Jacob’s Walk. Their website reads:

Jane Jacobs Walks are free self-organized walks and discussions led by committed citizens sharing their knowledge about and love for places.” Shared authority and Interpretation at the same time!

I’ll end with a plug for a new local group, Doors Open RI, whose goal is to inspire

“wonder, curiosity and pride in our communities by connecting the public to the great places of our state.”

This is a project that is about connecting people with places. It too is historic preservation, but taking a broader, and longer view. Wonder and curiosity, combined with curation and interpretation, can lead to pride, and encourage community; and that will support preservation. (In the interest of disclosure: started by a former student, and I’m on the advisory board.)


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