Digital Preservation: Reality or Mirage?

Today is this little blog’s 6th birthday, and in keeping with tradition, we will revisit the Old Capitol, a touchstone of Mississippi’s preservation movement.

This image of the Old Capitol dressed up for its "Exposition" in the early 1900s appeared on the Old Capitol Museum Facebook page.

This image of the Old Capitol dressed up for its “Exposition” in the early 1900s appeared on the Old Capitol Museum Facebook page.

This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about a statement that came out of the mouth of a man who has served on an important preservation board in the state, and has held numerous prominent positions in government and law. He said, “If my grandchildren want to see a historic building, they go on their computers and look at pictures of it. That seems the way of the future, and it’s a lot cheaper to preserve buildings with pictures than it is to save the actual building.” In the eight years I’ve been chewing on that, I’ve met many people who might be too polite to say such a thing to my face, but who clearly agree that digital preservation is the only realistic way to do preservation. I can tell they think so because they say they “love history,” ooh and ahh over pictures of abandoned buildings on Facebook, and tut-tut about “what a shame” it is that their local landmark is about to be demolished, but they never get involved with their local historical society or preservation group, never take a stand to save a building, and stand by silently when government officials and/or developers tell them how expensive it would be to repair rather than build new.

Let’s play a mind-game to see if digital preservation really is the best we can do. Here’s an extensive set of pictures of the Old Capitol available online, representing many decades of the building’s life. Try to imagine that the Old Capitol had been demolished in 1920 to make way for a larger state office building. If this were true, hardly anyone alive today would have actually experienced the building in person: it would exist only virtually, through photos, written descriptions, and random floorplan sketches.

Does this satisfy you? Or do you find yourself saying, as I often do, “I wish I had been alive to see that building”? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to walk down the center hall at Malmaison, or sit on the gallery at Concord? To be able to touch the mantles, examine the plasterwork, hear the creak of the stairs? None of this is available to us today through the photos and descriptions of those properties, both of which burned down. And those are among the best documented class of buildings–most buildings are lucky to get one picture to document their existence.

I would argue that digital “preservation” is an illusion: pictures may be worth a thousand words, but they can’t replace the feeling of standing in the Old Capitol rotunda, or in the cramped quarters once occupied by slaves.

That doesn’t mean I think that preservationists should abandon the internet–I’m not suffering an existential crisis. This blog exists as a tool to post pictures of Mississippi’s historic places, to tell their stories through words and text, not as simple nostaliga, but with the goal of spurring all of you to action in your own communities. We’ve lost some battles, yes: Mendenhall School still smarts. Fighting and losing hurts, but the worst preservation battles are those that were never fought–the historic buildings that came down without a wimper of protest.

Prospect Hill is still standing today because Jessica Crawford at the Archaeological Conservancy heard about the property through the efforts of one dedicated friend who sent pictures to me soon after MissPres began and asked me to post them, which I did (and followed up the next year, which led to PH’s listing on the MHT 10 Most Endangered List). Once Jessica became involved in Jefferson County, she took an interest in Rodney’s overgrown cemetery and held a cleanup after the flooding of 2011. Around that time, a Facebook group called Rodney, Mississippi Remembering got going, and now it has almost 2,000 members who post photos and history of places all over southwest Mississippi and elsewhere. T his Saturday, that Facebook page, led by Mary Pallon of Atlanta, spurred about 60 people to head to Rodney from all over Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia (and who knows where else?) to get an early start on Spring cleaning. This private effort spruced up both the Presbyterian and the Baptist churches, both sadly neglected, and made headway on parts of the cemetery that haven’t been touched in many decades. The buildings aren’t “saved” by a long shot, but they are now in better shape than when I visited them in 2013 because of this dedicated group’s work and attention.

For this reason, the picture below defines “digital preservation” to me: an effort that relied heavily on digital tools, but blew right past “remember when,” straight on to “let’s do something to save it!” If this group can help save Rodney, which historic Mississippi place will you join with others to help save this year?

Rodney Cleanup 2015

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Categories: Capitols Old & New, Historic Preservation, Preservation People/Events, Rodney

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11 replies

  1. Well stated, EL. And deepest thanks to the Rodney volunteers. I would gladly give back all royalties from two “Lost Mansions” volumes and one “Lost Landmarks” just to have the chance to see one single building that I documented. Digital preservation certainly has its place (and is essentially what we’re doing now in Greenwood), but it doesn’t ease the angst at seeing one more unnecessary parking lot where there was once something worthwhile.

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  2. You have composed a powerful, elegant and compelling argument for real preservation. I join in the thanks and praise. Of course that argument will fall upon deaf ears firmly attached to the same persons whose eyes don’t find many older buildings and neighborhoods architecturally and socially powerful, elegant and compelling. However, your efforts and those of the groups you cite and countless individuals as well, should result in fewer and fewer such citizens.

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  3. “…a lot cheaper…”. Well, he was correct if by the word “cheaper” he mean dollars. Value is not always expressed in dollars.

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  4. Thank you for your wonderful and eloquent statement.

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  5. Happy Birthday to this great blog! And, thank you to all the submitters who put in long hours researching and preparing posts to share with us!

    While I have spent countless hours from my childhood to the current times staring at old photographs and imagining myself there, actually seeing the place as it was and not as it is in a grainy photograph, photographs alone do not satisfy me. They are an invaluable tool with many uses, but they are not a substitute for a building or place that has been preserved. Thank you for bringing these places into public awareness – if I lived in Mississippi I would definitely be involved in preservation efforts.

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  6. Hm, I know my own kids prefer their “meaningful” interactions by way of computer. Then I kick them off and tell them to go find something real. The digital world is great, but it’s only a tool. It’s not life.

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  7. Go ahead and tell the truth: He’s the same old politician that removed Bilbo from the Rotunda and put him in the closet.

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  8. Speaking of historic renovation–the restoration of Dresden being the Mother of All Restorations– on this night seventy-years ago, the RAF followed up its February 13th, 1945 terror bombing of Dresden with the incendiary(phosphorus) bombing of fleeing civilian German refugees. A Columbus attorney(I’ll not call his name), was aboard a bomber that participated in both bombing raids on Dresden. He has written of his role there: Unfriendly Skies

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  9. I am 72, never been interested in preservation until I lucked onto this wonderful group. I was always saddened when a beautiful building would be demolished and an eye sore replaced it. I remember visiting the Old Capitol when I was a small child with my Mother and Father. I was in awe and believe this gave me the great interest in history I have. Thank you for allowing me to tag along via these terrific, educational and enjoyable posts since I am unable physically to visit. I have learned SO much about architecture. I have many issues saved to re-visit as they pertain to my life and relationship with them. Keep up the good fight for PRESERVATION!

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