One of the many benefits of my three years in Silicon Valley, buttressed by 30 years of serving on non-profit Boards of Directors (I whittled it down to four recently. Well, five.) is that I have been steeped in strategic thinking and strategic planning. While this may seem like a normal exercise to the MBA crowd, it is something that tends to be lacking in the historic preservation/heritage conservation field.
Aaugh HELP they are tearing it down!!! NOW!!
I have to give credit to my sister Clare Bergquist for this insight, because my tendency was to look at my recent work and think it was just more of the same. The stuff I always did. I was always the pragmatic, economically sensible preservationist in the room. Clare noted, correctly, that my approach is actually strategic, a quality in short supply in our field.
For good reason ofttimes.
We tend to think of preservationists (I use the U.S. term grudgingly) as: advocates focused on the short term goal of saving something; bureaucrats focused on current policies for saving something; artists and architects focused on the significance of beauty; historians and community activists focused on the beauty of significance; or wonks focused on balancing the old and and new for economic reasons, which are notoriously short-term. None of these are positions of strategic thinking.
1000 square feet, $4650 a month. Built 1908 as a hunting lodge. Great location, for now.
So I think about the business mentality of Silicon Valley, the business sense of my sister Clare and the economic pragmatism I have brought to the heritage conservation field since I first waded in over 32 years ago. I remember that blog I wrote four years ago about being in the middle of a strategic planning process on the Board of Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation at the same time. Did it again at Global Heritage Fund, and I have been especially doing it the last few years as I try to outline a future for our field that includes all peoples.
The luxury of perspective
I have been writing recently about the need to improve our heritage tools in the United States in order to reflect the diversity of American history and the diversity of the American people, and it came to some extent out of my international work, where we have the advantage of needing to connect with very diverse cultures and geographies.
How do we connect? The answer is in a culturally specific way in every single case and place. It is the opposite of the lawyerly idea of precedent. I have said for many years there is a PROCESS (see the Burra Charter) that works anywhere because it engages community and culture. It isn’t about museums or monuments because the only thing that can save a resource or tradition is a group of people who need or desire to use that resource or tradition EVERY SINGLE DAY.
We will have a Learning Lab on this at the National Preservation Conference in DC in November.
I was explaining this to someone at the California College of the Arts last week and they said simply “I have never heard anyone talk about historic preservation that way.” I realized that my sister was right and I have had the great fortune to explore this field for so long from so many perspectives and so many geographies. I took a great risk leaving a tenured endowed Chair at a major university to move to California and run an international conservancy. What is the payoff?
“I have never heard anyone talk about historic preservation that way.”
Also I got to go to Libya. After Benghazi, so there is that…
No headway can be made in any field without taking risks. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take some risks and view this field from a whole variety of angles, and I am now convinced more than ever what we need to do. I am very grateful I have had this summer to view my field and my experience from the distance required to think strategically.
And the specific steps we need to take
The latest revelation came in my last blog, when I reflected on the huge opportunity I had to present my ideas to the National Tribal Preservation Conference. Indian country reminded me that yes, heritage is about culture, and yes, it is about community, but it is also about continuity. The greatest mischief of our High Modernist 1960s historic preservation was not even its surrender to the methods and objectives of architecture, but its assumption that the past lay at a distance, across a gulf that could not be bridged.
The Romans built the bridge. The Allies bombed it. But there it is.
Heritage conservation is first and foremost about community, aiding them in identifying what elements of their past they want, need and can use in the future. Helping them evaluate the significance of their cultural inheritance and determine what the appropriate treatments are for each specific context. There are no precedents, although there are analogues, and there are experts, but they are nothing without community support. The heritage must be made part of the economic everyday. It must be resources and artifacts and traditions and rituals and languages and landscapes that are used EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Even when no one is watching….
Community. Culture. Continuity. This is how I continue to talk about heritage and I am so very pleased at the many opportunities unfolding that allow me to continue this important work.