Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Heritage Education and Historic Preservation: Partners or Acquaintances? 

12-09-2015 17:35

In 1951, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation was grappling with the acquisition of its first historic site—Woodlawn —it encountered a challenge that would continue through today:

“If an historic site or building is open to the public regularly, as much care should be given to its presentation to the visiting public as was given to the restoration. It is not enough to throw the doors open and wait for the crowd that ofttimes never materializes. It is not enough to assign to the job of reception and explanation just anybody who is available cheap. Most often it is in this final phase of preservation that reputations are made or broken.”1

Like two sides of a coin, historic preservation involves both protecting and interpreting historic sites.

This issue of Forum Journal examines the status of heritage education today and follows up on an issue published more than a decade ago in January 1992. In the intervening decade, heritage education has become a key value in the National Trust’s new strategic plan and the responsibility for education is shared throughout the organization. Education is a central element in most preservation organizations and historic sites throughout the country but, much like the variety of sites that have been preserved, there are a variety of approaches to education, much of it done under the umbrella of “heritage education.”

Heritage Education: Another Term for Teaching History?

In the January/February 1992 issue of Forum Journal, Kathleen Hunter proposed that heritage education is “an approach to teaching and learning about history and culture that uses information available from the material culture and the human and built environments as primary instructional resources.”

As you will discover in reading the following articles, “heritage education” can mean many things—there is no standard definition. It is typically based on the study of a building, site, or place (rather than documents or textbooks); is regional or local in focus (although often tied to national themes); incorporates multiple disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (such as archeology, history, and geography); is primarily for children (rather than adults); and often uses interactive and participatory approaches that encourage observation and discovery (not lectures, readings, or other didactic methods).

Heritage education programs vary tremendously and have been defined as activities that:

  • encourage the preservation or restoration of the cultural heritage
  • offer educational field trip programs coordinated with district curricula and state and national standards of learning
  • explore the community —its place in national and world events, its relationship to the natural environment, and its cultural heritage as expressed in traditions and celebrations, literature and arts, economic practices, responses to crises, and everyday life and
  • combat vandalism of cultural resources and teach stewardship>.2

For these programs, history and heritage are often associated but distinctive—a perception that’s shared by most Americans. A recent study showed that most Americans like heritage but not history.3 For many, history is the boring, irrelevant study of names and dates in the classroom while heritage is a personal appreciation of one’s own family, culture, or region. Surprisingly, this study also showed that Americans believe that museums and historic sites are the most trustworthy sources of learning about the past—more reliable than movies, books, teachers, college professors, eyewitnesses, and even grandparents. Historic sites have the “real stuff” and use a variety of perspectives and sources to develop their interpretation— resulting in a richer and more accurate educational experience. That’s great news for those of us working with historic sites—and also a great responsibility.

Schools: Challenges and Opportunities

Heritage education programs often target school groups as the most effective way to reach large numbers of children— but that is quickly changing. Not only are teachers spending less time teaching and more time on administration and discipline, but they are increasingly limited in what they can teach. Heritage education is only a part of the larger discipline of social studies, which is receiving less attention due to the recent Leave No Child Behind Act.4 Federal funding will be allocated based upon a student’s success in math and reading (and eventually science), thus many schools are moving history and social studies to the periphery. As we know, what is tested is what is taught.

Furthermore, teachers, especially at the elementary level, need to teach several subjects at a superficial level. Their last class in United States history may have been in their first year of college; they almost certainly will not have studied architecture, archeology, or geography; and they will be unfamiliar with heritage education and historic preservation.

Meeting this need are the increasingly popular teacher institutes—one--to--six day seminars that focus on both content and pedagogy. Because institutes teach teachers rather than students, these can more effectively reach a larger number of children. Typically provided at a state or local level by historical societies, they have moved to the national level thanks to recent efforts by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ We the People initiative, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History grant program.

