The Diversity Deficit in American Historic Preservation

 

Historic preservation as a profession is flawed and practitioners have no problem admitting that. Diversity,or lack thereof, within both the hiring practices and the physical act of preserving sites has been a topic of much discussion within the field for the past three or so decades. This demonstrates a desire to change and evolve into an all-inclusive field where everyone is considered a part of the majority. Whereas the first unit’s readings mentioned African American history and preservation in a peripheral sense, these readings re-position it as an issue at the forefront of the profession. In one way or another they all discuss access to preservation resources (both economic and political),the hidden prejudice within preservation, the evolution of diversity and preservation and various solutions to the single stories presented by many historic sites today. All of the readings conclude with the sentiment that although considerable strides have been made toward diversity and inclusion within the field there is more that can be done.

Equality, or rather equity, in preservation has not always been an area of concerted focus in the profession. But as Dianne Harris so aptly muses in her piece Seeing the Invisible, race and space (ie. the built environment and by extension preservation of said environment) are inextricably linked. So just as American attitudes about racial equality, prejudice and power have evolved over time, so too have ideas about the connection between racial diversity within preservation. Although preservationists have not always been concerned with African American history or the preservation of sites connected to it, African American history (and minority history in general) has long been present in and linked to other preservation ventures. for example, preserving a house in an all white neighborhood that excluded minorities will inadvertently be telling the story of segregation alongside its central narrative.

According to Kaufman, the decision to present more diverse histories, particularly those of African American import, spurred a lot of talk but not much action. In 1992 the National Trust held a conference centered around diversity where they trained preservation leaders from minority communities, and various initiatives,such as the New York based Place Matters and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, were started to try and reconcile the racial imbalance within preservation. But momentum could not be sustained and the initiatives ceased. Additionally, as of April 20, 2004, of the 77,000 properties listed in the National Register only about 1,300 were explicitly associated with African-American heritage, 90 with Hispanic, and 67 with Asian. The failure of the above programs and those staggering statistics have shown practitioners in the field, specifically at NPS, that they have two large diversity deficits to remedy–first, that the National Register does not fully recognize stories beyond the mainstream and two, African American stories are represented at a higher number than that of any other minority group.

Simply put, the addition of race to the agenda of historic preservation has allowed the profession to see it’s inherent flaws.But any system initially designed by a homogenous group with the aim of maintaining the structures built for and used by that group would be understandably biased. Early preservationists most likely  never foresaw that diversity and inclusion would be topics of discussion in regards to their profession because the stately homes and pristine neighborhoods that their white identities and preservation ideals were built upon were themselves exclusionary. By only preserving and presenting certain types of sites, landscapes or buildings preservationists are only depicting a one-sided view of America. However, to continually label certain sites by racial

HeritageTrail

African-American Heritage Marker in Pinellas County, Florida. 

markers serves to continually other them and therefore perpetuate their marginalization instead of their integration into a comprehensive American narrative. While this dilemma is difficult to navigate (as it pits the need to be recognized against the need to be accepted as equal) it does incite questions that may prove useful in finding solutions.

 

One question gleaned from the Harris piece is, how does othering occur in the built environment? Do certain sites tell the unintended story of exclusion and segregation while simultaneously reinforcing privilege and predominance by virtue of still standing? Harris would argue yes. Lee’s piece asks the question, how can we expand the preservation template to work towards the preservation of all types of cultural resources? She is concerned with aspects of minority cultural that are often outside the realm of the national standards for preservation. Currently, there are parameters in place to protect the intangible heritage of many Native and indigenous groups but the lack of a cultural safety net for the cultural resources of other minority groups link Lee’s concept of an expanding preservation template to Harris’ concepts of the prejudice inherent in preservation. Lastly, Kaufman presents a few guiding questions in his piece but the most insightful seemed to be how can historic sites facilitate intergroup reconciliation? Kaufman makes the point that histories that may be viewed as only essential to specific groups may come to be seen as central to a larger narrative if these disparate communities can unite. Thus, historic sites may serve as the place where reconciliation of the past may take place so that a new, more cohesive history can take shape.

These readings helped me to better understand the presumptions that have been and still are prevalent in preservation. By denoting a space or a site as an “African American heritage site” you are asserting that African Americans are a monolithic group with a monolithic experience–while white sites are never deemed as such; rather they are simply called “American heritage sites.” This process of categorizing and recognizing sites by race (although it is supposed to affirm equality) actually serves to perpetuate the othering necessary to maintain the concept of mainstream whiteness. Ultimately, the historic sites that we preserve can uphold the racism and social injustice that we as a nation have been working to dismantle.

 

 

 

 

Harris, Dianne, “Seeing the Invisible: Reexamining Race and Vernacular Architecture.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 13, no. 2 (2006/2007): 96-105.

Kaufman, Ned. “Historic Places and the Diversity Deficit in Heritage Conservation.” CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 1 ,no. 2 (Summer 2004). http://www.nps.gov/CRMjournal/Summer2004/article3.html

Lee, Antoinette. “From Historic Architecture to Cultural Heritage: A Journey Through Diversity, Identity, and Community.” Future Anterior 1, no. 2 (2004): 15-23.

Michael D. Newsom. “Blacks and Historic Preservation.” Law and Contemporary Problems (Summer 1971):423-431. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/lcp/vol36/iss3/11

 

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