Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

Public treasures, private turf

The always-readable Knoxville historian Jack Neely weighs in on the disappearing Farragut monument, and considers the wider implications.  His assessment is that we East Tennesseans have been pretty lousy stewards of our historic resources, and I heartily agree with him.

“Laws of probability suggest that every privately owned historic site will eventually end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t care much about history,” he writes.  “Independent-minded property owners have an advantage over preservationists: one property owner can cancel generations of care. Without some permanent enforceable protections in place, a community will erase its own history.”  Of course, “permanent enforceable protections” will mean curbs on doing what we darn well please, which is anathema to a great many people.

I’ve been a conservative for quite a long time, and historic preservation is one of those areas where I often find myself in disagreement with fellow members of my political persuasion.  Look, I’m all for a robust conception of property rights.  The notion that a man can be told what to do or what not to do with what he owns gets my blood boiling; if you can’t do what you want with your property, one wonders if it’s really your property.  But I also believe there is such a thing as responsibility to the common good, and protection of historic resources is very much a part of that common good.  Few people ask for the onerous responsibility of stewardship over these resources, but a responsibility is never abrogated just because it isn’t desired.

We conservatives are a rather schizophrenic lot.  We cheer when our leaders pose for photo-ops at museums and historic sites to spout platitudes about our heritage, and then we cheer just as loudly when they make decisions that deprive those museums and sites of the resources they need to maintain and share the heritage they invoke.  We preach about looking back to our predecessors who sacrificed to secure the freedoms we enjoy, and then we exercise these freedoms by erasing all trace of those predecessors whenever it serves our immediate self-interest. 

Oh, we absolutely love to invoke the past, so long as it doesn’t cost us anything.

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Fifteen kilotons of misplaced outrage

We just marked a significant but somber anniversary here in East Tennessee—the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, an event in which the town of Oak Ridge played an indispensable role.  Charles Johnson and Charles Jackson tell the story of the wartime city which sprang up virtually overnight in their fascinating book City Behind a Fence.

For some time now the National Park Service has been mulling over the possibility of a new park devoted to the Manhattan Project with sites in three states, including historically important locations at Oak Ridge, and last month the Secretary of the Interior gave it his recommendation.  The idea has some people pretty upset, for reasons that I think are not only mistaken but downright odd.

These critics seem incapable of distinguishing between preservation and celebration, and between interpretation and glorification.  Here’s a recent sample of the brouhaha from The New York Times:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week offered his support for the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Park, and top leaders on Capitol Hill have already vowed to move a plan developed by the National Park Service through Congress in the coming months. But Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Maryland-based Nuclear Information Resource Service, said today that the effort runs contrary to the goals of the national park system.

“National parks are national treasurers, and glorifying a weapon of mass destruction is certainly not among the purposes of a national park,” Mariotte said.

No kidding.  Glorifying a weapon of mass destruction isn’t among the purposes of any sane person or institution. But we’re not talking about glorification; we’re talking about a national historical park.  National parks preserve and interpret.  Neither of those activities necessarily involves glorification.  I doubt the Polish government had glorification in mind when it set aside Auschwitz-Birkenau as a historic site.  It doesn’t amount to a statement about whether something is good or bad, only that it’s important.

Workers at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge during the war. From the American Museum of Science and Energy via Wikimedia Commons

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group in New Mexico, shares those concerns.

“We have to bracket a healthy historical interest with our moral sensibilities and with common sense, and that’s what’s not happening here,” said Mello, whose group has been lobbying against the effort for several years as the National Park Service has conducted a feasibility study ahead of making its official recommendation.

“What we risk is harming the national park system as a whole and the idea of national parks just when we need to protect the environment the most,” Mello said.

Setting aside significant places for stewardship will harm the idea of national parks?  That’s weird, because I thought it was the idea of national parks.  These guys do know that the NPS maintains historic areas, right?

Mello and Mariotte said honoring the atomic bomb with its own national park would set a poor precedent.

Again with the celebratory language.  Who said anything about “honoring” the bomb?  Does Ford’s Theatre National Historical Site “honor” the practice of political assassination?

“Once you open the gate … a national park can be anything,” Mello said. “Why don’t we have a Disneyland national park or NASCAR national park; what’s the limit?”

