I was drooling over the 2009 itinerary for the Traditional Building Show a couple of months ago (http://www.traditionalbuildingshow.com) and noticed a particularly interesting topic called “FIGHTIN’ WORDS FOR ELITIST, GENTRIFYING, AND NOSTALGIA-SNOBS: Preservation’s Vocabulary.” Of course, I found this to be particularly interesting because I had been having these same concerns about preservation vocabulary and how it can be alienating and pretentious, and anyone who has the same thoughts as me must be fascinating, right? Of course the speaker was Clem Labine, Founder of Old-House Journal, Clem Labine’s Traditional Building, and Clem Labine’s Period Homes, so I imagine he really is a pretty interesting person. Here is the summary of the lecture:
Words are weapons. Preservation seems politically irrelevant to many today because we have not modified our vocabulary in light of current crises. Everything is in flux, and many divergent value systems are struggling for control of public policy. Opponents of preservation have numerous emotionally loaded terms they use against us. Just because we believe we’re on the side of the angels, it’s not axiomatic that everyone else sees preservation in that light. This session offers suggestions for improving our outcomes in public policy disputes.
And Clem’s not the only one who realizes that our preservation vocabulary is a turn off and makes many glaze over. The Georgia Alliance of Preservation Commissions suggests the following in it’s Public Relations Tips for Historic Preservation Commissions:
• Always make the talk positive – never negative.
• Leave out preservation jargon if possible; if you do use it, define terms likely to be unknown by your audience.
• Talks should aim to educate and not be simply a guided historic tour of the community.
• Show details of local buildings. Teach your audience to look up!
What does this say? Now don’t get me wrong, I love busting out the jargon just as much as the next person and no doubt, it has gotten some architects and preservationists phone numbers from time to time, but if we want to make an impact and save more buildings, we likely need to tone it down and get back to the basics. We can’t educate the average person about why they should care when we get caught up in the vocabulary of preservation. Nobody will understand us except for fellow preservationists, who are already convinced of the mission. I’ve been doing preservation work for several years and still need to consult one of at least FIVE style guides when writing architectural descriptions. That might be ridiculous.
I learned most of what I learned about green building while in working on my MS in Historic Preservation. That is to say, I learned it in a shorter amount of time and found that the vocabulary was much simpler than the preservation vocabulary, which honestly, is endless. This is one more way that preservationists are at a disadvantage in this imaginary war between the movements.
To make things even more difficult, the words “preservation” and “history” imply being frozen in time and unfortunately, imply lack of progress to many. In a world that is scrambling to come up with new, innovative technologies and in the midst of a recession, people may well feel negatively about these words. Perhaps it’s time to rethink how we present architecture and preservation to others, and remember the more simple and altruistic reasons that many of us entered this often frustrating and low-paying field. It’s time to be more charismatic and excited vs. stuffy and moralistic. It’s a different time and a different audience than it was even a decade ago.