I was re-reading one of my blogs from nine years ago (430 posts now – I guess I am about consistency and endurance whether I like it or not) and was struck (again) by my (consistent) non-ideological approach to heritage conservation. That blog “Heresy and Apostasy” basically took to task the concept that preservation had some kind of ideological purity and that those who didn’t try to save absolutely everything all the time were not “true” preservationists.
I recalled my youth in the field, when I did come close to that position, but it was never one I was completely comfortable with. First, ideologies sit outside of history and thus fail all tests of time. Second and more to the point, I began my career working on a heritage area – the first in the U.S. – and the goals there were historic preservation, natural area preservation, recreation, and economic development. Preservation was part of planning for the future. Preservation was a wise economic decision, especially in a post-industrial economy.
When I worked at Landmarks Illinois, we always tried to save important buildings, sites and structures, and sometimes we couldn’t. It seemed we were always reacting, trying to put out brush fires. It is a hard life being an advocate, because you care passionately and you will suffer many losses.
We tried to plan. We did a lot of work on historic churches in Chicago, on historic boulevards, and other efforts that were pro-active, planning for the future rather than scrambling for the past. These efforts are intrinsically more satisfying, because rather than simply understanding a building, site or structure’s significance, you also understand its condition, context, and possibilities. But we spent a lot of time putting out the brush fires, or trying to.
This is why I am honored to be leading Global Heritage Fund, an organization that focuses its efforts on Planning, Conservation, Partnerships and Community Development. Notice how similar that is to the description of heritage areas? We undertake projects only after a thoughtful review of how we can help a community not simply save a resource, but activate it economically for the future of that community.
Don’t get me wrong – we deal with threatened heritage. The problem is there is TONS of threatened heritage around the world – no one can save it all. But if you are going to try, you should approach the problem as one that needs to be solved for the future. GHF puts together not simply a plan to say NO to loss, but a plan to say HELLO to the future. How can a site survive not just the threat of destruction or deterioration but become a cherished and useful part of the community for the next generation?
We have learned a lot recently about the importance of making sure the local community is part of the design and implementation of a project. This is a tenet of preservation planning since the Burra Charter amendments of 1999, but it is not always practiced. There are preservation/conservation traditionalists – the puritanical monks (a delightfully mixed metaphor) I referred to in my 2005 blog who actually abjure such practicality. For them, the test is the dedication to the cause, not the success of actually saving something.
When I was young and impatient, I resisted the impulse to plan. The building had to be saved and we should try everything in our power to do it! No matter what! But that can lead to non-sustainable preservation. There are some buildings I labored to save SEVERAL times before someone came up with a PLAN to really conserve them for the next generation.
I just wrote an article referencing the first house saved in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1922. And again in 1924. And again in 1932. That is not unusual, that is what happens without a plan.
The second reason planning is so important is community. The people who live around a world heritage site are its stewards, and if they don’t feel ownership of the project from the initial planning stages, all of your money is wasted. This is our biggest logistical challenge at Global Heritage Fund, but when I see it happen, it is the most rewarding because it means every nickel is being well spent.
This is not enough for either the puritans or the romantics, who suffer from nostalgia, that 17th century disease that was “dangerous but not always fatal. Leeches, warm hypnotic emulsions, opium and a return to the Alps usually soothed the symptoms.” When I was a twenty-something advocate, I was once accused of nostaglia and I bristled visibly. I don’t save things because I have a disease of the past. I save them because they make the future better.
Better is not just a pure economic term. Wealth alone is meaningless without culture, and heritage sites are repositories of culture, which is what differentiates humans from animals. They are records of culture and roots of new culture, and their value lies not in the permanence of their meaning but in their physical permanence. This is what allows them to keep granting meaning to our communities.
The economic argument is essential because it dictates survival – then once you have a threshold of survival, you can worry about research and interpretation and reinterpretation. And at Global Heritage Fund (join here!) we pride ourselves on bringing the latest scientific conservation techniques and practices to every site. That is the Conservation piece. Then we have the Planning piece, which leads directly into the Community Development piece. Partnerships is the fourth piece of our special GHF puzzle. We collaborate with partners, because we will only be there a few years but someone has to watch over these sites over generations.
Please join and support Global Heritage Fund. We can’t do it without you!