Historic preservation and memory
While History to the Public has dedicated May to examining the connections between history and memory, in the United States, May is designated as Preservation Month. Preservation Month was established in 1973 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the month is used as an opportunity by communities all over the country to celebrate local historic sites. The celebrations of historic architecture serve a dual purpose: in addition to highlighting local history and architectural craftsmanship, historic architecture also bolsters community pride and collective memory. Architectural preservation has always served as a valuable tool in shaping collective memory, but it has roots in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century memory practices as well.
In 1586, William Camden published Britannia, a groundbreaking work that surveyed the topography of Britain, upending traditional narratives (including the legend of King Arthur), while chronicling Roman and mediaeval antiquities found within England. The book, which was published in Latin, was extraordinarily popular with antiquarians and was reissued five times before it was even translated into English in 1610. Reissues of Britannia continued regularly into the nineteenth century.
Camden’s Britannia transformed the way people used non-textual sources to interpret history, and his work inspired countless imitations, from people studying both national history and local history. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, antiquaries studied and chronicled ancient architecture and archaeological artefacts in order to understand cultural practices from the past. This was a change from the standard practice of relying solely on manuscripts and other written documents to interpret the past, and it also changed the value of the built environment for antiquarians and historians.
By the eighteenth century, as Rosemary Sweet has documented, ‘antiquaries were encouraged to record and preserve the memory of the monuments of history before their disappearance from the face of the nation. Such actions were firmly grounded in a patriotic agenda because antiquaries cast light upon history, and a nation’s history was its identity’. This was a change from previous practice, when people had no qualms about destroying existing structures or altering existing landscapes in the name of progress or convenience. It does not mean that architectural preservation immediately became standard practice, but before William Camden, people rarely considered the built environment to be as important to history as the acts and deeds of the ruling classes.
Many of the chorographies that were published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were written by antiquarians who focused their attention on local history, usually of the town or county in which they resided. Such books documented the landscape, buildings, and history of particular areas, and in doing so, antiquarians connected what they deemed to be important events of the past to structures and landscapes that still existed in the present. Their interventions changed the way people viewed the past and their connection to it.
Maurice Halbwachs coined the term ‘collective memory’ in 1925 in his book Les Cadres sociaux de la memoire (published in English as The Collective Memory in 1952). In it, Halbwachs determined that collective memory was determined by social conditions, and that collective memory practice ‘does not preserve the past but reconstructs it with the aid of the material traces, rites, texts, and traditions left behind’. This is exactly what antiquarians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were doing with their chorographies. They assigned value to historic structures because they had existed at moments in history they determined to be important, and they sought to preserve such structures through prints, engravings, and written documentation before the buildings were destroyed.
Antiquarians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did little to conserve buildings in place, however. According to Sweet, memorialisation in writing had been considered an effective method of preservation since the Renaissance. Once a building had been documented, antiquarians often willingly accepted its destruction or modification. It was not until the nineteenth century that antiquarians took an interest in architectural preservation as it is now known. People such as John Ruskin, William Morris, John Lubbock, and Octavia Hill influenced preservation debates on the national stage in England, but for many nineteenth-century practitioners, preservation became important because of the way buildings stood as touchstones for local memory and culture.
Many people in the nineteenth century believed that their era represented a fundamental break from the traditional narratives of the past, especially after the French Revolution and the industrial revolution. Historic architecture could serve as a nostalgic reminder of the past, and it had an important role to play in representations of local identity when towns, villages, and rural areas were being rapidly transformed by social and technological changes. Architecture became worthy of physical preservation because of such representations.
Today, architectural preservation has international, national, and local implications. UNESCO maintains a list of sites it has determined to be ‘of outstanding value to humanity’. Organisations such as Historic England and the National Park Service in the United States maintain lists of sites that have been determined to have national significance. But it is the sites that have local importance in particular that Preservation Month seeks to celebrate. Such designations can and often do overlap (in San Antonio, Texas, for example, the Alamo is a UNESCO World Heritage site, was one of the first buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is an integral site for historic and ongoing local cultural practices), but at the local level, historic architecture influences collective memory and culture in a way that is unusual at the national or international level.
Historic architecture is a potent symbol of heritage that since at least the Renaissance has been used as a tool to reinforce a community’s memory of the past. Collective memory imprinted in landscape and architecture has the power to shape identity, and thus preservation has become an important tool for communities around the world as they seek to understand and interpret their relationship to the past.