Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Sustainability: The Ongoing Challenge for Historic Sites  

12-09-2015 17:35

The timing of this gathering is fortuitous; it convenes at a moment when leaders of the worldwide preservation community have a great deal to discuss. The range of pressures —we optimistically often refer to pressures as “opportunities” —the pressures that presently bear upon global preservation efforts are daunting. While I suspect that this is hardly a room full of pessimists, still the urgency for clear-headed, creative thinking in our field has become all too apparent.

Obviously, this conference brings together a highly diverse assembly of organizations and institutions, representing preservation and heritage trust efforts that are, by definition, an expression of their particular cultures. Yet we face issues, with few exceptions, that are common to us all. Finances come to mind. Our future rests upon the generosity of others—both public and private sources.

The (British) National Trust, for instance, works to preserve and protect the coastline, countryside, and buildings of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and declares that it is “rich only in liabilities.” You know what that means. They’re trying to look after great spaces, precious objects, and irreplaceable buildings, but it’s like the announcement in the London Underground: “Mind the gap.” There always seems to be a gap between your responsibilities and the resources available to fulfill those responsibilities.

So we find ourselves in the position of constantly creating new ways to inspire people about old things. You’ve saved it—whatever “it” may be. You’ve protected it far. But continuing to do so, over an indefinite period— ideally even over an infinite period—is a formidable task.

How to sustain the effort? More to the point, how to sustain the effort in a world where the assumptions about what is important and valuable, about what should be saved, about what is worthy of investment are not carved in stone. How does heritage preservation endure in the face of shifting public interests and inclinations? How do we plan for a future that remains uncertain and unsure?

The horrific earthquake along the India-Pakistan border, the destruction wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the southern gulf region of the United States, the tsunami in Southeast Asia are disasters of the first order. The hurricanes are, of course, closest to home for us Americans, but the destruction of the cultural heritage, whether in Indonesia or New Orleans, is a frightening thought, particularly to those of us working to preserve our cultural heritage.

Such events, often unexpected, test us in a variety of ways. The human tragedy is almost unfathomable. Property damage and personal losses are enormous. Daily survival is a more apt term than long-term sustainability in this context. And there is another very real concern. For nonprofits and public agencies devoted to preservation, a resource base (perhaps taken for granted) can abruptly decline, as an urgent need for emergency funding enters the equation. Relief efforts demand huge sums. Government responds, as it should; so do some of the private funders upon which the preservation community must depend.

As if these developments were not a sufficient threat to our sustainability, there is fear of terrorism and runaway gasoline prices. The list is long. I won’t recite it. Suffice to say I was taught that the familiar Chinese proverb—“May you live in interesting times”—has a sinister meaning. Clearly these are “interesting times.”

Preparing for Natural Calamity

Let me begin by briefly discussing the subject of natural calamity and its impact on preservation and then move on to the broader issue of sustainability.

The other day a network news reporter raised the question of whether the world was coming to an end. After a series of severe natural disasters, it was a reasonable question. A geologist reassured the reporter that the earth is doing what it’s always been doing.

That only gives me minimal comfort; we clearly need better ways to cope with natural events, large and small, to help people urgently in need of medical attention and shelter, and to address the longer-term impacts on communities, institutions, and, of course, historic sites. In fact, acts of God do not have to be so dramatic in order to be very expensive. Several years ago, a single ice storm cost Colonial Williamsburg more than $4 million, primarily in tree loss and business interruption. And in 2003, Hurricane Isabel swept up the east coast in Virginia and did some $6 million worth of damage in Williamsburg alone.

These experiences taught us some lessons. We found that there are measures that can be taken at a historic site, both before and after such an event, that are practical and useful. For instance, in terms of best practices, a previously organized center of command, a disaster plan, relieves you from scrambling to create one in a crisis atmosphere. That way you know who will make decisions about what ... as well as who will implement them. In fact, the more you can do before a crisis strikes, the better your chances for minimizing the pain. Much of this is simple common sense, but when there are blue skies, it is easy to put it off.

Following any calamity that is likely to destroy property, there’s the inevitable rush for contractors. There were residents in the Williamsburg area still looking for people to repair damage a year or more after Isabel blew through.

Maintaining an ongoing relationship with a range of contractors of the type required whenever there is tree or building damage can be very beneficial. There is a tremendous advantage in having key service providers committed to you so that they will heed your call when you need them.

Then, there are the insurance companies...they tend to address your concerns at varying rates of speed. They get overwhelmed too. Doing your own initial assessment, for example taking appropriate photos and creating detailed records of what has occurred, can help avoid protracted discussions and delays when the insurance representative finally arrives. And this is a good way to tell your story first.

