Why Preserve?

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.

Cultural Illiteracy

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.

Heritage Tourism

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.

Superficial Preservation?

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.

Categories: Historic Preservation, National Trust

5 replies

  1. EL,

    Let me take this opportunity to respond to your comments on my article. As you point out the questions that I raise might “seem esoteric or too philosophical to some,” which is true. However, the lack of comprehension, and even lack of interest, is a large part of the problem, namely the failure to deal with the basic concerns of preservation. I might quote Tom King in this regard:

    “Heritage preservation in the United States, and in most other states, is long on practice and process and short on philosophy. In [the] United States, this is principally because heritage preservation is mandated by [a] plethora of laws and regulations based on the declaration (“Congress finds and declares…”) that preserving the places and things of the past is a public good, is “in the public interest.” But the “why” assumptions underlying the declaration are usually taken-for-granted truisms, not philosophically examined argument.” (Tom King, Places that Count, 2003, p. ix)

    My work has attempted to deal with these basic concerns, that is basic questions or first principles. These questions pertain to significance and heritage, which by their very nature go beyond narrow empirical concerns and involve questions of meaning. They go beyond uncritically saving old stuff to include the questions of how we experience the past as symbolically mediated to us. In other words, how do symbolic qualities relate to us and even transform us? Our experience of such qualities interlinks us and the landscape we inhabit within a matrix of values. By asking the right questions, by understanding more fully these qualities, we can more effectively justify the value of historic preservation in a more-than-superficial manner. There is intrinsically a philosophical dimension to these questions whether we acknowledge it or not. To actively suppress the questions as being “too philosophical” is like preventing physicians from utilizing the language most adequate to their trade because it might be too technical for some to understand.

    I have tried to push ahead to understand the key questions involved in the symbolic dimensions that undergird preservation, because I believe there is something very important that is being neglected.

    Now a few clarifications:

    1. You take issue with my reference to preservation being concerned with “vast quantities of buildings and artifacts,” arguing instead that the quantity historic properties dealt with isn’t so large. I won’t quibble. I only intended to make a rhetorical point that preservation has a large impact on the public.

    2. In reference to my statement that heritage is a “dialogue with the best of the past in pursuit of wisdom,” you argue that preservation isn’t “ancestor worship” nor were “the ancestors…necessarily more wise than we are.” I believe that you miss my point. I don’t mean that our ancestors were intrinsically wiser. They do however offer much we can learn from, not least of these are models of learning (e.g. the Greek paideia) that aim at something broader than turning us into specialized cogs in a bureaucratic machine. They also recall realms of reality that transcend the empirical and materialistic concerns of modern academia and its disciplines along with realms of value and meaning that transcend “value-free” approaches.

    3. Regarding whether or not archaeology falls under the rubric of preservation: I am more of a lumper than a splitter. Although archaeology is a discipline aimed at generating objective knowledge, yet it has to a degree melded with preservation goals when it touts itself as concerned with “significance” and “heritage,” neither of which pertain to mere objective knowledge.

    4. On the subject of heritage tourism, I don’t think that we disagree. My criticism was aimed at the fact that– as you acknowledge– heritage tourism can, and to a large degree does, become the “tail that wags the dog.” I also agree with you that it can serve a good– when it’s not wagging the dog.

    5. Finally, you took issue with my comment 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.” Based on my experience within the state of Mississippi, this is certainly true, and I suspect that Mississippi is not alone in this regard. If one plays the game without asking questions, one might not see this. But to try to raise questions for the sake of dialogue, can bring professional marginalization for the sake of maintaining the status quo. My own experience has indicated that the MS SHPO does not smile upon those it deems guilty of “thinking too much,” and it will use its power to silence offenders within its ranks. However, its power doesn’t stop within the ranks. The agency is affiliated with so-called private organizations which are to a large degree auxiliaries of the agency in that they serve as institutionalized political constituencies. Working in close collaboration with the government, these organizations provide choreographed meetings designed to amuse, pacify, and motivate their members. Those who attempt to organize a paper session will be told that papers are by invitation only, and papers that question will not be invited. That’s the bottom line. So through fastidious government management, the entire web of preservation organizations is Mississippi is essentially closed to professionals who are deemed too thought-provoking.

