Fifty years ago, in 1966, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Its aim was to preserve historical and archaeological sites in the United States. The act created the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks, and the State Historic Preservation Offices.
A half century later, the NHPA still regulates preservation in the United States—but whose history does it preserve?
In Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation, fifty scholars meditate on what historic preservation will look like in the future. The essays ask: “If the ‘arc of the moral universe . . . bends toward justice,’ how can preservation be a tool for achieving a more just society and world?”
The emphasis on social justice through historic preservation echoes a similar trend within the wider realm of public history. Just as museums choose which stories to tell and how to interpret them, historic preservationists choose whose history to preserve. Recent work within the field of public history has made an effort to include marginalized voices, amplifying histories that have been frequently ignored or overlooked.
Choosing what to preserve is always that: a conscious choice. We choose what stories to tell in history books and what interpretations to include in museum exhibits. Whether it be documents stored in climate-controlled archives or the familiar buildings that we walk past every day, we need to reexamine not only what needs to be preserved, but why we are choosing to preserve it. Historic preservation is always an act of legitimizing someone’s history, and, potentially, delegitimizing someone else’s.
As many of the contributors in Bending the Future suggest, the NHPA has inherently privileged the history of the majority, reinforcing systematic racism, sexism, and colonialism. For a building or a district to be considered worthy of preservation, it must meet the standards stipulated in the NHPA. While the act aims to preserve historical sites, it also makes it difficult to preserve sites that might be recently built or architecturally uninteresting but still historically significant.
Public historians are working to preserve the histories of all Americans and historical preservationists should follow suit. Society is changing while the NHPA has remained largely stagnant. In 2016—and in the coming decades—we need theories and methods of historical preservation that are particular to the challenges of preservation in the twenty-first century.
Rebekkah Rubin is a graduate student in the history department at UMass Amherst. She is specializing in public history.