The Preservation Movement and the Culture War

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The Forms of the Tradition have lost the background against which they could be understood and now give the impression of something in a museum, guarded by antiquarians and unthinkingly photographed by tourists.

-Hans Urs von Balthasar


Today we are bombarded with allusions to the “culture war,” the conflict over the basic values that govern public life in the West. However, because the media tend to publicize more sensational aspects of the conflict, such as abortion and church-state relations, those aspects that cannot easily be reduced to sound bites, including the deeper roots of conflict, tend to fall outside the realm of public awareness. The potential depths of these roots are implied in the term culture, in that it refers to a complex framework of meaning that locates everyday life within a comprehending understanding of reality and the good.

The culture war therefore by its very nature implies tensions between basic assumptions about reality that often remain unspoken and subliminal. Today these tensions are in part represented by a clash between the traditional West with its roots in the Christian heritage and a growing disillusionment with truth and meaning itself arising from a worldview that sees reality as matter driven by random forces. [1] However, few recognize the full dimensions of the conflict primarily because of a superficial understanding of cultural heritage, an understanding that stems from an educational emphasis on the material aspects of life.

Given this situation, the reappropriation of cultural heritage within modern society seems critical for providing perspective and holding the nihilistic encroachments in check. Indeed, in the ever more ambitious movement of cultural preservation, we seemingly have the impetus necessary institutions for such a retrieval. The preservation movement, with large new infusions of government money after Hurricane Katrina and with President Obama’s stimulus package, consists of an interconnected mosaic of private organizations and federal, state, and local entities that have been established for preserving culture, heritage, and history.

Despite its command of resources and government authority, however, the movement for historical and cultural preservation has not fostered an understanding of genuine culture. On the contrary, this movement has furthered the materialistic, and ultimately nihilistic, view of culture that has proven so harmful in the West for the past several centuries. Whether recognized or not, preservation activities are effectively an institutionalized process of tradition or, as one prominent French sociologist has said, an “assimilation of the past in understanding the present, without a break in the continuity of a society’s life, and without considering the past as outmoded.” [2] This, unfortunately, is what the movement for historical preservation as it presently exists is unable to do.

The assimilation of the past involves interrelated objective and subjective dimensions. The objective refers in part to artifacts, buildings, events, texts, and archaeological and historical sites, all of which can convey meanings. The subjective, on the other hand, refers to the inner appropriation of symbols and the personal transformation that can occur through raising the horizons of understanding and moral concern. Personal transformation has traditionally been the goal of culture, or paideia as the Greeks termed it, through cultivating the person, and it would appear initially to be a primary concern for the preservation movement, if one listens to some statements by preservationists. For example, the President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Richard Moe, noted in his address to the 2001 National Preservation Conference that preservation is about passing on the knowledge of “who we are, where we come from, and what is the legacy that shapes and enriches us.” Similarly, the National Park Service informs us that “historic places help us understand who we are as well as the meaning of our accomplishments and shortcomings.”

Although such statements imply that the preservation movement acts on insights that transcend the usual materialistic horizons, closer inspection shows that this is not the case. In fact, preserving culture focuses almost exclusively on the objective dimension, primarily on material remains. Consequently preservation itself shifts attention away from personal transformation and the multiple dimensions of meaning potentially available, especially the search for a common truth and a common good. Culture and heritage are thereby interpreted as little more than the material creations of humans, in effect, objects to be collected, preserved, shown, and ultimately marketed.

The preservation movement emerged from two interrelated trends, both of which echoed subjective concerns while simultaneously providing a strong, but usually unquestioned, focus on the material. The first of these was associated with the founding of numerous patriotic and historical organizations during the nineteenth century which promoted a national mythology in part through erecting commemorative monuments and preserving places such as Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, and Jamestown.

