Category Archives: Historic preservation

Videos: Keep it London vs Lives Rooted in Places

Historic England, the overseas equivalent of our preservation organizations in the US, recently launched a “Keep it London” campaign to help shape the planning of its nation’s capital, urging that, “the city must evolve by building on its unique character and identity, rather than by turning into a generic city.” The campaign contains the usual list of recommendations, solicitation for contributions and letters, and offers of updates through email and social media.  More interesting, however, is the “I am London” video that accompanies the campaign.  Listen carefully and in four minutes, you never hear the words, “history,” “preservation,” “old,” “save,” or “historic.” Instead, the faces and voices of dozens of diverse people personify buildings, giving these mute places emotion and personality.  Compare that to the approach used by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation in their video, “Lives Rooted in Places.”

Who’s the target audience for each video? Which video would resonate better with your members and donors? With your community and neighbors? Which one speaks better to outsiders than insiders?  What emotions are involved? Do they tell viewers what to think or feel, or do they let them unfold in the viewer?

Stabilizing Sandy or Uneven Paths with Mobi-Mat in Cape Cod

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On a recent visit to the Cape Cod  in Massachusetts, I often encountered unpaved sandy paths down to the beach.  It can be tough slog walking up and down those sandy hills but people also trample the nearby vegetation to get a solid footing.  At the Cape Cod National Seashore, they covered these sandy paths with Mobi-Mats, a flexible woven recycled plastic mat that stabilizes the path and reduces erosion, while allowing water and sand to filter quickly. It was so much easier to walk to the shore and I immediately saw that they could be helpful at historic sites that have muddy or uneven paths to make travel easier for persons with limited mobility or in wheelchairs. Although the mat is bright blue, it feels much nicer to walk to the beach on this mat than it would on a concrete or asphalt sidewalk—you get the sense you’re walking at the beach, not in the parking lot (I suppose it’s blue because light colors would be blinding in the summer sun and dark colors would become too hot for bare feet).

Mobi-Mats are made by Deschamps, a French company with an office in New Jersey.  According to their website, these mats are also in use in New York City Parks, Traverse City State Park in Michigan, Arches National Park in Utah, and Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina. And in case you need to move vehicles or heavy equipment temporarily through landscaped areas for an event or construction project, these mats were originally designed for beach landings by the U.S. Marine Corps so they can handle the traffic (they say a 50 foot long roll can be installed by two people in ten minutes!).

IMHO: Trump’s Election Reflects Trends in History Museums and Historic Preservation

change-sameDonald J. Trump’s election to the U. S. presidency is a shock to many pundits and career politicians because he never held elected office and didn’t seem to care about politics or government, except as it might benefit his businesses. His interest is business, following his father into real estate and receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School, and then pursuing real estate development, professional sports, beauty pageants, for-profit education, branding and licensing, and entertainment. While the 2016 campaign will be heavily analyzed for years to understand its unfolding, my sense is that it’s not just about “change,” but a change in the skills and qualifications required for effective leadership.  It’s no longer about mission, vision, or values, but the expertise and perspective of independent business entrepreneurs.  And it’s a trend I’ve been witnessing in house museums and historic sites as well.

In the last decade, several major history and preservation organizations have selected CEOs who have little passion for or experience with the mission of the organization but instead offer outsider perspectives, often informed exclusively by an MBA: Continue reading

Wikipedia Welcoming Historic Sites and Landmarks This Month

wike-loves-monuments-2016Wikipedia, the most frequently used source for information on the Internet, just launched a month-long campaign to improve its coverage of historic and cultural sites in the United States.  Called, “Wiki Loves Monuments,” it is an international photo competition where participants capture cultural heritage monuments and upload their photographs to Wikipedia. For the first time in several years, Wiki Loves Monuments is back in the United States. The contest is inspired by the successful 2010 pilot in the Netherlands, which resulted in 12,500 freely licensed images of monuments that can now be used in Wikipedia and by anybody for any purpose. The 2012 contest in 35 countries resulted in more than 350,000 images submitted by over 15,000 participants, adding to the sum of all human knowledge gathered on Wikipedia.  The contest ends on September 30, 2016.

Anyone is welcome to contribute to the project by uploading photos they’ve taken of cultural and historical sites throughout the United States. Once September is over, the best photos will win cash prizes and will be submitted to the international competition.  In addition to taking photos, Wikipedia is also encouraging editors to write Wikipedia articles on historical sites and monuments as part of the event.  They are also developing state-level guides to historic sites and have already created versions for California, Ohio, and Washington.  Here’s a chance to fix that skimpy or inaccurate entry about your site or show a stunning photo (in my home state of Maryland, Belvoir is a particularly awful example).  Better yet, engage those photographers among your members to help you promote your site and others in your community.  Just remember, you’re putting this into the World Wide Web, so content will be freely and easily used by others (what will Getty Images do?).

