Every morning for the last four weeks, I have stood on my balcony and taken a single moment, a breath, before I start the day. Like many of you, I find the current state of the world overwhelming, and this moment, this pause, helps clear my mind to find order in the chaos in which we now live.
For me, part of the chaos is the uncertainty around the cultural heritage sector—museums, historic sites, preservation, and other history organizations—as it stands at the edge of the unknown. In addition to our concerns for our family, our friends, our community, we in this sector are all worried about what will come after. When we return to our offices, our historic places, our places of connection, how will we move forward?
A few weeks ago we lost two incredible women that were important to the field of cultural heritage preservation. So, I thought it worthwhile to take a pause and consider the life of Irene Hirano Inouye and Virgina McAlester, and their impact on preservation as we consider the future of the movement.
Irene Hirano Inouye: Champion of Cultural Heritage
Irene Hirano Inouye began her career as the president and founding chief of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles, where she was an essential proponent of telling, as we at the National Trust like to say, the full American story. Her work with the JANM was pivotal in protecting the 1925 Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo (the museum’s first headquarters), which served as a catalyst for protecting and identifying the neighborhood as an important place of cultural history.
However, her work did not stop there. Leveraging her experience as the granddaughter of an internee during World War II, she fought to center human rights for Japanese Americans and for others who experienced discrimination. In 2014, as the board chair of the Ford Foundation, she was one of the architects of the bargain that pulled Detroit out of bankruptcy and protected the cultural assets of the Detroit Institute of Arts. She also served on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where she helped guide us in telling the story of all cultures. Irene Hirano Inouye was a preservationist who made a difference.
“Irene’s commitment and legacy in preserving the histories and heritage of Japanese Americans and in strengthening ties between the U.S. and Japan will not be forgotten,” says Dr. Michelle Magalong, president of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation. “In the early days of APIAHiP, Irene was a supporter of historic preservation work in Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Even with her busy schedule, she squeezed in time to provide keynote remarks at our very first National Forum in San Francisco in 2010. She flew from Washington, D.C., provided her remarks, and turned back around to catch a red-eye flight back to DC. This is just one of many testaments to her dedication to supporting and preserving our histories, places, and heritage.”
“Irene’s multilayered and profound impacts on the broader cultural heritage landscapes are quite probably unparalleled,” notes Dr. Anthea Hartig, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where Inouye served as a Board member. “She shared so generously and deftly her knowledge of bringing forth painful, hidden, resilient stories of Japanese Americans in the most inclusive and positive ways, shaping indelibly museums, school curricula, historic preservation, philanthropy, and diplomacy.”
Virginia McAlester: A Force in Dallas Preservation
Virginia McAlester’s influence on the preservation movement is different than Inouye’s but no less worthy. Many of us know her as the author of A Field Guide to American Houses. First published in 1984, and then revised and reissued in 2013, this encyclopedia of American architecture is considered essential reading for every historic preservationist, and appreciated for its ability to connect readers with the architectural history and style of their homes and neighborhoods.
Her work went beyond the publication of books. As a native of Dallas, Texas, McAlester was highly regarded as one of the key individuals responsible for strengthening and creating a local preservation ethic. She set up the Historic Dallas Fund, fought to designate one of the first historic districts in the city, and was a force protecting the history of her home city. Consequently, the projects she spearheaded, became models for preservation in the rest of the country, including the founding of what became Preservation Dallas, and establishing relationships with lending institutions to support the work on historic neighborhoods. McAlester also served for a number of years as a member of the National Trust Advisors, a volunteer network of civic and professional preservation leaders committed to the cause of preservation in the United States. As Mark Lamster says in his tribute in The Dallas Morning News, “McAlester was a founding figure behind virtually every preservation institution in her native city, including Preservation Dallas and Friends of Fair Park. The distinguished Houston architectural historian Stephen Fox called her the ‘Queen of Dallas Preservation.’”
David Preziosi, executive director of Preservation Dallas, says, “Virginia has left us a tremendous legacy with all that she did here in Dallas to preserve our precious historic places. She also left preservationists around the county an incredible gift with an amazing book that gives us the words to describe the places we so valiantly fight for every day.”
Lessons for the Future of Preservation
Beyond honoring their accomplishments, there are even deeper reasons to pause, reflect, and carry forward lessons from Inouye and McAlester’s lives.
Both women were founders. They stood in a void and created new spaces and tools to make sure that critical pieces of history and place were protected. Whether the historic resources in the city of Dallas or the cultural history of Japanese Americans, Inouye and McAlester started from scratch to protect this history, and built up from there. Preservation is often an uphill battle, and both women showed that even uphill battles can be fought one step at a time, and in the spirit of how we begin any major preservation project—step by step, facing the challenges as they come.
They also demonstrated leadership and showed us how we can all work together, something that will be essential in the months and years to come as we navigate not only the new challenges, but also continue to advocate for concerns we had before the pandemic. Just because we’ve had to refocus our gaze doesn’t mean these challenges have gone away. From Main Streets, to historic houses, public lands, to the institutions we hold dear, we know how to fight to save places, and while we are facing a challenge of incredible magnitude, it is the passion and presence of women like Irene Hirano Inouye and Virginia McAlester that we know we can persevere.
So next time you feel nervous, or you don’t know what to do next, take a pause, remember the lessons from the past, and reach out to your preservation community.
We’ll be here.
P.S. In January of this year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched our Where Women Made History crowdsourcing campaign with the intention of collecting 1,000 places (we’re at 740 and counting!) to uncover and uplift women across the centuries whose vision, passion, and determination have shaped the country we are today. One of our particular goals was to highlight women in preservation, and the role they played in shaping the movement. Irene Hirano Inouye and Virgina McAlester are two of those women, and we are thankful that they worked to save historic places and tell the full American story. If you know of more women who have worked save historic places, we invite you to add them at our website.
Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.