In the last few weeks, “heritage” has trended on social media and in popular discourse more than at any other time in recent history. It started when violence flared on the streets of Charlottesville, ostensibly over the fate of an outdoor bronze equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee. The images that streamed out of Emancipation Park on August 12 roiled the nation and intensified an ongoing debate about the propriety of Confederate memorials. This debate quickly spread to communities across the United States, focusing on the role of heritage in issues of privilege and exclusion, equity and inclusion. While heritage has been central to this conversation, historic preservation has not—which suggests that the movement may not be prepared to lead in an area that some might consider a core professional competency. What, then, should be the role of historic preservation in these discussions? And what changes to professional practice might help the field realize its potential?
The tone of the debates inspired by Charlottesville has been as grave as the events themselves. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska took to Facebook to say that we urgently need a national conversation about heritage “before the next outbreak of violence comes.” The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III argued that illuminating history’s “dark corners” was the only way to “bridge the gaps that divide us.” And the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) denounced “the hateful misunderstanding of history, the cruel misuse of the past, and the willful blindness to the historical record by the forces of white nationalism.” Yet only a few historic preservation organizations waded in. The National Trust for Historic Preservation did issue an important statement in which it observed that “we have an obligation to confront the complex and difficult chapters of our past” and that “we should always remember the past, but we do not necessarily need to revere it.”
Largely missing has been an affirmative vision of how cultural heritage can promote social cohesion, inclusion, participation, and equity. This omission is especially notable given that the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) single out cultural heritage as a key to resilience and sustainability precisely because of its power to make cities and human settlements more “inclusive.” The UN’s companion New Urban Agenda similarly emphasizes that a key role of heritage is to “stimulat[e] participation and responsibility.” All these factors point to a pressing need for U.S. historic preservationist to develop a basic professional vocabulary for taking about these matters.
Heritage and the Common Good
Scholarship tells us that shared heritage can have a formative role in overcoming social division as well as a culture of narrow self-interest, which undermine relationships and strain the sense of connection. Heritage is an example of “common good.” The community that takes care of and manages its heritage valorizes the common good and, in so doing, stimulates a sense of collective belonging, collaboration, and synergy. This spirit supports self-organization and self-governance and helps communities pull together, rather than unraveling, in the face of collective stresses like natural disasters. Fundamentally, a shared heritage builds resilience.
In the United States, cultural heritage is overseen by one of the most sophisticated preservation networks in the world. These professionals manage heritage identification, documentation, conservation, protection, and presentation at the local, state, and national levels. Thus far, however, our field has largely not chosen to emphasize issues like equity and social inclusion. This “depoliticized” view of heritage may be comfortable for now, but it leaves historic preservation flatfooted on days like August 12. Furthermore, it cannot persist: the power of heritage assets to unite communities is too great to ignore and the need for professional insight too urgent. The National Trust’s recent Forum Blog series, “When Does Preservation Become Social Justice?,” is one example of a step in the right direction, but the field should be doing more.
Fortunately, new tools and accumulated wisdom offer a way forward. In the wake of Charlottesville, some preservationists have shared valuable insights about placing difficult monuments in a fuller context, whether in new locations or with new interpretation. In this vision, diverse community leaders, guided by heritage professionals, facilitate a transparent, inclusive process that creates a shared narrative about the layers of meaning at a place. Our mistake has been viewing such approaches to heritage preservation as extraordinary practices to be used in cases of emergency. Instead, they should be the new normal in inventorying and interpreting America’s heritage.
Collective Ownership and Intangible Heritage
Taking inclusion seriously requires putting people at the heart of heritage conservation policies and projects. This means letting stakeholders drive the process of deciding what constitutes a community’s heritage. It calls for a paradigm shift away from only inventorying historic buildings and toward mapping what residents value about their communities. Already, projects like “Culture Connects: Santa Fe” in New Mexico and the cultural mapping initiative in San Antonio, Texas, are exploring how to integrate these ideas into U.S. preservation practice. (For more on this topic, see “Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future,” a vision document from the National Trust.)
Empowering diverse stakeholders to make decisions about their communities’ heritage requires allowing residents to negotiate contested narratives in a moderated, professional environment. Architectural and public historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists are still key, but their roles involve more facilitating, less pronouncing. Engaging all stakeholders, including recent arrivals and disadvantaged and historically excluded groups, normalizes their role in civic life. The community comes to feel collective ownership over the resulting heritage narrative, which strengthens cohesion.
Almost invariably, when asked to describe what they value about their communities, people name a broad range of heritage elements. Landmark buildings share pride of place alongside popular gathering places, public spaces, food traditions, and social customs. The social, cultural, and historical meaning of these elements is at least as important to their communities as architecture. For this reason, moving to stakeholder-driven models for designating heritage requires a parallel move toward valuing both tangible and intangible heritage. And while conserving buildings alone is not sufficient to support community resilience, it remains critical, including to preserving intangible values. With a more interdisciplinary approach, historic preservation can embrace the disparate elements of heritage and integrate them into inclusive models of social and economic development. (For an excellent discussion of this topic, see “Tangible Benefits From Intangible Resources: Using Social and Cultural History to Plan Neighborhood Futures” by James Michael Buckley and Donna Graves.)
Promoting Equity and Cohesion
Valuing all people’s stories and including diverse groups in heritage interpretation develops the role of heritage as a tool for equity. Done well, it enables people to draw on local, traditional, and indigenous knowledge to solve problems and earn their livelihoods. Valuing community knowledge not only offers a variety of solutions to local problems but it also facilitates more equitable participation in civic life. Heritage also plays a role in advancing economic equity because it can bolster occupations relating to cultural practices and creativity as sources of income and dignity for community members. Such culture-based livelihoods often create the potential for small, local enterprises that empower communities and contribute to alleviating poverty.
As the U.N. SDGs indicate, the past decade has seen enormous global interest in using heritage to make cities more equitable, inclusive, and cohesive. Many of the resulting best practices have been grouped together in an approach known as “historic urban landscapes” (HUL), championed by UNESCO. The HUL approach embraces a number of American contributions: it views heritage as a social, cultural, and economic asset for the development of communities. But HUL also moves beyond the preservation of the physical and focuses on the entire human environment with all of its tangible and intangible qualities. To those practitioners looking for a basic professional lesson from Charlottesville: bone up on HUL.
Much of the research on heritage and social inclusion has focused on the impacts of globalization, which can drive new physical, economic, and social anxieties and exacerbate old ones. The results of this research indicate a “need for heritage,” which can be revelatory for communities that are looking for themselves. Guided by heritage experts and community leaders, fulfilling that need doesn’t have to be about going backward, expressing nostalgia, or becoming inward-looking. It should instead focus on drawing strength from the accumulated experience of generations of diverse community members to meet new challenges.
The U.S. historic preservation field is uniquely positioned to help the communities we serve do all these things—but first we must want to.
Andrew Potts practices historic preservation law at Nixon Peabody LLP in Washington, D.C.
Portions of the article are adapted from “Cultural Heritage, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the New Urban Agenda, ICOMOS Concept Note for the United Nations Agenda 2030 and the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (HABITAT III)” by Dr. Jyoti Hosagrahar; Jeffrey Soule, FAICP; Dr. Luigi Fusco Girard; and Andrew Potts.