Theories of Significance in U.S. Historic Preservation
The National Register criteria were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as one part of the “system” put in place by the National Park Service and Advisory Council to implement the newly enacted National Historic Preservation Act. This system is designed, in theory, to ensure the fair, systematic consideration—and, where feasible, the preservation and enhancement—of places regarded as historically significant. One thing that makes this system rather unsystematic, I think, is that it tries to accommodate at least six distinct “theories of significance”—that is, six quite different worldviews within which people evaluate the significance of old places. This is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed it reflects a hurly-burly sort of creative ferment. What is a problem is that most people adhere to one or two such theories only and have trouble understanding that there may be others or that other theories may be legitimate. This lack of understanding is exacerbated by the fact that the theories have never—except here—been explicitly categorized.
Perhaps the most venerable is the commemoration and illustration theory, which holds that places are historic when they commemorate or illustrate some important historical event, process, or theme. This theory undergirds the National Historic Landmark (NHL) program created by the National Park Service in response to the Historic Sites Act of 1935. Within this theoretical frame, significance is judged based on the strength of a property’s association with an event (e.g., a battle), a significant historical process (e.g., industrialization), or a specific “theme” or interpretive construct (e.g., “Man in Space”), together with the importance of the event or theme itself and the property’s ability to “convey” this association to a viewer. The commemoration and illustration theory is pedagogical; it seeks to use historic places to inform the public about that which is worthy of being commemorated or illustrated.
Closely related to commemoration and illustration is the uniqueness-representativeness school, which espouses the seemingly contradictory notions that places are significant if they are either one-of-a-kind, last-ditch survivors, representatives of a type, or both. Uniqueness-representativeness practitioners are usually architectural historians, landscape historians, historians of engineering, or military historians. Their school of thought, like commemoration and illustration, was embedded in the nation’s perception of historic preservation by the 1935 Historic Sites Act. The 1935 act not only resulted in the NHL program with commemoration and illustration at its core; it also made permanent the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and led to creation of the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and later the Historic American Landscapes Survey. These documentation programs are all about recording the unique and the representative among works of architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture.
Competing with commemoration and illustration and uniqueness-representativeness in the venerability department is the scholarly value school of thought, which holds that a place is significant if it can be studied to learn something important about the past. The scholarly value school arguably goes back to before the 1906 Antiquities Act, when the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology conducted government-sponsored archaeological research in the Mississippi Valley, the Southwest, and elsewhere. Like commemoration and illustration, the scholarly value school seeks to inform, but where advocates of commemoration and illustration value what can inform the public of what it does not know but scholars do, scholarly value practitioners attribute significance to places that can inform scholars about what they do not know. Scholarly value also overlaps with uniqueness-representativeness, but where uniqueness-representativeness is usually the province of various history subdisciplines, scholarly value tends to be practiced by archaeologists—who in the United States are (or at least are supposed to be) anthropologists. Moreover, the scholarly value theory seeks to tease information out of places, while uniqueness-representativeness is often satisfied simply to record and preserve them.
A fourth and newer theoretical approach may be thought of as the ambience retention school. Ambience retention adherents recognize that certain places—often urban neighborhoods or commercial districts, but also rural landscapes, agricultural areas, and the like—convey a distinct and valuable sense of place that is recognizable and valued by most people—notably people who do not necessarily live in the places thus valued. Many historic districts have been established because of their ambience, and it is often a major challenge to retain that ambience in rehabilitating and adapting historic districts to a changing world.
A related but nonetheless distinct school of thought is the kitsch school, which holds that a place is significant if it reflects some perhaps obscure but interesting or amusing aspect of popular history and culture. Practitioners of the kitsch school value places like drive-ins and motels along old Route 66.
Finally, there is what I think can best be called the community value school, which sees a place as significant if it is valued by a living community. Such value may be ascribed to something because community members feel it contributes to the community’s sense of its identity, its cultural integrity, or its relationships with the biophysical—and sometimes spiritual—environment. TCPs are obviously significant primarily within this school of thought, which I believe found its legislative expression in 1966 in the National Historic Preservation Act.