Posts Tagged ‘Anthea Hartig’

Historical Societies

August 22, 2012

with Anthea M. Hartig, PhD

My friend and colleague Dr. Anthea Hartig, who last year became the Executive Director of the California Historical Society, asked the provocative question: What is a Historical Society in the 21st Century? Good question. What does it mean? And what has it meant? I asked for her help answering this question and got it….

Society

The term “Historical Society” strikes one as odd because of the second word: do we need to create a special society for those who are historical or interested in history? Why isn’t everyone? Is it a social group that gathers for fancy dress dinners to hear about each other’s adventures in the past, like an Explorer’s Society or a Wilderness Society? Or, more fairly, a group that gets together socially to share a common interest in exploration or wilderness or history or whatever? There is certainly a sense of exclusion in the use of “Society, ” although strictly speaking there doesn’t have to be – we are all one society, after all. And we share history, presumably.

Preservation organizations often used the word “Society,” such as the pioneering Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (1910) or the 19th-century American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, or more disturbingly, the Society for the Preservation of Negro Spirituals, founded in 1922 in Charleston, South Carolina, which consisted only of white people.

There is an old-timey air to the word “Society”, and that is perhaps why some have abandoned it. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities became Heritage New England within the last decade. The Barry Byrne book I just finished was researched for a decade at the Chicago Historical Society, and then for another five years at the Chicago History Museum, because they changed their name.

Perhaps the implication is that this is a segment of society that cares for historical things. Indeed, people expect a historical society to preserve artifacts of the past, to be an archive, and to accept donations of important (usually) historic items. The Chicago History Museum (Chicago Historical Society for almost 150 years) is a good example. It has collections of everything from costumes and architectural drawings to lowriders and locomotives.

The California Historical Society has a similar mission, although Dr. Hartig has worked to broaden its reach into every corner of “society” in the largest sense. Perhaps we should talk less about Society with a capital “S” and focus more on society with a small “s.”

Archives and Artifacts

Most historical societies have collections of archives and artifacts, and often one of their primary goals is the conservation of those artifacts. Another primary goal is educating the public – the larger “society” – about its shared history, often through the use of those artifacts and archives. This was the point of the excellent new exhibit on the Golden Gate Bridge that Anthea staged at the California Historic Society. Conservation will only happen if people care about their shared heritage, so education and interpretation are essential to the maintenance of archives.

Public and private agencies need to clean their drawers every now and then (so do I come to think of it) and they often look for a receptacle for items no longer current or useful to everyday business, and donate them to historical societies (and museums and archives). For scholars such as us, this is great, because original documents are vital evidence. They help us understand the context of so many aspects of our lives, from bridges and buildings to the formation of institutions and a great variety of public debates.

Now, we have also done research in active public agencies, like municipal landmarks commissions, although since these are not designed for research, it often takes a long lead time, serious preparation and maybe even an FOIA filing. Files that have been transferred to a museum or historical society are much easier to access, because they are designed for it.

The Library of Congress is basically an archive but I think its name helps focus the question here. As a “library,” we expect it to have a lot of books and files. But there is something they have – shared with historical societies and museums – that is even more important for the scholar (or exhibit designer). A library is not a bunch of books but a bunch of finding aids, the most versatile of which we label librarians.

Every historical society has archives and artifacts – the great ones have those items accessible through a series of contexts and analytics. This makes history more accessible, more relevant, and more useful.—especially when then have librarians and free, accessible research libraries like the California Historical Society’s

Exhibits and Education

Most historical societies have exhibits, which differentiates them from those other 19th-century-sounding groups focused on teas and lectures and fora. Exhibits bring the artifacts to the attention of the public, usually making an argument for their interest, relevance, and by extension, their ongoing conservation.

