Report from the Field: Preservation and the Public Humanities

Kehinde Wiley, "Rumors of War" (2019), comissioned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond as a counter-monument to the City's Confederate monuments.
October 25, 2019

I just got back from Denver, where the annual conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation was held, with one thought: the field of preservation needs the public humanities.  I attended panel discussions on “preservation equity;” on preservation and community engagement; on new initiatives in preserving and interpreting sites of Native, African American and women’s history; and the field’s increasing attention to urban sites and stories.  In every session I attended over two days, preservationists on stage and in the audience – often to applause – spoke of their sense that the “tools” of mainstream preservation are not designed to do work that communities value.  In a session on the work of the new African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, one attendee stood up to say that he felt that that interpretation – not just preservation – was key to the work of this Fund, and that research and interpretive skills are not always the forte of those in the field.  “Our toolbox is limited,” one state historic preservation officer said.  “What are the missing tools?” a preservationist from Georgia asked.

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African Meeting House, Boston, MA, the oldest extant 
black church in America, awarded a grant from the National
Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
in 2019.

In truth, I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a conference where there was such a pervasive sense that the programs, the legislation, the research, the funding, the educational structure, the culture, the professional identity – all of the things that constitute a “field” of practice – are somehow not in sync with the kind of work that needs to be done.  I’m sure that I and one of our graduate students who attended were the lone attendees from a Public Humanities program: everyone there seemed to be from a state historic preservation office, a preservation non-profit, a city planning department or from a preservation degree-granting program housed in a school of architecture and planning.  “We have the tools,” I wanted to say – “here, try them!” 

In our Public Humanities MA program, we teach courses on preservation and cultural heritage from an historical and critical point of view.  We teach them in the context of other course work and research projects on museum interpretation practice; the history, theory and practice of public art; environmental justice and indigenous rights; public memory; digital public humanities; and intersectional approaches to curatorial work and community organizing.  In many of our courses, we discuss sites of conscience, what it means to decolonize museums and archives, and how and whether the public humanities can advance equity and social justice.  We talk about how we define “the public,” and how institutions can work with communities effectively.  We extend and refine some of these ideas in our public programs – in exhibitions in our gallery, in participant-led unconferences, in digital projects and interdisciplinary panel discussions, and in radical walking tours that are often developed and executed in collaboration with community partners.


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"Climates of Inequality", a collaborative research project and exhibition spearheaded by the Humanities Action Lab in which the JNBC is a partner.

Our students, faculty and collaborators don’t often go to preservation conferences because they say they don’t find that the questions that drive their work are addressed.  It feels to me like this is changing as preservation becomes more interpretive, more interdisciplinary, more experimental (see the work of Jorge Otero-Pailos), more participatory and more engaged with issues of social justice: if the field may once have been identified more closely with conservation, I would say that it is now moving closer to public history and the public humanities.  I often stress this trend to our students, and tell them that there is increasingly space for creative and radical thinking in preservation. 

I say all this with some conviction – but at the same time I’m aware that I may be doing what hammers do, and seeing nails everywhere, to continue the “tool” trope.  There are likely many different approaches that need to be brought more centrally into the curriculum and the work of preservation at this juncture.  However, I can’t help but think that it might be productive if the links between the public humanities and preservation were closer, that more preservationists should be trained in public humanities programs, and more public humanities programs should center preservation in their curricula and research projects.  One advantage that public humanities has over public history in this regard is its connection with the arts and with arts institutions, given the rise of social practice and participatory art.  Artists, for example, are central to the national dialogue around the impacts of systemic racism on our landscape and the existential threat of climate change: perhaps more even than our public historians, artists have made some of the most important interventions on the issue of Confederate and other problematic monuments through performance art, counter-monuments, poetry and arts happenings, and are becoming increasingly central to the public work of climate activism.

So – what to do? I’d advise current students in preservation programs to seek out public humanities and public history courses and mentors within their universities, and to start following conversations around issues of institutional decolonization, equity, social justice, and social practice art.  Those who are working in the field: I’d recommend building relationships and collaborations with public humanities, public history and arts centers and organizations, both inside and outside of academia, including with those staff in libraries and archives who – like many museum staff – are sometimes a decade ahead of preservationists in their attention to these issues.  If the news is the first draft of history, preservation is sort of like our final draft, as it becomes more challenging for us to absorb histories that are not visible in our landscape, so there are real stakes to how the field evolves in the coming years.  I’ll be curious to see how these conversations change between now and next October, when the National Trust conference will be held in Miami, and I hope to see more of my Public Humanities colleagues there. 


Marisa Angell Brown is the Assistant Director for Programs at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.  She has a PhD in architectural history and a love for 1960s and 70s design – even Brutalism.