The second impetus for the preservation movement came from the destruction of traditional landscapes and communities especially as the result of changing transportation and urban patterns associated with the post-war Urban Renewal program and the development of urban corridors. In the 1950s and 1960s much of the developing preservation constituency was provoked by the decline and destruction of older neighborhoods and strip development. [3] In this regard, geographer Lester Rowntree and anthropologist Margaret Conkey observed that preservation movements tended to arise as a process whereby “landscape symbols are promoted to alleviate stress through creation of shared symbolic structures.” [4] Similarly, in her study of historic preservation in Charleston, South Carolina, geographer Robin Datel saw the movement offering Charlestonians “the reassurance of a familiar place,” a symbol of permanence amidst the flux of change. [5]

Not surprisingly, legislation soon came to aid the growing interest in preservation, as did the American genius for organization. Notable nonprofit corporations included the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (1926) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (1948) which would have an enormous impact on preservation activities. Probably the most important, single event was the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) which provided the legislative basis of many preservation activities through establishing a bureaucratic base within an array of federal and state agencies, simultaneously serving to institutionalize the focus on the objective and the material.

From the inception, most of these organizations emphasized the objective aspects of culture which were more amenable to study by scholarly methods than the subjective, more spiritual, dimensions. Consequently, with only a naive understanding of these dimensions, those in charge of preservation increasingly interpreted objects in their care in terms of “their intrinsic aesthetic value.”[6] Treating historical and cultural items as though their value was intrinsic, effectively isolating them from the complex layers of experience, meaning, and history that gave them meaning in the first place. This positivist emphasis on the objective artifact would have ominous implications for the preservation movement.

Ironically, the report With Heritage So Rich, which led to the passage of the NHPA, had warned of the danger of an overemphasis on objective concerns. The report noted that the preservation movement had originated partly in response to “a feeling of rootlessness combined with a longing for those landmarks of the past which give us a sense of stability and belonging.” Consequently, the report made a plea for keeping in focus a higher goal than merely saving old stuff:

“If the preservation movement is to be successful, it must go beyond saving bricks and mortar. It must go beyond saving occasional historic houses and opening museums. It must be more than a cult of antiquarians. It must do more than revere a few precious national shrines. It must attempt to give a sense of orientation to our society, using structures and objects of the past to establish values of time and place.”[7]

If anyone ever bothered to study the Western tradition, he would have found a rich heritage integrating many earlier traditions. For Rémi Brague the distinctive characteristic of the Western tradition is what he has termed its “secondarity,” that it was built on what had gone before it, never constructing new foundations devoid of precedence. [8] To the degree that they represent the common truth, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Germanic thought were assimilated into the Christian framework, providing an integrated understanding of all dimensions of life from the material to the spiritual. Certainly one of the most relevant insights is that the world and the things in it, although finite, are the media through which truth, goodness, and beauty that are experienced which point beyond themselves to a union in the one Truth, Goodness, and Beauty from which they originate. This insight and others might have enriched the work of cultural preservation, even as a refusal to recognize this fact has led to our impoverished view on which the objects preserved seemingly point to nothing.

However, this emphasis on the objective is not surprising, because during recent centuries the modern West repudiated the need to understand tradition and values. This repudiation was initiated during the radical Enlightenment by such luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, and the French revolutionaries who forged the narrative of the modern West, defined by the goal of progress based on freedom, reason, and technology. Seeing itself as the triumph of liberal and secular values over the forces of superstition as represented by Christianity, the radical Enlightenment found abhorrent the thought that its own undergirding values were actually owed to the Christian tradition. [9] By repudiating the Christian tradition, the modern West found itself increasingly based on values that it did not understand because they were regarded as being self-evident and, consequently, beyond question or need of defense. [10] The horizons of modern man shifted to the material and objective level with empirical science becoming the model of acceptable knowledge, ultimately excluding the broad humanistic understanding so essential to understanding human existence in all of its dimensions.

