HISTORIC STRUCTURE REPORTS, RESOURCE STUDIES, AND HISTORIANS
In this paper, I will try to introduce, in some detail, a discussion of the contributions historians should make to fulfilling the National Park Service's historic preservation responsibilities as they are defined in the Historic Sites Act of 1935 and the Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The earlier act explicitly recognized the paramount importance of historical, architectural, and archeological studies by placing research first among the authorities granted the Secretary of the Interior to execute the national historical preservation policy. The latter legislation broadened and strengthened both the policies and authorities enunciated and granted in the 1935 Act. Thus research as a function inherent in carrying out the Service's historic preservation obligations rests upon a firm legal base.
That historic preservation embraces the preservation of the historic resource and all planning for its interpretation and use may be a truism, but it is one that managers, planners, interpreters, and researchers must keep ever before them. The failure of any of these groups to do so adversely affects the Service's performance.
In the interests of brevity and simplicity, we can classify the types of studies conducted by historians on the Historic Preservation Team into two categories. The most common and, in the light of the purposes of this meeting, most controversial is the Historic Structure Report. Limiting ourselves at this point, to the Historical Data Section, "prepared by the appropriate professional office," and which according to the Activities Standards, part IV, pp. 5 and 6, will include:
Now let us speak to two basic questions: (1) "For whom is the report prepared?" (2) "Who is the appropriate professional?" Concerning the former, there are some obvious answers and some less obvious. One part of that audience is management, or to use an earlier term administration. It needs to know enough about the historic structures it administers to perform that function intelligently. A sound knowledge of the feature's significance and its social and physical history can contribute to that end. The second, and for the report's immediate purpose, the most important client is the architect. He has the greatest need to know what documentary and illustrative sources reveal about the structure's physical history - when and under what circumstances it was built and altered. A third party is the archeologist, whose investigation can be expedited and informed by the cultural information developed by the historian. Because the Historic Structure Report is either the only source of information or because other documents do not contain sufficient detail and critical professional judgments, members of Master Plan teams and interpretive planners depend heavily upon the report for the information they need. Finally, the park interpretive staff needs the historical data to plan and execute local interpretive programs. It is a fact of our institutional life that too few areas have sufficiently definitive Historic Resource Studies or none at all to meet these needs. We may thus be expecting too much of the Historic Structure Report; and I shall address that later in this paper.
We now come to the question of who should prepare the historic data section. Central to answering that question is whether the subject structure is preserved because of its intrinsic architectural character or because of its being part of the historic scene or because it was the site of a historic event. If the former justification is invoked, we face a distinctly preservation problem - that is to preserve the structure in a manner that reflects its total architectural history. If the latter is controlling, we face a different task - restoring the structure in a manner that makes it a vehicle for accurately and clearly interpreting the events that gives it its historic significance.
Reports for both types require that the historic data be prepared by a professional trained in historiography and methodology on a level that qualifies him to identify and critically study sometimes elusive and diffuse manuscript sources. The volume and quality of those sources varies greatly from cases in which no direct records exist and inferences must be made from documentation of similar structures to situations in which, as in the case of Fort Point and the Gulf Island forts, thousands of engineers records had to be studied. In other cases, research must be conducted in several collections or may involve extensive correspondence with foreign repositories, whose helpfulness is substantially enhanced if the researcher's professional credentials are established. Having had some experience in gaining access to European collections, I can speak with a degree of authority on that matter. In gaining experience, the competent historian accumulates a wide working knowledge of libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies - their areas of specialization, limitations, and staff; and he has an important professional relationship with other persons working in the same or related field. Given the present standards for the Historic Structure Report, the historian has the responsibility for establishing the historical significance of the feature, a crucial role because it determines its future. Finally, a useful and professionally acceptable report must represent a critical, lucid synthesis of the results of the documentary research that has been conducted.
