Wednesday, February 09, 2011

It’s Not Easy Being a Statistic

A few days ago, the historic preservation lists flashed an urgent appeal. We were warned that the U.S. Congress might be about to make drastic cuts in the Historic Preservation Fund (which supports the State and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs, THPOs), zero out the “Save America’s Treasures” and perhaps the “Preserve America” special grant funds, and make deep cuts in funding for Heritage Areas. We were all urged to contact our Senators and Congresspeople insisting that they resist any such cuts.

Naturally, I immediately sent the following message to both my Senators (Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin) and my Congressperson, Donna Edwards:

As a long-time professional in historic preservation and environmental impact assessment, I am being urged to contact you opposing the proposed cuts in funding for such Department of the Interior programs as "Save America's Treasures" and "Preserve America," as well as funding for State Historic Preservation Officers. I want you to know that I SUPPORT these proposed cuts, and more. The Historic Preservation Fund program administered by the National Park Service has become bloated, swollen, and divorced from any apparent purpose. It badly needs through re-thinking and re-design, which MIGHT result from a deliberate kick in its fiscal pants. I urge you to support such a kick.

The ensuing silence has been deafening from Senator Cardin and Representative Edwards, but I very promptly received the following robo-response from Senator Mikulski:

I share your support for preserving our national heritage. Historic preservation projects such as the Save America's Treasures, Preserve America, and National Heritage Areas programs help ensure that our historic landmarks and buildings will be there for future generations. These valuable resources give people the opportunity to appreciate our national heritage and learn about America's history. Once gone, these resources will be lost forever.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have worked aggressively for programs that benefit Maryland and our country and will continue to do so. Knowing of your support for historic preservation will be helpful to me as the appropriations process moves forward. You can be sure that I will give your request for full funding for these worthy programs every consideration.

I drafted the following rejoinder before I realized that the Senator’s system provided no way for me to send it:

Senator Mikulski -- Your staffer who prepared the response to my post must not have read what I sent. AS a dedicated preservationist, I support CUTTING the wasteful fat out of the federal preservation program; I do NOT follow the mindless party line of supporting every federal program in historic preservation. Based on 45 years experience inside and outside the federal historic preservation establishment, I am appalled at the waste of money allocated particularly to NPS historic preservation programs and such feel-good grant programs as "Save America's Treasures." There is a real need to rethink the national historic preservation program, and I can only hope that a significant reduction in happy money would force the preservation powers that be to undertake it.

We can, of course, argue about the substantive utility or inutility of cutting NPS historic preservation funding, but it’s not my intent here to promote that argument. My purpose instead is to express the sadness and frustration I feel upon learning that even a legislator as experienced and thoughtful as Senator Mikulski automatically assumes that anyone identifying himself as a preservation specialist, or writing about preservation, must want to support throwing federal money at NPS, the SHPOs, and the various grant programs.

Is it, to members of Congress, unimaginable that someone involved in preservation might also engage in independent thought?


Anonymous said...

Surely change in how preservation is practiced can be effected by proactive rather than punitive means? While I agree that the NPS has largely missed the boat on adapting preservation practice to a pluralistic, post-modern context, should a bunch of people be put out of their jobs because we're all as angry about the situation as you are?

Wouldn't it be better to work together to spread the word and encourage a different mindset in how preservation is practiced? There are lots of avenues for this: publishing in popular magazine, such as the National Trust's Preservation Magazine; publishing in scholarly journals; blogs (yes, just like this one); conferences (disappointing how these issues aren't at many so-called "preservation conferences"); and the popular press in general.

Moreover, what the current preservation movement is lacking is a cohesive network of thinkers--such as yourself--who are banding together with a unified voice and a unified vision. Part of the problem is that much of the critique of current preservation practice is coming from just a few academics. Unfortunately academics tend to want to work alone and sometimes don't play so well with others. Perhaps the strongest issue in higher ed-- where the inchoate preservationists receive their training--is that most preservation programs in this country don't have professors that do the kind of cutting edge thinking and scholarship that can actually advance the field. With most departments requiring a 4/4 teaching load, "research" in historic preservation amounts to HSRs and National Register nominations. So we have a situation in which learned individuals are stuck reinforcing preservation's regressive, positivistic past.

We need thinkers AND doers to advance the practice of preservation. It's like historic preservation is an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand, but rather than sand, our heads are stuck so far up into the fabric of buildings, we miss the larger sociocultural context of preservation.

Yes, I'm as angry as you are about this situation and do share your feelings of powerlessness. I mean look at me--here I am posting anonymously because I fear retribution from my colleagues who I fear really don't get it. An architect or planner, for instance, who's taken a class in preservation, learned on the job, or even obtained a certificate will not necessarily have the ontological and epistemological depth to understand the nature of the problem, much less feel motivated to fix it. Would we let a planner build a bridge? No, because planner's aren't engineers, yet we have all sorts of professionals with inadequate training managing cultural heritage.

Thomas F King said...

I couldn't agree with you more, except in your objection to putting people out of their jobs. Egypt had to get rid of Mubarak; reform couldn't happen with him in charge. Similarly on a much tinier scale, historic preservation isn't going to change as long as the current coterie of self-satisfied specialists is running the show. As for spreading the word, I'm trying, but the mainstream media are, after all, controlled by the mainstream, which is quite happy to flow quietly along in its well-established channel.

Anonymous said...

Kudos Tom for being willing to voice opposition to the party line. Until we are willing to really ask these tough questions, preservation is going to continue to be a special interest in the hands of a few experts with little accountability to the citizens of this nation.