Furthermore in the wake of the Enlightenment, nationalism arose as a surrogate center of meaning, and, as noted, its cults of national piety were influential in the birth of the preservation movement. In general, these trends – promoting a materialistic view of life with no ultimate ground of meaning – led to the growing despair which lies behind some players in the culture war today. As legislation was written and organizations created, few, if any, had the ability to rise above the limitations of modernistic assumptions. Subsequently, flawed understandings were institutionalized and promulgated by a flurry of activity focused on technical and regulatory matters.

This is particularly exemplified by the use of the term “significance” which plays a critical role in preservation legislation and regulations from as early as the Historic Sites Act of 1935 through the 1966 NHPA, among others. Katherine H. Stevenson recently observed that significance is “the central, defining core of our programs because it specifies the universe of properties that we recognize, protect, provide assistance to, and interpret.” [11] Yet, as noted above, the notion of significance was based upon an erroneous assumption – that it is a characteristic intrinsic to an object, which is to say, that it exists in an object and its historical context and has nothing to do with larger considerations of meaning, such as what good it serves the public to preserve the object in question.

For example, the NHPA states that “[t]he quality of significance is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects” which possess integrity and meet at least one of the four National Register criteria of significance. All of these criteria are defined on the basis of objective and associative characteristics, implying that significance has nothing to do with qualities of meaning. [12] Historical properties could then be effectively placed under the purview of various scholarly disciplines, whose practitioners, trained only in studying objective phenomena, were unable to comprehend that the concept of significance was “illogical, unworkable, and [did] not entirely suit the purpose for which it was intended.” [13] By implication, history is no more than a material process affording things to study and collect as pastimes for antiquarians and aesthetes.

The ramifications are readily apparent. Mandated by the NHPA with the task of identifying and preserving “significant” properties, the Federal government placed the National Park Service in charge of the agenda of historical preservation, and state historic preservation offices were created to assist. Additionally, federal and state agencies involved with lands such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management all created divisions or departments with “heritage managers” to oversee “cultural resources” as one manages coal, petroleum, timber, and wildlife.

Preservationists in their employ had no trouble finding endless numbers of artifacts, buildings, and sites that fit within the broadly defined criteria of significance, all of which had to be surveyed, inventoried, nominated to the National Register, or archaeologically excavated. Additionally, the availability of vast sums of money for archaeological work to “preserve cultural heritage” endangered by projects using Federal funds has launched a new industry in which companies have been created to excavate sites and in general engage in Cultural Resources Management (CRM). While the modern world has largely forgotten its cultural heritage, in one sense of the term, government entities and CRM firms now retrieve masses of artifacts and arcane information, all dutifully stored in climate-controlled environments for the edification of posterity. The availability of grants for National Register properties and other cultural projects has spawned the growth of museums and conferences. The recognition that marketability provides a ready sale for a cultural project has fostered the oxymoronic “heritage tourism” initiatives where heritage is promoted through its potential for attracting tourism.

We are now drowning in “heritage.” We celebrate it at cultural festivals and cultural museums.We turn the homes of musicians, artists, and entertainers into shrines to these gurus and saints of the new age. [14] Experts wait in the wings ready to provide lectures on arcane cultural and historical topics. Hardly anything that man has ever created is beneath being treated as a sacred relic. However, virtually no one understands what such relics mean. One would be hard pressed to find any serious discussion of the spiritual dimensions in all this material culture. In its place we are surrounded by the propagandistic usage of terms such as multiculturalism and cultural diversity that glibly abandon the search for what is common for a facile celebration of many truths.