It was the importance of exhibits – and the desire to make those exhibits relevant to a larger portion of “society” that led the Chicago Historical Society to become the Chicago History Museum. It seems clear that successful exhibits and educational programs, especially offsite, are more important than archives to the “museum.” Interestingly, old exhibits are among the hardest thing to preserve. I was hired by the Chicago History Museum to tour the actual sites of five 1932 dioramas they had in the museum, in order to rekindle interest in this older form of exhibition.

About 15 years ago the Milwaukee Public Museum had a fascinating problem. In the 1960s during urban renewal they had saved bits of various buildings as sections of the city were being leveled, and reassembled them inside the museum into a “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit. The interpretation of the little street and buildings became pretty irrelevant by the 1980s, when various exhibits were shoehorned in to address the presence of minorities and women in the 19th century. By the 1990s the Museum realized it had better chuck the whole thing out and start over if it was going to properly represent 19th-century Milwaukee. But there was an outcry. A generation had grown up with those fragmentary “real” buildings and didn’t want to lose them. The “inauthentic” indoor street made of fragmentary “real” buildings had itself become an object people wanted to preserve.

Preservation

Many if not most local historical societies were formed not because they had a cache of photographs or files or pioneers’ memoirs but because an important historical building was threatened with demolition. The Milton Historical Society in Milton, Wisconsin, was formed in 1948 to save the old Milton House, the oldest concrete structure in the U.S. and an underground railroad site. The Winfield (IL) Historical Society was formed in 1978 to save Hedges Station. The Historical Society of Glastonbury (CT) was formed in 1935 to save the Gideon Welles House, which they did the following year. The Marion County (OR) Historical Society was founded in 1950 to save the state’s first legislative building, which they failed to do, but finally opened a museum a quarter-century later.


Milton House

The Lyons (CO) Historical Society was formed to keep the old train depot in town and save the local 1881 school as well. A group was formed in Millbrae (CA) in 1970 to save Sixteen Mile House and while they failed, they eventually saved a local landmark that was relocated and became their museum in 1987. Local historical societies save artifacts, and in most cases their largest artifact is their building.

There is of course a problem with this dominant model of housing historical collections in an historic building. The best environments for conserving historic artifacts require the sort of precise climate controls that a.) do not usually exist in historic buildings, b.) actually can interfere with the conservation of the building. To properly care for a house, it shouldn’t have collections; to properly care for collections, they shouldn’t be in a house.

Some do both. The Burlington County (NJ) Historical Society, which includes the 1743 Bard-How house, furnished with 18th century antiques, the James Fenimore Cooper House and the Captain James Lawrence House. The Society also built a modern climate-controlled museum, the Carson Poley Center, behind the houses for its historical and genealogical library.

Place

Let’s go back to that earlier concept, that we are one society and we share a history. Most “historical societies” however, are more particular. They may celebrate and conserve the achievements of one group, like Irish or Inuit or Italian immigrants, or they may commemorate and archive the achievements of laborers, or sports figures, or even public works. Most of them are clearly place-based, collecting and preserving the artifacts and buildings of a city, county, or state.

As preservationists, we know that nothing is more indicative, persuasive and significant in the history of place than its physical legacy of buildings, sites and structures. As preservationists, we also know that our concerns sometimes do not resonate with the whole of “society,” although we are usually in the majority.


This is a preserved place. And a historical society
Maybe “historical societies” are a legacy of an America that was all about building the future. The idea of saving history was so countercultural and antithetical to the true business of American society that you had to secede and create a new, “historical” society. Today of course, we have The Society for Creative Anachronism, which deliberately “lives” in the Europe of 400 years ago, and the extremely popular re-enactors who recreate Civil War and Revolutionary War battles with an incredibly precise concern with accuracy. As National Geographic reported recently, Union soldier’s caps are indigo, not blue, and you may not be able to recover from such an error should you make it.

Are all such “societies” secessions? A desire to escape from the everyday through a role-playing fantasy – Sailor Moon or Professor X or General Meade – from fiction or history? As historians, we treasure the belief that there is a reality and accuracy to our mission, and our method is scientific in that it requires evidence and documentation. Most historical societies were created by volunteers and enthusiasts, and of course most eventually graduate to be institutions that employ historians and curators and conservators. Those are less secessions than specializations.

