An article titled “Why should ‘heritage’ be preserved?” popped up on my screen a couple of weeks ago, just before I went on my little Thanksgiving vacation, but I haven’t known quite what to say about it, so I’ve been trying to pretend it’s not there. But it is there, and since it’s by a Mississippi author, I feel I have to get back around to it. Although I don’t agree with some of the conclusions, I think it’s a good thing to raise these sorts of questions, even if they seem esoteric or too philosophical to some.
The article is on the SpiroNews site (I’ve never heard of it, but apparently it is a “citizen journalism” site where average people from all over the world can contribute articles) and is written by Jack D. Elliott, Jr, (“a Historical Archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and Lecturer at Mississippi State University”). It begins with a brief summary of the current culture wars, set against research implying that Americans are growing more illiterate about their own culture and even their own religious beliefs. Elliott then hits on his topic:
Paradoxically, despite our cultural illiteracy, we are absorbed in preserving, promoting, and disseminating what is touted as heritage. Under the banner of “historic preservation,” government agencies, private organizations, and specialists constantly urge us to preserve heritage in the form of vast quantities of buildings and artifacts. The rationalization is that these things will help us understand “who we are, where we came from, and what is the legacy that shapes. . . us,” as Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation once noted. Of course, this hearkens back to heritage as a dialogue with the best of the past in pursuit of wisdom. However, the pursuit of wisdom seems of little relevance to the primary fixation on preserving objects — old buildings and cultural curiosities. These are foisted by preservation advocates onto an unsuspecting public as matters of transcendental concern.
First, I have to take issue with the assertion that preservationists are fighting to save “vast quantities of buildings and artifacts.” We are surrounded everywhere and at almost all times with vast quantities of buildings and artifacts, it’s true, but within that large pool is a group of buildings and artifacts that people of a preservationist bent would like to see saved (in the mathematical world, this would be called a subset). This group is relatively small compared to the larger number; in fact, I would argue it’s fairly tiny. And if you compare that “heritage” subset with the more relevant number of all buildings and artifacts that have ever been built or created (which is, in fact, the pool from which preservationists draw), then our little number shrinks even further to an infinitesimal little drop in a huge ocean (much smaller than “A” over in our diagram).
Second, I don’t read Richard Moe’s quote about “who we are , where we came from. . .” as necessarily meaning that heritage is a “dialogue with the best of the past in pursuit of wisdom.” I know that some preservationists, especially of an earlier generation, saw that meaning in preservation, but I don’t necessarily see preservation as ancestor worship, and I don’t believe the ancestors were necessarily more wise than we are, just that they built some fine buildings and neighborhoods (and probably lots that were not-so-fine too).
Having said that, I will agree with the premise that many preservationists see “heritage,” “history,” or “preservation” (whichever term you prefer) as having “transcendental” meaning, as a link to those people and cultures who came before us. I also agree with the notion that a number of regular people (who we will call “the public” for short although I see myself as a member of “the public” as well) do not see history or heritage in the same way, and in fact often don’t even think about the subject. This number fluctuates though, based on the building or artifact in question: some people are very tied to their high school gymnasium, some to their yearbook, some to their school trophies, some to all of the above, some to none of the above. Many people may not give a flip about the Old Capitol or the New Capitol, but they’ll get out the protest signs if someone threatens the gym or their own neighborhood.
Elliott tells of a dig in a Mississippi town that produced only a few nails and assorted trash, but the organizers still pumped up the audience with boosterish notions:
Following a week of excavation in primarily twentieth century debris, the results were presented to the local residents in a lecture that made an unconvincing attempt at relating this very arcane research to community concerns. Upon concluding, a cafeteria tray filled with rusted nails and fragments of beer bottles was passed through the audience, while the archaeologist proclaimed that “this is your heritage!” I waited expectantly for someone to exclaim “You mean that our heritage is trash?!” But no one spoke; who would question the expert?
I agree, this is pretty lame, but would like to point out that this is archaeology, which to this preservationist at least, is a field that is related to preservation as a sister field and a means of research but is not “preservation” as I know it.
Elliott follows this with a critique of “heritage tourism” and its commodification of heritage, including the labeling of Elvis Presley and blues music sites as “heritage” sites. I think I have expressed my own hesitation about heritage tourism and its excesses here on MissPres–it certainly can become a tail that wags the dog and sometimes ends up disfiguring the very object it sought to preserve. But on the other hand, I also remember that some of Mississippi’s most important architectural and historic landmarks like Natchez were preserved by and still rely on heritage tourism. Like all tools, heritage tourism needs to be used wisely and not be allowed to take over, but it should still be considered a worthy tool in the preservationist’s toolbox.
All of this is mere prelude, though, to what I see as the most important point of the article:
Most of the heritage experts have neither the educational background nor the incentive to discuss the ideas that undergird our civilization. Consequently they are not likely to reconsider the path that their organizations follow. Furthermore, the mere suggestion that there are problems is likely to provoke, not dialogue, but defensiveness. I have seen preservation leaders actively discourage preservationists from discussing fundamental issues so as not to upset the constituencies. Such behavior strongly suggests that preservation organizations are more concerned with political means–maintaining the allegiance of their constituencies and their own access to money–than they are in preserving a defensible vision of heritage.
This is a stern indictment, and I want to disagree in a nuanced way, without becoming defensive. I reluctantly concede that some or more-than-some preservation organizations seem to have not one person within the organization who thinks about the deeper questions of preservation. I do sometimes wince at the breezy assumptions expressed by even our most prominent preservation leaders (see for instance, June’s “Red State Preservationist” for my response to the National Trust’s strange e-mail to its members encouraging support for the cap-and-trade bill because it contained a minor item funding weatherization for historic buildings). I also see way more political maneuvering than I am comfortable with–not only with governmental preservation organizations but also as much or more in the non-profit world, where rich developers seem to at times buy silence on controversial projects by either giving a large donation or rehabbing a historic building.
However, painting all preservationists or even the preservation movement as a whole with a broad characterization based on the actions of a few is the same as saying that Christianity is bunk because your Christian neighbor is a jerk, or that the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution are worthless pieces of paper because our country so often fails to live up to those ideals. Or that all lawyers are crooked because of a few bribery indictments. Ok, maybe that last one is true, but you get my point. . . .
People fail, organizations fail, but that doesn’t always or even mostly imply that they don’t have any moral standards, just that the spirit can sometimes be willing but “the flesh is weak.”
I do take issue with the statement about a lack of educational background. I have known uneducated people who had a more nuanced and deeper view of history than some young buck with a PhD behind his name who only knew a bunch of facts.
Elliott’s conclusion has merit and I think should help all of us who believe in preservation as a common good to take a step back and evaluate our goals and methods to see if we’re focusing on trivialities:
The millennial legacy of thought on the nature of the good life has been reduced to rubble and replaced by a potpourri of novelties which divert public attention from the pursuit of wisdom to the pursuit of entertainment and saving old stuff. In effect as millions and millions of well-intended tax dollars are spent preserving and promoting “heritage,” the public understanding of heritage becomes increasingly superficial.
This article will stay with me for a while and that’s a good thing if it keeps me thinking about how I can examine my own motivations and also encourage a deeper understanding of our history through preservation. Our culture is awash in superficiality–maybe preservation can buck that trend.