WHAT IS “RELEVANCE” AND WHY AREN’T WE?

(A preservation advocate holds up a protest sign at the City of Evanston, Illinois City Council meeting on June 18, 2018. The council was discussing their staff’s recommendation to demolish the Harley Clarke Mansion, a local landmark and National Register-listed property owned by the City of Evanston itself. Photo by Landmarks Illinois.)

JUNE 30, 2022

By Bonnie McDonald, President & CEO, Landmarks Illinois

My first blog post introduced The Relevancy Project as a response to the idea that the professional preservation movement (“we”) faces a relevancy crisis. Let’s dig deeper.

WHAT IS “RELEVANCE?”

The definition of “relevance” refers to something being practical, connected and relatable. So, a movement is relevant when people see it as a solution to a problem facing something they value. That’s how I described relevance in the first blog post. Preservation is relevant to those who care about the problem our work helps solve.

Nina Simon, former Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), wrote another perspective on relevance in her book, “The Art of Relevance.” 1

Simon gave a 2017 TEDX Talk about the collective work to make the MAH more relevant to its community.3 When Simon arrived at the MAH in May 2011, she found a museum in trouble. The museum had no money and most Santa Cruzans weren’t aware that it existed. The MAH “did not matter enough to enough people in our community.” 4 Simon engaged people living near the MAH in a conversation about what programs they would find meaningful. Knowing what the surrounding community wanted enabled the museum to deliver relevant programs. With this approach, attendance tripled and the MAH’s bank account went from $16,000 to $1.6 million in Simon’s first five years as its director.5 If we measure relevance by people’s actions, then the MAH clearly hit the mark. In this way, Simon shows us that to be relevant is to genuinely engage people in defining what they value and want and then responding with accessible, relatable, applicable and effective solutions.

ARE WE TRULY IN A RELEVANCY CRISIS?

Why do I think that the historic preservation movement is facing a “crisis”? The preservation field is reckoning with its relevance. Rather than being hailed as a solution, preservation is criticized, challenged, marginalized and even vilified.6 There have been efforts to de-designate historic districts, gut preservation ordinances, cut state and local preservation office budgets and eliminate incentives. In our state, several municipalities have attempted to tear down local landmarks that they own. Our tools are very limited. Preservation organizations struggle to make ends meet with decreasing numbers of foundation partners, major donors and members. We’re rarely given a seat at the tables where decisions are made because we aren’t seen as part of the solution. If we were seen as relevant, we would be included as problem solvers.

There’s a quip: “if you have to ask if you’re relevant, you’re not.” But it’s not that simple. The places we save and our practices for doing so are relevant to our current supporters. Thanks in large part to several interviewees for this project, engagement by people previously underrepresented in preservation is growing in parts of our field. But, akin to what Nina Simon encountered when she arrived at the MAH, “we did not matter enough to enough people in our community.” 7 The Relevancy Project interviewees largely characterized the preservation community as historically white, higher income and saving the places that they care about. The problem this created is that our work has overlooked a large and significant group of people, stories and historic places. To put this in context, this under-represented group encompasses 132 million people of other races living in the United States, or 40% of the population, and 159 million people living below the median income – nearly half of the population.8 The vast majority of The Relevancy Project’s interviewees believe that preservation is irrelevant, or in danger of becoming so, because of this underlying inequity.9 The interviewees also believe that our field is not seen as effectively engaging in solutions for larger societal issues: fighting climate change; advocating for antiracism, social justice and enfranchisement; alleviating income inequality; and providing affordable access to things considered human rights, like housing, health care and transportation. These perspectives, raised over and over again by interviewees, led me to deem this a crisis moment.

Two studies reinforce these findings. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) conducted an August 2019 online survey of the preservation field entitled, “Challenges and Innovations Occurring in the Preservation Field.” Over 1,000 people responded. In a series of blog posts, the NTHP reported that 86% of respondents felt that preservation needed to innovate, 92% wanted our work to be fair and equitable, and 96% wanted to ensure we were telling a more complete American story. 10 A second study was carried out by University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Professor Randy Mason, and Research Assistant Kaitlyn Levesque, who published their findings in March 2022, “Preservation and Change: Survey of Attitudes and Opinions in the Historic Preservation Field.”11 More than 2,000 preservation professionals participated in their online survey between late 2020 and early 2021.12 Like the NTHP findings, the UPenn research demonstrated consensus about the need for substantial change, noting that the pressure to change is coming from both inside and outside of the preservation profession. Like the NTHP survey, UPenn respondents felt that preservation needed to become more diverse, cultivate new leadership and partnerships, and focus more on intangible heritage.13 Significantly, the UPenn survey also found “deep divides” within the field over the issue of change.

