7 Preservation Resolutions for 2021

By Marisa Brown posted 12-28-2020 08:43


Editor's Note: For a look back at 2020 check out last week's post Looking Back on 2020: Where Do We Go From Here? and make sure to share your preservation resolutions on Forum Connect.

2020 was a rough year. For thousands of non-profit organizations across the country in small towns and cities that do this work, it was a year of staff and programming cuts, furloughs, museum closures (and openings—and closures) and, for some, permanent dissolution. For faculty and students in university-based preservation programs, field trips, hands-on internships and conferences were cancelled, classes went online, and as of this writing, many programs have frozen graduate admissions and faculty hires for the coming academic year. For staff at many state agencies, budget gaps loom, and will depend upon a strong federal relief package for resolution. This is the preservation field registering the shocks and the aftershocks of Covid-19 and the economic and social havoc the pandemic has caused. For many in the field, turning the page on the year couldn’t come quickly enough.

2020 Dumpster Fire Tiny Cross-stitch, Nicole Sintetos (PhD Candidate in American Studies at Brown University)

2020 Dumpster Fire Tiny Cross-stitch, | Credit: Nicole Sintetos (PhD Candidate in American Studies at Brown University)

As 2021 dawns, it may be tempting to think about a return to “normal” in the coming months; but as we know, the real work often begins after the storm has passed. This year’s national reckoning about racial justice in America has presented unique existential challenges to the field of preservation. Critical questions are being asked about some of the racist outcomes and legacies of preservation policies and programs. Passionate debates about whether to remove or alter historic monuments have divided colleagues and communities. 2021 is going to be a watershed year for the field: by year’s end, we will begin to know which organizations have instituted meaningful change, and which haven’t.  

With that day in mind, I offer 7 preservation resolutions for organizations to consider as we enter this new year.        

1. Institute an annual diversity, equity and inclusion audit. Begin to report on your organization’s goals, actions and outcomes each year as they relate to people, programs, policies, and climate/culture. Make this report publicly available, keeping a copy of each year’s report on your website. Consultants offer these audits for a fee, or you can put your own audit together by looking at publicly available reports on other organization’s websites—many university departments and museums tend to publish theirs, so this may be a good place to start. 2020 saw a lot of statements of support for racial justice and for the Black Lives Matter movement; an annual audit creates a pathway for organizations to follow through on these statements by assessing and mapping past and future actions. 

2.Add one neighborhood community member to your board of directors, council of advisors, or review committees who is not a deep-pocketed donor, skilled fundraiser, architectural historian, archaeologist, or elected official. Choose a neighborhood that has been overlooked by your organization in the past, but where you see potential for new partnerships. This community member can bring knowledge about hyper-local issues, histories, priorities and concerns that aren’t always legible outside of his/her/their neighborhood. This resolution relates to Resolution 6 below. 

A 2020 public projection titled No Records at the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance, a historic house museum in New York City by artist Reggie Black
A 2020 public projection titled No Records at the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance, a historic house museum in New York City, created by the artist Reggie Black. | Photo credit: Alison Beshai.

3. Work with more artists. Small: Add an artist to an existing program or committee whose work deals with issues of public memory, history and community. Medium: Commission an artist to create a site-specific artwork that reflects on the history of a building, site, neighborhood, or cultural landscape—particularly with sites that no longer exist. We know that our archives are incomplete (that goes for our cities too, which are our built archives). Artists can convey truths that are hidden by these archival gaps, and can help revivify buildings, spaces and neighborhoods that are endangered or have been demolished. Large: Hire an artist onto the staff. Take a lesson from art museums, whose education and public programs staff are often artists—hire a local artist to develop and run community engagement programs that are lively, creative, and participatory, across all demographics, including age and ability. This resolution relates to Resolution 7 below.     

4. Take a critical look at your own institution’s history with regard to issues of racism and equity. If need be, hire an outside historian to do the research and write a report. Make any significant findings public, apologize, and create a plan to try to repair past actions that have resulted in harm (see the Enslavement Statement published by the 1772 Foundation as an example). Participating in antiracist preservation practice requires brutal honesty about the field and one’s own place within it. The question of the degree of responsibility we bear for the actions of those who came before us is not an easy one to answer, but it’s a conversation we need to be having more widely. 

5. Create a preservation syllabus composed of readings and films that stake-holders in your organization can read and discuss together from time to time, including readings that challenge the premise and the history of the field, and readings that chart a new course for the field. What role has preservation played in “inventing traditions” that have been useful for certain groups? How are activist groups making creative use of preservation tools to support fights for climate and social justice? There is a growing literature by Native American historians and heritage experts that reveals the fundamental incompatibility of preservation policies and practices with Indigenous rights. As preservationists, we have a responsibility to take the time to hear and reflect on these critiques—don’t let the daily to-do list obscure the bigger picture.

Blair Mountain Battlefield Protest
The grassroots preservation group, Friends of Blair Mountain, waged a successful eight-year campaign to save the Blair Mountain Battlefield from destruction by mountaintop removal (read about it in this account, out January 1, 2021). This photograph, shows the 2011 protest march to save the battlefield. | Credit: Paul Corbitt

6. Attend a community meeting on a topic that seems unrelated to the work of preservation and listen. Many organizations would like to build bridges with communities of color or with neighborhoods that in the past have not been receptive to participating in preservation, but say that they haven’t figured out how to do this effectively. Go to a meeting and listen, and then think with community groups about how framing an issue of environmental justice, affordable housing or health equity as a preservation project might unlock resources (tax credits, an expanded network of allies, etc.) that can help the group achieve its own ends.  Treat preservation as a strategy rather than an end.

7. Connect the work of preservation to the presentespecially to the most pressing issues we face as a country and as a species. Preservation work is not only an aesthetic or historical field of practice; it is inherently political, even moral, as it has real consequences for how people think about history, identity, and their place in society.  How can sites of industrial heritage be used to examine the systems and legacies of extraction, pollution and climate change? How do sites of Native American heritage model Indigenous stewardship of the land in the past, as well as the present and future? How might battlefields and war memorials be places to reflect on the challenges faced by today’s veterans? Preservation work is powerful; we need to think more about how to marshal this power to effect change.  

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 historic preservation and cultural heritage, and curates the Center’s programs. She writes about preservation, public history, monuments and art on Twitter @marisa_angell.