Public History Series: Historic Preservation

I have written about Historic Preservation in a previous post, but I wrote about the course I am taking and how we work to preserve buildings.  There are, however, different types of preservation.  The areas of preservation include buildings, books/documents, and artifacts.  I will go through them one-by-one.


As I mentioned in my previous post about HIST 593, in order to preserve a building, you must first learn how it was constructed.  This will allow you to identify the period in which the building was constructed, but will also help you determine the areas that may be the weakest structurally.  When preserving a building, it is important to maintain its character.  Putting aluminum windows or siding on a historic brick building would be inappropriate and would make it ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places.  The key to preserving any historic building is insuring the preservation of its character.

There are many aspects to preserving a historic building including replacing the building materials with traditional parts, decorating the house as it would have originally been, and preserving the outer appearance of the property.  That is the key for the National Register.  They understand that the inside will have been modernized (bathroom, kitchen, etc.), but the outside of the house should look as it did when the structure was constructed.

So how do we determine whether or not a house is eligible for National Register?  First the building has to meet one of the following qualifications: 1. significance by date (e.g. Plantation House), 2. significance by person (e.g. Monticello), 3. cultural affiliation (e.g. Slave cabin), or 4. significant architect/builder (e.g. Falling Water).  One of those qualifications must be chosen on the National Register Application, but that is not enough to justify the listing of a building.  The building must maintain integrity in several aspects including: 1. location (has not been moved), 2. setting (the landscape has not changed significantly), 3. design (no major additions that detract from the building), 4. materials (cannot be aluminum siding), 5. feeling (must convey a feeling of being historic) and 6. context.  None of these categories are concrete, of course, so it may be possible for a structure that has been moved if it maintains other forms of integrity.

Preservation and the National Register are not exact sciences, but there are a series of steps to insure the process is done correctly.  First, the National Register nomination is submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office (yes, every state has one!).  They research the building and insure the facts are accurate.  If they are, the structure is added to the State Register.  A committee than decides if the building is worthy of listing on the National Register.  If so, they send it on, but there is not guarantee that it will be listed.  The process is very long and requires someone with specific knowlege to research, and Public Historians fit the bill.


Declaration of Independance as it appears today

The preservation of books and documents are equally important and are very specialized.  These techniques often require certification and/or and degree in Library Science.  However, many Public Historians seek this type of degree or certificate after completing their Master’s Degree.  This is a very technical process, one that I have little experience with, so cannot elaborate too much on the subject.  Archives and libraries often employ paper conservators to ensure their collections are properly preserved.  One of the best examples is the National Archives.  They are responsible for some of the most important documents of our nation’s history: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Both are old documents and require regular maintenance, but they also require someone with specific knowledge to ensure that they do not degrade further.  This is a very important task and one that often begins with Public Historians.


As with books/documents, I have limited knowledge on this subject, but it is equally important.  Historians often specialize in knowledge of clay pots, etc. when they work on archaeological sites.  Their job is to responsibly clean artifacts that have been unearthed.  They may also have to piece together many pieces of a clay pot to get an idea of its shape and, therefore, its significance.  At Montpelier, there is an archaeology department that are working to uncover items that belonged to the Madison’s and their slaves.  They have archaeologists and conservators on site, but they also use students from JMU.  This gives the students hands on experience with artifacts and the processes involved, but is also moving the project forward at a rapid pace.

Preservation is a multi-facited sub-discipline within Public History that requires specialized knowledge.  I am sure there are others types of preservation that I have not included, but these are the most common.  Preservation is an important part of history because it ensures an objects survival for future generations.


NOTE:  This is the fourth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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