The limit is that a national historical park or site must be deemed significant enough to warrant federal ownership and administration.  Within those guidelines, you can have national parks dedicated to any number of aspects of American history—textile manufacturing and whaling, to name just two examples.

Here’s a rather bizarre line of argument from a recent editorial by Russ Wellen at Scholars & Rogues:

It’s always a mistake to assume that much of the public favors the United States leading the way on disarmament when other states retain nuclear weapons. But you can be fairly certain that the public either lacks knowledge of the extent to which nuclear weapons still exist since the end of the Cold War or it locks said existence in a tiny room in its mind. In other words, isn’t the Manhattan Project National Park a vast investment of money in an attraction for an audience that’s strictly niche?

Wellen chastises the American public for their ignorance and indifference regarding the important issue of nuclear weapons, and uses the fact of their ignorance and indifference to discredit a measure that would inform them and engage them with that very issue. It’s as if someone blew off a proposal to encourage literacy by arguing that people didn’t care enough about reading books for it to work.

In any case, I think Wellen’s assessment of the American public’s indifference is off the mark.  Elsewhere in his editorial, he refers to Richard Rhodes, whose prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb has been in print for twenty-five years and sold hundreds of thousands of copies despite the fact that it deals with highly technical subject matter and clocks in at some 900 pages.  The success of this volume indicates that there is indeed a public interest in the historical aspects of this issue.  The tremendous popularity currently enjoyed by WWII literature and media of all kinds also bodes well for the success of the proposed park.

A piece in The Oak Ridger applies some much-needed good sense:

Creating this park provides an opportunity to interpret and discuss an incredibly important piece of American and world history, and to allow contemporary society to better understand the complex and difficult decision to use the bomb.

Experts with divergent views will be consulted during the development of the educational materials to ensure the materials are balanced and informative. Park rangers can share the stories of participants and decision-makers with visitors to allow them to be better informed about these decisions.

“The decision of whether the bombs should have been dropped will always be subject for intense debate, and the public should have access to the places instrumental in the development of atomic power so they can reach their own conclusions,” said Ron Tipton, senior vice president at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Because the government already owns the land and historic Manhattan Project properties, the costs associated with the creation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park will be modest. In fact, the Department of Energy will be saving an estimated $100 million or more by preserving the Manhattan Project facilities such as the famous B Reactor at Hanford, Wash., rather than destroying and disposing of them. The National Park Service study recommends that it make use of existing museums and interpretive centers such as the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, and the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum in New Mexico.

The story of the Manhattan Project isn’t just the story of the bomb, but of the people and places involved and all the momentous consequences that followed.  The NPS has been in the historic interpretation business for quite some time, and they’re rather good at it.  Let’s at least see how they plan to tell these stories before condemning the effort altogether.

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Those Gettysburg casino guys

…just can’t take “no” for an answer.

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Sleeping with ghosts

Back in October I posted a review of Historic Brattonsville, a great site in York County, SC.  Over at the National Trust for Historic Preservation blog, there’s an interesting item concerning Brattonsville written by living historian Joseph McGill, Jr.  He’s found a way to combine reenacting with advocacy, drawing attention to one particular type of endangered structure—the slave cabin.

McGill travels throughout the Palmetto State, spending nights in original slave dwellings and using the ensuing publicity as an opportunity to explain why these buildings are important and need to be maintained.  He’s been chronicling his experiences at the National Trust blog; you can find the first post in his series here, along with links to related news stories.

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Want to create jobs? Don’t build. Restore!

Anti-preservationists invoke the need for new jobs with a kind of knee-jerk instinctuality.  All priorities must take a backseat to job creation.  Battlefield threatened by a residential development?  Regrettable, but we must have more jobs. Significant building in danger of demolition to make way for new construction?  A pity, but we must have more jobs. Somebody wants to put a casino/multiplex/strip joint/theme park/whatever next door to a national park?  A bit tacky, perhaps, but at the end of the day, we must have more jobs.

And we do indeed need to get people to work, especially these days.  The problem is that this dichotomy between creating jobs and preservation isn’t valid.  It operates under the assumption that we must pick one or the other.  And that’s just not true.