What’s Next

The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities became Heritage New England, which certainly sounds like a modern heritage conservation organization. The archives and collection of the Chicago Historical Society became the Chicago History Museum, which sounds a LITTLE more fun, although it still has the word “history” in it. Is it simply an attempt to update verbiage and appeal? The Chicago History Museum has also unveiled mobile apps that allow you to peer into the history of a place within the city from the convenience of your smart phone.

What does it mean to be a historical society – a 19th century term – in the 21st century? We’re collectively answering that question each day we toil away, but for now Anthea’s not planning on changing the name of my new home, the Golden State’s, statewide heritage non-profit founded in 1870,– it’s got too much history going for it!

The Next American City: A Response

November 29, 2010

By Vince Michael and Anthea Hartig

We regrettably missed Charles Buki’s Next American City speech at the National Preservation Conference in Austin, but studied it and it is a provocative scorcher, as the self-described “community developer” no doubt intended (see for yourself at www.czb.org and http://www.czb.org/blog/2010/10/comments-at-the-national-trust-for-historic-preservation/). Buki congenially opens with his denouncing of the label preservationist, but goes on to share his valuable critique of our built environment – and of preservation’s seeming lack of care about community and over-privileging of architecture and its rehabilitation. We here writing don’t have the luxury of eschewing the preservationist label, although we are both active in the discursive movement afoot to change that label (see Forum Journal, Spring 2010, focused on “What’s Next for Historic Preservation,” in particular Donovan Rypkema’s headlining article, Michael’s and Muniz/Hartig’s pieces therein and the follow-up Forum On-Line discussion with Rypkema and Vince Michael.

Buki’s overall critique of our social built environment finds it Koyaanisqatsi-esque—an out of balance set of places in which interdependencies and interconnections have been lost. He also argued convincingly that distinctions between city and suburb are artificial and not helpful, especially in the wake of our efforts to rebuild such places through preservation, new urbanism, or even “old” urbanism, about which we couldn’t agree more, but for reasons different than his. Here goes.

Diversity

Buki’s stated theme was diversity, and how we fail to achieve it and incubate it in designing cities and suburbs. He argues, again convincingly, that diversity and complexity provide the underpinnings of true sustainability. We dug this aspect of Buki’s critique because it resonated with Jane Jacobs’ description of the city as a problem of organized complexity. Jacobs said the city is a biological problem, not a statistical (disorganized complexity) or chemical (two variable) problem. Emphasizing the point, Buki quoted Wendell Berry to reinforce the biological analogy; we’re with you so far, to paraphrase The Eagles.

Buki talked a lot about “monochromatic” developments and places, be they city or suburban, red or blue states. We tend to live with people who act like us, and more importantly – consume like us, understandable but regrettable patterns of human behavior that reduce diversity and thus true sustainability. He talked about the fields of Subarus and Volvos that characterized the Berkeley, CA cityscape and the Ford F-150s and four-story high crosses of the Amarillo, TX architectural ecosystem and it seemed his point was the we who resemble Berkeleyite’s self-righteousness, hail the concept of diversity while failing to live it, or live in it. We’re not sure about his point regarding Amarillo.

He argued, again persuasively, that city and suburb are artificial distinctions, which rings increasingly true. One of us lives in a suburb that has two subway lines and a full range of consumer activities within walking distance, and can show you Chicago neighborhoods that lie further from the center along commuter rail lines or highways with complete separation of residence from commerce.


this is a suburb

this is the inner city


Environmental Determinism

Buki’s strongest arguments had less to do with preservation and more to do with New Urbanism, and we suppose, Old Urbanism as well. He decried the urban designers “trying disentangle a suburban dystopia” who in “their aggressive self –confidence” have “misreduced the entirety of the challenge of the built environment to a problem no more complex than its new urbanist solution is one-dimensional.” It took a while to work it out, but we finally think what he said was that the solutions to community will not be found in the realm of design, nor in the realm of rehabilitation for the sake of such.

