CRM Journal


Pioneering Stewardship: New Challenges for CRM

by David Lowenthal


It is a privilege to join in celebrating CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship's inaugural issue. Along with countless practitioners and teachers, I owe the National Park Service a quarter century debt. Sparing time and thought from toils on the coalface of public history, hundreds of dedicated specialists have furnished CRM with progress reports on everything from archival repositories to archeological sites, time capsules to treasure-hunting, disabled access to disaster strategies for heritage sites.

Twenty-five years have ripened heritage itself into history. Maturity provides the rationale for broadening CRM's remit still further. In the new journal the nitty-gritty specifics of resource management will appear side by side with more extended reflections on heritage in general—its meaning and purpose, growth and evolution, supporters and detractors, perils and promises. Such a forum is sorely needed. Aside from a handful of periodicals—The Public Historian, The International Journal of Heritage Studies, The International Journal of Cultural Property (now, alas, temporarily suspended)—no accessible forum for inquiry and debate encompasses heritage in its rich and multifaceted entirety. As a result, the public at large as well as professional heritage practitioners are apt to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Heritage is a consummately crisis-driven pursuit. We are swamped by manifold urgent issues, overwhelmed by imminent threats to fabric or integrity, driven by successive emergencies. Hence we seldom find occasion to meditate on the passions and presumptions, the credos and the crochets that underpin the whole enterprise, making heritage a vital living force. CRM's editorial board now recognizes that such contemplation is not just a marginal frill; it is a cardinal need.

That the National Park Service is the prime vehicle for reflections on heritage might at first glance seem highly unlikely to those who only see the agency as a manager of campsites and guardian of flora and fauna. Who would conceive of this "Smokey Bear" image as a sounding-board for scholarly stewardship? Yet in truth the National Park Service vies with the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress as the national agency most concerned with—and best informed about—heritage. How has this come to be? Because the American National Park System was born, almost uniquely in the world, of a conservation crusade. Haunted by fears engendered by the despoliation of nature, the closing of the frontier, and the end of free land, a small coterie of devotees persuaded Congress to set aside extensive tracts from mounting pressures of commercial exploitation. The parks were designated as public sanctuaries, intended to inspire, instruct, and refresh present and future generations. Initially limited to realms of scenic splendor and pristine wilderness—such as Yellowstone and Yosemite—the National Park System later expanded to include sites valued for the tales of human history there enacted, terrains of triumph and tragedy dating from ancient prehistory to the near present—Mesa Verde to Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front. Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields today coexist with locales consecrated to the suffragette movement, to civil rights, even, as is most fitting, to pioneers of American conservation, at California's Muir Woods National Monument and Vermont's Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.

As the parks' remit expanded, so did the experience and expertise of those who staffed them. Responsibility for hundreds of sites in every corner of the country aroused keen awareness of their instructive potential. What Americans admire in their parks and historic monuments increasingly mirrors their resource management concerns at home. Just as the heritage community today embraces all Americans, park visitors or not, so do the management and stewardship principles initiated in parks bid fair to become exemplary guides for the well-being of all America. Ecological health, aesthetic integrity, wise use, and equitable stewardship are no longer principles exclusively bounded within park precincts. They begin to apply, for all Americans, to all America.

Heritage attachments, individual and collective alike, have grown phenomenally over the past quarter of a century. In this surge, four particular trends feature prominently in current practice and in the pages of CRM: merging heritage's multiple realms and disciplines, fructifying professional expertise with amateur enthusiasm, balancing resource preservation with creative innovation, transforming heritage stewardship from a sporadic operation detached from ongoing life into a pervasive social commitment. Each of these trends holds promises and engenders problems that merit comment.

Merging Disciplinary Expertise

Time was when the Nation's heritage mainly connoted great architectural monuments and renowned works of art. These were the exclusive domain of historians and conservators, whose duties were to verify authenticity and provenance, and to protect and curate materials and relics. Experts in each field tended to work in isolation: buildings and paintings and grave goods, tapestry and topiary and illuminated texts were studied and conserved with little interchange of ideas or skills from one realm to any other. Each treasure was a distinct thing apart, as decontextualized as an item in a cabinet of curiosities.

No longer is heritage thus atomized and segregated. That its subject matter has immeasurably expanded is common knowledge. Less widely known, yet no less important, is the growing convergence of heritage connoisseurship and management. Archeologists, archivists, art and architectural historians work in tandem with one another, collaborating as well with biologists, geneticists, philologists, genealogists, folklorists, and myriad others. Practitioners in every facet of our natural and cultural legacy are coming to realize how intricately heritage issues interlink. Issues of provenance, authenticity, protection, interpretation, display, commodification, legal title, restitution, repatriation, pillaging, illicit trade—to list but a few matters of moment—are hardly ever tidily circumscribed within any single sphere; instead they require conjoined insights. To cite one famed instance, understanding the Elgin Marbles demands knowledge of classical sculpture and architecture, Ottoman law, Greek and British history, 18th- and 19th-century Hellenism, 19th- and 20th-century connoisseurship and aesthetic taste, the physics and chemistry of marble and its corrosion and decay, the career of Melina Mercouri, and the iconic political role of the British Museum.

