Historians in Historic Preservation

Overview of the Field

The scope of historic preservation today has expanded significantly beyond its original goal of saving the homes of prominent Americans. Today preservationists can be found in architectural firms, city planning offices, economic development agencies, historic parks, and construction companies. The preservationist, wherever he or she works, appreciates the built environment and is committed to saving these valuable resources for future generations.

Historic preservation received a great deal of its current force from the passage of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, which codified the government’s commitment to protecting the nation’s historic resources. The act gave structure and direction to the modern version of a discipline that traces its American roots to Ann Pamela Cunningham’s crusade in the 1850s to save Mount Vernon by establishing a number of new regulations and agencies, which increased the need for qualified professionals to develop, implement, and enforce the new laws.

If you are interested in a career in the field, this regulatory framework will require you to blend a background in historical training with an ability to work with or within a bureaucracy, negotiating and compromising with a range of individuals and institutions. There is little room for the ivory tower in preservation, since the value of a historic resource often has to be measured in terms of real-world considerations.

Most preservation professionals work within a framework of regulations intended to protect the historical integrity of the structures, districts, and landscapes that help to define our cultural identity. At the federal level, the National Park Service (NPS) is the flagship organization for cultural resource management (CRM). Most federally owned resources such as battlefields, historic parks, and archaeological sites fall under the jurisdiction of the Park Service. Additionally, the NPS issues regulations for privately owned historic districts and Native American sites. While most of us know the Park Service as the protector of the natural environment—managing such majestic wilderness areas as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone—fully half of the 365 parks the NPS manages are historic and cultural sites, such as Alcatraz Island, Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, that draw thousands of visitors annually.

A number of other national agencies control resources located on federal property. Agencies such as the U.S. Army and the U.S. Forest Service employ historians to evaluate and manage historic resources. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is the largest private national organization and utilizes historians not for the enforcement of federal regulations but to assist and encourage private preservation efforts. At the local level, every state maintains a state historic preservation office (SHPO) that creates state standards for cultural resource management while also administering federal policies. Like their national counterparts, state parks also maintain historic and cultural properties. Many city, town, and county governments also include departments or offices responsible for the support of local ordinances relating to the preservation of historic properties.

The goal of historic preservation at any level is the identification, evaluation, physical preservation, and interpretation of historically and culturally significant sites. Properties and districts must be thoroughly researched and documented in written, photographic, and often oral forms to be eligible for a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Research and knowledge of community planning is important to the process of local preservation planning. A thorough knowledge of practical building skills and architectural history is crucial to the physical “bricks and mortar” side of preservation. Interpreting historic structures for the public can take the form of exhibit design, pamphlet publication, or documentary film production. The field as it has developed has drawn from a wide scope of professional skills and knowledge. A properly trained historian, however, is able to contribute to any of these elements of preservation.

Scope of Training

If you are looking to enter the field of preservation, it will help to have some sense of the type of organization and the specific position (e.g., research, interpretation, or planning) you are interested in, since your training needs will vary depending on the workplace. Since many preservation positions are with federal agencies, a bachelor’s degree in history or a related field (architectural or landscape history) is usually a prerequisite for any position. While an advanced degree is often preferred, specific experience can sometimes be substituted for the master’s degree. Most successful applicants have both experience and graduate training. The position of staff historian usually requires a Ph.D., although at smaller local agencies this may not be the case.

Many M.A. programs in historic preservation (which are often located in public history programs in history departments) offer academic training in preservation law and preservation theory and practice. The specific focuses of the programs differ widely, as some emphasize the role of the historian, some stress the legal and planning elements, and others are stronger in presenting the physical “bricks and mortar” skills. Any program that includes course work on the practical tasks of preservation will give you a broad base of knowledge and skills. A background in a related subject like real estate, urban planning, or Geographic Information Systems will further strengthen your résumé.

In addition to formal academic education, some institutions offer training programs in specific skill areas. The National Park Service, for instance, offers several training programs, such as an interpretive development program, museum management program, and resource management fundamentals training program, designed to foster the professional development of current and prospective historic preservationists. See the web site listed in the last chapter for more information.

Recent Trends in the Job Market

Preservation professionals with training in history can be found in a number of positions in local, federal, and state agencies.

Federal government

The largest single public sector employer of preservation employees is the National Park Service. For the position of historian, the agency defines three levels of performance, indicating increasing levels of expertise and responsibility: entry level, developmental, and full performance. The NPS also employs historians as researchers and writers. Some of these positions are located at NPS sites and regional offices and may include such duties as writing for site interpretation, developing education programs, or contributing to journals and other publications. Some positions are with NPS subagencies, including the Archaeology and Ethnography Program, the Historic American Buildings Survey, and the National Register of Historic Places. A more detailed survey of job opportunities in the federal government is discussed in the next chapter.

The field of cultural resource management is intimately linked to the federal sphere of preservation and employs a sizable percentage of the nation’s trained preservationists. While not a distinct entity, this field usually refers to the public administration of cultural assets, ranging from museum and archival resources to buildings, landscapes, districts, and archaeological sites. CRM preservationists are responsible for the welfare of a substantial portion of America’s heritage. The primary task of CRM preservationists is the review of federal projects to insure compliance with a critical part of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, Section 106.

Section 106 requires that all federal projects be evaluated to determine their potential impact on cultural resources. Any project involving federal funds falls under Section 106 provisions, from the construction of roads and dams to Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation-insured automated teller machine installation. The documentation necessary for meeting the provisions of Section 106 requires thorough research, and the presentation of written findings in a clear and efficient manner. The quality of such a report could determine the survival chances for a historic site.

State Government

Perhaps the most effective level of public preservation activity occurs at state historic preservation offices. As mandated in the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, each state is required to maintain an office to act as a mediator between federal and local historic preservation agencies. These offices employ historians and preservation professionals to conduct state surveys (a thorough building-level inventory of important historical structures), create educational programs, monitor Section 106 compliance, and prepare and evaluate National Register nominations.

Local Government

At the local level, more and more municipalities are realizing the value of historic resources for encouraging tourism, economic development, and community pride. Some city and county governments, therefore, employ preservationists to evaluate local cultural resources. Usually located in planning or economic development offices, local cultural resource managers draft and administer local preservation regulations. Preservation professionals at the local level are generally expected to be responsible for a number of non-research-related tasks as well.

Nonprofit Organizations

Most cities and towns sustain one or more nonprofit preservation organizations, which often have a different focus than public agencies. While these institutions cannot enact local ordinances regulating design and development, they usually play a critical role in maintaining local historic resources and advocating preservation awareness in the community. Many of these agencies are quite small, and staffed largely by volunteers. Others are large enough to support a professional staff, whose responsibilities can include research. Generally a position in a preservation association or advocacy group will include research and writing, as well as management, development, and budgetary duties.