From the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s blog, with a hat tip to the NTHP’s blog:

Historic preservation creates more jobs than new construction.  This is a little-known fact, but one that makes sense when you consider that preservation is a labor-intensive industry.  It takes people to repair existing material rather than replacing it outright with new material.  In Minnesota, it’s estimated that preservation will create 5.7 more jobs than manufacturing, 4 more than road construction, and 2 more than new construction for every $1 million in output.  Our new state historic tax credit could create between 1,500 and 3,000 new jobs alone if we follow the success of other states.  This is powerful when you consider that we are putting to work the population of a town the size of Granite Falls; we are helping to sustain these peoples’ livelihoods and the money they spend in their communities.

Let government entities know that if they want to stimulate job creation, they can also act as good stewards of historic treasures by providing tax credits to projects that will put more people to work by repairing and restoring significant landmarks. We don’t have to sacrifice cultural resources on the altar of economic growth, or make economic sacrifices to preserve irreplaceable treasures.  We can have our cake and eat it too.

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Wanna hear something ironic?

Out of Philadelphia comes a news story so bass-ackwards that it belongs in The Onion.  Dimitri Rotov has the details over at Civil War Memory.

The Olympia, veteran vessel of the Spanish-American and First World Wars and the oldest steel warship still sitting on top of the water anywhere in the world, is at the Independence Seaport Museum.  The Olympia was Dewey’s flagship at Manila Bay; he was standing on her decks when he gave the order, “You may fire when ready, Gridley.”  She also happens to be the ship that brought home the remains of America’s WWI unknown soldier. 

Dewey and the crew of the Olympia at the Battle of Manila Bay. From Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideal culmination of any effort to locate and preserve some historic vessel is to raise the wreck, conserve it in a lab, and then put in on display where you can interpret it for the public.  Olympia never went to the bottom of the ocean.  She sailed home to acclaim and ended up as a museum.  No sinking, no salvage.  So far so good.

The problem is that the Independence Seaport Museum can’t afford the upkeep anymore, so they’re looking to dispose of her.  Here’s the money quote:  “‘Another option would be scrapping Olympia,’ said James McLane, interim president of the museum, which owns the ship and is adjacent to it at Penn’s Landing. ‘But the Navy has told us that ‘reefing’ is better because it would allow divers to go down on it and would preserve Olympia.’”

“Reefing” basically means towing it out to sea and then sending it down to Davy Jones’s locker, where it would be inaccessible to everybody except for scuba divers and fish, subject to the very same kind of deterioration that’s causing the Monitor and the Titanic to crumble to pieces.  

I’m not trying to criticize the museum.  Lots of museums are in a bind.  If they don’t have the funds, then they don’t have the funds, and scrapping the ship wouldn’t do anybody any more benefit than reefing it.  But the irony here is just absolutely sickening.  We spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to raise historic ships from the bottom of the sea, get them afloat, and turn them into exhibits, and now here we have a historic ship that’s already afloat and on exhibit, and it might end up at the bottom of the sea.  Unbelievable.

There is, fortunately, a group of people dedicated to keeping Olympia afloat, and I urge you to visit their website.  Please consider a donation to this organization, or at least sign their online petition.

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Diminishing returns

Wondering how much new revenue the proposed Gettysburg casino might generate?  Judging by the long faces among gambling industry leaders, I’d say not that much: 

As new casinos keep popping up, even with overall gambling revenue stagnating, casino companies are fighting harder for smaller shares of their market.

Executives at the East Coast Gaming Congress, a national casino conference, said Tuesday that with many states now adding table games to the mix, it’s going to be even tougher to succeed in the cutthroat East Coast market.

‘We have to fight this explosion of gambling all around us,’ said Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which has four casinos in Atlantic City. ‘We have to continually reinvent ourselves as a destination.’

Operators of commercial casinos in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia told the gathering in Atlantic City they are being forced to fight for one another’s customers.

‘I don’t think it’s saturated yet, but it’s clearly crowded, clearly more challenging,’ John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming, said of the East Coast market As new casinos keep popping up, even with overall gambling revenue stagnating, casino companies are fighting harder for smaller shares of their market.

More details in the original news item, released just yesterday.  Still sticking by that rosy economic impact study?

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Even protected battlefields can be threatened

If you take a look at the Civil War Preservation Trust’s 2010 list of most endangered battlefields, you’ll notice that some of the sites included are national parks or have some similar type of protective designation. 