Unfortunately, most of these institutes rely on the familiar classroom--based instruction using textbooks and documentary sources and overlook the educational value of visiting and studying historic places. It’s up to us to help teachers cross this threshold. In a 2004 members’ newsletter of the National Council for Public History, Executive Director David Vanderstel reminds us that, “We need to help K--12 educators understand the rich resources of archives, museums, historic sites, and even their own neighborhoods and communities as historical teaching tools.”

The National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program was developed to help teachers bring the study of historic places to their classes, enhancing learning in diverse disciplines. In her article, Carol D. Shull, keeper of the National Register, describes the development and the accomplishments of this award--winning program which has produced more than 115 lesson plans for use in the classroom or at the sites.

More hurdles to effective heritage education programs are erected each year. Funding for field trips has been curtailed drastically during the last decade in nearly every school district. When funding is available, competition among destinations is fierce and teachers have a long menu of attractive choices, including historic sites, museums, zoos, amusement parks, and shopping malls. In addition, many schoolchildren must get by without sufficient access to libraries, computers, or other learning resources.

It is clear that heritage education programs must be designed to accommodate the needs, interests, and limitations of today’s schools. The best way to do that is to have experienced teachers actively involved in program development. The Louisiana Teacher Training Program discussed by Sheila Richmond, Heritage Education Program manager for the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, presents a model approach for engaging classroom teachers in the planning process.

Heritage Education Beyond the Classroom

Although school programs have been the easiest way to reach large numbers of children, it may not be possible to offer them everywhere. Some heritage education programs are being designed or reconfigured to reach children in other ways, such as targeting youth groups (like scouts); offering activities outside of school hours (such as after school programs, weekend events, or summer camps); or providing materials for children in the form of publications or websites.

The Los Angeles Conservancy’s Kids’ Guide to Broadway interactive booklet with related web resources is one example. It is described here by the LA Conservancy’s former Director of Education Jane McNamara and Broadway Initiative Coordinator Trudi Sandmeier. This versatile tool—in two languages— shows young people how to “read” and explore architecture in their community, on their own or with help from family members, teachers, or group leaders.

Making Good Use of Historic Sites

In the United States, many museums are historic sites but historic sites are not always museums. Despite that fact, ask most people what to do with a site worth preserving and they’ll tell you to turn it into a museum.

Yet we are slowly becoming aware that the standards and practices followed by most museums cannot (or should not) be followed by historic sites. Museums typically do not expose their most important artifacts to wear and damage every day. Yet historic sites are displayed outside every day in rain and sun, visitors are encouraged to walk in and on them, and people are permitted to use them as bed and breakfast inns or restaurants.

Furthermore, museums typically remove objects from their context, while historic sites work hard to preserve context, placing a higher value on objects and buildings original to the site. The issue of context is so important that historic sites are broadening their focus from individual buildings to the surrounding landscape, including neighborhoods and cities. A farmhouse is best understood with its fields, and a railroad depot by the adjacent tracks.

But most heritage education programs draw their inspiration from work done in museums, historical societies, schools, and colleges. And most teachers and historians are trained to study documents and give lectures—materials and methods that are least likely to make effective use of historic sites. You can always recognize the failures: The buildings are used as illustrations rather than evidence and the program can be presented in the parking lot just as well as in the parlor.

In their article “What Do Children Learn When They Go on a Field Trip to Henry Clay’s Estate,” educators A. Gwynn Henderson and Linda S. Levstik analyze what knowledge and insights a group of fifth--graders gained from a coordinated program of field trips to a museum and a historic site, including hands--on archeology experience. But they also caution against some limitations of this type of learning and the need to address some surprising misconceptions by the students who participated.