The challenge here is how to surmount entrenched specialization, how to overcome academic apartheid. Heritage specialists need to be equipped with the combined insights of science, art, and history. Resource managers need to be made aware that the particular gems of nature and culture in their care are part and parcel of the interlinked spectrum of our entire global legacy. Every heritage professional should ideally be a polymath.

Fructifying Professional Commitment with Public Commitment

Well into the 1970s mainstream American heritage was chosen by, and pretty much limited to, a small elite that was overwhelmingly white, professional, affluent, and genteel. That elite's tastes reflected a patrician and patriotic nostalgia for icons of WASP America—colonial antiques, Greek- and Gothic-Revival architecture, sites and relics and memorials connected with the Founding Fathers and saviors of the Republic, with Manifest Destiny, and with milestones of progress. This was a heritage apotheosized at Independence Hall and the Washington Monument, Mount Vernon and Monticello, Rockefeller's Williamsburg and Ford's Dearborn.

Recent decades have seen mainstream American heritage enlarged and transformed almost beyond recognition by popular enthusiasm and populist assimilation. Proletarian voices previously unheard now out-shout the cognoscenti. Women, African Americans, Native Americans, and dozens of minorities today register—and what's more, reify—their own distinctive heritage preferences. Local and ethnic roots, craft lore and skills, folkways of food and dress, music and dance, sports and the media, collectibles of all aspects of popular culture have become integral to cultural resource stewardship. Indeed, once-despised humble origins lend such heritage special cachet.

Meanwhile, heritage now adjudged elitist is not erased but radically reinterpreted. The customary fables of the victors are supplanted by tales told by the victims. From historical markers to presidential homesteads and Civil War sites, revision is everywhere rife. To be sure, professional disdain for lay involvement—unenlightened, unskilled, avaricious, self-centered, dilettante—still persists. But populist preferences are now a major force in every aspect of heritage from museum acquisition and display to tourism.

Enhanced inclusiveness has two prime virtues: it brings to light valued heritage domains up to now unremarked or dismissed by professionals, and it affirms and sponsors heritage management as a public good. Indeed, widespread popular support is essential to sustain heritage stewardship over the long term.

The challenge here is to enable heritage expertise to serve this widely diversified new clientele. To do so calls for incorporating arts of communication and skills of give-and-take into heritage education. Every heritage professional should be trained to articulate technical issues in lay terms. Their most crucial task is to inform and alert officials, watchdogs, and voters—the ultimately decisive amateurs. At the same time, the public needs to be continually reminded that decision-making entails responsibility for making reasoned choices.

Balancing Preservation with Creation

Cultural resource management in previous generations was largely devoted to saving things—safeguarding for as long as possible legacies bequeathed to us from the past. But the emphasis on preservation tended to museumize and hence to ossify these precious relics. As a consequence, heritage was a realm set apart. Unlike the messy ongoing present, the cherished past was immortal, unchanging, congealed in amber, essentially lifeless.

Heritage today has developed into a far more vibrant and dynamic realm. We now feel that worthwhile legacies need to remain in continual flux. They require not only periodic renewal but selective replacement by new creations. Indeed, evolution is inescapable: all remnants and traces of the past suffer attrition from ongoing decay and erosion, annihilation by episodic accident and cataclysm. Aging and death are the universal lot. And even while items of heritage physically endure, the passage of time implacably alienates us from what they signified for their makers and first possessors. In the end, most survivals cease to speak to us in any meaningful way, becoming only pale academic echoes of the messages they once conveyed. Of the adornments, the memorabilia, even the monuments of the past but a tiny fraction endure, and of those that do fewer still are esteemed as heritage.

Yet these losses are offset by manifold ongoing gains. Surviving heritage ever accretes new substances and accrues new meanings, its look and relevance altering for each successive inheritor. And fresh treasures expand our heritage trove in four distinct ways. First, discoveries ceaselessly surface from newly excavated or re-explored depths of land and sea. Second, relics and memories previously disregarded take on heritage value. Third, we acquire as heritage the residues and bygones of the immediate past. And fourth, we add our own creations to the heritage stock. Lamentable as heritage losses often seem, they are in the long run more than compensated by heritage gains.

