Preserving in place the stories that matter

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Slave cabin at Greenfield Plantation, Botetourt County, VA. Courtesy of Joseph McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project.

Slave cabin at Greenfield Plantation, Botetourt County, VA. Courtesy of Joseph McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project.

On October 15, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) into law and formally established historic preservation as a priority of the federal government. Since that time, individuals and communities across the nation have used the structures and powers it established, such as the National Register, state and tribal preservation offices, and the Section 106 review process, to both draw attention to important and threatened places significant to our local, state, and national stories and to preserve those places so that future generations will also be able to connect with the stories that they hold.

To commemorate and reflect upon the legacy of this act, and to ponder its future, The Public Historian commissioned a dozen brief essays that looked back upon articles on preservation published in its pages and considered them in the light of current ideas and practices. It then published these essays on the National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog in 2015–16. Because those essays, in conjunction with the articles they comment on, comprise a useful reflection on the achievements and the limitations of the act, The Public Historian decided to gather them together in an e-publication to make them more accessible for consultation, study, or classroom use. We also commissioned two new essays that look to the NHPA’s future. Mary Rizzo, who conceived of and edited the blog project, contributes an introduction that highlights some of the themes that emerge from these essays. That e-publication, Preserving Places: Reflections on the National Historic Preservation Act at Fifty from The Public Historian (PDF), is available as a PDF, and also as an EPUB (preservingplaces) on the NCPH website.

The NHPA recognizes that history, as rooted in place, plays an essential role in our sense of both individual and collective identity. Because of that, its use and interpretation have changed over time, and it must continue to do so. Though architecture has been and remains an important criterion for preservation, it is the stories that live in these places that ultimately are what matter and what we seek to protect. These stories are what give meaning—to places and to our lives.

~ Tamara Gaskell is the co-editor of The Public Historian and public historian in residence at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, Rutgers University–Camden.

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