WE AGREE THAT CHANGE IS NEEDED. NOW HOW DO WE MOVE FORWARD?

The “Preservation and Change” survey further reinforced what I heard in project interviews. Views on change largely fall into these four categories and there is no consensus across the field on which path to take:

  • Dismantle preservation and start over
  • Preservation needs incremental, systemic change
  • Preservation needs some tweaking
  • Preservation needs no change, we just need to communicate better about the work we are doing

YOUR INPUT IS VITAL

Your thoughts on this and forthcoming topics are not only welcomed, they’re imperative to ensuring this project is inclusive, with well-considered outcomes. So post away on Landmarks Illinois’ Facebook and Twitter feeds and my LinkedIn page (blog comments are not enabled)! I’ll collect and consider your comments to inform future blog posts and the project’s outcomes published in the forthcoming relevancy guidebook.

QUESTIONS FOR CONTINUED CONVERSATION:

  • What hasn’t been considered in this argument that preservation lacks relevance?
  • How would you define the existing community supporting your work? Who is not a part of your community, as just defined, that you want to engage? Why do you want to engage these communities?
  • Are you willing to commit to a process that will not only engage, but also listen to and deliver on, the wants, needs and issues identified by this expanded community?
  • What are the values, wants, needs and issues most important in your community? How can your work connect to these in a more accessible and meaningful way?
  • How does preservation practice contribute to or solve these issues? How is it contributing to those issues? How do you know?
  • What are the tools that you would need to integrate preservation into these conversations as a solution?
  • What do you need to learn, know and have ready as you approach new partners and communities?
  • How will you know when your work is considered relevant? How will you track and communicate your progress

STAY TUNED FOR NEXT WEEK’S BLOG POST COMING ON THURSDAY, JULY 7, 2022: “THE CULTURE OF PRECIOUSNESS”

CHANGEMAKING ACTION PLANS AND DISCUSSION FORUMS

SUPPORT CHANGE THROUGH YOUR PRESERVATION PASSION AREA

FURTHER READING



1 Simon, Nina. “The Art of Relevance.” Museum 2.0, 2016. Special thanks to the conference staff at the National Trust for Historic Preservation for hosting Nina Simon as a TrustLive speaker at PastForward 2016 in Houston, which is where I was first introduced to her work.
2 Ibid., 25.
3 Simon, Nina. “The Art of Relevance” presentation at TEDxPalo Alto, 4 May, 2017. 0:41 – 1:30. Accessed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTih-l739w4
4 Simon, “The Art of Relevance” presentation, 0:41 – 0:44.
5 Simon, “The Art of Relevance” presentation, 3:44 – 4:00.
6 Beyer, Scott. “Historic Preservation Is Great, Except When It Isn’t”, Governing: The Future of States and Localities website, 28 September 2020. https://www.governing.com/community/Historic-Preservation-Is-Great-Except-When-It-Isnt.html accessed on 3 January 2020.
7 Simon, “The Art of Relevance” presentation, 0:41 – 0:44.
8 U.S. Census Bureau July 1, 2021 population estimates and 2020 Household Income.
9 You might ask if this project demonstrates confirmation bias, or a propensity to choose interviewees who agree with my own beliefs. I came to this project aware of my own perspectives and that could lead to my own implicit bias, which was the very reason for this project. Landmarks Illinois wanted to understand what other preservationists were experiencing and thinking about our field’s future. Were our observations unique? Could there be a collective response to similar problems? The 130 people interviewed represent all parts of the preservation field, professionals and volunteers, people in different positions, organizations, agencies and universities, those new to the work and well-established, in almost every U.S. region. The Relevancy Project interviewee list will be published in The Relevancy Guidebook at the culmination of this project.
10 Kuhlman, Renee, Jim Lindberg and Amy Webb. “Building Relevance: A Snapshot of the Preservation Movement” Series: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. National Trust for Historic Preservation, 8 October, 2020.
11 Mason, Randall and Kaitlyn Levesque. “Preservation and Change: Survey of Attitudes and Opinions in the Historic Preservation Field.” Urban Heritage Project/Penn Praxis, March 2022.
12 Professor Mason and I met on August 20, 2019 where I introduced The Relevancy Project and its purpose. At first, it appeared that the project was duplicative to Professor Mason’s attitudes and opinions survey work, which was also being planned. However, The Relevancy Project interviews were not meant to be a data-driven survey, but to have several hours with each interviewee to go in-depth into their opinions and their ideas for change. The projects are complimentary. The ultimate goal for The Relevancy Project is to identify actions to bring about the change we seek and to inspire preservationists to take action.
13 Ibid., 4.

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