Preservation’s Existential Crisis

By Marisa Brown posted 06-18-2020 15:55

January 23, 2020, was an unseasonably warm night for New England. I almost left the house in a short-sleeved sweater—but I was glad when I arrived at Grace Church in downtown Providence that I had worn an extra layer. When I get nervous, I get cold, and it was good to be over-dressed as people started to arrive for Providence Preservation Society’s annual meeting. As the keynote speaker, I wasn’t sure that they would like what I had to say, in short, that preservation is facing an existential crisis.

A Changing Preservation Field

The field of preservation is undergoing profound changes. Preservation is becoming more interpretive, more engaged with issues of equity and social justice, more experimental, and more participatory. To unpack this further, preservation is centering the work of organizations that preserve and interpret sites of difficult and hidden histories highlighting the critical role of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, established in 1999, in framing and supporting this work. Much of this work is being done at sites that are connected to slavery—places like Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, and the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. What is important about this new trajectory is not just the revelation of hidden histories, but the recognition that preservation can take on an activist mission by working to protect and interpret these sites. As I looked out over the audience, during my presentation in Providence, I could see agreement here.

Art Exhibit at Eastern Sate Penitentiary
An art exhibition featuring the work of Jesse Krimes at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Credit: pml2008 via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

But as I went on, some of the other things I said caused many to bristle, to squirm in the hard pews of the church, and look down to avoid my eye as I scanned the room. Some of these individuals were friends and colleagues whom I had thought were allies, and I processed this as I read my speech from the lectern.

Preservation has been complicit in extending and valorizing white dominance. The federal, state, and local regulations that govern many of the most important preservation mechanisms reflect bias against communities of color. We don’t talk about displacement and gentrification nearly enough. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the many ways in which preservation is used by those outside of the field to advance their own aims (of nationalism, of white supremacy, of profit…). The field is too white, and community allyship is not prioritized.

Illustrating this point we can look to some of the first preserved sites in the U.S. —two of them connected to George Washington, and protected in the 1850s, nearly fifty years after his death—to introduce the idea that preservation has often worked in service of nationalism and nation-building. Preservation has been and is often used as a strategy of wealth extraction. You’ve got to look beyond the monument, the historic building, or the preserved landscape and ask who benefits from this work.

At the time, I felt hopeful that the field was changing in all of the right ways, slowly but surely. Now, I’m not so sure.

Confronting Preservation’s Inequalities

Here’s the problem: Many of our historic buildings and sites memorialize settler colonialism and white supremacy, so preservationists are going to have to decide—either on a case-by-case basis or together, as a community—how to balance the mission of protecting so-called “historic” sites with the urgent need to radically remake our built environment to tell a more accurate story of our past. American history is filled with strategic myths, and these myths are often concretized in our monuments, murals, buildings, and parks, the very sites that preservationists work to protect.

Telluride Historic District in Colorado
The Telluride Historic District in Colorado has been a United States National Landmark since 1961 as it represents the mining boom of the latter half of the 19th century. | Credit: J. Stephan Conn via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Faced with this conundrum, many preservationists will say that new interpretation is the answer, and that critical commentary affixed to pedestals and building facades and installed in cultural landscapes achieves a compromise, adding contextualization while preserving the site itself. But I don’t think this is going to be good enough. Think of the Confederate monuments as the canary in the coal mine, not as a singular flashpoint: public support is going to continue to build to demolish or remove the pieces of our built landscape that were put there to claim white dominance. With each instance, those who will fight to protect them will use the language of preservation, claiming that they must remain in place because they are “historic.” Some will not be preservationists and will use this language because it works. But many will be preservationists.

The argument will be made that we need to keep these things in place to “remind” ourselves and future generations of the extent of systemic racism—despite the fact that people of color may feel that no “reminder” is necessary, and the fact that many who view them won’t read the fine print and understand them as critical warnings. This challenge to the field of preservation has been on the horizon for a while, but for many, it appeared to be far enough away that small corrections in the way preservation work was done would suffice. Cultural shifts don’t usually happen steadily, but explosively, and it feels very much like what was on the distant horizon ten years ago is now on our doorstep.

Removal of Lee Monument in New Orleans
Image of the Robert E. Lee Monument being removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans in 2017. | Credit: Infrogmation of New Orleans via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

As I said at the beginning, I believe that preservation is headed for an existential crisis. The fact is that whole fields of practice can become obsolete and wither away when they are no longer relevant to new generations. I don’t hope for this to happen as I believe that preserved sites can play a critical role in shaping our understanding of history: if the daily newspaper is the first draft of history, then the work of preservation is to hone a final draft. There is a lot of power in preservation.

But the challenges to the field ahead are immense. For every preservation organization and commission out there, an issue will arise that forces a choice between protecting historic buildings and sites and the work of antiracism. In other words, active participation in dismantling the systems and culture of white dominance and supremacy may require letting some places go.

How to move through this new landscape intact? I want to see preservation organizations and public commissions think critically, and publicly, about how their work has valorized and supported white dominance and supremacy, and what the work and make-up of their organizations would look like if antiracism were mission central. This is tough and divisive work, but I don’t see how the field can thrive in our new context if this is not done.

To do this work effectively, it will be crucial for larger organizations with more resources to take a leadership role, creating opportunities for organizations of all sizes to think together. It may be that a new antiracist preservation manifesto is needed, that lays out the principles of this work. If antiracism can’t be central to the work of this field, because those in leadership positions do not support such a change, or existing guidelines don’t allow for it, then we have to ask, given where we are at this moment in American history, what the value of this field is, and who it works for.

Some will say that preservation cannot transform into what feels like a social justice movement that is somehow “political” in nature—preservation, they say, must remain politically neutral. But it never was.

Marisa Angell Brown is Assistant Director for Programs at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, where she teaches courses on preservation and cultural heritage. She is the author of “Preservation’s Expanded Field,” in Doing Public Humanities (Routledge Press, 2020), due out on July 22. She writes about preservation, public history, monuments and art on Twitter @marisa_angell  and is on Instagram @marisaangellbrown.