Sunday, June 03, 2007


Thomas F. King
June 1, 2007


On May 24, 2007, Janet Snyder Matthews, the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, sent a memorandum to the Acting Regional Director of the National Park Service’s (NPS) Northeast Region. The memo provided Ms. Matthews’ opinion on whether the “Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hill Bar Historic District, Barnstable County, Massachusetts” – a property formally determined eligible for the National Register some 18 years ago – is significant as a “traditional cultural property.” Ms. Matthews’ memorandum makes some peculiar statements that I think merit critical attention.

With Patricia L. Parker of NPS, I invented the term “traditional cultural property[1]” as it is used in historic preservation in the United States – where it is often referred to by its acronym “TCP.” Parker and I coined the term in National Register Bulletin 38, Guidelines for the Identification and Documentation of Traditional Cultural Properties, published by NPS in 1990. I’ve discussed the background of Bulletin 38 – why we wrote it, its intent, our choice of terminology, in several publications[2], and will not reiterate here. Ms. Matthews’ opinion in the dune shacks matter is of concern to me because it evidences a deep misunderstanding of the “TCP” concept, an unKeeperly unfamiliarity with National Register Bulletin 38, and an assumption of governmental omniscience that I find bothersome in an ostensible public servant.

I will not discuss the character of the dune shacks here, other than to note that they comprise a collection of cottages mostly constructed by and used in the past and currently by artists, poets, writers, and other members of the arts community. This community has considerable time depth in the area. The shacks and the people who value them have been discussed in detail by ethnographer Robert Wolfe in a 2005 evaluation[3], and by Wolfe and T.J. Ferguson in a 2006 report[4]. The Peaked Hills Historic District, including the dune shacks, was determined eligible for the National Register in 1989 under National Register Criteria A, B, and C.

The question of the shacks’ traditional cultural significance came up a few years ago as NPS undertook to evict some of the shacks’ residents. Since the residents maintain the shacks, and since the district was determined eligible for the Register at least partly because of its significant association with its residents and their artistic endeavors, questions arose over the propriety of these actions. In undertaking them, as far as I have determined, NPS did not bother to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Apparently, however – and I am rather reading between the lines here – NPS then was persuaded that it had Section 106 responsibilities with regard to the shacks, and that if the shacks were eligible as a TCP, the residents would have more power in the Section 106 consultation process than would be the case otherwise. The State Historic Preservation Officer opined that the shacks did in fact comprise a TCP. Unable to bring itself simply to respect the community and its traditional associations, NPS contracted for a study, performed by Dr. Wolfe. Dr. Wolfe concluded that the dune shacks were indeed significant as a TCP. Unwilling to accept this conclusion without vetting, NPS had Dr. T.J. Ferguson examine Dr. Wolfe’s work; the result was the Wolfe-Ferguson report, concluding that the dune shacks were eligible for the National Register as a TCP. The residents and various local governments offered supporting opinions. But NPS was still unsure, so it requested the “determination” of the Keeper – an NPS employee, but we are not to imagine that this might have made any difference. The Keeper, in simple terms, said no.

The Meaning of the Keeper’s Opinion

For a government action that has caused such sturm und drang, the Keeper’s opinion is curiously meaningless. Meaningless, that is, in real world terms; what meaning it may have in the world where the Keeper and her associates live can only be guessed.

Let’s be clear about what the category “TCP” means. TCP is not a National Register criterion, separate and apart from the formal criteria A, B, C, and D[5]. It is really a descriptive term, like “cottage,” or “archaeological site,” or “big gray rock.” When we wrote Bulletin 38, Parker and I needed a term to embrace a range of place-types that were being given short shrift by government despite their significance to real people – Native American spiritual places, traditional neighborhoods, culturally valued landscapes and landforms, and so on. No term was sufficiently embracing, so we invented one – traditional cultural property. It’s simply a semantic box, or envelope, within which various types of place can be kept.

So, who is authorized to decide whether something is or isn’t a TCP? Well, who is authorized to decide whether something is a cottage, or an archaeological site, or a big gray rock? It depends, of course; if you’re a geologist and I’m not, your opinion about the big gray rock is probably better than mine. But archaeologists can argue over what is and isn’t an archaeological site, and one person’s cottage may be another’s palace and another’s hovel. In any event, cottageness, siteness, and rockness are more or less matters of opinion, on which people can honestly reach divergent conclusions, and – here’s the important point – no government agency has the authority to decide the matter.

In just the same way, no government agency has the authority to decide whether something is or is not a TCP. The Keeper has the authority to decide whether a given TCP (or non-TCP) is eligible for the National Register, but she has no more official role in deciding whether something is a TCP than she has in deciding whether something is a rock, a boat, or a fig tree.

