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Historic Preservation

Historic preservation, also known as heritage conservation, refers to a range of actions that are taken to protect and preserve objects of historical significance. These can be buildings, natural sites, objects, and other items of historical value, though it is more predominantly used to describe man made rather than natural artifacts. The objective of historic preservation is to maintain these precious items, as they provide great insights into the past, and also increase in value, both monetary and cultural, as they get older. Historic preservation efforts have been undertaken for centuries, and are strongly supported by archaeologists, politicians, and architects. Advocacy and efforts can take place in formalized institutional settings as well as a more grassroots level. Strongly linked to the evolution of cultures and communities, historical preservation has become a complex field, governed by regulations and public policy, with many recent breakthroughs in methods and processes. There are several global and local bodies that work in conjunction to enable the preservation of certain national interests, and their work is often subsidized through grants, funds, and donations. Historic preservation has moved from a niche effort, to a more mainstream and widespread public interest, with communities wishing to embrace their past in a significant way. Preservation of these objects reveals significant insights into the local identity, and adds to the cultural pride and diversity of the local people, a fact that has been directly responsible for a revived interest in the field in recent times.

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A heritage listed building in Canada.

Origins of historic preservation

Early historic preservation was more of an individual effort, and for the purpose of attaining objects of cultural significance for private collections. Antiquities and vintage objects d’art were bought and maintained by wealthy collectors in the United Kingdom, more for covetous reasons than stemming from a sense of cultural pride. However, preservation was finally incorporated into the legal framework of the United Kingdom in 1913, in the form of the Ancient Monuments Act, which dictated that structures of historical value were to be preserved and protected. Across the Atlantic, historic preservation in the United States had already been set in motion by the first such state level preservation group, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiques. More mainstream efforts culminated as a result of this group’s activities, such as the passing of preservation laws in North Carolina, and Louisiana, and eventually, the formation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949. A privately funded body with no political affiliations, the Trust was established to help local preservationists to protect the places they cared about, by assisting them to liaise with local and state level councils, and provide education and empowerment to locals regarding the subject of historic preservation. One of the cataclysmic events that brought awareness of historic preservation into the mainstream in the United States was the demolition of the Pennsylvania Station in New York in 1963. This also led to a more global attention towards the issue, culminating in the foundation of the World Monuments Fund, which was affiliated with countries all over the world.

Historic preservation activities

Several activities are involved in the preservation of heritage sites. They can be classified as under, though not restricted to, preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction. Preservation refers to processes that are carried out to ensure that the original integrity and structure of the property are maintained as far as possible. It is a means of retaining the original character or properties of a structure. On the other hand, reconstruction refers to the recreation or rebuilding of a structure using modern materials, but attempting to imitate the original design. Rehabilitation, also known as adaptive reuse, is the repurposing of an old structure for modern purposes. This could mean revamping the structure and allowing it to be used for other purposes, such as heritage homes and old textile mills. Restoration is a form of repair, and involves removing any parts of the building that do not conform to its original form. Since over the years many adaptations and additions can be made to make old structures more stable or viable, restoration attempts to retain the integrity while reverting to more traditional methods.

Historic Conservation Sites

One of the problems of historic preservation is the identification and short listing of places and objects that truly contribute to the cultural heritage of a place. Since many of the bodies that undertake efforts towards conservation are entirely funded on donations and grants, resources are limited and have to be allocated wisely. This has led to the categorization of different types of sites, which hold levels of priorities based on a set of criteria which include artistic value, informational value, and historical significance, among others. Lists of these places are maintained and updated regularly by national and state level bodies, which grants them the right to receive certain federal financial incentives. Though private properties are often listed as heritage sites, it does not mean their owners cannot continue using them. Often, places that lie within close distance of each other can be listed as a group, and all benefit from the same rights and privileges that are granted to any of them. The types of items that can be granted heritage status vary from buildings, to structures, objects, and sites. Whereas buildings and sites are more well-known historic sites, objects that are defined as structures, like bridges, are also fairly common. A common misconception arose around the listing of heritage structures in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, which stated that in order to be classified as a site for historic preservation, the property had to be at least fifty years old. Though no such rule has been formally stated, more modern buildings that fall into this classification tend to be the exception, rather than the norm.