This comes back to Jane Jacobs charge that “the city is not a work of art” and that any attempt to treat it that way is “taxidermy. She was the first to see the flaw in environmental determinism whether it was Beaux-Arts or High Modern, in fact she was the first to see the functional equivalence between those apparently divergent forms. Both failed at complexity and diversity. She looked beyond design, as Buki is trying to do. And she was a preservationist, as we are.

But many have a narrow view of preservation, of heritage conservation. It is not about “skeletal remains” as Buki says, and even if it was, they are generally better skeletons in historic buildings than can be built today for all money in Dubai. There is an inherent diversity in an inherited environment that is almost impossible to plan for, nevermind design at-once for. A key layer to this inherited above-ground archaeology is our familiar past of the last half of the twentieth century.

In a witty but weak and unfair accusation, Buki fretted about the Recent Past, lobbing that “tomorrow’s challenges facing preservationists’ is “what label to put on what was built between 1946 and 1964, a period not generally known for much of anything not straight out of some Soviet architect’s pattern book.” Well, it is today’s challenge and the global heritage conservation community continues to respond well and intelligently for the most part. In fact, debates, tensions, and outcomes swirling around understanding and conserving the recent past and weaving it into a sustainable future might be illustrative helpful for Buki and his team. For as we collectively understand the critical importance of both the remarkable design contribution of a remarkable range of architects, from the Neutras to Lautner, from Wright to Rudolph, from Yamasaki to Ossipoff. And the movements, choices, changes that took place in those two decades following WWII remain completely significant.

Gentrification and the Problem of History

Buki illustrated the failure of diversity in preservation through an anecdote about rehabbing a house in Alexandria in the early 90s and going to get glass at a local smoke-filled hardware store, not Home Depot, and hearing how the old men there did not feel welcome at the new coffee shop. It was a freeze frame in the gentrification that is so often associated with preservation, an historical moment when the old-fashioned charm of Jane Jacob’s Hudson Street locksmith and deli owner coexist with the beatniks and professionals. That moment passes in time and it seems that soon the old business guys are pushed out along with the hipster artists who started the whole process, and the gentrified community becomes more and more monochromatic.

Gentrification happens in more places and more often WITHOUT preservation, but Buki’s point is worth considering. How can a heritage conservation movement embrace diversity when we are, in his words, aligned with Panera Bread and Barnes and Noble and addicted to Whole Foods? Buki asks for “a restored building not with a Starbucks or Peets, but instead a local vendor but whose product line and pricing structure renders the business completely inaccessible to the people who live in the new building’s shadow.” To assume that those/we preservationists don’t think or care about the end use and users of place is to rob them/us of the tap root of our thinking—the histories and stories of people in places.

Can this be achieved?

Well, there is a history problem here. You can’t craft a community freeze frame, not via some inorganic affordable housing policy or equally inorganic New Urbanist form that is dependent on environmental determinism finally working. Even preservation, which is a form of community development more than anything else, can’t stop time, and more importantly, doesn’t want to.

You can slam New Urbanists for creating high-style and/or old-timey versions of the gated community and preservationists for leaning too heavily on coffee chains to save their precious architecture. But how do you achieve diversity without stopping time? Can you keep the quaint, inexpensive “real” community at the moment you discover it, or is the process of conserving buildings really simply the same as improving buildings? And was that community truly diverse at the moment you discovered it and began the inexorable shift toward improvement? Is diversity simply a characteristic of a community in flux? Can you plan it? Can you design for it? Pay a consultant to analyze your lack of it?

We would like to push Buki’s point further – we want diversity in our communities, but design – not Old or New Urbanism, not HABS drawings or boulevard electroliers – is not going to get us there. The solution won’t happen solely in the realm of design. But it will happen in the built environment, and most built environments that have a history have some diversity—we’d argue that most have histories more diverse than commonly known and that part of our collective charge is uncovering those diversities and their owners.