Who can determine whether something is a TCP? According to National Register Bulletin 38:

“It is vital to evaluate properties thought to have traditional cultural significance from the standpoint of those who may ascribe such significance to them”[6]

In other words, traditional cultural significance is defined and determined by the people who know and care about a place. The bulletin goes on to acknowledge that a group’s assertions about a place can and should be “subjected to critical analysis,” but the bottom line is the obvious truism that only I can say what’s important to me, and only you can say what’s important to you. Neither of us needs the Keeper to instruct us in the matter.

So the Keeper’s opinion is simply an opinion. It’s also an opinion without practical consequence. The district remains eligible for the National Register, under criteria A, B, and C. The dune shacks contribute to the district; their use by artists and their colleagues is understood to be part of the district’s significance. Any eviction or demolition action by NPS would obviously require review under Section 106[7]. The dune dwellers would be entitled to be consulting parties in any such review, based on their interests in the district[8].

So what did the Keeper’s opinion mean? Only that in the Keeper’s opinion, the shacks are not significant as a TCP. This opinion must have deep meaning to the Keeper, but in real world terms it is simply one ostensible specialist’s conclusion, to be compared and contrasted with those of the residents, Wolfe, Ferguson, the SHPO, and others in future evaluations of the place.

If the Keeper’s opinion has marginal relevance to the dune shacks themselves, it has rather chilling implications for other TCP cases. We may, and should, wonder what will happen when other properties of traditional cultural significance, not already on or determined eligible for the Register, are brought to the Keeper for determinations of eligibility or as nominations. To judge from Ms. Matthews’ memorandum, the prospects for official recognition of such significance are not good. The Keeper appears to be unfamiliar with the National Register’s own guidance on the evaluation of TCPs, and to have some strange notions about what makes such properties significant.

The Keeper’s Understanding of National Register Bulletin 38

Ms. Matthews’ memorandum includes what purports to be a summary of what Bulletin 38 says about TCP evaluation, reproduced below.

Traditional Cultural Properties

National Register Bulletins provide guidance and technical information regarding the evaluation of cultural resources. National Register Bulletin #38 provides flexible guidance regarding the evaluation and documentation of TCPs. In general, as discussed more fully in the Bulletin, a TCP has the following characteristics:

A living, traditional group or community;
The group/community must have existed historically and the same group/community continues to the present;
The group/community must share cultural practices, customs, or beliefs that are rooted in the group/community’s history;
These shared cultural practices, customs, or beliefs must continue to be held or practiced today;
These shared cultural practices, customs, or beliefs must be important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity and values of the group/community;
The group must transmit or pass down these shared cultural practices, customs, or beliefs through the generations, usually orally or through practice; and
These shared cultural practices, customs, or beliefs must be associated with a tangible place, and the place must be directly associated with the identified cultural practices.

Most of the bulleted sentences and sentence fragments are accurate enough glosses on what Bulletin 38 actually says. The second bullet, however – “The group/community must have existed historically and the same group/community continues to the present” – is not found in Bulletin 38 in any form I can discern upon rereading the publication. The Keeper appears simply to have made it up. She goes on, in explaining “why the dune shacks… does (sic) not have significance as a TCP,” to lean entirely on this putatively “most important characteristic of a TCP” as her basis for concluding that the dune shacks don’t comprise one. This suggests to me that Ms. Matthews is unfamiliar with the actual language of the bulletin, and/or that over the years since its publication her staff have begun to read into the bulletin a standard that its authors never intended to include – and moreover, to elevate this standard to “most important” status. This, as we’ll see, is a problem.

The Keeper’s use of the “historical existence/continuation to the present” standard

Why is there a problem with employing the standard that Ms. Matthews and her people have invented? It seems intuitively obvious that a group ascribing “traditional” significance to a place must have existed long enough to have traditions, and must exist today in order to honor them. The problem with this standard, however, is rooted in the question of who defines traditional significance. If, in the bulletin’s words, we are to “evaluate properties thought to have traditional cultural significance from the standpoint of those who may ascribe such significance to them,” is it legitimate for someone standing outside the group – most notably a government official – to evaluate the legitimacy of the group’s perceptions? If – as the bulletin details – it is inappropriate for us to question whether an Indian tribe’s ancestors “really” emerged from a lower world at the beginning of time, is it legitimate for us to deny the beliefs of the Cape Cod dune dwellers about their history, and indeed their very existence as a group?

If the dune dwellers had dragged their shacks into the dunes last year, it might not be problematic to apply the “historical existence/continuation to the present” (HE/CP) standard, though I think the wisdom of doing so would still be questionable. But the dune dwellers did not arrive yesterday; they’ve been around for quite awhile, so the Keeper has to develop a convoluted rationale for denying them legitimacy. The fact that she is willing and able to do this, in the face of massive contrary evidence, bodes ill for future human-based TCP evaluations.

Ms. Matthews’ argument – to the extent I can extract its essence from her prose – goes like this:

The community (she would probably put the word in quotes) of dune dwellers is made up of several groups, including long-term and short-term occupants, visitors, and so on.
These groups are “fluid, evolving, and different from one year to the next.”
Wolfe’s and Ferguson’s reports focused on the long-term occupants.
Many of those offering opinions about the dune shacks emphasized the relevance of groups that do not comprise long-term occupants.
Some comments suggest that the groups using the shacks are so fluid that no “cultural focus” can be discerned[9].
Therefore, “the District should not be identified for its significance as a TCP.”