    This is a strange state of affairs for organizations that are concerned with thought-provoking areas pertaining to symbolization, significance, and meaning. My work has been to recover these dimensions of concern and to recover the full potential of historic preservation. Because I have persisted in the face of opposition, I have been told that I will never be asked to speak on this subject at the state’s preservation and historical meetings. It is because of having experienced exclusion and professional marginalization by the state’s preservation establishment that I write in dire terms. I don’t write as a condemnation of historic preservation but as a call to a higher vision.




  2. Jack,

    Thank you for taking the time to reply and clarify our points of agreement and contention. The most important issue on which we agree is that preservation should be based on a solid foundation of thought and philosophy, and to have that solid foundation, we need to engage in serious debate amongst ourselves about why we are doing what we are doing. It has been my hope from the beginning that this little blog would provide an arena for such discussion, so that “iron will sharpen iron” to strengthen our movement and give aid to those on the front lines of preservation around our state.

    I have always thought it strange in this very individualistic state to hear talks on preservation and the first reason given to preserve is that the government said it was a good idea. As you and Tom King note, that’s not a very good basis for a whole movement, and certainly will not breathe new life into it when it begins to waver, as I think it is now.

    Perhaps where we might diverge (and since you haven’t addressed this, perhaps we don’t diverge at all) is in trying to force mostly Christian Mississippians to think about preservation through the lens of Classical philosophy. Both the classical and the Christian traditions can offer a basis, and my feeling based on talking with many people around the state is that they are much more comfortable discussing philosophy in a Christian framework. This is where my comment about ancestor worship came from, and I agree with your clarification that the traditions of thought and life passed down from our ancestors can be very counter-cultural and therefore help us not become “cogs in a bureaucratic machine.”

    I too am a lumper, but in this case, I didn’t think using archaeology to show the silliness that preservation sometimes descends to was a fair example.

    Regarding your point #5: I can see re-reading my original post that I didn’t complete my thought, and so my disagreement came across more strongly than I had hoped. I do agree with your original statement that preservation organizations have, on the whole, become too interested in political maneuvering, neglecting the deeper meanings of history and preservation, and that’s to the detriment of the movement. It’s interesting to me that in the past 15 years or so, I have watched both conservative Christiandom and preservation move in this same politicized direction: coincidence or a symptom of something in the larger culture?

    Your points about the MS SHPO and its sway over smaller local or even statewide groups is well-taken, and I certainly can’t argue with your personal experience. I will say that in my experience with local historic preservation commissions–not the more academic, paper-presenting groups–the MS SHPO seems to act more in an advisory capacity than a dictatorial one.

    At any rate, no organization can sustain itself operating as you say they are operating, and I think I actually touched a bit on this topic in my review of the Historical Society meeting in Jackson last year, where I couldn’t believe how very very few people under the age of 50 were in attendance. In fact, I just recalled that you got first billing in that review, so congratulations!

    In summary, I think we agree on our basic view of the preservation movement and its somewhat erratic and shallow distractions over the past decade or two. While you may see the situation as moving toward irreversible, I am not at that point yet, and I hope our discussion, and perhaps a few guest posts from you fleshing out your vision for preservation, may help move us all in the right direction for the future.

    If none of the above makes sense, please excuse. I was convinced I wouldn’t suffer from jet-lag on the trip back, but apparently I was wrong.


  3. EL,

    Many thanks for your response. It’s nice to know that dialogue can resolve seeming differences into non-differences.

    As a practicing Christian, I was amused to see your comment regarding my use of classical philosophy as if in contrast to Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this regard you have only to check out my booklet “Preserving Our Heritage” or recall that classical philosophy served the early church fathers as a language to articulate their theology. I have used it in part to help understand the full nature of historic preservation which goes beyond the empirical into questions of meaning and value and mystery. I would hope that maintaining the relevance of these questions would be of concern to Christians . . . and to Jews . . .and Hindus . . . Taoists and others. It is a key concern for me.

