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A Commitment to Education: Designing a Heritage Education Center for the National Trust: A Final Report 

12-09-2015 17:35

In 1988 the National Trust for Historic Preservation began a three-year intensive study and planning process to determine an appropriate and effective program for heritage education that would serve the needs of its constituents and build bridges to the education community. This initiative was launched in response to advocacy efforts over the course of several years by the National Trust`s staff, members, and constituents who felt strongly that there should be a focus for heritage education at the Trust. Up to then much of the Trust`s educational effort had been directed toward protecting endangered historic places, strengthening the capacity of local and state preservation organizations to manage preservation programs, and strengthening professional and craftsmen skills in preservation practice. Now, preservationists were saying, it was time to tell the story of these places we had all worked so hard to save. How, they asked, can historic places enrich our understanding of our heritage? How can the preservation community connect with the education community to achieve our shared interests in enriching history, civics, and geography education?

At the time, a great number of programs and activities generally recognized as heritage education were being implemented. The Trust`s properties were conducting interpretive tours and specialized programs for the general public as well as for elementary and secondary students and post-secondary students and teachers. The Trust`s regional offices were providing technical assistance and small start-up grants through the Preservation Services Fund. Beyond these activities supported by the Trust, a number of preservation groups, historical societies, museums, schools, and numerous other local organizations were designing programs that could help persons of all ages gain a better appreciation of their history. On tracks parallel to the Trust`s efforts several state and national organizations--among them the Georgia Trust, the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, the Utah Heritage Society, the American Association of State and Local History, the American Institute of Architects, and the American Association of Museums-- were studying their roles in facilitating heritage-education programs.

The Trust conducted its study and planning initiatives for heritage education through three phases:

1. The staff task force on heritage education
A one-year internal task force composed of Trust vice presidents, program managers, and regional and property directors defined the parameters for the study. The task force studied reports on heritage education prepared within the past twenty years and reviewed existing heritage-education activities of Trust properties and various departments as well as programs throughout the United States supported by the regional offices. The task force also looked at other projects and activities undertaken by colleges, universities, and local and state preservation groups and museums and established contacts with the members of the education community who are leaders in elementary and secondary social studies and humanities education. With substantial input from Trust staff and advisors and heritage education practitioners and education leaders, the task force set broad guidelines for heritage education for the Trust and prepared a working document as the basis for further discussions.

2. The 1990 program council of the Trust advisors
The program council conducted a regional survey to assess the state of the art in heritage education throughout the United States. More than 100 grass-roots preservation organizations were involved in this process. This survey resulted in extensive specific recommendations from the preservation community on what was needed to promote heritage education in communities and in their schools.

3. The heritage education study and planning forums
In 1989 the Trust received a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Religious, Charitable, and Educational Fund to bring preservation and education leaders together to plan a specific program strategy for heritage education for the Trust. Close to 100 leaders from many fields relevant to heritage education met in a sequence of four planning forums over the course of two years, producing this comprehensive report. Participants included representatives of local and state preservation organizations, museum properties, colleges and universities, classroom teachers, public agencies, and professional associations. During these two years the Trust conducted substantial additional research on existing heritage education activities.

While the Trust studied heritage education as a special topic, it initiated three other significant studies. In 1989 a comprehensive study of the mission and programs of the Trust`s seventeen properties concluded that the properties can support the Trust in its mission by fulfilling three central purposes: They can symbolize the kinds of properties that should be saved, they can educate visitors about the meaning and value of the specific place for our history and culture, and they can demonstrate good preservation practices. In these ways the properties can serve as models of preservation and interpretation for other museums. Among its recommendations the property study encouraged the National Trust to strengthen its interpretive programs and to link these programs to the broader heritage education programs and activities operating in nearby neighborhoods and communities. In 1991 the Trust completed an extensive assessment of programs at its six regional offices and field office. The study recommended that regional offices focus on networking and information sharing and on the capacity building of local and state preservation organizations.

Also in 1991 the Trust conducted a nationwide assessment of what attracts people to the preservation movement. Above all else, the study concludes, people see historic preservation as capable of providing an honest picture of America`s heritage in rural areas, small towns, suburbs, and city centers. Together these studies helped the Trust position its heritage-education program within the broader goals of the properties and regions and the aspirations of its constituency.

The study and planning processes were designed to ensure input from many leaders and practitioners in a number of fields related to preservation and education--particularly those who have a long-held interest in heritage education. From the advice and recommendations of all those involved in the study and planning process a draft document was developed. This document was very broadly circulated within the preservation and education communities. The report on heritage education presented here reflects their review and comments. The report is not a final strategic plan, but rather a working document that reflects the best thinking at this time on heritage education for the preservation and education communities.