Defining heritage in such troubling terms is to a large degree due to the educational backgrounds of the professionals. In this regard Frits Pannekoek has decried a “heritage priesthood,” whose university educations reflect rather narrow disciplinary interests, which shifts the meaning of heritage from the spiritual aspects to the material and the physical. [15] This problem arises from the transformation of the educational system from a broader vision to one based on the production of specialized knowledge through methodologies, i.e. “cognitive procedures that aim to secure knowledge.” [16] As a result of the growing prestige of specialized research, the theorists of the modern university determined that the objects of humane studies such as art, literature, philosophy, and religion, would be better served if they were remodeled on the basis of the new methods of knowing. This change brought about the complete transformation of the humanities, which now focused on objective issues while detaching themselves from the notion of “value,” as it came to be called. [17]

As the pursuit of objective knowledge through such methods increasingly marginalized and voided the pursuit of wisdom, it was virtually foreordained that the “cultural resources” that once inspired thought and wonder would become little more than mere objects of scholarly study. As Edward Tingley darkly observed:

“the tools that humankind has painstakingly fashioned for understanding and communicating what it means to be human, for recognizing what a human life demands, religious texts, works of philosophy, paintings, poems have been hollowed and broken, so that we now “know” them only as the experts use them: as hooks for dead information. The known work of art is a testimony to facts that are as much use in direction-finding, in staying a course on the road of life, as a Hollywood movie or a swankier lawnmower.”

The modern human sciences reduce the tradition to rubble because they transform the objects that were the very center of liberal learning into grist for the production of a general commodity. [18]

The impact of the preservation institutions and experts is exemplified by a public presentation on archaeology in a small Mississippi town that I once witnessed. Following a week of excavation in primarily twentieth century debris, the results were presented to local residents in a lecture that made an unconvincing attempt at relating a specialized research agenda to community concerns. Upon concluding, a cafeteria tray filled with excavated artifacts – rusted nails and fragments of beer bottles – was passed through the audience with the archaeologist proclaiming this is your heritage! While the tray was reverentially handed along the seated rows, each person scrutinized the artifacts as if in search of hidden profundity. If they had not been informed to the contrary they might have mistaken their heritage for trash.

Such messages imply to the public that heritage is little more than the material and the objective – old stuff – to put it crassly. Marginalizing the subjective dimension, however, does not simply cause the subjective dimension to disappear; instead, the message subtly communicated to the public is acceptance of the status quo that hardly recognizes the spiritual dimension implicit in these concerns, while having only the most superficial understanding of Western heritage. By propagating the message that culture and heritage are little more than a naïve passion for saving old things and acquiring information about them, and through its public presence and institutional authority, the preservation movement legitimates and furthers this deformation.

For the critical observer, the state of preserving culture is bleak despite the proliferation of institutions and the expenditure of money. As the doyen of cultural studies, Jacques Barzun, has observed, there is “more and more cultural stuff to house, classify, docket, consult, and teach…[But] in the qualitative, honorific sense, culture…is declining. It is doing so virtually in proportion as the various cultural endeavors – all this collecting and exhibiting and performing and encouraging – grow and spread with well-meant public and private support.” [19]

As the culture war drags on, the conclusion seems evident that the conflict is related to, if not grounded in, a superficial understanding of the roots of the Western tradition that permits materialistic and nihilistic tendencies to run unchallenged. The most disturbing aspect of this is that the very institutions that could promote a better appreciation of the tradition’s insights have been dominated by the very forces that repudiated the need to understand tradition and values and thereby laid the groundwork for the culture war itself. Although much good has been accomplished by the movement in terms of deepening appreciation of the lived environment, yet the overall thrust has been to define culture and heritage in materialistic and objective terms. In this regard the preservation movement presents a critical, but neglected, arena for addressing the problem of the crisis of meaning today.

What then can remedy the situation? First, we must understand that the objective elements of culture are only the means for communicating subjective elements – meanings that point beyond the physical objects. Consequently that which is preserved should not be evaluated in terms of intrinsic significance, but in terms of what it means and of what good is it? Far more than a matter of saving things or encouraging economic development, these questions relate to personal transformation, the traditional goal of culture as paideia. However, effectively integrating this understanding will require that professionals have an understanding that is both broader and that is not based on narrow materialistic assumptions; it will have to be an understanding that grasps the nature of tradition as a dialogue with the past and that has an understanding of the sources of the Western tradition.