While every historic data section must be prepared by a historian, they may be improved by being prepared by different kinds of historians. A report dealing with a structure whose essential significance is its architectural character might better be prepared by an architectural historian, one who is trained in a speciality in which a majority of research historians have a limited capability. One dealing with a feature whose significance is its association with historic events or a historic scene requires the services of the historian whose expertise lies in military, political, social history, or a combination of those areas. However, that does not preclude the participation of a person especially trained in architectural history in instances in which that kind of speciality is needed for the best possible body of data.
The historic data section of the Structure Report has not been the recipient of unstinted praise from several of the clients the historian tries to serve. Managers may learn facts about a structure that do not make their jobs easier, and their fondness for historians and historic properties sometimes declines proportionately. Less frequently, the report does not provide them with enough information upon which to base sound decisions. Members of Master Plan teams and interpretive planners, reeling from a merited bludgeoning because they have not given proper attention to historic values, may turn to the only document available, only to find that its utility is limited by its concentration on only one facet of the total resource. So far as park staffs are concerned, they appear to be reasonably happy with the reports, perhaps out of gratitude that someone out there cares enough to produce something for them or because their exposure to the "average visitor" has given them a tolerance not vouchsafed to the rest of Steve Mather's family.
The most telling criticism comes from the profession with which, excepting archeology, the Service historian is most intimately associated - the architects. I am certain that their spokesmen can discuss their criticisms more cogently than I can. One that I hear most frequently is that the historic data section does not concentrate sufficiently upon documentation needed by the architect and that it contains a lot of data that is of no architectural significance. Responding to the first would require a discussion of individual cases, but the second can be addressed by examining a subject that I hope this assembly will carefully explore - the type of historical studies that I would place under the generic term Historic Resources Studies.
I have chosen to apply the term Historic Resource Study to all those types of historical studies that we program as Park History Studies, Special History Studies, and Historic Furnishing Studies, the last, a special category that will not be discussed in this paper. The timely preparation of these in-depth investigations could provide solutions to several problems that plague historic preservation efforts. One of the most important benefits would be the effective inclusion of historic preservation values into the Master Plan and compliance processes. A recurrent source of weakness in preservation's role has been the tardiness with which its professionals have been involved in the planning and compliance processes and the frequent paucity of documented historical, archeological, and architectural studies that should provide the required data. I am happy to be able to say that situation is improving in that those persons responsible for preparing Master Plans are showing more interest in involving the Historic Preservation Team. The compliance process continues to tax our professional capabilities because the volume of work and limited manpower compound the weaknesses created by the lack of adequate resource information. However, no amount of mutual good-will can provide the ultimate solution until the Service has a corpus of information properly recorded in resource studies.
The accuracy and effectiveness of Park Service interpretive media are dependent upon the quality of available information. It is laboring the point to note that without sound data, living history, audio-visual programs, exhibits, and publications can not have validity; and the historic values we attempt to preserve suffer. Yet, interpreters are often faced with a serious lack of scholarly information. I spent five years as a curator-exhibit planner in the old Branch of Museums and have vivid memories of the frustrations that attended planning and preparing exhibits for areas that had few or no adequate resource studies. It made the job more interesting, but the product suffered.
I have already referred to the fact that the Historic Structure Reports have often borne the burden of providing the types of information described above. That should not be the case; but until resource studies are properly programmed and funded, the Structure Report will all too often be the only source available. The preparation of a successful Historic Structure Report will always require the historian's contribution; and no resource study, which must address the broader historical problems, can ever provide the historic documentation needed for the Report. But the details that so often seem tangential to the structure's physical history would be reduced.
If we faced a blank page, perhaps we could schedule historic preservation so that nothing would be undertaken until after all the resource studies had been completed. Since the page is not blank, we have to do what can be done to remedy the situation, even as we try to meet the obligations thrust upon us by circumstances over which we have little or no control. I hope that we will direct a significant part of our attention toward that end.
Last Updated: 14-Jul-2009