On the face of it, this might seem a little odd.  You’d assume that once a site becomes a national park, it’s safe and sound.  Nobody is going to build a row of condos on federally protected land, and no short-sighted local zoning board can approve a retail development within a park’s boundaries.  The truth of the matter, though, is that while designation as a park protects land within a site’s boundaries, threats from outside those boundaries can be considerable.

Anyone who doubts the impact of development outside of a site’s boundaries should visit Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro, NC.  This is one of my favorite places, and one of the most important pieces of ground in America, where a British attempt to destroy Nathanael Greene’s army in March 1781 proved so costly that it led to the march to Virginia that ended at Yorktown.  It’s a beautiful park, and the NPS has done wonders in interpreting it.  I consider it a must-see for anyone interested in the Revolution.

It is sadly, however, crowded by construction.  Getting a perspective on the field as it appeared during the battle is extremely difficult, and the park will unfortunately never be able to interpret those parts of the field that lie outside the central core, since they’ve been churned up and built over.  GCNMP is a stellar example of what the NPS can do, but it’s also an example of the limitations that urban growth can place on a site.

Development proponents, of course, might call preservationists unreasonable and ask why we can’t be satisfied with what we’re allotted, why we’re always demanding more, more, more.  I’d be sorely tempted to ask them the same thing.  Preservationists need to remember that every time we draw a line in the sand, someone will be waiting to cross it and force us to draw another.  And another, and another.  We should be at least as persistent as they are.

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The American Antiquarian Society is onto something

As someone remarked in a comment to an earlier post, one of the hard things about raising money for conservation is the fact that donors want plenty of bang for their bucks.  A new museum wing named after dear old dad gives a donor a real sense of satisfaction.  Artifacts in a locked vault, not so much. 

Donors also need to feel a kind of proprietorship when they give to a worthy cause.  They should be able to point to a specific need they met and say, “This is where my money went.”  A check written to a museum for something vague, like “collections management” or “routine conservation costs,” doesn’t provide that sense of ownership.

This is a real dilemma for those who work in historic preservation.  Many of the most pressing needs are for services that the general public might not notice, but folks with money want to leave their mark on something visible, something with sex appeal.  How, then, do you encourage people to donate to things like collections care?

The Boston 1775 blog mentions a way to do it, in the form of an interesting program at the American Antiquarian Society.  Here’s the deal:

“The Adopt-A-Book Catalog features a variety of items acquired by AAS curators in recent months. All will be offered for ‘adoption.’  That is, you may adopt any item by pledging the stated amount.  In return AAS will permanently record the adopter’s name 1) on a special bookplate attached to each item, and 2) in the AAS online library catalog.”

The genius of this approach is that it visibly ties donors’ contributions to specific items in the collection, giving the donor the same sense of ownership and appreciation as they would get by writing a check for something with more pizzazz.  Old books need TLC; donors want people to see where their money went.  Everybody goes home happy.

In fact, this approach works for many kinds of institutions that have high ongoing costs.  Almost anybody can find an exotic animal they like, even if they’d never think of mailing a check to the local zoo for food and veterinary care.  If people are willing to “adopt” books and zoo animals, then you can find folks who will adopt specific artifacts, manuscripts, and deteriorating monuments.

Those working in preservation, museums, and archives can learn a lesson here.  Don’t solicit money for abstractions; make those abstractions concrete.  Set different levels for the objects under your care, with higher levels of support tied to the most spectacular items.

This isn’t just a fundraising gimmick; it reflects the reality of the situation.  Budget lines aren’t numbers on a page.  They stand for actual, tangible, irreplaceable pieces of history.  When you tell donors that their money ensures the protection of these pieces, you’re telling them the truth.

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Spend those heritage dollars wisely

Not long ago, the Civil War museum where I used to work sent one of their battle flags to a conservation lab.  The red fabric in the canton was frayed and had needed attention for some time, but the museum had to secure the funds first.  A lot of history museums have backlogs of artifacts in need of more than in-house treatment, which they send out in dribs and drabs as donations, grants, and appropriations trickle in.  The conservation and repair of one artifact can run well into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.  Multiply that by thousands of artifacts, and you understand why financial assistance is important. 

That flag is one of those artifacts that always left an impact on visitors.  It belonged to a Confederate cavalry unit from Tennessee—and one of the members of that unit may have been the person who left his blood on it.  The stains are still quite visible.  