Participants reached four conclusions from their review of existing programs and the information gathered from the 1990 program council and the planning forums:

  1. There is a great deal written about and there are many practitioners and programs related to heritage education that can guide the Trust in planning its programs. However, there is no agreed-upon definition, purpose, or set of educational principles that can guide training and technical-assistance programs or the development of educational materials for heritage education.
  2. The preservation community is convinced of the educational value and benefits of heritage education and believes heritage education can further the goals espoused by the education community. There has been very little research conducted, however, to demonstrate that heritage education actually increases students` understanding of subjects that are a part of the school curriculum. nor has there been research that demonstrates teachers` ability to adapt the heritage-education approach to their classroom needs.
  3. The preservation community is eager to introduce heritage education to the classroom as well as to the general public. However, there has been limited coordination or cooperation between these groups to introduce the heritage-education approach to formal and informal education settings. There are some notable exceptions to this that can be used as models for other local and state preservation organizations.
  4. The Trust can play a critical role in creating a focus and impetus for heritage education through information sharing, training, materials development, and model programs. The Trust, however, does not have an isolated interest in heritage education. Many local, state, and national groups and organizations share a concern for the teaching and learning about the nation`s history and culture. These groups and organizations must work together in order to realize the maximum educational benefit.


Although heritage education is a recognized term among scholars and professionals throughout the world, there are few clear, universally agreed-upon parameters for what heritage education embraces. This is probably because as an education approach, it embraces many fields and disciplines. For purposes of the Trust`s educational mission participants in the study and planning processes agreed upon this definition:

Heritage education is an approach to teaching and learning about history and culture. It uses primary sources from the natural and built environments, material culture, oral histories, community practices, music, dance, and written documents to help us understand our local heritage and our connections to other cultures, regions of the country, the nation, and the world as a whole. The National Trust is particularly interested in preserving and teaching those reflections of our heritage remaining at sites, structures and buildings and in objects.

Heritage education identifies, documents, analyzes, and interprets historic places in order to expand and enrich the public`s understanding and appreciation of the ideas, themes, issues, events, and people that constitute our historical experiences and cultural expressions--our heritage. It integrates this information with other source materials and considers this information from an interdisciplinary perspective on the humanities, arts, social, and natural sciences.

Heritage education seeks to nurture a preservation ethic in the learner: citizen involvement in thoughtful decision making for today and tomorrow based on an understanding of the past; pursuit of a quality of life for all citizens in which their environment reflects their common and diverse beliefs, values, and traditions; and conservation of the nation`s natural, historical, and cultural resources for generations to come


There were several key concepts that were explored in the planning forums in shaping this definition:

  • Heritage education is not a curriculum subject or academic discipline, but rather an approach to teaching subjects or studying academic disciplines.
  • The natural environment, as well as the built environment, can have significant historical and cultural meaning.
  • The terms "interpretation" and "education" are often used interchangeably but have distinctive meanings. Interpretation refers to gaining accurate and complete information about the site or structure or object under study. Education refers to the knowledge, skills, and values we want students to acquire from this information. "Meaning" is conveyed through interpretation, "significance" is conveyed through education. The heritage-education approach provides a pedagogical "bridge" between interpretation and education.
  • Design has a broad and rich significance in understanding our heritage and is not limited to stylistic elements. The designs a society projects onto its environment provide insight into its values, beliefs, traditions, ideas, and experiences at a point and place in time. Style is one of many design elements we can interpret to understand the profound and pragmatic imprints we have made on the world.


Those involved in the study and planning forums affirmed a set of values for heritage education and articulated its educational principles:

The heritage-education approach brings a sense of orientation to individuals, groups, neighborhoods, communities, and the nation. The natural and built environments and material culture provide benchmarks for a community. A community`s historic places focus attention on the chronology and continuum of events that have shaped its heritage. These surroundings record the small details--the incidental moments in the community`s life that are associated with great events and movements that may have altered the course of our national history. Studying these places gives history a human scale. The unity and diversity of the American experience and the interdependence of individuals and groups in the evolution of the nation can be traced through neighborhoods and regions nationwide.

By becoming astute observers of how past events, ideas, and values have shaped their environment, citizens can deliberate on the pressing issues of today and plan for tomorrow within the context of their local, regional, and national experiences and aspirations. In these ways heritage education supports the goals of the preservation community.

Heritage education also supports the goals of the education community. First and foremost the heritage-education perspective links students to their communities and neighborhoods. And it links these communities and neighborhoods to the region, the state, the nation, and the world. It presents students with real-life reflections of their heritage, and it offers concrete foundations from which to launch their futures. Heritage education, then, becomes a primer for civics education.

The heritage-education approach provides immediate, familiar primary sources for studying a wide range of subjects. The heritage-education approach enables students to practice the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking, and mathematics and to gain competence in such cognitive skills as investigation, analysis, documentation, interpretation, and critical thinking. And the heritage-education approach teaches visual literacy--the ability to read the visual impressions in our environment that reflect history, ideals, and values.