If you’re looking for inspiration, Wikipedia is providing links to the National Register of Historic Places, Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks, and Daughters of the American Revolution Sites (hey, where are the Colonial Dames?).

Big Summer Sale at Rowman and Littlefield

Difficult HistoryRowman and Littlefield, publishers for AASLH and now AAM, are offering a 35% discount on most of their titles through September, including both print and ebooks.  That includes the Interpreting series, which was recently joined by Interpreting Naval History by Benjamin Hruska and Interpreting Difficult History by Julia Rose (Julie will be sharing a panel with me at the AASLH meeting in Detroit) and by the end of the year it’ll have ten titles. Other areas of interest are museum studies, architecture and historic preservation, and museum administration.  Browse their web site at Rowman.com and use the code 16SUMSALE when you order online or by phone at 1-800-462-6420. The sale will continue to be in effect during the AASLH annual meeting in September, so you’ll want to be sure to stop by the Rowman and Littlefield booth to look at what’s available.  On Thursday, September 15 from 3-4 pm, several authors will be available to chat and sign books (including me) and they’ll be providing coupons for deep discounts on forthcoming books.

IMHO: Historic Preservation Needs to Move the Goal Posts

Goal posts movingOne way to measure the success of historic preservation is to count the number of listings on the National Register of Historic Places. In its first year nearly 700 properties were registered, and today the National Register has more than 90,000 entries representing nearly 1.8 million buildings, sites, and structures and is growing at a rate of about 1,500 listings annually. We could easily celebrate that as an achievement of the National Historic Preservation Act, however, the sobering truth is that fewer and fewer Americans find historic sites “inspirational” or “beneficial,” to use NHPA parlance. In the last thirty years, the number of adults who visited an historic park, monument, building, or neighborhood has dropped, from 39 percent in 1982 to 24 percent in 2012. A similar pattern appears in a study of cultural travelers in San Francisco, which showed that while 66 percent said that historic sites were important to visit, only 26 percent had actually visited one in the previous three years.

There are probably several reasons for this decline, including the near-elimination of history from public schools and a decreasing amount of leisure time, but our own field of historic preservation may also be at fault. Over the past fifty years, historic preservation has become more complex, often requiring expertise in legal strategies, real estate development, fundraising, and architectural conservation. It’s become more focused around technique, such as how to designate a property, navigate Section 106, or repair a double-hung window. It’s become more intellectual, with battles fought over statements of significance, National Register criteria, and applicability of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s become an endless circuit in which we seem to fight the same battles and hear the same objections: “We can’t save everything,” “It’s not historic,” “We can’t stop progress,” and “You’re taking away my rights.” Historic preservation seems to have become less, rather than more, relevant and meaningful to Americans since the passage of the NHPA.

Maybe we’ve confused the ends with the means and are chasing the wrong goals. Preservation is not a destination but a means of reaching a destination. So what is the goal of preservation? According to the NHPA, it’s a “sense of orientation” and a “genuine opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the rich heritage of our Nation.” We need to rebalance the term “historic preservation” so that there’s equal emphasis on both words, rather than just the latter. We need to move the goal posts so that historic preservation is not about something but for somebody.

As management guru Peter Drucker reminds us, the nonprofit organization’s “product is a changed human being. Non-profit institutions are human-change agents. The ‘product’ is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adults, a changed human life altogether.” Historic preservation is not just about saving buildings; it’s about changing the lives of people.

Protecting, preserving, and interpreting is not sufficient. These are simply methods, tasks, jobs, works, or actions that define a purpose and explain how it will be accomplished. What is needed is a goal, a destination, a target, an idealized description of the future that explains “why.” To borrow from grammar, we need Continue reading

Challenges Facing Historic House Museums: A Report from the Field

AASLH Historic House Management Workshop at Brucemore in 2016.

AASLH Historic House Management Workshop at Brucemore in 2016.

At the annual AASLH workshop on historic house museum management, we always start by asking participants about the biggest or most important challenge they are facing at their historic site.  For the participants, the exercise allows them to get to know each other beyond a name by recognizing the issues they may have in common.  As the instructors, It’s an opportunity for George McDaniel and me to ensure we address their concerns.  For AASLH, it’s a way of keeping a finger on the pulse on what’s happening in the field.  At the end of the workshop, we review the list and provide some time for participants to develop a plan to address their issue.  As a reminder, they also fill out self-addressed postcards with a message to themselves, which I’ll mail to them in six months.

