What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate or: What I Learned at the 2013 Saving Places Conference

by: Claire Lanier for HistPres

“The reason we go into preservation or archaeology is because we don’t like people, right?  So we can go out, dig in the forest somewhere and not talk to anybody,” chuckled Dr. Jason LaBelle of Colorado State University when he accepted his award for excellence in archaeology at the 2013 Stephen H. Hart Awards (named for Colorado’s first SHPO and hosted by History Colorado), held earlier this month in Denver during the Colorado Preservation Inc.’s annual Saving Places Conference.  In its 16th year, it is one of the largest preservation conferences in the nation.

Jason’s speech elicited a gaggle of giggles, but if we’re honest, he’s right, right?  For a lot of us in the field (no pun intended), building place is easier than building relationships.  Sure, sure there are a lot of industries full of people who love to work in solitude because they, you know, hate other people, but the difference for us is that preservation is inherently impossible to achieve as an individual.  We are at the mercy of public opinion, private investment, government funding, nonprofit trends, the old, the young, the modern, and the traditional, and that means our image directly affects our outcome.  If people didn’t see us as militant progress-smashers who want to dictate how they use their property or as recluse super-nerds who enjoy creepily examining their fenestration from the sidewalk, then we wouldn’t have a problem.  But they do.  So we do.

That’s what made this year’s Saving Places Conference not only so compelling, but so crucial to the industry right now.  The theme for the conference was “The Language of Preservation: Building a Relevant Message for the 21st Century.”  Nailed it.  Forget materials, forget treatments, forget even our most favorite and endangered buildings—the most important issue in preservation today is communication.  The Conference asked us all to think about what we’re presenting to the world as preservationists; then it asked us to scrap that and start over.

In addition to typical preservation topics, Conference sessions explored a variety of communication approaches, from social media to video production to developing a comprehensive messaging plan. Speakers comprised everyone from young UCD preservation students to seasoned marketing consultants, offering the whole gamut of perspectives, both in background and generation, which kept the energy fresh and buoyant.  Other features, such as special screenings of the not-yet-released four part Rocky Mountain PBS series, The Colorado Experience, and dedicated conference Twitter hash tags #SavingPlacesConf and #PreserveCO encouraged attendees to embrace modern media in a way that preservation traditionally hasn’t.

Every session I attended got my wheels turning, but what rings strongest in my mind weeks after the event is a luncheon keynote speech given by Dr. George Lakoff, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC-Berkeley.  (Let’s take a second to acknowledge how ingenious it was to invite a linguist slash brain scientist. Very clever move.)

Sigh. I could write for days about the insight Dr. Lakoff poured onto Colorado’s preservation constituency—he was astute, honest, and most importantly, admonishing.  Dr. Lakoff used his background in brain study to show us precisely where we’re going right and where we’re going wrong.  He covered a ton of topics, from how our brain processes the behaviors we see in others to how preservation fits into the political spectrum, but as I have a word count to respect, I’ll just focus on one problem in particular: the story we’re telling right now is kiiiiiinda making us look bad.  How?

For starters, the word “preservation” has got to go.  (Dr. Lakoff said it reminded him of canning grandma’s jam.)  I think we’re all pretty aware of how tired it sounds.  I’ve heard it a lot.  On a first date a few months ago, I told the guy what I do for a living, and he literally responded, “that sounds like one of the most boring things I can think of.” (He was a real gem.)  But I get it.  What we do does not sound cool.  Historic preservation is a conventional, long-standing, old-ladies-forming-committees type of realm, and I know it’s hard to let go of the things that we are.  But in order for us to grow as a field and convince people we are actually changing America—because we seriously, absolutely, every day, for realzies are!—we have to change our language.  Obviously, “preservation” is the one we need to work on the most (don’t look at me, I have no alternatives to offer) but it goes for everything we report on.  “Criterion C” means nothing to the outside world.  And what’s harder to hear?  Even “architecturally significant” is white noise.  But people do mean a lot.  We have interesting ways to tell the stories of historic places because people used to live, work, and play in buildings for the same reasons we do today.  Dr. Lakoff reminded us we’re creating a future that is not only more beautiful, but more meaningful, and that’s the story we need to tell.

And for those grumps who don’t even want a human interest story?  That’s when we break out the charts and graphs.  It’s easy for outsiders to label preservation a societal luxury: we’re not curing cancer or saving puppies or ending world hunger so restoring buildings seems rather frivolous. But they’re wrong.  Preservation is essential. Not only are we enhancing the aesthetic of our urban and rural landscapes for generations to come, and not only are we honoring the eclectic and often difficult past of our nation, but hello!  We are actually helping repair a country that’s financially flailing.  Investing in preservation fuels local business, creates jobs, rebuilds infrastructure, accommodates the needs of the environment, and holistically transforms communities.  That’s not some hopeful conjecture—it’s an economic plan that works (can you link “economic plan that works” to a PDF? http://www.historycolorado.org/sites/default/files/files/OAHP/crforms_edumat/pdfs/1620_EconomicBenefitsReport.pdf  If not, how about http://www.historycolorado.org/archaeologists/economic-benefits-report ).  So how come we’re the only ones who know this?

We need to find our voice.  Just like a writer who needs to devote hours of painful self-reflection and terrible, pathetic poems and purple prose just so they can get to that one magical sentence that bursts out of them and totally reshapes their idea into something vibrant—we need to commit to brutal self-evaluation. We need to think about how we sound to everyone else.  What are we putting out there and how?  Is our social media enough?  Are our e-newsletters and forums and blogs saying anything that will excite people outside our own network?  Are we finding enough non-preservationists for our listservs?  Are we using our photos of striking, creative historic sites in the artistic, emotive way that we should?  Are we showing private business how much long-term money is to be made here?  Are we really getting our message across to everyone who matters?

I know in the wake of things like Prentice Hospital it’s hard to feel like what we’re doing has any affect on anyone, even when we are communicating properly.  For all those preservationists in Chicago who advocated tirelessly, my heart goes out t’ya.  You ran a great campaign, but like a nerd car bumper sticker recently told me, “Some days the dragon wins.”

But that’s why now more than ever we need to focus on communication outside of our own preservation community–even on days we’d rather be getting lost alone in historic districts.  They’re never going to listen to us if we’re seen as isolated, pretentious, or old-fashioned. That’s why it’s so important to keep talking about this at preservation events like the Saving Places Conference.  At your upcoming conference or event, bring in marketing professionals, web designers, filmmakers, writers, and artists—let’s explore every facet of communication and then insert ourselves into each one.  It’s time for Extreme Makeover: Preservation Edition.

Jason had it right: it’s tempting to go at this alone, “…but at the end of the day, it is about people; it’s about living people.  We deal with the past, but we talk to people today,” he said.  Right.  We love to study the built past, but without creatively re-branding our industry for the future, we risk losing the places we love the most.

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