The education principles guiding heritage education include:

  • Heritage-education activities must be based on sound research and scholarship in the many disciplines involved in preservation, site interpretation, and educational curricula development.
  • Analysis and interpretation should be clear, accurate, and comprehensive, considering all of the members of a society, individual accomplishments, the diversity of social patterns and traditions, changing and unchanging values and beliefs, artistic expressions, economic dynamics, and the natural ecosystems that have shaped the heritage of neighborhoods, communities, states, regions, and the nation.
  • The unique qualities and characteristics of neighborhoods and communities should be studied as a reflection of local and regional heritage within the broader framework of state, national, and international historical and cultural experiences.
  • All of those interested in the community`s educational goals should be encouraged to participate in developing and implementing such heritage-education programs and activities as schools, libraries, museums, colleges and universities, historical societies, preservation groups, businesses, public agencies, and service and religious organizations.
  • Professionals and laypersons should learn together and teach each other--identifying the community`s historical and cultural resources, studying its heritage, and integrating the heritage-education approach into its formal and informal educational programs.


In order to respond to the interests of its constituents and promote partnerships between the Trust and other organizations with an interest in heritage education, the participants in the planning forums recommended that the National Trust establish a heritage-education center.

The mission of the heritage-education center is to strengthen and deepen the public`s knowledge and understanding of its history and culture and to foster appreciation and stewardship of its heritage--particularly as these are preserved in the natural and built environments and material culture. To this end the center will employ a variety of strategies to encourage and support both formal and informal educational programs that incorporate the values and principles of the heritage-education approach adopted by the preservation and education communities. It will support and encourage professionals and laypersons who are engaged in teaching students of all ages and in many settings about the history and culture of the United States. As a first priority the center will focus its efforts on elementary and secondary education, but not to the exclusion of other groups in the general public.

Recognizing that teaching and learning about the history, culture, and stewardship of our heritage is the common concern of neighborhoods, communities, states, and the nation, the Trust will actively seek out partnerships with the preservation and education communities and other relevant agencies and institutions to accomplish its mission.

To carry out its mission the center will pursue five goals:

  1. Provide a focus for heritage education for the Trust that will act as a coordinator for the Trust`s own programs and encourage the programs and activities of the preservation and education communities.
  2. Provide information outreach to those interested in incorporating the heritage-education approach into their educational programs, including information about scholarship, programs and practices, professional and volunteer resources, instructional materials, and training programs.
  3. Train educators, preservationists, and other interested persons in the values and principles of the heritage-education approach.
  4. Promote and design educational materials that reflect the values and principles of the heritage-education approach.
  5. Encourage and support educational programs that incorporate the values and principles of the heritage-education approach that can become models for other communities and their schools, colleges, and universities, and state and national organizations.

The Trust`s heritage-education center will operate from the Trust`s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The center will employ a small core staff and establish a minimum core budget to maintain its coordination and information-outreach functions. It will seek additional funds to accomplish its other program goals, and it will call upon the extensive expertise within the preservation and education communities to act as advisors, consultants, and fellows to accomplish specific projects.

The center will actively seek partnerships with communities, museum properties, and other preservation organizations, and with colleges, universities, institutions, and public agencies throughout the United States in order to carry out programs and activities that respond to its mission and goals; it will adapt its mission and goals to support local, state, and regional interests, needs, and perspectives; and it will select sites as satellite centers to focus on specialized program and training needs and interests.

As a primary partner and home center, the Trust will work with the Waterford Foundation in Waterford, Virginia. Waterford is an endangered National Historic Landmark village in the rapidly expanding Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. The center will operate its information-outreach and materials development programs and will initiate its training and model programs at the Old School in Waterford.


At the Trust`s properties: Following the 1989 report on the properties the Trust`s Department of Stewardship of Historic Properties launched a comprehensive effort to strengthen the interpretive programs at each of the properties. It received public and private funding of almost $1 million to support this effort. Property directors and staff have participated in training programs on site interpretation, and many of the properties have been involved in self-study and program-redesign activities. The properties continue to reach out to the schools in their regions with specialized programs for teachers and students. Additionally, there are efforts to link the properties` interpretive programs to other heritage education activities in their service areas.

At the regional offices: The regional offices continue to award Preservation Service Fund grants for heritage-education projects. They are identifying model projects and practitioners that can become resources for their region. Some regional offices are providing technical assistance to local and state preservation organizations in designing model programs and offering training programs for communities and their schools.

At the heritage education center: The center is engaged in activities to further each of its goals. It continues to gather information on resources in heritage education for inclusion in its data base, and it is publishing a quarterly newsletter on heritage education that uses information from the regional offices and the properties to highlight issues, themes, and events in history and culture that can be taught through the heritage-education approach. The center is working cooperatively with the National Park Service to prepare "Teaching With Historic Places" educational materials for the classroom and is designing a training program in heritage education that can strengthen the professional skills of teachers, preservationists, and others interested in heritage education. The center is also assisting the Waterford Foundation in designing a model heritage-education program that will serve the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and is working with the regional offices and properties to identify other model-program sites. Finally, the center has reached out beyond the preservation constituency to educational institutions and other organizations to expand awareness, interest, and cooperation in introducing the heritage-education approach to communities and their schools.

Publication Date: January/February 1992


Author(s):Kathleen Hunter