History and Historic Preservation, huh! What are they good for?

“Please, tell me whether you think the world has changed at all since 1966,” asked Ned Kaufman at the June 5 New Jersey History and Historic Preservation conference in Monmouth County. Chuckles and giggles flowed from the audience. Agreed then that much has changed, he responded, why hasn’t our thinking in preservation also changed? Why are we still pursuing the same goals, working with the same tools, and recruiting the same supporters as we were in 1966?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Kaufman continued, if by the 50th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 preservation had new approaches keyed to the challenges of 2016? We know our world is far more diverse in every way, deeply unjust economically and bidding to get worse, and facing crises incident to climate change. What if historic preservation had something to say about all that? Why shouldn’t we? Why don’t we?

Getting the Word Out, a marketing primer created by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities was designed to help nonprofits promote their programs. See below for a PDF.  Courtesy of the author.

Getting the Word Out, a marketing primer created by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities was designed to help nonprofits promote their programs. See below for a PDF. Courtesy of the author.

At the other end of the conference, John Durel, the closing speaker, raised related concerns about public history. Durel proposed that public historians and preservationists accept that no more than 10% of the public will ever be interested in history for its own sake. We who practice history professionally deplore this lack of interest because we know how powerful history can be. Good historical knowledge and historical practice helps people and communities define an identity, gain confidence as active citizens, weather setbacks and problems, and ultimately become leaders. What would historical work look like if instead of  offering our boring medicine because it’s “good for you,” we used our knowledge of history’s value to flavor the pitch with tastes that people want?

In a diverse society, changing communities need to build sustainable, inclusive identities. History can help.

We don’t have the money to build endless new infrastructure while sunk investment in old cities rots away. Preserving and re-purposing what we already have is cheaper, releases less carbon, and revitalizes communities. Preservationists, argued Kaufman, know how to do that.

Our future leaders, as Durel pointed out, are in school TODAY. Do we want leaders who listen to multiple viewpoints, demand valid information, weigh competing goods, make complex decisions, and then are able to persuade others to embrace solutions? If we do, great — they can learn all that by doing history.

Durel and Kaufman reminded me of my own longstanding frustration over historians’ general  approach to marketing — straight out of the 19th century.  On our posters and flyers, and even in our social media, we offer lots of details about whatever it is we’re putting out there, just like some old patent medicine ad.  But marketing involves thinking through what our audiences are facing. What do they deeply care about? what do they need? and how will what we have to offer meet that need? Our current methods make sure that while they are with us our (small) audiences pay attention to how great our stuff and our ideas are.  And we do this even though we know for certain that our audiences are far more interested in their own greatness than they ever will be in ours.  So we plod on, boring them, losing them, and keeping to ourselves the secrets of how embracing history can help everyone be greater still.

John Durel and his colleagues have apparently been chewing on these ideas for a while, as have other progressive thinkers in the museum field. And because, as he noted, electronic communication is one of the big changes in our lives, he invites anyone who wants to add a thought to the conversation to sign up for the History Relevance Campaign group on LinkedIn. The URL for the group, if you are a LinkedIn member, is https://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=5172547&mostPopular=&trk=tyah&trkInfo=tarId%3A1402090105161%2Ctas%3AHistory%20relevance%20campaign%2Cidx%3A1-1-1

What might happen to history and preservation if we who love them and know why they are lovable started talking about those “why” answers a lot? Would we be able to recruit practitioners? Could we excite school systems about history they way they’ve gotten excited about STEM? Could the popular discussions of history move beyond battles and toward leadership, identity, resource use, and the future?

It was an exciting day, and I’m grateful to the NJ Historical Trust, and NJ Historical Commission, and the Advocates for New Jersey History for their work making it happen. I hope many readers of this blog will join up with the History Relevance discussion and help create a better future for our fields.

As promised, here is a link to the NJCH’s marketing primer Getting the Word Out (PDF). 

Dr. Holt is a public historian, scholar, teacher, and executive. She is a lecturer in history and public history at Pennsylvania State University, Abington. As a public historian, Dr. Holt seeks to build community connection and civic vitality around understanding and presenting American history. Over more than a decade in the public humanities, Holt has brought about new initiatives, improved the strategic focus and financial management of non profits, built brands, managed teams of staff and volunteers, and contributed to statewide, regional, and national discussions on the future and purpose of the humanities. She lectures in the United States and Europe, and publishes in journals of public history, museum studies, and American history.

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