An Implicit Responsibility

Theories about saving the world (or at least one town) and ideas on integrating multiple disciplines in order to improve quality of life through historic preservation, spread like wildfire between preservationists and like-minded individuals.  Everything seems so simple when we are all in one mindset, supporting each other and developing our plans.  Life is great amongst preservationists.

However, what happens when we converse with people of complete opposite opinions?  Our ideas are often scoffed at and ignored.  Disbelievers in preservation exist everywhere.  Of course, developers come to mind, as well the corporate world.  Or maybe it’s a neighbor who just doesn’t understand or someone who just doesn’t care.  Even worse, sometimes we encounter people in our profession who are jaded by this uphill battle.  The conversations are no longer easy and entertaining. 

Conveying preservation ideals becomes a challenge.  Terms like historic integrity, sense of place, quality of life, National Register, view shed, etc., are not colloquial terms.  Amongst colleagues, we can toss these words around without having to explain them. But, out of our comfort zones, our terms and ideas often require explanation and proof.  And it is not always an easy task.

Maybe everyone does not have this problem, but, often when someone asks me what I do, I have trouble formulating a concise response because I know that this person does not want a long explanation.  It’s the kind of question that someone asks to be polite, because I am the new person at an event to which I’m accompanying Vinny or my family.  Historic preservation is still not very well known and oral history is even less known.  When trying to explain my profession I have developed a typical response, although I never feel like it does justice to what I really want to say.  What I would like to do is to sit down and explain historic preservation or the benefits of oral history, for example.  That, however, is not realistic, so, what I do say usually goes something like this:

I have a degree in historic preservation and right now I’m doing oral history work.  Fort Bragg owns an old Rockefeller estate that dates to the early 20th century as a hunting club when wealthy businessmen would travel down from New York. I am interviewing people who have lived there and worked there in order to learn about the history.  In the end we will be creating a cd-rom that is essentially a virtual tour of Overhills with clips of interviews and historic photographs and documents.

Basically, that is what I do, but it’s a sub-par explanation.  So why do I use this reflex of a response?  Well, people who aren’t interested in history and preservation will not want a longer explanation.  If they are interested, they’ll ask me additional questions and then I can elaborate.   I’m still relatively unsatisfied with my response. Does anyone have a solution?

The skill of effectively discussing and explaining historic preservation is one that we all need to have and to practice.  Of course we understand each other, but getting preservationists on our preservation side is not what we need to achieve.  The people who we need to effectively talk to are those who remain unfamiliar with historic preservation and its various fields.  Whether our audience is people of complete opposite professions or just someone who has not yet been exposed to preservation, nothing is more important than articulating preservation as an interesting and important field.

When people are willing to listen, this is not a difficult task.  However, when someone could care less and your statements are challenged, it is another skill to stay calm, collected, and coherent without becoming frustrated.  Sometimes these situations are easier to avoid; I’m sure I’ve avoided such a conversation in the past.  Maybe we are not always up for the task of defending (as that can be the case) our passion and livelihood.  If we think of the task as defending and explaining all of historic preservation it seems impossible.  Instead, think of a smaller goal.  Who are you talking to?  There is something in preservation for everyone; we know that.  Maybe you can mention tax credits, local festivals, a historic site that children will love, a farmer’s market, a cultural event.  (This is a very short list so feel free to add more to share with everyone.)

This method of sharing preservation is easiest in steps or intervals, one step at a time, one piece at a time.  The truth is that not a single one of us can interest everyone in all of preservation. It is a slow exposure, but a duty that we cannot avoid.  It’s not always easy and it’s not always fun, but aside from doing our day to day jobs, we have to introduce people to what we do and share the best parts.  Without more people, historic preservation will not grow.  I hope everyone will join me in resolving to practice my historic preservation explanations, catering to my audience.  By taking a deep breath (not a visible one, that would be weird to the person I’m talking to) and getting my thoughts in line (quickly) I will do my best to introduce an interesting piece of historic preservation to that person.  And one by one, all fields will combine and work together and we will improve everyone’s quality of life, thereby saving the world.

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