#DismantlePreservation: Part I

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of reflections from winners of NCPH awards in 2021. Sarah Marsom won honorable mention in Excellence in Consulting for her projects Crafting Herstory and #DismantlePreservation. This is part one of a two-part Q&A about #DismantlePreservation.

History@Work: Why are you involved in historic preservation?

Sarah Marsom: When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in Parks and Recreation Management at Northern Arizona University, I interned at Riordan Mansion State Historic Park during the 2008-2009 economic recession and continued as a volunteer. During the recession, Arizona closed state parks due to budgetary cuts and pursued a closure of Riordan Mansion. Thanks to community organizing and partnerships, the site was able to stay open and continues to be open without reliance on state funding. Being able to be a part of a community coming together to keep a community asset open to the public left an imprint on me.

Artwork for "Dismantle Preservation" and "July 26-30/BE THERE OR BE SQUARE"; pink, mint green, yellow colors; features a clock graphic

Dismantle Preservation conference artwork by Sarah Marsom. Image credit: Sarah Marsom

History@Work: What is Dismantle Preservation?

Sarah Marsom: Merriam-Webster defines dismantle as “to disconnect the pieces of.” Dictionary.com defines it as “to disassemble or pull down; take apart.” However, you define “dismantle,” it is a verb that pushes one to look beyond the whole and to analyze the parts—what is and isn’t working? What can be improved? The term has traditionally been used in preservation to talk about a structure being dismantled to be rebuilt elsewhere, but “Dismantle Preservation” is a more provocative use of the verb. It is intentionally pushing people to confront the flaws of the preservation movement. Dismantle Preservation is the amplification of people’s voices and a spotlight on systematic issues in cultural resources. It is a strong push to reimagine the parameters historic preservation has operated within. It’s a hashtag (or two words) used to force people to pause and think. It’s an ongoing conversation I am cultivating by organizing events that empower people to use their voices for change in historic preservation as it relates to issues such as labor equity. As the field reflects on barriers to entry, it is important to reconsider our hiring practices and pursue both long-term and short-term solutions. We can no longer support unpaid internships in our field, and we can no longer allow organizations and job boards to impede salary transparency by omitting or not requiring compensation in job descriptions. We want to help people make informed career choices from first job to retirement. Acting on these issues is particularly important for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) historic preservationists. If you have a position of stability in the field, you must use it to dismantle preservation for those in precarious positions and those who have not even considered pursuing this path. It’s about the profession, the uncompensated activists, and the work that we all collectively do. In short—Dismantle Preservation is a call to action. It is a call for us to move beyond these seemingly circular conversations on what needs to change. We have to make the change.

History@Work: Why does transparency matter?

Sarah Marsom: There are several reasons why transparency in hiring practices for historic preservation matters.

If you are an organization looking to hire someone, you will be starting the relationship out with full honesty and transparency. You’ll also generate an applicant pool that will confidently be interested in accepting this position knowing that the compensation will provide a sustainable income. And if Vu Le is right, if you don’t disclose a salary, a unicorn loses its wings! The work we do has value. Just because we are fueled by passion to preserve the past, that does not diminish the need for cultural resource work to be properly compensated in order for people to have the ability to sustain themselves at all stages of their careers. 

The labor equity call to action specifically targeted job boards initially as a way to force institutional change. To date, five job boards now require including compensation—including NCPH. This call to action served as a way to start the development of transparent conversations on how labor is valued. This “trickle down” approach is a catalyst for change, but I recognize that change does not happen from one direction. Looking at all the ways people make choices along their career paths is imperative. The next phase is advocating for change on additional job boards and pursuing the development of research and educational material to assist with overhauling our existing internship/student scholarship structure, which began in September 2020.

Transparency is a tool of empowerment for people at all stages of their careers.

History@Work: You organized a conference known as #DismantlePresrvation. What was the objective of this event? Tell us more about how it developed and how it turned out.

Sarah Marsom: I chose to invest in the future of the preservation field by conceptualizing and producing #DismantlePreservation for several reasons. Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of attending a wide variety of preservation conferences. Every conference provided insight into what the preservation movement and practice has done in the past, what is currently happening, and what preservationists are working toward. People are discussing designations, tax credits, public art, and hands-on trades. They were also having conversations about shifting these existing tools (which were some of my favorite sessions from the past few years, for example, 2018 and  2019). Combining these experiences with my work as a moderator for the Historic Preservation Professionals Facebook group, I saw a number of topics that people expressed an interest in learning more about, such as how to calculate a value for work, if unions are beneficial, and navigating burn out. But these were not conversations that either were being had or were being superficially treated at conferences.

As the historic preservation field continues to reflect on how to work more effectively toward a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible movement, it is imperative that we uplift and amplify BIPOC voices in the field in addition to assessing the work being done (who is doing it, what is being done, etc.).

Since 2017, I’ve been happy to give out tiny conference scholarships to people with big dreams as a part of the Tiny Activist Project. With the shift toward virtual conferences in 2020, it did not feel like a conference scholarship would have as much of a benefit to the recipients this year due to more accessible registration price points. The 2020 Tiny Activist Project scholarship funds were diverted to support the Dismantle Preservation Unconference, providing speaker honorariums. These honorariums allowed me to support the work of people who are pushing preservation in new directions. This pivot also allowed my investment to have a positive impact on more than a handful of preservation practitioners; instead, it provided learning opportunities for more than 1,000 people live streaming and many more through the recordings. There were conversations on unions, mental health, navigating student loan debt, and more. As someone who knew little about unions, hearing from organizers who led a unionization effort at their museum was really helpful to understand how a union has value, what types of unions already exist in the preservation field (you may know a state historic preservation office employee who is a part of one), and how someone can collectively organize to create a recognized union at their workplace. This may not be the right strategy for every workplace, but there is immense value to understanding why there is a growing union movement in museums.

It was and continues to be my hope that this event (and all the conversations had during it) will empower preservationists to be advocates for themselves, the historic preservation movement, and the practice. The response to the event has shown that people want to have these conversations and that individuals and organizations need to make the space for them so that we can all learn and expand our preservation toolkits.

~Sarah Marsom is a heritage resource consultant working to empower the next generation of community advocates and increase the representation of lesser-known histories. Her work has been featured in Curbed, Traditional Building Magazine, and the National Parks Service’s LGBTQ America Theme Study, among other publications and podcasts.

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