Figuring Out What Works

We need to know which heritage education programs are effective and why. “We cannot rely on observations and testimonials that describe the excellence in classrooms that we know are successfully leading students to high levels of achievement,” notes Denee Mattioli, president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “We need strong, solid, valid, and reliable research to support what is best in social studies teaching and learning. We need to know empirically not only what works but also how it works and why it works.” 5 This concern is shared by those of us who create heritage education programs, but who often have little time for evaluation and research. Based on my study of award--winning school programs, I offer some suggestions for fundamental elements that should be a part of any successful heritage education program.

Another measure of success is to evaluate a program based on one of the many benchmarks that are now available. In the last few years the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Tri--State Coalition for Historic Places, American Historical Association, American Association of Museums, and International Council on Monuments and Sites have each created standards to aid in evaluation and improve practices in educational programming. 6

Renewed Interest in Heritage Education

Despite the lack of any sustained national leadership, heritage education continues to grow, primarily at the state and regional levels. 7

Training for historic site staff in both content and techniques is becoming more widely available. A variety of organizations, such as the American Association for State and Local History and the National Association for Interpretation, regularly offer workshops. Some of this training will be sustained by a recently created endowment at the National Trust, which will support national programs on the interpretation of historic sites. The next step for improvement is to conduct onsite program assessments and staff training, an effort that the National Park Service is pioneering in collaboration with the Organization of American Historians and that the American Association of Museums is expanding in its Museum Assessment Program. 8

We are fortunate that Interpreting Our Heritage, Interpretation of Historic Sites, and Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, and other classics from the past are now joined by many books produced in recent years. Interpreting Historic House Museums, Great Tours, The Power of Place, and Understanding Ordinary Landscapes are among the many new books that show a diversity of ways in which historic sites can be used as effective teaching tools. 9

Thankfully, the funding opportunities for heritage education programs continue to grow. For decades, individual donors have considered education as the most important reason for giving (after religious causes) and provided more than $31 billion for education in 2002. Private foundations have more than doubled their support of the humanities during the past decade and historical activities and humanities--related museum activities accounted for the largest shares of giving. 10

In her article, Katherine Stevenson suggests 10 ways that citizens can help preservation organizations and historic sites to improve heritage education programming, and many of her ideas can form the basis for fundraising appeals. These recommendations are practical, even for organizations with limited means.

At the National Trust

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working on several fronts to improve heritage education in the United States. The Board of Advisors, which consists of representatives from every state, has taken up heritage education as a crucial issue and drafted a series of recommendations to identify ways that the preservation movement can be more effective in advocating for delivering quality programs.

This year the National Trust sought heritage education nominations for its Honor Awards, with the intent of not only recognizing exemplary work but also bringing added attention to this area. The Trust is also working with the Council of Educational Facility Planners International to promote Historic Schools Day, an effort to have students study the history of their own school and link it to larger preservation issues.

The National Trust’s 25 historic sites are on the forefront of heritage education, reaching nearly one million people annually across the country. The strength of these sites is that they represent a wide range of resources and approaches, thus creating a deep pool of ideas. Thanks to a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and several generous donors, a new endowed fund provides small grants to improve or enhance interpretation and education at National Trust historic sites. In its first three years, 30 grants totaling more than $100,000 were distributed—but over $250,000 was requested, demonstrating that the needs still greatly exceed the funds available.

Heritage Education as a Fundamental Aspect of Historic Preservation

When it comes to historic preservation, we still have a cautious relationship with heritage education. We don’t quite recognize its potential power to advance the movement. We know that we need to demonstrate the value of historic sites, but when sites prove to be economically viable, education takes a minor, often peripheral role. Education seems to be the “purpose of last resort.”

This type of limited thinking compels preservation to the dustbin of irrelevancy. First of all, if we preserve sites to educate and educate to preserve sites, we’ve put ourselves in a cyclical pursuit that collapses upon itself. Instead, we need to think more broadly.

