Last week in this blog I presented some concepts on how we can create a more democratic, diverse and inclusive heritage conservation in the United States, largely by applying the lessons of international heritage conservation over the last twenty years, notably the Burra Charter. Preservation is a process, not a set of rules.
President Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington DC
The second challenge we face in bringing our field into the 21st century is organizational and financial. When preservation was about monuments and house museums, it looked to the traditional 19th and 20th century model of the non-profit institution for its organizational and financial logic. This was how Ann Pamela Cunningham formed the Mount Vernon Ladies Association; how William Sumner Appleton founded the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and indeed this was the idea that Congress had in 1949 when it chartered the National Trust for Historic Preservation to take care of great house museums.
Woodlawn plantation, where it all began…
As I have pointed out many times before over the last decade, this model had financial problems, mostly due to the eternal misconception that ticket sales to tour a house museum could provide the revenue needed to operate same. In fact, ticket revenues top out at about 20-25% of annual operating costs, and this was as true in William Sumner Appleton’s day as it is in our own.
Sorry, I don’t do windows..
Organizationally it is challenging as well because non-profits, especially historical societies and other groups who undertook heritage projects, tend to the orchidaceous, working to maintain not only artifacts large and small, but narratives. This can lead to the classic problem: you visit a site once in fourth grade and never need to return, because it is still the same.
I swear someone moved that fork….
I covered all of this in my previous blogs about house museums here and here. To me the value of conserving ANYTHING from history is that is can be re-examined and re-interpreted as new data come to light. This is the opposite of many olden-days preservation efforts, which saw a singular story in their artifact(s).
If you ask three inhabitants, you get three different stories..
It is also useful to look beyond the interpretive issues and focus on the organization. Non-profits can be dynamic, evolutionary and creative, but those with a heritage bent will tend not to be disruptive, like every startup right outside that window here in Silicon Valley. They also have historically tended to be reactive, arising in response to crisis. This too, puts preservation into the legislative/regulatory world (you get a stop sign only after someone gets run over) but in a greater sense, we need to apply the lessons of the Burra Charter to how we organize and fund preservation/conservation.
If only it were that simple…
What do you mean, Vince? I mean you engage the community from the beginning not only in identifying heritage and how to save it in a culturally appropriate way, but you engage the community in the financial and organizational structure as well. Crowdfund – which as everyone in Silicon Valley knows, is not a way to raise money for a project (you still think that? where you been?) but a way to raise constituency and customer base in order to attract serious investors.
In the olden days – and still today – preservationists wanted to find an “angel” with carloads of money to come save their rare treasure. And indeed, when you are looking at buildings that were built for absurdly wealthy people, it makes sense that you would need one to keep it going. But this model runs counter to the Burra Charter – if the community is not INVESTED in the project, they won’t give a damn about it and eventually that angel will go join the other angels and then where will you be?
Well, if you are here, it is a nice place to see…
This is to me another illustration of the Burra Charter’s utility – it works as well in suburban Chicago as it does in darkest Peru. This doesn’t mean you don’t have major donors, and even principal donors, but you need to spread it out because to be sustainable you have to last GENERATIONS so you need to generate enthusiasm from the local community. This is of course why people often turn to governmental institutions, since they represent the community and presumably have the resources over time.
Except when they don’t…
Except when they don’t, which is why Congress created the National Trust in 1949, remember? My entire career has taken place in the wake of the Reagan Revolution and the dawn of the public-private partnership, when every weight must be carried on several sets of shoulders.
35 years of whining about regulations means that conserving historic buildings, neighborhoods and structures today is a market-driven, project-based public-private partnership that takes advantage of the economic and community vitality that preserving things provides. And it provides it at a better price point and lasts a hell of a lot longer than shoddy new stuff. Historic Preservation tends to be for real capitalists, not the whiners.
There are too many steps! I don’t wanna! Waah!