Buki’s search for the interdependencies that make up a truly sustainable and diverse community leads him to critique both affordable housing and preservation for confusing the ends with the means. He asks “what is the role of preservation in getting us there when preservation is not the end goal, but one tool among many aimed at creating a system the chief characteristic of which is diversity?”

This is an exciting time to be in conservation writ large, especially now with the new National Trust President, Stephanie Meeks, crafting a more inclusive – diverse – vision of preservation tethered both to environmentalism and history. It isn’t just about the buildings, it is about the community, and that is why we joined Don Rypkema in calling for a rebrand: heritage conservation. For almost fifty years, we toiled in these preservation fields, and it has never been just about the buildings. More importantly, it was never just about the laws or design review or certificates of appropriateness. Community preservationists worth their salt have always treated preservation in exactly the way Buki calls for: one tool among many. Diversity is not their goal, but conserving community is.

And why does every speech to preservationists contain a plea that we have to let some buildings go? Here is how he put it:
“If you are inclined to see our post Industrial system as broken – as I do – and in need of repair and love – as I do, then you must be willing to abandon the preservation of even the most beloved stones, if the price of their rescue is the perpetuation of what’s fundamentally broken and somehow, intended or not, the kind of community amnesia paralyzing our country today”
The responses to Buki’s online posting of his speech included a few that charged preservationists with being self-righteous and of course, the hoariest chestnut of all, that preservationists want to save everything. We hear this all-too often and it’s nonsense along with being a false choice. We challenge the self-righteous preservationists without challenging the precept that most – not all – buildings are better where they are than in the landfill. It is about striking balances, complex, multi-dimensional balances to be sure, about which Buki would concur.

And it is about community and about communities’ effects on the very essence of human identity, or as Buki writes, “we are nurtured by the communities that surround us and cradled by the neighborhoods where we live” (http://www.czb.org/taxonomy_of_neighborhoods.html ) Indeed. While one of us grew up and lives in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb to end all suburbs, the other was taken home from the hospital to a new track home in Alta Loma, California, where the year before had been acres of citrus trees. Surely both places, both communities shaped us, and probably both the longevity of Oak Park and the rapidity of change along with the pain of erasure in Alta Loma had something to do with our chosen paths and philosophies. As did our choices as adults—to work dirty jobs, to get Ph.D.s, or to buy one’s first house, a modest but sturdy 1921 bungalow in a once white- but at the time mostly Latino- working-class neighborhood living with Minwax-dyed fingertips for weeks after all the cherry-colored stain had been applied to all the clear-grained redwood and Douglas fir trim and two-dozen wooden windows, and being welcomed for coffee tinged with cinnamon at the local panaderia. Or a 1906 graystone in Chicago’s Logan Square before gentrification, fixing windows, retiling bathrooms and stripping woodwork between visits to the corner Borinquen tienda. We know these actions did build community, as the acts of reclaiming, renewing, and recycling often do. Conserving historic buildings is not the activity of one culture or another, but is a polychromatic instersection of complex and diverse cultures that can help construct a broader and more inclusive future.

photo: Maravilla Historical Society

When we assert that “This Place Matters” or “ Este Lugar Es Importante,” we hope that it represents a combination of connection to place, activism, scholarship, and respectful community building based on real people and their building of places. Sometimes these important community places were built brick by brick and are taking a reinvigorated and meaningful form of community-based advocacy to save, as in the case of the Maravilla Handball Court in East Los Angeles (check it out). Saving and restoring the oldest handball court in East LA matters and as the Maravilla Historical Society, the new non-profit that has emerged to work on this effort along with the Los Angeles Conservancy, claims as its mission: “Preserving history, Protecting our stories, Reclaiming our legacy, and Projecting into the future.”

Anthea M. Hartig, PhD is Director of the Western Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Vincent L. Michael, PhD is John Bryan Chair of Historic Preservation at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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