Having a few things stocked away always helps too ... gasoline, heating oil, even a generator, can be a great help in getting a site restarted.

Finally, if you maintain lodging facilities, you have to be alert to the wellbeing of your guests, particularly their safety. That takes advance planning. You also need a plan to entertain them if they are stuck with you (or vice versa). That can make a real difference in their attitudes.

Obviously, in a calamity, national trusts have a special responsibility to pay attention to the threat to historic sites. Meeting that obligation requires a careful balancing act to avoid seeming indifferent to human tragedy. But it also requires a quick and ready response, particularly since the instinct of those involved in the initial cleanup is to bulldoze...often indiscriminately.

Planning for Long- Term Sustainability

Natural disasters may be the most top-of-mind sustainability issue at the moment, given recent events. As horrible as these disasters are, however, they cannot and should not be permitted to obscure the multiple challenges facing global preservation efforts— challenges largely invoking resource availability and the closely related issue of earned income from visitors. Challenges affecting all preservation efforts, not just those in a storm-ravaged area.

Moreover, as we consider the question of sustainability, keep in mind that if the icons of our cultural heritage are to endure—as they must—the answer may not be found in the margins. An adjustment here, an alteration there, may not suffice to protect their future. Yet, when under financial pressure, there is an understandable tendency to take the traditional steps: defer major maintenance projects, cut staff, reduce operating hours, offer only partial openings, close facilities.

Sometimes those steps are unavoidable. When Colonial Williamsburg began to face visitation challenges of the sort plaguing most historic sites in this country, we did reduce staff and take some seldom-visited buildings offline at least during those times of the year when crowds are down. We resisted others, however, such as deferring maintenance; our stewardship obligations with respect to the site have always remained a priority.

But you must be careful not to participate in your own demise. To simply cut back on what you’re doing is still to act only upon existing assumptions. You’re not reevaluating, just simply doing less. Yes, it helps to reduce costs. But to be sustainable over the longer term, it is critical to ask more fundamental questions.

Some years ago, in America, a film was produced called Field of Dreams. It’s a story of an Iowa farmer who hears a voice. The voice says, “If you build it, he will come.” So the young man cuts down his cornfield and constructs a baseball diamond. Sure enough, the players do come. The film has a happy ending.

I mention this because, as organizations have been created to protect and preserve our cultural heritage, a working assumption appears to have been that history is important and they will come not only to learn from and enjoy the sites but also to help pay the costs.

And, for a long time, that seemed to be a reasonable assumption.

A few years ago, however, it became increasingly clear that assumptions about visitation were off the mark. It wasn’t just 9/11. Actually, the declines at long-established sites began a decade earlier. They were modest, but the trend was clear.

At Colonial Williamsburg we realized a few years ago that we needed to grapple with this development in a more fundamental way. Were we, in fact, facing new public attitudes toward history, toward how and when we take vacations, toward family activity?

Instinctively, we knew the answers were yes, yes, and yes. But we also knew that our understanding was limited. So we engaged in a systematic, not anecdotal, inquiry, making use of our own staff and outside professionals.

What we found was encouraging and fascinating, intriguing and illuminating.

Let me run a few concepts by you: a belief in institutions, educational and moral elitism, small community values, history for the sake of history, Anglo-Saxon heritage...

These concepts are regarded, by those who study public attitudes, as representing the mindset of fewer and fewer people in today’s world. One researcher placed the people who favor these concepts in what she called the circle of diminishing relevance. And she warned, if you rely on such concepts to guide your programs and marketing, you may effectively part company with the enthusiasms of the larger population.

She told us that some of Colonial Williamsburg’s most loyal patrons are “souls of another century” who use “history as a means for escape”... whereas, the rest of the population is hurdling forward, in pursuit of the next big opportunity.

But she did not just leave us with that troubling message. Rather, she urged us to consider another list of concepts: interest in human culture, passion, civic commitment, social idealism, a preference for quality.

These are aspirational concepts that appeal to the mindset of a much larger group of Americans today (five times as large); a group she placed in a circle of ascending relevance, people seeking the leading edge.

The good news is that people in both groups, the diminishing group and the aspirational group, identified Colonial Williamsburg as a place that speaks to their interests and preferences. But it became quite clear that in developing our programming for the future, and in articulating why people should come to our site, we need to address the mindset of those in the larger circle, the aspirational group, to assure our sustainability. We were relieved, of course, to learn that we are not confronting a fundamental challenge to the core values of our mission, but we understood, quite clearly, that we do need to rethink how our message is presented on site and in our marketing.

