A Field of Saying No?

Lately, one of the buzz conversations among many in the preservation field includes the idea that historic preservation is too often in the practice of saying no to something, rather than saying yes. This conversation was discussed at the National Trust Conference and in many related blog posts after the fact. One particular blog post is from Time Tells by Vince Michael; a quote he referenced stuck with me and I’ve been wanting to talk about it.

While I am taking this quote out of context here, I think the idea is still important to discuss. If you are interested, read the post for the entire context.

“Y’all won. Most people accept the conservation of important buildings and districts as a community and civic value. Why do we continue to act like victims? Why are we still defensive?”

When I read that quote, I was insulted. I have never felt that I am in such a position. As a preservationist, do you really feel like you are always saying no? Do you think our standard operation procedures are negative and defensive? While there are laws to “say no” for us, which regulators are charged with enforcing, that doesn’t mean preservation means no and it doesn’t mean that laws are only for prevention. It seems like a backwards way of thinking, if you ask me.

Preservation is about compromise, suggestions, guidance and working with other fields in order to protect and channel our best and most valuable resources. Sure, the battles are highlighted in the media. But, what about the accomplishments and the rest of what the field represents? Economic development, successful planning, neighborhood revitalization, cultural appreciation – all of this has nothing to do with saying no. Preservation is about creative solutions and thinking, just like everything else. Every field, academic and professional, from banking to environmentalism to architecture has ethics, standards and laws that govern how it operates.  At some point, everyone will say no, but that is not mean that’s the purpose of the profession.

Of course, every field, just like every person, can benefit from periods of reevaluation and thoughtful improvements. However, I will say, if you are thinking that historic preservation is a bunch of people saying no – even in the 21st century – then you are thinking about preservation in the wrong way.

What do you think, readers? Is this an issue of semantics? Do you see preservation as a field of victims and saying no?

6 thoughts on “A Field of Saying No?

  1. Mike Plummer says:

    The quote from Vince’s blog was a recap of Elaine Carmichael’s comments during one of the sessions from the Buffalo conference. I was at the session and what I remember wasn’t so much that we were self-flagellating for feeling that we were always saying no, but more lamenting the fact that preservation is perceived as being roadblock to change – when we all can agree that that isn’t the case at all.

    For me, the session takeaway was more “How do we get people to see that preservation is in fact future-focused change management rather than the existing perception that it’s a group of professional naysayers?”

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hi Mike,

      Yes, I saw that it was a quote from Elaine Carmichael, but didn’t directly quote her (other than linking to the original post) because my point wasn’t to call out Ms. Carmichael specifically. And actually, I’m not sure if the question of “why do we continue to act like victims” was from Vince or Elaine. The post isn’t clear.

      Reading the quote again, it still strikes me the wrong way. It still asks us why we are so defensive. People inside and outside the field must think we are all going about things poorly and ineffectively. The post does expand to talk about what we can do better – something that is always refreshing. But, I still say that we are not acting like victims, at least, not in my experience.

      However, I am glad to hear that your take away was very different from my impression based on reading the post; your impression is a very good question, indeed.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. vmichael says:

    I phrased it in a provocative way, partly because Elaine was being provocative, but also to reference David Lowenthal’s essays on heritage and museums where he claims we all aspire to victimhood in the modern era. I am glad it is generating discussion and I did not mean to insult but I did mean to get us out of our comfort zone.

    I felt greatly insulted years ago when I was accused of being “nostalgic” which I found to be a very marginalizing word. I think of preservation as futuristic and positivistic: many of my other posts describe how most preservation happens because people WANT it, not because there are laws. I defend preservation laws in my blog and elsewhere but part of the challenge is to connect the goodwill most people feel toward the idea of conserving the built environment with those charged with regulating it – there is a disconnect right now.

    I will explore this in my next post wherein I will yet again quote someone else who suggests that preservationists need to do what USGBC did with LEED – create a private certification that has become a MUST for every designer. It is not regulated but everyone has to have LEED nowadays. I would love preservation to have that kind of acceptance.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Vince, so glad you responded. Thanks for your thoughts. I have to read the David Lowenthal essays that you mention; it’s an interesting theory it seems and probably applicable to all fields. I realized that I used Elaine’s quote out of context, but in that way it seemed to serve the purpose of a self evaluation: do we act as victims? Are we beyond that, etc? A good self checkup, if you will, to make sure we are improving and progressing as preservationists.

      I can see how you would find “nostalgic” to be insulting, particularly when applied to preservation. I never think of preservation as nostalgic, either.

      I’ll look forward to your next post – preservation would definitely benefit from a LEED type certificate. Of course, that could bring up more criticisms about the academics and regulators controlling preservation. But maybe not? Hopefully it gives the field more clout and respect.

  3. Paula Sagerman says:

    As a preservationist, in conversations with laypeople I do often find myself on the defensive and still can’t believe that the average citizen doesn’t get it. It’s not so much about feeling like we’re saying “no,” it’s more that people just don’t understand what historic preservation is about, even after all these years of advocacy. Kudos to everyone trying to change this!

    The latest ridiculousness is in WIRED magazine, where unfortunately there is a story about how the cultural resource field did have to say “no.”
    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/11/st_essay_wikipediawonders/

    • Kaitlin says:

      Over Thanksgiving I had to dispute the statement, “If your house is on the historical register, then you can’t do anything to it.” Aye. People still think that?! Of course. Well, fortunately I was able to explain that the (vague) standards are about protecting the historic features, not necessarily preventing change, and that it is most applicable to commercial properties seeking tax credits.

      What a crazy article … something to ponder once I read it more thoroughly. Thanks!

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