Conservation of Living Heritage

September 1, 2017 Blog, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (0) 2284

The San Antonio Conservation Society was at the cutting edge of heritage conservation in 1924, focusing not only on buildings but the cultural landscape, including “customs” that we now call intangible heritage.  This week, San Antonio remains at the cutting edge of the heritage conservation field.

Proof is the Living Heritage Symposium being hosted next week by the City’s Office of Historic Preservation.   The San Antonio Conservation Society is one of the event’s sponsors, and I have had the honor of serving on a Cultural Heritage working group that helped conceptualize the conference over the last year.

Matachines at Mission Concepcion, 2016

What do we mean by cultural heritage?  It is intangible heritage – costumes, music, language, crafts, etc., but it is also more.  It can be a neighborhood “institution” that is a business.  One of the cities that has pioneered documenting and conserving cultural heritage is San Francisco.  San Francisco Heritage did a living heritage survey a couple years back, and the City of San Francisco has instituted a Legacy Business ordinance to help preserve community “institutions” whose significance has little to do with architecture – but everything to do with place.  They also have done cultural mapping and planning in areas like Japantown.

Doesn’t hurt that you have a National Historic Landmark that moves from place to place.

Mike Buhler of San Francisco Heritage and Tim Frye of the City of San Francisco will be among the featured speakers next week.  Another is Donna Jane Graves, who has done incredibly important work in uncovering lost history, including the recent article with James Michael Buckley:  Tangible Benefits from Intangible Resources: Using Social and Cultural History to Plan Neighborhood Futures  (Journal of the American Planning Association).  Donna’s LGBTQ survey of San Francisco was pivotal in my own work on creating a more inclusive and diverse National Register of Historic Places.

Very important in San Francisco gay history – but how does the architecture convey it?

In addition, experts in cultural heritage will be coming from Turkey, Australia, Belgium and most exotically, Washington, D.C., where Crowninshield Award winner Donovan Rypkema lives.  Rypkema, who has long focused on the economics of historic preservation, is one of the leading lights in our field.  Andrew Potts, also of DC, will be a presenter.  Andrew recently penned an excellent piece for Preservation Forum that envisions how professionals and community need to interact in contemporary cultural heritage conservation.

The Malt House, San Antonio.  This landmark is what kicked off the discussion here.

All of the presenters I named above are longtime friends and colleagues, but I am also excited that many international heritage professionals I do not know are part of the program next Thursday and Friday.  Yge Yildirum brings extensive experience with heritage as an urban planner in Turkey and Abu Dhabi, while Ester van Steeklenberg has pioneered new management and economic incentives programs throughout Southeast Asia.  Sharon Veale specializes in historic cultural heritage assessment in Australia, while American planner Carlton Eley is a specialist in equitable development with international expertise.

Calligraphy on locally made paper, Heshui village, Guizhou, 2012.

Previously, historic preservation involved architectural historians surveying the buildings of a community and coming up with a list of what was significant.  The process: Identification, Evaluation, Registration and Treatment, remains the same, but today heritage conservation requires each local community to be involved at the beginning of the process, by identifying what elements of their landscape – and what practices and institutions in their community – are significant enough to want to have them in the future.

Making cascarones, San Antonio Conservation Society volunteers

The process is sometimes called cultural mapping, and many of the experts coming to the Symposium next week have experience in this.  As Andrew Potts notes in his blog, “Architectural and public historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists are still key, but their roles involve more facilitating, less pronouncing.”  Cultural mapping is already happening here in San Antonio, where we not only have a city archaeologist but also a City cultural historian to facilitate the process.

History inscribed on West Guadelupe Street, San Antonio.

San Antonio has long been a leader in heritage conservation, from the first public purchase of a historic building west of the Mississippi (Alamo, 1883) and the formation of the Conservation Society in 1924 (25 years before the National Trust) to the pioneering ICOMOS Declaration of San Antonio in 1996, an early expression of the new culture-based approach to authenticity. The symposium next week will keep that streak going.




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