Historians as Managers of the Nation's Cultural Heritage

By Lee, Antoinette J. | American Studies International, June-October 2004 | Go to article overview

Historians as Managers of the Nation's Cultural Heritage


Lee, Antoinette J., American Studies International


How the United States manages its cultural heritage is unique in the world. The preservation "system" developed initially from studies of approaches and methodologies from abroad. During the 1960s, American preservationists studied preservation systems in England, Europe, and the Soviet Union in order to gather ideas about what might be appropriate for the United States. As the 20th century progressed, the American system became layered with home-grown initiatives that responded to actual domestic preservation needs.

Today, the American preservation system is one that is admired and sometimes criticized by both domestic and foreign observers. In its current state, the cultural heritage field in the United States reflects the nation's faith in the private sector, the preeminence of private property rights, the primacy of local governments in the regulation of land use, and the importance of public participation. The federal government's role is focused on administering limited financial incentives, setting policy and standards, and encouraging property owners and the public to appreciate their heritage. In no other country does the real estate developer play such a prominent role in preservation as in the United States, where tax incentives are regarded as an essential fixture in the preservation toolbox.

The United States preservation system is oriented toward pragmatic use of incentives and regulations and is viewed by many as an essentially non-scholarly endeavor. Annual meetings of national, statewide, and local preservation organizations highlight "success stories." These meetings address lobbying that is needed in order to increase government funding, protect important regulations, or support new program initiatives. Few participants at these conferences introduce themselves as "historians" or offer results of scholarly research. Instead, preservation historians must attend conferences of scholarly and academic historical organizations in order to discuss historical research and publishing.

Some outside observers admire American preservationists as entrepreneurial and optimistic. The private sector orientation of the field gives real estate developers, "preservation police," and even managers of Main Street revitalization programs a kind of "can-do" spirit that is uniquely American. Even if historic buildings are demolished, such "failures" serve as springboards for achieving success in the future. Many foreigners wonder why American society cannot provide greater public controls, regulations, and investment for what is understood to be a public benefit.

If one digs deeper into the preservation system, however, one will uncover the significant impact of social and cultural historians on the preservation field over the past four decades. Since passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, these historians have transformed the content of what the preservation field today values and presents as worth saving. In addition, the "unsung" historians are heroes and heroines of countless battles to designate and thus protect historic buildings and places in thousands of communities across the country.

The role of art and architectural historians in cultural heritage activities is a nearly universal aspect in the United States and abroad. However, the United States is unique in involving historians of other stripes: social, political, cultural, and environmental historians. Many of these historians work in cultural heritage preservation because opportunities for applying their knowledge exist in unexpected corners of government bureaucracies. Some historians elect not to enter the ivory tower of academic work and instead choose to apply their skills and knowledge to real-world needs. In addition, other avenues, most notably the academic track, remain virtually closed because of the shortage of college and university jobs in comparison with the larger supply of qualified candidates. …

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