Funding and grants

Since the bodies that promote historic preservation are not government backed or sponsored, they generally rely on a variety of funds from different sources to carry out their activities. These funds can be obtained in the form of grants, donations, or charity money raised from members and the community. Historic preservation efforts are often sponsored by local organizations and academic institutions, though in recent times several schemes at the state and federal level allow associations to apply for limited funding. Individual donors are also common sources of funding for the preservation of local properties. Activities that require funding may include the collection of data or research on a large scale, urban planning, or restoration of historical structures. These grants generally do not extend to privately owned properties. In the United States, the National Historic Preservation Act has made a provision that allows for funding for a number of preservation efforts. Apart from the government and local institutions, a number of non-profit organizations also raise funds for historic preservation. Generally being a grassroots initiative, the community often finds ways and means to raise funds among themselves for the preservation of monuments and artifacts that are meaningful to them.

World preservation efforts – UNESCO

The increasing significance of historic preservation has been the impetus for the mushrooming of several global organizations and institutions that aim to spread awareness about historic preservation, collect supporters and donations to the various preservation efforts being undertaken around the world, and to liaise with governmental and local institutions to better conditions for people working in the field. One of the most well-known such organizations is UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which apart from promoting international collaboration through science, culture, and education, also plays a major role in the preservation of historic sites worldwide. UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites is a well-known collection of properties that it has classified as being in need of historical preservation, as they are vital or of great significance to the culture of a country. Apart from this, UNESCO also provides emergency preservation assistance for sites in harm of damage and encourages locals to take part in preservation efforts. One of the foremost actions in this regard was the signing of the World Heritage Convention, which aims to promote global cooperation to conserve heritage properties around the world which are of exceptional cultural value to past and future generations. Apart from this, there are also several global organizations that assist in fund raising efforts for historical preservation, such as the Global Heritage Fund, which provides heritage conservation associations the requisite funding and support required to carry out their activities.

Education and Information

Several educational institutions provide young locals with the opportunity to study historic preservation in various degree and certificate programs. They provide up-to-date and relevant information on public policy, preservation laws and regulations in various nations, as well as broader cultural heritage issues that concern historic preservation. Many of the programs offer practical evaluations which help students learn about the processes, documentation, and resources required for historic preservation efforts. Given the importance of historic conservation with respect to urban planning and development, it is also an important component of many courses on architecture and design. The courses available in the subject reflect the vast range of aspects that are associated with historic preservation, stretching beyond its mere significance and importance, to more in-depth, practical applications, such as architectural history, the economic aspects, technology and materials, and preservation planning. Though still more of a niche educational option, there have been an increasing number of such programs that have developed in response to a greater need for preservation in the face of widespread urbanization, which threatens the cultural heritage of sites that have been maintained for centuries. Educational resources for these subjects are plenty, given the number of organizations and institutions that engage in conservation research in a variety of related fields. Publicly available information sources are also available courtesy of organizations such as UNESCO.

Careers in the field of historic preservation

Many people choose to make a career out of preserving heritage sites. Being such a multifaceted field, the options for a career in this path are numerous. Architects and urban planners now consider the importance of historic preservation while laying down schemes, and also study the materials and technology that can be used to reduce the adverse effects of urbanization. Researchers and historians also play an equally important role in expressing the significance of heritage sites. The funding and grants for historic preservation, especially at the state or federal level are monitored by officers who ensure that the sites meet the required criteria, and allot budgets to their protection accordingly. Engineers and craftsmen are also required to tie in their knowledge of traditional building methods and techniques to historic preservation, so as to protect damage-prone sites and structures. Resource interpreters are often hired by local institutions to compile and analyze the various data available on the subject, and making it available to the public. There are also a number of jobs in the non-profit sector for historic preservation – the people who actually get their hands dirty and advocate for historic preservation, liaising with local institutions and funding organizations to acquire the resources required for conservation efforts.

Significance and Impact

One might wonder why it is so important to devote so much time, effort and money towards historic preservation, given that the world is moving fast and has to continue to grow. However, the cultural significance of historic preservation is too important to ignore. Historic establishments are a key insight into the evolution of cultures and communities, and add to the aesthetic character of a place. It adds a degree of uniqueness and allows individuals to feel more connected to their past, while providing them with a direction for the future. Apart from this, on a more practical note, historic preservation also means more efficient use of existing resources. By reducing the amount of money and materials spent on new development, historic preservation allows communities to maximize the value they get out of old structures that may just need some maintenance to continue functioning. Investing in historic preservation can also be valuable, since these donations are subject to tax credits and other incentives. Preservation is also an important consideration in urban planning, since it allows vintage architectural styles to be studied and imitated, and allows architects to be more creative when they are designing around a structure that needs to be protected. In the vast majority of cities, the monotony of skyscrapers and concrete buildings is broken by the occasional heritage structure which adds to the beauty and culture of a place. Though it an expensive and time consuming endeavor, the preservation of these structures are the only way future generations can connect with their past and preserve age-old workmanship.

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