To put it another way, the challenge is not to general purposes. The challenge is to the specific means of getting there. Although the research focused on Colonial Williamsburg, it was so comprehensive and thorough that I am comfortable stating that its conclusions are generally applicable to historic sites in this country at least, and perhaps further afield.

In another component of our research effort, we learned that Americans tend to view history, and by implication, visiting historic sites, as distinctly separate from entertainment. And we learned that it is entertainment that wins the battle for limited discretionary time. Unlike the baby boomers, so-called Generation X parents—parents in their 20s and 30s—more often than their own parents did, try to arrange work around their family needs and look for opportunities to use leisure time to strengthen and build family relationships. They look for experiences that are fun and appealing to the whole family. And all family members have a vote, said one of our trustees. She should know. She is the mother of a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old. She acknowledged that they have veto power when it comes to vacations.

Apparently emerging generations view visiting historic sites and entertainment—visiting historic sites and family fun—as occupying two separate realms.

Another challenge then is to convince the next generation that historic sites can, and should be, engaging and enjoyable, that they can satisfy the desire for entertainment and family fun as well as be instructional.

Finally, in addition to appealing to those who have an aspirational mindset rather than a diminishing mindset, in addition to persuading families that history can be engaging and fun, the researchers suggest that our offerings need to be relevant to people’s contemporary lives, that our sites need to make a personal, emotional connection with adults and children alike.

As stewards of our cultural heritage we tend to have a baseline of commitment, a firm determination, not to trivialize our past. While there may need to be changes in program offerings and marketing messages in order to attract the public, as the research clearly suggests, any steps that have the effect of undermining the mission of the site will be rejected.

New Programming to Apply these Lessons

At Colonial Williamsburg, keeping that commitment to our mission very much in mind, but instructed by a deeper understanding of current public preferences and attitudes, we are embarking on a completely revised living history experience for visitors. I want to describe the core of that experience to demonstrate how we are responding to the research rather than letting it gather dust.

We call it “The Revolutionary City.” It will occupy about a third of the core historic area. Beginning in spring 2006, for two hours each day, the carefully scripted program in “The Revolutionary City” will play out against the bustling backdrop of everyday life and drama: debates, talk on the streets, runaways, jailings, stump speeches, household activities, repairing, mending, voting, singing, and more.

One day the years portrayed will be 1774 to 1776 when the royal government collapsed in the colonies and independence was declared; on the other day it will be 1776 to 1783, Williamsburg at war, ending with victory at Yorktown.

For these two hours, we will look into the lives of individual community members— black and white, Indian and English, enslaved and free, urban and rural—during the most significant period in our nation’s early history.

Our guests will experience and engage with each aspect of the city’s evolution. They will witness protests against British imperial policies concerning, for example, westward expansion and who had the right to authorize taxes. They will hear the debate that played out on the streets of Williamsburg, in taverns, at court meetings, and in sessions of the legislature.

They will be in the midst of the dramatic events that helped shape the nation. They will learn about the human costs involved during the war years, the choices people faced, the uncertainty of the times. They will learn people’s fears, as well as hopes for a better future.

They will realize that the people themselves played the key role in obtaining their independence and in creating the republic. It was these 18thcentury men and women— virtually overnight transformed from subjects to citizens—who began the great American experiment.

In the Revolutionary City, we believe that guests will discover new insights into their republic—its formative years and its challenges and opportunities. We also believe we can pass the researcher’s test, that this program will be fascinating, lively, engaging, and fun for the whole family. But it will, it must, also be instructive. And it will reflect our continued commitment to authenticity in all that we do.

Williamsburg was a crossroads for political activity in colonial America, for revolutionary ferment and for subsequent nation-building. We believe that we can connect those days to ours in a way that will allow people to better understand what it means to be an American then and now.

It cannot be said too often: Our historic sites are learning institutions. We preserve. We study. We research. We teach. But a learning institution with insufficient enrollment is not fulfilling its purpose, nor will it be sustainable for the benefit of future generations. We must connect with and engage the general public. We must be immediate to their lives, hopes, and aspirations.

To achieve this, we must understand their attitudes and expectations.

At Colonial Williamsburg, we have devoted a lot of time and considerable resources to understand better these attitudes and expectations, and we are now designing and implementing our programming and marketing in response.

I do not offer up the specifics of Colonial Williamsburg’s actions as a model for others. But I do commend to you the results of our research. More important, the spirit of that effort to see ourselves as others see us, is a spirit that may well be sound advice for all of us here today.

Publication Date: Spring 2006


Subtitle:Presented at the International Conference of National Trusts held in Washington, D.C., October 15-19, 2005.
Author(s):Colin G. Campbell

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