What We Really Do: Changing Perceptions

Preservationists say “no.”
House Museums are “behind the velvet ropes.”
Historians live within an “ivory tower.”

Does this sound familiar?

Historians serve as stewards of the past, disseminating history to a variety of different publics. However, segments of that public view historians and preservationists as obstacles–individuals who set up barriers, keep research confined within the academy, or prevent progress. Despite our efforts, this is how they perceive the work of history professionals.  Of course, those of us who work in the field know that history professionals are working to broaden outreach in museums (albeit with increasingly limited budgets), to spread literature and research, and to present a more open and accessible past by saving places across the country.

Credit: Peabody’s Lament

This past week I staffed the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis. While I didn’t get a chance to fully attend sessions, I observed a discipline actively working to remove barriers. Sessions sought to think past restrictions and standards and focused on aligning the needs of preservationists with the needs of community.

These sessions illustrated how we continue to partner with groups outside the field, introducing practices from green building, community organization, and social justice to preservation. The key difference this year was the sense that we are starting to introduce preservation to those who perceive us as outsiders and naysayers showing them that the age-old stereotypes no longer hold true.

A few examples.

  • During a session sponsored by the Preservation Green Lab, we had a panel that included preservationists, staffers from the DOE and the USGBC and a leader of a regional utility company. The speakers said their expectations and opinion of preservationists shifted, and cited their own fields insularity as being part of the problem.
  • All three of our morning conversation starters (panel sessions that included a dialogue on issues of diversity, real estate, and modernism) discussed practices for reaching out to new communities. The most fun example? Saturday’s session which included a video of Parkour in the abandoned Miami Marine Stadium.
  • One education session (one of many) emphasized embracing community as a tool for saving places instead of focusing on the 50 year rule and standards.

In each case preservation was brought to an audience that had (and continues to) be wary of our role as stewards of the historic past.


A sidebar on the history of the museum. As a repository of the past these spaces began as cabinets of curiosity where objects lived near each other without any clear context or explanation. Art museums position paintings on display, in isolation, loosely connected but never touching.

That is what we are beginning to move past. No longer content to be in silos, historic preservationists, public historians, and other practitioners are working to look beyond our singular form of storytelling. We seek to have a chapter in the debate on climate change, on diversity, and in the creation of a full historical narrative. It isn’t an easy process, and one that demands flexibility while maintaining the most important standards for our critical work in protecting the past.

The treatment of the past cannot be a closed loop, and this years National Preservation Conference revealed a movement that is moving beyond the paradigm of talking only to ourselves. A movement that is flinging open the windows, doors and other entryways and saying:

“Come in, let’s work together.”

To get a sense of the conversations going on at the National Preservation Conference visit the Preservation Leadership Blog to read recaps.

Full disclosure: I am an employee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the PLF blog manager.

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