Philanthropy has changed in the last 35 years as well. Now, donors are impact investors who want to see results, not simply attendees at black-tie galas or members of exclusive clubs. People want metrics, and while we may be MORE that way out here in Silicon Valley, it is a nationwide, and indeed a worldwide phenomenon. We have seen the rise of social entrepreneurship. We have seen the distinction between profit and non-profit blur (you don’t need to make a profit in Silicon Valley to be one of the world’s biggest companies after all) and we have seen the slow decline of old-line membership organizations. We need the Uber-app for heritage conservation, the one that let’s you donate with a click and get a pic of the difference you made NOW.
And of course follow the thread if you wish
Our brave new world of apps and sharing and creative destruction needs to be embraced by the heritage field, but we do have a deep-rooted bias against it. Ann Pamela Cunningham wasn’t just trying to save Mount Vernon, she was trying to save the Union, and in a very real sense, an already obsolete agrarian aristocracy. What did she say in 1874? Oh yeah, this:
Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge…Let no irreverent hand change it, let no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress…Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change.[i]
She was particularly cheesed off by the “manufactories” that could be seen from Mount Vernon. Not only was preservation anti-economic and anti-Progress, it was anti-Industrial Revolution, which actually has echoes in the contemporary philosophy of William Morris. But setting yourself up outside of the economic logic of your world cannot work over generations. Which is why we, in the heritage field, will continue to embrace and engage our current social economy so we can succeed in twenty years.
And we do need to get rid of some overhead…..
There are lots of ways to do this. Successful house museums are the ones with diverse programming, extensive community engagement, and leveraged gift/book shops with vigorous online presence. Successful preservation organizations are the ones who are able to kickstart enough people to convince the donor/investors to participate and ramp them up to the next level. Yes, we need members and galas, but at the end of the day the dynamic organization is going to get the honey.
can’t rest on your laurels, much less your Turrell
The opportunities for social entrepreneurship are massive – heck they are doing it in Barcelona with Gaudi already and the Wall Street Journal is reporting it. The biggest opportunity out there, and the biggest lesson of the valley is that you want to be a desired brand that people will pay for. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was created so that Congress didn’t have to try to save these old houses. Tomorrow it can be the brand every historic building owner wants. There is an obvious analogy:
LEED. LEED certified. Architects have it on their business cards after their name. LEED is awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council but you have to PAY FOR IT. They used to do it just by design – you designed something and checked off their boxes for nice things like graywater treatment and bike racks and you got a LEED plaque even if the building required 20,000 truckloads of garbage to build. They got smarter, noticed that half of their certified buildings weren’t performing to standard, and started to get the kind of metrics modern investor/donors need. They are a must-have success story and someone in the heritage field will figure out soon how to brand themselves that way. I blogged about this 3 years ago here.
Do you get points for insulating walls that are 3 feet thick?
So how does heritage conservation become socially entrepreneurial? By building on community engagement. By insuring that heritage is at the center of neighborhood planning. My reminding everyone that their favorite neighborhoods and commercial districts are historic and by trading on and trading for that superior value-add.
But is there parking?
But What About International Heritage?
Internationally, the case is simultaneously simpler and more complex. Most countries do not have tax incentives for historic preservation – I remember presenting to a group in Ahmedabad, India in 2008 and the Ahmedabad Times only covered one element of my speech – tax incentives for preservation. Now, seven years later, India actually has them, but in general the philanthropic model of the Anglo-American NGO is foreign in most places.
Balkrishna Doshi and I, Ahmedabad, 2008
Nonprofits in the U.S. live and die on the tax deductibility of contributions – there is far less of this culture in other places, which suggests one thing: If and when they adopt a philanthropic culture, it will be an entirely new model. Data mining, place-sharing, community-leveraging, economic modality-defying and disruptive for sure.
This is not your mother’s china…
China and India will fill up with social corporations faster than we can perceive, and we may be learning from them how to pay for – and organize – the basic human concept of determining what elements of the past we need to have in the future to sustain ourselves.
[i]Quoted in Sherr, Lynn, and Kazickas, Jurate, Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A guide to American Women’s Landmarks., New York and Toronto,Times Books, Random House, 1976 and 1994, p. 464.