Heritage Narratives

April 30, 2024 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 25

Thanks to the intergalactic webernet, we live in a time of narratives. Stories. Mostly these are short form: Reels and memes and Tik Toks and brief videos, but narratives nevertheless. Stories. A good story does not need to be true or follow rules of evidence like court cases or history books, i.e., they don’t have to be real. They are arguably better stories if they aren’t real. Humans are inherently story tellers and probably inherently fabulists. When friends and colleagues express frustration at the preponderance of blatantly untrue narratives, I try to explain that the solution cannot be provided by evidence. You need a narrative. But that does not mean you have to be a fabulist and fabricate.

History is rife with examples of massacres and conquests carried out in the name of unproveable religious or ideological narratives. Sure, those narratives may have been window dressing for underlying economic or political realities, but they worked their fabulism on the participants.

What does that have to do with heritage conservation? Well, in her important new report The Relevancy Guidebook, Bonnie McDonald of Landmarks Illinois talks about preservationists as storytellers. One of factors limiting preservation’s appeal and constituency has been an inherited focus on architecture. This has exacerbated the diversity deficit as I have written about here and here and elsewhere. Preservationists need to focus less on architecture and more on story.

Architecture became a default mechanism for preservation for a number of reasons. First, the earliest preservation laws coincided with the advent of architectural history in the early 20th century. Second, the introduction of historic preservation tax incentives brought in a slew of real estate developers who wanted their preservation as mechanistic as possible. Not the squishy world of stories. Third, we trained a generation of practitioners and bureaucrats on jalousie windows and jerkinhead roofs and like any profession, there is a frisson associated with the forced erudition of a secret language.

Just another duostyle Doric portico in antes

And this is already happening. When I did one of my early National Register nominations in the 1980s of the Kenwood United Church of Christ, I had all of this fascinating information about the important people who attended the church, including the famous poet Edgar Lee Masters. The State Historic Preservation Office made it clear that I could leave that information in, but it would have no bearing on the significance of a Romanesque church of Maryland granite by the city’s first professional architect.

In contrast, when our National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building went to the State Review Board in January, they specifically asked for more pictures with people in them! A formalist focus will appeal to some, but people and their stories appeal to everyone.

That’s my photo – Guilty of formalism!

Narrative is especially important if you are trying to conserve heritages that: 1. Did not or could not express their identity in architecture; 2. Had important historic things happen in everyday buildings without architectural integrity; or 3. Were actively erased by the dominant power structure. In these cases you need to gather the stories first, before you ever go out looking at buildings.

The Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building is a case in point – the only downtown building by a Mexican American architect (Willie Peña). San Antonio’s Mexican-American history is defined more by erasure than preservation, as I illustrated recently.

So many of the histories we are capturing in the 21st century are those of groups who were either erased, like the indigenous and ethnic/racial minorities; or hidden, like the LGBTQ community. In the dozen years I have been working on improving the diversity of the National Register of Historic Places, we have seen significant improvements in how to deal with these properties, and a bevy of historic context statements that have done a lot to uncover, rescue and record these formerly secreted histories. Today the National Register is actively working on updating guidance to capture more stories and to reflect the full spectrum of American history.

But much more needs to be done. One could say that the mainstream historians of the past overlooked these secret histories. “Secret histories” – now there is some branding that could spark the required frisson – the dopamine kick – that “insiders” get when they follow a fabulist narrative. But, like the work the National Register and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and us local preservationists – it would have evidence. Do you think it would work?

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