    Another point: you noted that “the MS SHPO seems to act more in an advisory capacity than a dictatorial one.” I have no disagreement with that. In effect though, the MS SHPO runs things through use of the carrot rather than the stick. If you play along you can get professional advice, grants, and precisely choreographed conferences designed to please and amuse. By playing their roles the members provide the political constituencies that agencies love; it’s a symbiotic relationship.

    However, for organizations that ostensibly have intellectual concerns, such a state of affairs does little to encourage intellectual initiative, and initiative has everything to do with whether a society thrives or stagnates. This may have some bearing on your observation about the high average age at the MHS meetings, where, as we well know, initiative in terms of presenting papers and organizing paper sessions isn’t encouraged. Presentations are by invitation only. It’s only the few gad flies that experience, not the carrot, but the stick.

    Also, you write: “While you may see the situation as moving toward irreversible, I am not at that point yet.” Maybe not irreversible, yet long experience has shown me a side of preservation in Mississippi that few have seen.

    Finally, you suggest “a few guest posts . . . fleshing out your vision for preservation.” I would greatly appreciate the opportunity.




  4. I’m sorry to have been so long in responding–just now getting back on my feet after the long trip.

    I completely agree with your observations about MHS, but only based on my one conference with them last year. I was genuinely surprised and discouraged to see the (as you put it) lack of intellectual initiative shown at that meeting, compared to other professional or academic conferences I have attended. Not having been much involved with that organization, I hope for the best, but based on my experience there last year, I fear for its future.

    I don’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong, though, with government agencies and private organizations working together toward a common goal–which might be viewed as a symbiotic relationship. And given that we live, ostensibly, in a democracy, “building political constituencies” is what society does, not only in government agencies, but in all sorts of private groups–it’s how your voice and opinion get heard. More often than not, my issue with preservation groups is how they buckle to political pressure, not the opposite.

    Thank you for sending me your “Preserving Our Heritage.” After reading it, I have a better understanding of your perspective: I especially liked your description of modernity as “a paradox. . . a concomitant progress and decline.” I guess I continue to wonder how preservation as a movement would look if we did all try to move away from the current materialistic emphasis toward discussion of deeper or transcendental meanings. Would you scrap the government preservation agencies? The National Register?

    I think you’re right that preservation should be standing apart from modern culture so as to offer interpretation of deeper meanings, but how? Government preservation agencies can’t “stand apart” and certainly would not be allowed to offer any perspectives that might even have a tint of the religious in an official capacity. Would private preservation organizations be able to gain private funding if they tried to fill this void? I doubt it.

    Even our supposedly “Christian” state would shy away–since we’re both practicing Christians, I think we will both agree that modern Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and everything in between) is as shallow and superficial as the rest of the world to which it is supposed to be offering another more meaningful way.

    I have two comments on why “heritage” has been shunted to the side and objectified into random material objects in modern culture: 1) underneath all the fluff, heritage is seen, at least in America, in a negative light because of the experiences of Europe, where religious wars and ethnic hatreds persisted for centuries, and 2) especially in Mississippi, the racial oppression that runs like a bright red thread through our history is problematic, and historians who try to interpret it in any other way than the standard narratives (on the one hand, a romantic vision like we just saw in the WPA history; on the other hand, the Marxist view as articulated in many revisionist works of Southern history from the 1960s onward) are pummeled by both sides.

    P.S. I didn’t mean to imply in my initial response that you weren’t Christian or that Classical and Christian philosophy are opposed to each other (well, they are in some respects, of course), but that it seems to me Mississippians are more comfortable discussing preservation (and this of course applies to many other topics) in the language of Christianity, rather than the language of classical or Taoist or Buddhist or Jewish, etc. philosophy.


  5. A few comments:

    1. “I don’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong, though, with government agencies and private organizations working together toward a common goal….”

    No there’s nothing inherently wrong in this, but there’s certainly an inherent danger. A symbiotic relationship between the two would appear to be advantageous to both. It would be of advantage to a private organization because government agencies tend to be sources of relatively constant funding while funding for private organizations is a perennial problem. On the other hand, having one or more private organizations under its wing would seemingly be advantageous to the agency because it would mean having one or more organized political constituencies that could be maneuvered into action when needs be.

