At the start of 2020, the National Preservation Institute (NPI) was looking for ways to mark their 40th anniversary—and then the pandemic hit.
NPI had been providing in-person training in historic preservation and cultural resource management, but found itself needing to pivot in the face of the unexpected. Their resulting two-year plan included the goal of continuing to provide training and the creation of a podcast series to open a conversation about the changing face of the field. The resulting series Preservation Profiles interviews a range of individuals working in preservation, from a former director of the National Park Service, to a preservationist working to protect Native American resources.
To learn more about this new series, and how NPI approached podcasting during a pandemic, I interviewed NPI’s executive director, Jere Gibber, and Better Lemon Creative Studio’s podcast producer Hannah Hethmon.
What are some of the key takeaways you want audience members to get from the series?
Gibber: We didn't start out with a theme for Preservation Profiles, but I think we ended up with one running through all of the episodes. It has to do with how preservation can make a difference in improving the future quality of life for people in communities around the country through resource stewardship. Our podcast guests are contemplating—out loud, in a very public way—what links preservation to this year's history in the making—from the pandemic to protests on social inequality and racism. To the preservation "insider," they encourage us to continue in our chosen field of endeavor; for someone new to the arena, they give a sense of the importance preserving history.
Our speakers say it best:
“Preserving Resources and Fostering Diversity” with Robert Stanton: “If you were to look at our past, it seems as if, by design, we did not want to recognize all of our people who have made these contributions. So we have some making up to do. Historic preservation attempts to correct that, to say that there is evidence that these were the contributions that all people made. Historic preservation makes that linkage between the past, the present and the future and it's a noble, noble endeavor.”
“Preserving Intangible History" with Susan West Montgomery: “We live in places, we work in places, we eat in places, we laugh in places, medical care and education is dispensed in places, and preservationists own place, that's our thing, that's what we do. We just have to figure out how we do our work in such a way that we're advancing those other objectives like healthcare or social justice or climate adaptation.”
“Preserving Native American History” with Eric Hemenway: “It's the most cliché thing in the world, but you know you don't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. And a lot of times I feel like, in this country, people don't know where they've been. They don't know the story of the United States. They don't know what happened to Native populations…So, that's the first step—awareness.”
“Preserving a Sense of Place” with Laura Trieschmann: “History happens at these places and you need a sense of place. One of the first questions people always ask you is, ‘Where are you from? Where did you grow up?’ Because that forms who you are. And without those places and that history, we wouldn't be as individual as we are.”
"Preserving History through Truth Telling" with Tanya Denckla Cobb: “History matters. History really matters, and people's identity is tied up with it in ways they often don't even realize themselves until something is threatened. And there are layers to it that need to be peeled away. That is not easy work and takes time.”
“Preserving Community History” with Marsh Davis: “I think that with the preservation movement, both at the national, and certainly within our organization, we've taken it to heart as a very genuine part of our work to expand our understanding of the broader sense of history.”
Right now, there aren’t a lot of preservation practice podcasts out on the market—the one notable exception is from Preservation Maryland. Why do you think this is a great vehicle for helping preservationists with their work?
Gibber: All of our Preservation Profiles guests have powerful stories to tell about how they came to work in the field. It's interesting to hear that story and how they've journeyed—some in a very straightforward way, others more circuitously—to end up where they are today. Learning about their preservation philosophies, inspiration, and accomplishments helps to broaden our perspective and, perhaps, even to envision potential future paths for ourselves. I think we've been able to meet our goal of offering reflections from "some of the inspiring individuals who are shaping the field of preservation in the United States."
Hethmon: Podcasts are really intimate. If they are done right, it's like having a conversation with the guest yourself. One of my favorite things about working with people in public history and preservation is the passion they have for their work and subject, and so often that gets sanitized in more formal outlets. Right now when we don't have any in-person conferences, this podcast is a way for people to get to know who’s who in the field and to "chat" with Bob Stanton and Tanya Denckla Cobb. The more intimate, human stories we tell about our work, the more a general audience will understand why they should care, too.
Tell us about this season. Why these people? How did you choose who to interview?
Gibber: Preservation Profiles has been a wonderful collaboration between the NPI Board of Directors; our series sponsors, host, and producer; and, most importantly, our guests. As the podcast producer, Hannah Hethmon had the perfect background for us. Having worked at AASLH, she understood where NPI was coming from, was used to working with history-based organizations, and readily envisioned the six-episode series we had in mind. Jane I. Seiter, Ph.D. jumped right in as the podcast host. With her background as both an administrator and archaeologist, she has a quick grasp of what it takes to shepherd a project
Then, the guests: Gender parity was critical; with this initial series, we were looking for three women and three men. I felt it was important for guests to have some connection to NPI. And we wanted guests from different areas of historic preservation. And we were fortunate that, because of the pandemic, people were available to be interviewed, and very willing to talk with us about their experiences.
So much of preservation work is rooted in the “physical and the visual” and, while the field as a whole has upleveled conversations about intangible heritage, why is this a good medium for preservationists to consider?
Hethmon: Audio is really powerful because it allows the narrator to isolate what audiences should pay attention to, whether that's a creaky floorboard, the emotion in someone's voice, or a small detail in the trim moulding. Audio also allows us to paint pictures of what could be, and we see that when Susan West Montgomery is describing how we could be preserving intangible heritage. Oral storytelling is as old as language, so it's a very effective way of communicating something unfamiliar. When Eric Hemenway tells the story of attending traditional ghost suppers, we can better understand his identity and preservation insights after being taken on that vivid flashback. Storytelling is, quite simply, one of the most powerful ways to communicate. There is no substitute for hearing another person's voice, up close and personal.
What opportunities does podcasting (or audio storytelling in general) provide?
Hethmon: Podcasting is a way to offer free, accessible audio stories to anyone in the world with a wifi connection or data. It's non-algorithmic, so indie podcasts can compete with network productions and Spotify originals. The barrier to entry for making a good podcast is far lower than good video, in my opinion. And, certainly, podcasting is where the people are. It's a rapidly growing medium with listenership rising all around the world.
You can listen to the Preservation Profiles podcast series here or on your podcast platform of your choice.