Traditional Preservation

Historians have traditionally celebrated 1853 as the birthday of historic preservation in the United States, for this is the year when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association began working to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon from ruin. Ann Pamela Cunningham and the other women who sought to preserve the former president’s home saw the site as a place that offered national unity—a sentiment in short supply as the nation lurched towards civil war.7 In this origin story lies a longstanding truth about historic preservation: it’s as much about the present as the past. Historic preservation reflects contemporary values and anxieties, valorizing national figures, historic events, or significant places of the past in an effort to change the present.8

Historic American Buildings Survey. Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Fairfax County, VA.Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Historic American Buildings Survey. Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Fairfax County, VA. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Historic house museums are a prime example of this approach to preservation, and are well-documented in public broadcasting. Public television and radio stations have surveyed these sites to explore architecturally-significant places like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House on WILL Illinois Public Media’s Focus radio program or the restored capitol building in Iowa covered by Iowa Public Television. Viewers can travel inside the well-preserved homes of the early twentieth century elite, exploring the Eastman House, featured on WXXI’s Speaking of Rochester talk show series, or the Cutrer Mansion seen on Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s magazine series Mississippi Roads. Individuals and events of national significance are also recognized through the preservation of places like John Brown’s birthplace, highlighted on Mountain Lake PBS’ People Near Here, and author Thomas Wolfe’s house on North Carolina Now. That segment looks at famous birthplaces of North Carolinians in order to honor “North Carolina’s greatest sons and daughters” because “this is the stuff of our heritage.” All of these examples allow viewers and listeners to connect with historical myths and stories through the exploration of historic spaces. While viewers and listeners will come away with a concise, often celebratory take on the American past, these sites tell only one side of the story of historic preservation—and the history of the United States.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. View of architect Mies van der Rohe's classic modernist Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. Illinois Plano United States, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. View of architect Mies van der Rohe's classic modernist Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. Illinois Plano United States, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

The sites and broadcasts that explore elite historical figures typically tell history from a singular, privileged perspective.9 During the 1960s and 1970s, many historians began to reckon with this problem. Instead of focusing on elite figures already established in national narratives, they began to write history from the bottom up, recovering the lives of people whose experience had not yet been described by historians. This “emphasis on diversity,” historian Alan Brinkley has written, presumed “that the history of the nation is many different stories, no one of which can be considered the ‘main’ story.”10

Shifting Norms

Slowly, the narratives presented at historic sites are beginning to change, and preservationists are working to include a broader variety of experiences. There are still places that emphasize the experience of elites at the expense of others: Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s Plantation Celebration series, for instance, explores plantations that glorify the antebellum South through the preserved landscape and large estates of the elite Southern planting class. Only a few places acknowledge the painful history of slavery or the experiences of enslaved persons who lived on these plantations in the decades before the Civil War. Yet change is afoot in preservation practices, and public broadcasting is helping to include underrepresented groups in conversations about historic sites and their preservation. In 2015, Louisiana Public Broadcasting broadcasted an episode of Louisiana Public Square, focusing on the debate regarding Confederate monuments.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. African Burial Ground, New York, New York. New York United States, 2008. July. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. African Burial Ground, New York, New York. New York United States, 2008. July. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Another example of these shifting norms is the African Burial Ground National Monument. In 1991, during a survey of land in lower Manhattan that was to make way for a federal building, an intact burial ground was uncovered. Through further investigation, this site was found to have been the largest colonial-era cemetery for enslaved and free African Americans. Local activists were able to preserve the grounds and designate the space as a national monument for the 10,000-20,000 people buried there.11 This event is discussed with anthropologist Michael Blakely, who participated in the excavation, on WHUT’s [Evening Exchange](/catalog/(cpb-aacip_293-88qbzvm5). Blakely emphasized the importance of looking at the physical landscape to interpret diverse experiences in history. Telling the story of people previously excluded from history by covering historic preservation initiatives through public television and radio can be challenging. The history embedded at sites like the African Burial Ground may not be immediately visible. It may lack documentation. The objects and papers associated with such sites may not have been kept. And designating a space to tell uncomfortable, controversial, or upsetting histories can be a difficult project for people to accept. However, it is these stories that give a more nuanced understanding of national and local history, and public broadcasting has shared these stories and the controversies they unleash with broader audiences.

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