Why do old places matter?

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“As I settle in a place, the place settles me.” Juhani Pallasmma, Forum Journal (Spring 2015)

00_29.3Cover_smallMore than fifteen months ago, my colleague at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Tom Mayes, embarked on a journey. For six months, he lived at the American Academy in Rome researching and thinking about one of the most central tenets of our profession: Why Do Old Places Matter? He wanted to tease out the reasons both easy to grasp and far reaching in order to allow preservationists to create a more complete picture of why we work to save places. In those fifteen months, I feel as if I’ve traveled alongside him, literally as part of my work at the National Trust, and intellectually in trying to answer and embrace the question in my own way.

If you’ve had a chance to peruse Mayes’ blog posts and the Spring 2015 Forum Journal, you’ll notice that the essays and articles fall within two different camps. On one hand, the authors emphasize the need to belong, and the role old places play in creating inspiration and engagement with family and identity. The other emphasizes the empirical–using data to quantify the value of old places beyond the emotional and anecdotal.

San Esteben del Rey Mission Church at Acoma Sky City.| Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

San Esteben del Rey Mission Church at Acoma Sky City.  Photo credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Far too often we are forced to choose one or the other which comes, Mayes argues, to the detriment of our mission.

In this way, this conversation fits neatly into discussions at our recent conference in Nashville. One session proclaimed the need for history communicators, while another described the way visitors approached and created their own authority on memory and the past via social media. Both sessions seemed to be asking those of us in the public history thread to examine our message. It’s not just why should the public care about this place but rather why does the public care about this place? Putting those two pieces together in a coherent narrative should be our goal.

Maybe it’s even more cliché–protecting the past is a matter for the head and the heart. None of us are in this profession because we expect riches or glory–rather, we are in it because we believe we can make a difference. Enact change. But not everyone sees it the same way. So when we work to save a place, we should talk about jobs and financing in the same breath as character and social justice. We need to take the long view while discussing the role of memory and ancestry. There isn’t just one reason why old places matter.  There are hundreds of reasons.

Demetra Opera No. 1 by Mimmo Jodice | Credit: Max Page

Demetra Opera No. 1 by Mimmo Jodice.  Photo credit: Max Page

Or to quote Max Page, who wrote a piece for the journal on preserving difficult places:

In a way, [this photograph by Italian artist Mimmo Jodice titled Demetra Opera 1 (1992)] is a metaphor for what we traditionally try to do as preservationists–save the object, perhaps restore it, bring it back to life. But I read it differently. It seems more of a metaphor for our elusive desire to repair a shattered human world. The hand gently holds a repaired piece up to the original, trying to make it fit. But of course it does not. Only an approximation of wholeness can be made. And it requires the gentle hand to hold it there, a continuous effort. Max Page, Forum Journal (Spring 2015)

Interested in participating in the conversation? This issue of the Forum Journal is free for both members and non-members of Preservation Leadership Forum. Miss the blog posts? You can view the central points here on Exposure or see the full blog posts and the journal web companions on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.

Also–as you know, it is Preservation Month. We’ve put together a video competition where we ask you to tell us why old places matter to you. Full rules and a word from Mayes are available here.

Why do you think old places matter?

~ Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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