First Annual National Park Service Historic Preservation Conference
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Dave Battle

In January 1974, there was a meeting of Historical Architects in Denver. At that time, one of the major comments, particularly from the Regional Historical Architects, was that they were having a hard time getting the attention of regional and park managers in matters pertaining to historic preservation. My reply, in essence, was that there are laws pertaining to historic preservation, hit these people over the head with them. It has been interesting to hear from a number of those here present that this is exactly the approach they have taken.

Perhaps because Southwest Region was the first region to have a fully operational preservation team, we are experiencing a number of the problems involved with such operations sooner than the other regions One of the problems we have experienced is that the above approach has had a backlash we had not quite expected.

We woke up one fine morning not long ago and suddenly found that we had begun to get through, and people were saying "O.K., big shot, you tell us that we must preserve our cultural resources under penalty of law, now, how do we do it?" Unfortunately, in many instances, we had no answers. We had been busily writing Historic Structures Reports, Resource Management Plans, etc. which were full of data that was interesting enough, but in terms of down-to-earth preservation, generally useless. We found that we had few, if any people with even a rudimentary knowledge of preservation problems and techniques. And even in those cases where such people did exist, we were highly critical of the materials and techniques they were employing, yet we had little better to offer.

We have been guilty of a certain amount of elitism. We are preservationists. We are enforcers of the law. The law says "we must preserve our cultural resources or else, and that means you, Mr. Park Manager." And so, we've been setting around in our ivory towers arguing among ourselves over unattainable activities standards, preservation policies, the fine points of law, etc., while the resources have continued to deteriorate. And while we occasionally deigned to talk to a park superintendent or two, we seldom included the real preservationists, the ones who are ultimately responsible for preserving our cultural resources - the park maintenance staff. Why? I suggest that some of it is due to the fact that all so-called "experts" couldn't stand the goff of the questions these people would put to us.

The major preservation problems, as I see them, are threefold: money, trained personnel, and an adequate body of knowledge. Money and personnel are relatively easy obstacles to overcome provided there is sufficient commitment on the part of the National Park Service to its obligation to preserve our cultural resources, and training per se is not a difficult problem. But what training? What do these people need to know, what skills and methods do they employ in the preservation of our cultural resources? Denny Galvin hit the nail right on the head with his remarks on the need to develop a "body of knowledge" pertaining to historic preservation.

In an attempt to solve the "trained personnel" problem in our region, we instituted a preservation maintenance training program patterned after the ones at Harpers Ferry. The idea was that since the parks were ultimately responsible for caring for the resources under their jurisdiction, we would train members of their staffs to care for their cultural resources. This idea was, and still is, right, and the program was, I believe, moderately successful. The rationale behind the first sessions last year was to indoctrinate these people with the philosophy of cultural resources preservation, to make them cognizant and sympathetic to the special care such resources require. But time and again, the comment was, "this all sounds fine, but how do we do it?" And all too often, we had no answers.

I heartily support the concensus of this meeting that there is an overriding need to get to work on the resources now to prevent their further deterioration or loss. I also agree that the best way to do this is by utilizing the manpower available by means of existing park maintenance staffs in cooperation with and under the direction of region-based trained preservationists. But I must voice a concern that even the best of our "trained preservationists" possess at best a very limited "body of knowledge," and we ought to recognize that in pursuing this course of action we are taking a calculated risk that we will not do more harm than good.

Of greater concern to me, however, is the fact that we do not seem to be making appreciable progress in developing this "body of knowledge." I have been touted as an "expert" on adobe preservation, yet I must confess that I really do not know with any degree of scientific accuracy what even the average properties of this variable material is - such basic things as chemical composition, shear and compressive strengths, plasticity index, porosity, etc. This type of data exists for many materials, but we have never assembled it into a usable net of data. Moreover, in terms of techniques, we are often in the position of re-inventing the wheel with each new project, because we have no way of knowing what the next guy may or may not have tried, and whether or not it was successful. I submit that while there is a great need for research and experimentation, there is an even greater need to assemble this "body of knowledge" already available so that we have a solid foundation for our research and training projects. And I further submit that unless such a compendium is undertaken concurrently with this emphasis on emergency preservation, we shall remain at its conclusion still unable to undertake any effective comprehensive preservation measures.

I am aware, of course, of the efforts of Lee Nelson and Brown Morton, but thus far, there has been little usable information forthcoming, and I am afraid that the results, when available, will be too esoteric for general use. As much as I support the Association for Preservation Technology, it has seemed thus far to serve more as a forum for the history of technology than for the technology of preservation, and I also recognize that, as a member, I am perhaps as much to blame for this as anyone. The pamphlets produced by the American Association for State and Local History and The Old House Journal have produced as much practical data as anyone. The fact remains, however, that it is up to us, as National Park Service preservationists, to assemble the "body of knowledge" we need and I believe that the necessity for this is just as basic and just as urgent as the emergency preservation of our resources.

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Last Updated: 14-Jul-2009