I thought about that bloodstained flag when I read this post over at Civil War Memory.  A local SCV group has secured private land and raised nearly $100,000 for a brand-new statue of Gen. Joe Johnston at Bentonville. 

Readers of CWM may recall that the controversial statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber, which the SCV commissioned and then had to trot around in search of someone willing to accept it, had the same price tag.  Remember, these aren’t historic works of art that have come onto the market and need a home, but entirely new sculptures produced for specific purposes.  

Personally, I’m not at all uneasy about monuments to Confederates.  I can understand why public displays of this sort bother some people, but the sight of a Confederate flag doesn’t make me any more uneasy than the national flag of Argentina.  In fact, when I hear discussions about removing or relocating old Confederate monuments, I lose both interest and patience pretty quickly.  

Monuments that are ninety or a hundred years old have historic value in and of themselves.  They’re artifacts in their own right that have become a characteristic aspect of certain American landscapes, and they’re evidence of who we were and what we used to believe about ourselves.  One shouldn’t go around trying to blot out every piece of culture simply because it’s distasteful.  Furthermore, in some cases Civil War veterans themselves placed these monuments, so they provide information about how participants in the war interpreted their own experiences.  Occasionally, they tell us where units were positioned during engagements, or at least where its members thought they were positioned. 

This statue of Joe Johnston in Dalton, GA is an artifact in its own right. The UDC erected it in 1912 at a cost of $6,000. Image from Wikimedia Commons, info from roadsidegeorgia.com.

 Here, though, we’re not talking about statues that have been around for decades and have accrued some intrinsic historical or cultural worth.  We’re talking about brand-new sculptures which cost a great deal of money, and that money has come from the efforts of heritage groups.  

I’m extremely grateful that there are dedicated, generous people out there who are willing to support history with their money and to spend their time persuading other people to do so.  I wish, however, that more of this money could be used to meet existing needs, rather than to create new monuments.  Honoring brave men is a fine thing to do, but commemorative sculpture doesn’t play the prominent role in public memory and civic education that it once did.  What matters now is that we have the raw material of history at hand, and we’re losing it.  The sort of money spent on these statues could go a long way toward helping us preserve it. 

If the SCV is looking for ways to perpetuate the legacy of Confederate soldiers, there is no shortage of opportunities.  The CWPT is trying to raise $150,000 for the site of a remarkable Confederate breakthrough at Franklin, in the face of overwhelming fire and despite devastating losses.  That spot of ground is a far more eloquent testimony to the bravery and prowess of the Confederate soldier than any plaque on a monument could provide. 

The same organization is also trying to raise $75,000 for part of the field at Gettysburg associated with Longstreet’s assault of July 2.  The cost of one of those statues would have secured ground over which southern troops marched during what Longstreet called the “best three hours of fighting” he had ever seen, with funds left over for even more.   

Finally, there’s a need for $12,000,000 for a critical portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield, site of one of Lee’s most decisive victories.  These are just a few handy examples; there are plenty of other endangered sites, along with historic Confederate monuments on battlefields and in graveyards that need the sort of serious maintenance that this sort of money could provide.  

A hundred thousand dollars would renovate a museum gallery.  It would cover the salary of a full-time historic site interpreter for three or four years.  (There is currently no interpretation at Brandywine, due to a loss of state funds.)  It would send a cabinet full of deteriorating uniforms, weapons, flags, portraits, or documents to the conservator.  

Of course, the SCV and other heritage groups do, in fact, support such efforts with their money and time.  I’m sincerely thankful for that.  But I also think that in a tight economy, with governments and institutions slashing budgets for historical causes left and right, it’s important for those who care about history to be especially prudent with their resources. 

That applies not just to Confederate heritage groups, but to those who want to preserve the legacies of Union soldiers, Revolutionary soldiers, abolitionists, Native Americans, or any historic group or individual.  Is the best way to honor their memory a work of art, or ensuring that what’s left of their world is still around for your children and grandchildren to learn from and appreciate? 

One more thing about that flag I mentioned at the beginning of this little tirade.  It used to hang in a display case near the uniform of a young Confederate soldier from Virginia, who died in battle at age eighteen.  The uniform isn’t on exhibit anymore.  It’s in fragile condition, but it might go back on display after some treatment.  Just as soon as there’s enough money to do it.

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