Tag Archives: Marla Miller

Cruisin’ and Musin’ in Motown with AASLH

detroitI’ll be in Detroit for the next few days enjoying the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.  I’ve been a member for about 40 years and I don’t think I’ve missed a conference during the last decade—does this make me a history nerd?

I hear this conference will be among the largest in AASLH’s recent memory and in partnership with the Michigan Museums Association, they’ve assembled some intriguing sessions and events.  As usual, I’ll have to split myself to attend several sessions at the same time but spending Saturday afternoon at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village will be the highlight.

Of course, seeing friends and colleagues from around the country is always great fun (sometimes it seems the entire conference is just one long reunion) and if you’ll be attending, I’d love to chat.  I’ll be at the evening events on Wednesday and Thursday, plus I’ll be participating in two sessions this year: Continue reading

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

OAH Report Claims History is Imperiled at National Parks

The Organization of American Historians recently completed an evaluation of the “state of history” at the National Park Service.  Four prominent historians–Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Marla Miller, Gary Nash, and David Thelen–led the study, which was based on more than 500 staff responses to an online survey, interviews with current and former staff, site visits, discussions at national meetings, and a review of past studies and reports.

Their analysis revealed that much good work is going on in such areas as reinterpreting slavery and the Civil War, negotiating civic engagement, sharing authority, developing interdisciplinary partnerships, encouraging conversations about history through new media, and collaborating with historians in colleges and universities.  These are presented through a dozen profiles of projects at such National Parks as Manzanar, the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, San Antonio Missions, Harpers Ferry, and the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.

Although they discovered that good work is being done in a few places, it is not “flowering on the whole” due to several intertwined issues.  Most significant is the report’s contention that, “the agency as a whole needs to recommit to history as one of its core purposes, and to configure a top-flight program of historical research, preservation, education, and interpretation so as to foster effective and integrated stewardship of historic and cultural resources and places and to encourage robust, place-based visitor engagement with history.”  These concerns are presented as a dozen findings, and from my observations, many also reflect what’s happening at historic sites outside of the National Parks.  For example:

  1. The History/Interpretation Divide.  The intellectually artificial, yet bureaucratically real, divide between history and interpretation constrains NPS historians, compromises history practice in the agency, and hobbles effective history interpretation. The NPS should find and take every opportunity to reintegrate professional history practice and interpretation. [In museums, this is comparable to the tensions found between curators and educators, where those who conduct research are often separated from those who teach.]
  2. The Importance of Leadership for History.  Without visionary, visible, and respected leadership at the top, and Continue reading