So that you can keep your finger on the pulse of the field, here’s the list of issues and challenges from the Cedar Rapids workshop at Brucemore, which included participants from Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois: Continue reading

New York Tops the National Register of Historic Places

National Register by State 2015Whether it’s New York State or New York City, they’re at the top of the list in the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.  The State of New York has 5,774 properties and the City of New York has 766 listed on the National Register as of July 2015, the latest information available from the National Park Service. More than 90,000 properties have been added to the Register since it was established by Congress in 1966 (yes, next year is its fiftieth anniversary).

We might have some fun with the National Register and misuse it to identify the most historic cities in the United States.  New York City is at the top, but what other cities are in the top three?  Sorry, not Boston, Chicago, or Baltimore.  How about Philadelphia (home of Independence Hall) and Portland, Oregon (what? a town on the west coast!). If that surprised you, you’ll enjoying scanning the rest of the list (and perhaps rethink your summer travel plans).   Here are the cities with more than 200 properties listed on the National Register:

  1. New York City, NY: 766
  2. Portland, OR: 571
  3. Philadelphia, PA: 555
  4. Washington, DC: 555
  5. Louisville, KY: 363
  6. Chicago, IL: 363
  7. St. Louis, MO: 357
  8. Price, UT: 342
  9. Denver, CO: 296
  10. Kansas City, MO: 295
  11. Boston, MA: 279
  12. Worchester, MA: 277
  13. Baltimore, MD: 276
  14. Cincinnati, OH: 274
  15. Detroit, MI: 260
  16. Houston, TX: 257
  17. Davenport, IA: 248
  18. Salt Lake City, UT: 245
  19. Cleveland, OH: 243
  20. Little Rock, AR: 233
  21. Indianapolis, IN: 228
  22. Atlanta, GA: 211
  23. Cambridge, MA: 209

If you were wondering about #8 Price, Utah, they’re mostly archaeological sites (such as Nine Mile Canyon, which has the largest concentration of rock art in the United States) added to the Register in the last five years.

Creating a 21st Century House Museum in San Francisco

Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco.

Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco. Courtesy of San Francisco Heritage.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working with San Francisco Heritage to explore how the Haas-Lilienthal House, the 1887 Queen Anne house it owns and operates in the Pacific Heights neighborhood, can engage the public and advance its citywide mission in ways that are both environmentally and financially sustainable.

Just as the Haas-Lilienthal House was rocked by a tremendous earthquake in 1906, so are historic sites today, although in a different manner. The economic downturn that began in 2008 threatens many preservation organizations, house museums, and historic sites, even those that have large endowments and attendance. But the change is bigger than the latest economic recession. Surveys over the past thirty years by the National Endowment for the Arts show that visitation rates at historic sites have fallen from 37 percent in 1982 to 25 percent in 2008, and that rate of decline has only accelerated in the last decade. The Haas-Lilienthal House is experiencing a long and steady decline in attendance—it’s fallen by more than 50 percent over the past thirty years. Historic sites not alone, however: concerts, dance performances, craft fairs, and sporting events have all seen similar declines in attendance.

As a result, many historic preservation organizations around the country are questioning the value of owning historic property. Guided tours and public programs do not generate sufficient revenue to properly maintain historic sites, so unloading them seems to be the only solution. But there are also significant disadvantages.

When a preservation organization owns an historic building, it instantly conveys credibility. (Would you trust a surgeon who has never held a scalpel?) Secondly, by owning and caring for an historic property, Continue reading

Taliesin West releases Preservation Master Plan

Gunny Harboe discussing the Preservation Master Plan for Taliesin West.

Gunny Harboe discussing the Preservation Master Plan for Taliesin West.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation recently released the Preservation Master Plan for Taliesin West, a National Historic Landmark, which was established in 1937 as Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio, and the campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. As part of the Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer lecture series, T. Gunny Harboe, preservation architect and founder of Chicago-based Harboe Architects, and the plan’s primary author, will present the major points of the Taliesin West plan on Monday, November 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  The lecture is free and reservations are not required.

I had an opportunity to use with the Preservation Master Plan as part of the interpretive planning work I’m doing at Taliesin West and it was immensely helpful in clarifying the significance and integrity of the many buildings at the site through a set of tiered levels: Continue reading