Education should be an integral part of every preservation project and historic preservation must be a part of every heritage education program, from beginning to end. We need to look outward as well as inward, and make connections to diverse audiences and places. So what would this look like? The Lower East Side Tenement Museum may provide an answer in a new walking tour of the neighborhood. The tour will visit sites chosen by community preservationists as being representative of the neighborhood’s various constituencies and offer a platform for a dialog on community building that will transcend ethnic and generational differences. 11

It also means that many of our historic preservation programs need to be rethought. Interpretation and heritage education are included in only a handful of college and university programs and the National Council for Preservation Education does not include them as fundamental components for degree--granting programs. 12 Interpreting historic sites to the public should be a basic skill for anyone working in historic preservation.

Secondly, heritage education is not just for children, but for adults as well. Limiting our thinking to a narrow audience can easily convince us that the programs we do offer for adults are not educational, whether they’re walking tours, presentations at council meetings, or member newsletters. If education informs and transforms, then it should be one of the strongest arrows in our quiver to build and expand the preservation movement. If we view our efforts as a “curriculum” with “lesson plans,” it will ensure that every part relates to and advances the overall mission and that we have clear goals, tactics, and measures of success. This holistic and strategic approach will ultimately strengthen the preservation movement and sustain it long into the future.

Finally, heritage education, with its broad meanings, reminds us that the historic preservation movement needs to strengthen its alliance with other humanities and arts organizations in order to be heard—especially when it comes to funding and priorities at the state and local level.


1Quarterly Report, National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, 3:1 (March 1951).

2 These definitions are based upon the Heritage Education Commission of Minnesota State University Moorhead, Heritage Education Forum, Heritage Education magazine, and the Bureau of Land Management’s Heritage Education program.

3 Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (Columbia University Press, 1998).

4 For an in--depth examination of this issue in one state, see “History and Social Studies Education in Maryland: A Cause for Concern” by Margaret Burke, executive director of the Maryland Humanities Council . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ( For a broader discussion, see “Effective State Standards for U. S. History: A 2003 Report Card” by Sheldon Stern et al (www.fordhaminstitute. org).

5 Social Studies Professional, March/April 2004, p. 3.

6 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, “Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (1996); Tri--State Coalition for Historic Places, “Standards and Practices for Historic Site Administration” (2000) (for more information, contact; American Historical Association, “Benchmarks for Professional Development in Teaching of History as a Discipline” (2002) ( benchmarks.htm); American Association of Museums’ Committee on Education, “Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Standards and Principles” (2002) ( standards.shtml); International Council on Monuments and Sites, “Ename Charter for the Interpretation of Cultural Heritage Sites” (2004, in draft).

7 Focus on 2000: A Heritage Education Perspective (National Park Service, National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, 1997). Provides results of a 1997 national survey of heritage organizations and state historic preservation officers, a short history of heritage education since the 1960s, and list of recommendations, opportunities, and needs. Available at 1997--08.pdf. Readers may also be interested in an earlier report, A Heritage at Risk: A Report on Heritage Education (1987) by the National Council for Preservation Education available at and a major web portal on heritage education maintained by the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University at

8 For more information, see latschar.html or programs/map/assessment_PDA. cfm.

9 Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (1957); William Alderson and Shirley Payne Low, Interpretation of Historic Sites (1976); Donald Meinig , ed., Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes (1979); Jessica Foy Donnelly, ed., Interpreting Historic House Museums (AltaMira Press, 2002); Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber, Great Tours: Thematic Tours and Guide Training for Historic Sites (AltaMira Press, 2001); Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (MIT Press, 1995);Paul Groth and Todd Bressi, eds., Understanding Ordinary Landscapes (Yale University Press, 1997).

10 Foundation Funding for the Humanities: An Overview of Current and Historical Trends (Foundation Center, 2004).

11 For more information about this program, contact Liz Sevcenko, vice president of Interpretation, Lower East Side Tenement Museum at

12 The National Council for Preservation Education maintains both the “Standards for Historic Preservation Degree Granting Graduate and Undergraduate Programs” and a list of historic preservation degree programs in the United States at

Publication Date: Fall 2004



Author(s):Max A. van Balgooy