    However, there’s a price to be paid by private organizations in terms of being subject to an agency’s overweening concern with maintaining the status quo and an agency’s tendency to see them as fifth columns–organized political constituencies–ready to support them. These become real dangers when the agency effectively controls communication within the private organization, with periodicals and meetings designed to be little more than catalysts for uncritical boosterism. In effective there is an inherent danger of agencies becoming “Big Brother”– to use George Orwell’s term– and we might recall that Orwell’s “1984” as a dark vision of a future dominated by bureaucratic interests wasn’t merely the author’s imagination but was an extrapolation from the political and social realities he knew.

    2. “I think you’re right that preservation should be standing apart from modern culture so as to offer interpretation of deeper meanings, but how? Government preservation agencies can’t “stand apart” and certainly would not be allowed to offer any perspectives that might even have a tint of the religious in an official capacity.”

    The modern–both governmental and popular–understanding of “religion” is naive, superficial, and ultimately incorrect. It tends to see religion as something characteristic of a particular “religious” tradition or denomination that can and must be relegated to the “private” or “personal” sector. I see religion as something that cannot be segregated from public life, because it is the dimension of meaning in human life– it is one’s orientation to an “Ultimate Concern,” to use Paul Tillich’s term. Religion in these terms is integral go culture and human life. It cannot be separated. To attempt to separate it means that it will pop up in some other guise.

    The problem with the modern view of religion is that it effectively segregates public life from the traditional insight that –to avoid idolatry– the only true Ultimate Concern lies beyond the material world. In doing so it effectively creates a religion in which the only publicly acceptable ultimate concerns are such things as material objects, the pursuit of wealth and power, and the state as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. This public religion is maintained through excluding debate that might be deemed as “religious,” thereby maintaining its exclusive right to determining what is publicly acceptable.

    Similarly historic preservation– devoid of insight beyond that of professional expertise and its materialistic presuppositions–simply falls in step with this public religion through promoting material objects and the knowledge of material objects as being the publicly acceptable form of “heritage.” For preservation to claim to be “neutral” in regard to religion is ultimately specious. In its concern with matters of heritage and meaning it is directly related to questions of religion. In turning these materials into ones of material concern, it does its greatest damage through marginalizing and ultimately suppressing the insights from the past that would serve to give depth to dialogue.

    It has been my experience that historic preservation feels more comfortable with crushing the voices of dialogue than with dealing with its foundational concerns. So much for the enlightened toleration of modernism.

    I cannot speak for preservation agencies. I can only speak for myself, and one who follows the vision of the Good, will have to stand in the face of public and institutional opposition in the perhaps vain hope that he or she will be heard.

    3. “I have two comments on why “heritage” has been shunted to the side and objectified into random material objects in modern culture….[religious wars in Europe and racial oppression in the South]”

    Certainly there are many bad things in human history that must be critical separated from the good which must be recognized, after all our thought and values has been formed by the past. It is obvious that a critical appropriation of the past is needed rather than a rejection of the past as a dark age. This is too often done in terms of demonizing “religion” as understood (however naively) today in general, Christianity in particular. I might point to the rhetorical use of the 17th century’s “wars of religion” as a good example, where religion (seen as something separate and distinct as moderns are wont to do) is portrayed as being the catalyst for violence, a catalyst that had to be expunged from the public arena lest it cause more trouble. However, we need only be reminded that human life is inextricably involved in a matrix of aspects that include the religious, the social, the economic, and the technological. The wars of religion, as we know now, also had paramount social, economic, and political aspects. We might as well prohibit politics in the public arena as prohibit religious dialogue.

    The modern age operates under the fiction that it is an age of enlightenment in which humanity emerges from the dark age through the use of science and technology. It offers us control of “all the kingdoms of the world”– power, money, and fame–if we don’t question it, if we in effect bow down and worship it. As historic preservation has been modeled on materialistic and modernistic models, it presents us with an view of heritage that doesn’t question this modern exclusivism. Instead it presents a vision devoid of wisdom and insight, devoid of challenge and thought, one preoccupied with the material and with specialized technical knowledge about material objects.


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