If the reader’s response to this argument is “huh?” I am not surprised; that’s my response, too. Granting the accuracy of points 1 through 5, it is utterly unclear, at least to me, how Ms. Matthews jumps to point 6 (which actually is the lead-in to her discussion). How does inclusion of multiple subgroups, fluidity, a tendency to evolve, year-to-year differences in composition, the existence of groups other than the long-term occupants, and questions about “cultural focus” (whatever that is) translate into non-TCP status? Presumably it has something to do with the newly-minted HE/CP standard, but even if one accepts that standard, the intellectual leap Ms. Matthews has made is difficult (impossible, for me) to follow. Apparently Ms. Matthews would not deny that the long-term occupants as a group have “historical existence,” and it is pretty evident that this group “continues to the present.” If this is true, then presumably Ms. Matthews would regard the dune shacks as comprising a TCP if there were no one there but the long-term occupants. But by having the temerity to die or move away from time to time and be replaced by others, the long-term dune dwellers have compromised their historical/cultural legitimacy in Ms. Matthews’ eyes.

Apparently to the Keeper, if the community that ascribes significance to a property has been so gauche as to change over time, its claim to “community” status has been lost, and it doesn’t really value the places it thinks it values. But historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have pretty thoroughly documented the fact that all human societies change, evolve; all have more or less fluid boundaries. If there is one immutable principle of human existence, it is mutability. By Ms. Matthews logic, then, no living community can have a TCP. And of course, no dead one can either, since it has not “continued to the present.”

Let’s imagine the HE/CP principle and Ms. Matthews’ logic applied to a more “traditional” sort of TCP than the dune shacks. Suppose an Indian tribe asserts that a hill somewhere in its traditional territory (or elsewhere) is an important spiritual place, and is misled into nominating it to the National Register[10]. In evaluating the nomination, the Register will have to ask whether the tribe’s composition and boundaries have changed and evolved over time. It would be a rare tribe for which the answer to this question would not be “yes.” The Keeper might be satisfied that the tribe “existed historically,” as evidenced by historical accounts, archaeology, perhaps oral history, perhaps treaties, but has it “continued to the present?” Well, the Keeper might say, maybe it has and maybe it hasn’t; it all depends on how fluid the group’s boundaries are. So – assuming the tribe has patience with this kind of effrontery – the tribe submits its tribal rolls for the last century or two. And – what do you know? – they document a considerable fluidity. Not only have tribal members been born and died, but people have come into the group through marriage, perhaps through adoption, while others have left or been thrown out. Some tribal members come and go; a couple live in Switzerland, one member has been elected to the House of Representatives and lives in suburban Virginia. Oh dear, can this really be seen as a community? Guess not, so its place can’t be a TCP.

If this hypothetical seems absurd, I will only say that I don’t think it any more absurd than the Keeper’s opinion about the dune shacks. Since the Keeper’s decision in this matter was pretty obviously a politically motivated one, we can hope that it will not be replicated in cases where the National Park Service is not the agency questioning a place’s traditional cultural significance, but I have my doubts. The Keeper certainly engaged in convoluted, unsubstantiated logic (broadly defined) to reach the conclusion desired by her agency, but the fact that such logic apparently makes sense to her and her colleagues – that they can put it out in public with straight faces – cannot make one very hopeful about the quality of likely future decisions.

[1] Also taken to mean “traditional cultural place,” which amounts to the same thing; we used “property” in order to parallel “historic property,” a term used in the National Historic Preservation Act.
[2] See, for instance, Chapter 15, “Stupid TCP Tricks,” in Thinking About Cultural Resource Management: Essays from the Edge; AltaMira Press 2002; Chapters 1 and 2 in Places That Count: Traditional Cultural Properties in Cultural Resource Management, AltaMira Press 2003; and “How Micronesia Changed the U.S. Historic Preservation Program and the Importance of Keeping it from Changing Back,” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 5:1/2:505-516,
[3] Dwelling in the Dunes: Traditional Use of the Peaked Hills Bar Historic District, submitted to the National Park Service 2005.
[4] Traditional Cultural Property Assessment, Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hills Bar Historic District, Cape Cod National Seashore, submitted to the National Park Service 2006.
[5] As set forth in regulation at 36 CFR 60.4
[6] National Register Bulletin 38:4, emphasis added.
[7] This is not, however, to say that NPS will subject its decisions in such matters to such review; it is required to, after all, only by federal law.
[8] 36 CFR 800.2(c)(5)
[9] The Keeper does not define this somewhat ambiguous term.
[10] For the record, I recommend NEVER nominating TCPs, or anything else, to the National Register unless there is a very good practical reason for doing so.