Such change, however, will not come easily, because institutional inertia will certainly resist deviating from the current trajectory. Yet if we as a society are to meet the challenge of the future with confidence that reality is ultimately meaningful rather than succumb to the materialistic and atheistic assumptions that underlie much of public debate, we must enter into dialogue with those who have gone before us through recovering an understanding of the Western tradition. To accomplish this, the institutions that are concerned with retrieving culture, heritage, and history have to take full account of their responsibilities by realizing the vision of being more than merely a “cult of antiquarians” to give “a sense of orientation to our society” through assimilating the best of the experiences from the past. However, they are not likely to do this if voices are not raised from outside.



I would like to gratefully acknowledge the help afforded by Stephen Slimp, University of West Alabama, for proofreading and commenting on this essay.

1. James Kurth, “The Real Clash,” The National Interest (1994), XXXVII, no. 3, p. 14.

2. M. Dufrenne, “Note sur la tradition,” Cahiers Internat. De Sociologie (1947), 167, quoted in Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 2.

3. Special Committee on Historic Preservation, With Heritage So Rich. (Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1983, originally published 1966), pp. 11, 190, 193.

4. Lester B. Rowntree and Margaret W. Conkey, “Symbolism and the Cultural Landscape,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (1980), LXX, pp. 459, 468.

5. Robin Elisabeth Datel, “Southern Regionalism and Historic Preservation in Charleston, South Carolina, 1920-1940,” Journal of Historical Geography (1990), XVI, pp. 197-215.

6. William J. Murtagh, Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America (rev. ed.), (NY: John Wiley & Sons,1997), pp. 30-31.

7. Special Committee, With Heritage So Rich, p.193.

8. Rémi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), 2002.

9. David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, (NY: Free Press, 1998), pp. 170-173, 295.

10. Ibid., p. 2.

11. Katherine H. Stevenson, “Opening Comments,” in Michael A. Tomlan (ed.), Preservation: Of What, For Whom? (Ithaca, NY: The National Council for Preservation Education, 1998), p. 16.

12. Joseph A. Tainter and G. John Lucas, “Epistemology of the Significance Concept,” American Antiquity (1983), XLVIII, pp. 708-712. The four National Register criteria of significance are: Criterion A, Event – “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history”; Criterion B, Person– “associated with the lives of persons significant in our past”; Criterion C, Design/Construction – that “embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction…”; and Criterion D, Information – that “have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.”

13. Ibid., p. 715.

14. Although preservation initially concentrated on more prominent aspects of history, the easy availability of money, often justified in terms of economic development interests (e.g. “heritage tourism”), has now encouraged the promotion of a wide variety of trivia. In my home state, the Mississippi Blues Commission, funded and supported by several state agencies, is feverishly promoting the state’s blues heritage, justifying its significance on the basis of its influence on British rockers such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Blues markers and blues festivals proliferate, effectively enshrining this entertainment phenomenon as a transcendental concern. A recent festival held in Clarksdale MS advertised events that focused on the blues, juke joints, barbeque, and “monkeys ridin’ dogs.”

15. Frits Pannekoek, “The Rise of a Heritage Priesthood,” in Michael A. Tomlan (ed.), Preservation: Of What, For Whom? (Ithaca, NY: The National Council for Preservation Education, 1998), p. 30.

16. Edward Tingley, “Technicians of Learning,” First Things (2000), CV, p. 31.

17. Ibid., 31, 33; cf. Robert R. Archibald, A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community, (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 1999), p. 30.

18. Tingley, “Technicians of Learning,” p. 35.

19. Jacques Barzun, “Culture High and Dry,” in Barzun (Arthur Krystal, ed.), The Culture We Deserve (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), pp. 4-5.

Jack D. Elliott, Jr.

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Jack D. Elliott, Jr. is a Board Member of VoegelinView, Historical Archaeologist for the State of Mississippi, and an Archaeologist Lecturer at Mississippi State University. He is the moderator of the evforum listserv and author of West Point and Clay County (Images of America, 2015).