We sustain organic touch with heritage not by striving to preserve its every vestige forever, but by accepting attrition and mortality as inevitable, and by pridefully adding our own creations to ancestral bequests. To care well for what we inherit we must form the habit of admiring our own works too—and, of necessity, making them worthy of admiration. Innovation is not the opposite of conservation but its indispensable adjunct.

The challenge here is to temper the clamorous demands of the immediate present with a compelling rationale for the claims of both past and future. Presentist bias is ingrained in today's social and political institutions. Individuals are too impotent, corporations too profit-bent, governments too dependent on instant pay-offs to care for cultural resources beyond the next election, let alone beyond our own lifetimes.

Stewardship is an ideal much preached but little practiced. Yet in reality stewardship not only benefits the future, it also enhances present worth: in caring for the well-being of our heirs and successors, we enrich the meaning of our own lives and strengthen our communal attachments. But effectual stewardship requires collaborative effort sustained over many generations.

Making Stewardship Integral to Everyday Life

Well aware that free enterprise and private property rights were American articles of faith, past conservation leaders habitually abstained from promoting programs of general land reform; they realized these would be unworkable. Instead they focused on perfecting the precious jewels they could control by government possession—Federal and State forest reserves, parks, and wilderness areas. Here they sought, often with enviable success, to create exemplary sites of ecological, recreational, and scenic inspiration. However, these sites' intended exemplary function was long a total failure. Rather than becoming models for reforming the way land in general was managed, they were seen by the visiting public as uniquely sacred places utterly set apart from the everyday landscape.

Americans thus grew accustomed to think that only these special set-aside locales were worth conserving, and the rest of the country undeserving of attention save for narrow profit. So we ended up with a handful of superbly managed sites to view on holiday or admire from afar, and a run-of-the-mill everyday landscape devoid of control or care. This dichotomy entrenched the disastrous fallacy that only the unusual warranted saving; what was ordinary was worthless. It was socially as well as environmentally divisive, setting the rich against the rest, policed and gated elysiums against the unkempt disarray of everywhere else.

More recently, reserved public lands have helped inspire stewardship far beyond park boundaries. The outstanding gems of our country's natural, cultural, and spiritual resources now begin to exemplify, rather than to be set apart from, the everyday terrain of our ordinary places of work and play, travel and repose. We are now beginning to realize that resource stewardship of nature and culture and of both together cannot be only an occasional, one-off activity; it must be embedded in everyday behavior towards land, goods, the places we live in as well as those we visit and dream about. Not heritage professionals alone but all of us need and deserve a fulfilling environment enriched by past memories and future hopes.

The challenge here is to persuade individualistic Americans, more devoted than any other people to the total sanctity of private property, that a truly collaborative community is the seed-bed of stewardship that can enhance cultural resources for us all. Instilling stewardship into the fabric of daily life and thought is, in my view, our most imperative task today.

Conclusion: Global Perspectives

Finally, CRM's bid to address linkages between heritage issues in the United States and those abroad is most welcome. Fully as consequential as the four trends discussed above is the growing globalization of heritage thinking, heritage skills, and the heritage market. The trend toward global fusion deserves special note because it flies in the face of the compartmentalized fashion in which heritage has traditionally been understood, valued, and used.

Heritage is famously personal, local, and national; each individual and group touts its own legacy, disdains that of others, and keeps outsiders—potential claimants or interlopers or destroyers—at arm's length. We consider our heritage uniquely our own, different from and implicitly better than anyone else's. Possessiveness is inherent in heritage attachment. Hence claimants are bound to conflict, and controversy is exacerbated by feuds over the ownership and interpretation of contested heritage.

Today awareness is rising that much of the heritage we cherish is cherished in common. Moreover, its proper appraisal and interpretation—not to mention the nuts-and-bolts essentials of its management—require global cooperation. More and more we pool stewardship, expertise, and resources. Not only the fundamental elements of the world's natural heritage—woods and waters, soils and biotic systems—but the essential building-blocks of its cultural legacy—languages and lexicons, libraries and archives, museums and historic sites—are more and more seen as the entire planet's shared heritage.

The great challenge here is to overcome dog-in-the-manger chauvinism. Can the selfishness and jealousy innate to heritage passions be tamed or moderated in a mutual concern for a collaborative global commons? I trust that this journal will address how humanity can in concert elevate heritage from spoils of war into shared symbols of cosmopolitan diversity. For we owe our heritage, along with our biological and cultural ancestries, to a hybrid amalgam: the creative commingling of countless dreams and deeds.


About the Author

David Lowenthal is author of George Perkins Marsh, Prophet of Conservation (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000); The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998); The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and many other books and articles on cultural heritage.