Friday, March 12, 2010

Letting "preservation" go?

I attended a terrific session this morning called "Heritage of the World in Trust: Conservation in a Changing Climate," chaired by Priya Chaya with three panelists from the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation and The Land Conservancy of British Columbia. David Brown of the National Trust started things off by giving an overview of how the international national trust movement (who knew there was such a thing?) has been galvanized by the dangers posed by climate change and is supporting its member organizations as they shift into a whole new mode of stewardship organized around public environmental and ecological education. The Land Conservancy's Ian Fawcett described the work of the 12-year-old trust, which has protected about 125,000 acres of ecologically and historically important property. And Liz Dunn of the National Trust's new Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab (above) gave an overview of the many "sustainability" initiatives the Trust has been working on, including helping to develop energy-related building codes in partner cities and generating solid data to support the idea that reusing and retrofitting an existing building is nearly always going to be "greener" than building a brand-new "green" building from scratch.

All three panelists argued for the importance of getting beyond the limitations of the way the preservation field has historically defined its mission. Brown suggested that American preservationists should in fact follow the lead of their colleagues in many other parts of the world and shift to thinking about "conservation" rather than "preservation," as a way to talk about a much broader ethos and way of living rather than a way to save case-by-case specific properties and places. One of the things that sometimes frustrates me about the preservation, public history, and museum fields is that projects so often get stalled within categories that confine us even though we know intellectually that they're artificial and problematic--notions like "tradition," "heritage" or "preservation" itself, so convincingly deconstructed by recent scholarship yet still so powerful in public practice relating to history. This session gave me real hope that a newer paradigm may be emerging, more clearly focused more on the kinds of underlying values and goals that are often masked in public history practice but that the world needs urgently as people try to confront the behaviors and patterns that are increasingly landing us in ecological and economic hot water.

It was also heartening to see public history practitioners linking up the insights of history--for example, the knowledge of how older urban neighborhoods were built to be highly walkable--with emerging public policy attempting to create places that are responsive to social, environmental, and economic concerns. This kind of holistic thinking is in fact extremely anthropological, and seems to reinforce a notion I've had for years that public history and anthropology have much to offer each other. It was great to see a session where people were not only talking about moving beyond the limits of existing professional and disciplinary discourses but actually going ahead and doing it!

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