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Finding a fit for cultural landscapes: Is it “preservation” or “conservation”?

By Guest Observer April 30, 2013

By Paulette Wallace

As an offshore visitor attending the recent George Wright Society conference: “Protected areas in a changing world,” in Denver in March, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of sessions focus sing on the cultural elements of protected areas management. What made the presentations all the more exciting was that the concept of “cultural landscapes” was a frequent topic of discussion. On at least three occasions, (and despite the sequester), I heard of the United States National Park Service’s efforts to revitalize the toolkit it employs for the identification and management of cultural landscapes. As part of how this “revitalization” might be enacted, US Park staff were working to have cultural landscapes included as a distinct property type within the National Register of Historic Places criteria. It was also conveyed that staff were working to enable greater recognition of National Heritage Areas for cultural landscape management.

Yet, while these initiatives were widely supported, Hugh Miller, a stalwart of the cultural landscape movement in the United States, drew attention to the view that any innovation for the identification and management of cultural landscapes is impeded by the existence of “preservation” at the heart of the US Park Service’s system of cultural resource management. My interpretation of preservation recognises that the term has traditionally been concerned with properties and districts of architectural and/or historical significance. The term is fabric focused and suggestive of minimising change to the original configuration, arresting the tangible to a certain point in time, and closing the heritage item off to all external forces. People’s feelings and ideas of connection to place do not automatically associate with my ideas of what preservation encompasses. This kind of understanding of preservation does not lend itself to the concept of cultural landscapes where change is inherent, and where cultural landscapes look to the future with an eye to the past, rather than capturing a date, or era from that past.

In contrast, “conservation” is the guiding term that I am familiar with in my part of the world. In Australia and New Zealand our heritage management systems are led by “conservation” – “conservation” is not the same thing as “preservation”. Rather than focusing on arresting change, conservation connotes a more processual approach to caring for heritage for the future. Conservation also seems to be more open and connected to cultural significance – people’s feelings and connections to place. To conserve is to accept that change and progress may be necessary. It is perhaps also a term that sits more easily across the natural and the cultural, and one which might also be more aligned with indigenous heritage perspectives.

Therefore, if our understandings of what heritage involves in today’s “changing world” are growing exponentially to mirror the mounting complexity and diversity of surrounding social and economic forces, then the ways and means for managing that heritage also necessitates a more open and inclusive approach. Cultural landscape provides a useful tool, yet at the same time it is restricted by falling under the direction of preservation. If the US Park Service is serious about cultural landscapes to support the management of the vernacular, ethnographic, and the indigenous, in addition to the more standard historically designed landscapes, than perhaps cultural landscapes needs to function as a management category that sits between “Natural Resource Management” and “Cultural Resource Management”. Then if this could be achieved, there needs to a further adjustment of the terminology to support “Bio-Cultural Landscapes” as the section heading.

Paulette Wallace is a PhD Candidate at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Her research is investigating how the major parks agencies in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States of America are engaging with the concept of cultural landscapes for heritage management. Paulette worked as a historic ranger for the New Zealand Department of Conservation before moving to full-time study in March 2011.

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